Literature the latest star of the Korean Wave

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Literature the latest star of the Korean Wave



“The Vegetarian,” a novel by a Korean author Han Kang, has been gaining considerable attention overseas since its release in the United States earlier this month.

The New York Times introduced the novel in a book review titled “‘The Vegetarian,’ a Surreal South Korean Novel,” calling it “a cult international best seller.” The article also mentioned commendation from Publishers Weekly, Booklist and Kirkus as well as novelists such as Eimear McBride, the author of “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.”

Globally, the publishing rights for the novel have been sold in 18 countries including the United States, England, Sweden and Vietnam, according to KL Management, a publishing rights management company.

The Financial Times also recently introduced Han and her later book “Human Acts” about the atrocities of Gwangju student democratization movement in 1980. The rights for this book have been sold in seven countries. The same book was also featured in The Guardian, in a review written by McBride, just last week.


But at the center of attention is “The Vegetarian,” in which the protagonist, Young-hye, who believes she is turning into a tree and becomes a vegetarian. Her life with her husband was more or less ordinary - just before she decides to be a vegetarian, refusing any food derived from animals. As time passes by, she refuses to eat anything and only drink water, which is what trees consume.

Originally published in 2007, the novel consists of three short stories titled “The Vegetarian,” “Mongol Spot” and “Tree Spark.” They respectively feature Young-hye’s bizarre transformation from three different perspectives: Young-hye’s husband, her sister’s husband and her sister. Alexandra Alter’s description of the book as a “mesmerizing mix of sex and violence” captures the novel well.

The novel has already been recognized for its artistic value domestically. Han won the 29th Yi Sang Literary Award for “Mongol Spot,” the second part of “The Vegetarian.” The novel was also made into a movie of the same title in 2009.

Han was born in Gwangju and her father is novelist Han Seung-won. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University and made her debut on the Korean literary scene with five poems. She launched her career as a novelist with her first novel, “Red Anchor,” by winning the 1994 Seoul Shinmun Spring Literary Contest.


Her famous novels include “Black Deer” (1998), “The Cold Hand” (2002), “Breath Fighting” (2010) and “Greek Lessons” (2011), and she has written short stories as well. She is now a professor of literary writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.

Korean literature in the world

Han’s novels are not the only examples of Korean literature to be gaining attention internationally. Shin Kyung-sook’s “Please Look After Mom” has been critically acclaimed since it was introduced to foreign readers in 2010. The novel has been exported to 34 countries so far including English speaking countries as well as Asian and Eastern European countries.

Shin’s other novel, “I’ll Be Right There”; Kim Young-ha’s “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself”; Hwang Sun-mi’s children’s book “The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly”; and Jeong Yu-jeong’s “A Night of Seven Years” are all examples of Korean books that are popular with foreign readers. The work of Korean poet Ko Un is known abroad as well. According to the Poetry Foundation, “Ko has published more than 100 books, including translations of his poetry into more than a dozen languages.”

Kim Seong-kon, the president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, said it is “very encouraging that Korean novels are gaining attention recently,” reflecting on the fact that foreign media outlets are showing unprecedented interest in Korean literature. LTI Korea is a government-affiliated institute under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism that helps Korean writers and publishers make their way into the foreign market.


As a part of its effort to promote Korean literature, the institute is paving the way for Korean literature to be widely read among foreign readers by translating Korean works into foreign languages: So far it has translated 1,257 Korean works into English, 706 into Chinese and 697 into Japanese, among others, according to the official site of LTI Korea.

The institute’s other activities include running the LTI Translation Academy in order to nurture good translators whose qualities include “in-depth understanding about the country’s culture and literary sense to attract local readers,” according to LTI Korea’s president; matching domestic writers and publishers with foreign publishers; advertising Korean authors’ books outside Korea; creating an English database of Korean writers; and developing digital strategies such as e-books.

In addition, the National Library of Korea started participating in the Virtual International Authority File project earlier this month to facilitate promoting Korean authors. According to a press release from the National Library of Korea, it is an international cooperation program involving 40 institutes from 35 countries.

Through the program, information about writers regarding their works, published countries and libraries at which their works are available is provided in English. “Joining VIAF will pave new ground for allowing foreign libraries and bookstores to promote Korean literature,” a representative from the National Library said in the press release, adding “In this way, promotion of Korean culture and writers will be easier, even with less budget.”


The library has started to provide and share information with foreign countries continuously and provide International Standard Name Identifiers (ISNI) to Korean authors. ISNI are distinctive numbers to identify content creators in order to protect their intellectual property rights.

Pursuit of global recognition

With enthusiastic efforts to promote Korean literature worldwide, interest is increasing in the possibility that a Korean writer could for the first time win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Poet Ko Un has been frequently mentioned as a candidate for the honor inside and outside the country.

LTI Korea President Kim said Korea can get a step closer to the coveted award with novels of high quality, good translations and active marketing. But at the same time, he noted that “foreign readers feel that Korean literature is too agonizing to read, because of its dark themes.”

“There needs to be more Korean novels with a contemporary touch to make foreign readers familiar to Korean literature,” he added. He recommended that writers choose easily approachable topics and attention-grabbing stories, while not giving up their distinctiveness and originality.

In addition, Joseph Lee, the CEO of KL Management, told the Korea JoongAng Daily that “a long-term effort to promote Korean novels to foreign readership is needed.” His company works to connect talented Korean authors with foreign publishers.

“Korean novels are not lacking in their artistic value,” he said when asked about the probability of a Korean winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, adding, “However, the Nobel Prize in Literature is not something that is aimed for but an unexpected result of continuous effort.”

Furthermore, he was quoted in a piece in The New Yorker last month as saying, “It’s regrettable that many [Korean] people don’t read books but still wish for the Nobel Prize.”

But he said that effort to make Korean literature widely available to foreign readers is important. For example, he noted that Jose Saramago and Alice Munro, Nobel Prize in Literature laureates in 1998 and 2013, respectively, were known on a global scale before they won the prize. The fact that their publishing rights had been sold to between 10 and 20 countries and their works were recognized by foreign readers, critics and publishers helped them win the Nobel Prize, Lee said.

The New Yorker recently reported about the Korean government’s efforts in pursuit of a Nobel Prize in Literature with its support of Paju Book City and LTI Korea. However, it also pointed out that massive yet somewhat unilateral support by “big government” cannot produce a Nobel Prize laureate.

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