Korean Fiction – Now Emerging?

For a while now its probably true to say that international fiction has largely been coloured by the fact that South Asian fiction and Scandanavian fiction or Nordic noir has mostly dominated the foreign fiction scene.Yet that could all about to change thanks to a previously unknown writer Han Kang and her novel  The Vegetarian  winning the International Manbooker prize 2016.  Hailed by critics, its sure to pique your interest in Korean fiction. veg So what is  the appeal of Korean fiction?  According to London based translator of Korean fiction, Deborah Smith

Western audiences love strong, memorable, active main characters, whereas Korean literature has tended to find an aesthetic value, and a social truthfulness, in quietness, ordinariness, [and] passivity,”

 

 

 

globooks has scouted the literary landscape and uncovered a few more Korean fiction gems

 

Kyung-sook Shin, Please Look After Mom

The plot of the novel involves an old woman who goes missing after disappearing at a Seoul subway station, and her family goes looking for her. Along the way, though, her relatives have to ask themselves serious questions about how well they really know their mother and what kind of life she had outside of being a caretaker for others. Shin told CNN that she had wanted to write the book for 30 years before she actually attempted it: “It took me so long to write it because my concept of ‘mother’ changed so much over all those years. I had to think long and hard about my own mother in that time and I found that thinking about your own mother is really thinking about yourself.” korean1Shin has also said that the book—which sold 10 million copies in Korea alone—deals with the Korean concept of han, which is sometimes translated in English as “a feeling of sorrow and oppression” or “profound, prolonged sadness.”

 

 

 

Suki Kim The Interpreter

Kim’s recent memoir, Without You, There Is No Us, detailed Kim’s (born in Korea and raised in the United States)But her 2003 novel focuses on the Korean immigrant experience in America through the story of a young woman whose parents are murdered in the bodega they manage. She soon learns that their deaths are not random and is slowly drawn into the community’s dark, mistrustful underbelly. Kim nails the voice of a woman wedged between two cultures, not sure whether she really belongs in either. kimMany stories about first-generation Americans veer toward the nostalgic or the hardscrabble, but The Interpreter doesn’t take easy paths.

 

 

 

 

Krys Lee Drifting House.

Okja Keller’s two novels, Comfort Women and Fox Girl, look at the culture of “comfort women” who were forced into sex work during World War II. The women of Fox Girl are regularly degraded and humiliated; one develops a reputation for “doing the things nobody else would do.” Sometimes, reading it feels like getting punched in the stomach. But it’s that uncomfortable feeling that makes it a book worth reading. Considering that it took until the 1990s for either the Korean or Japanese governments to begin to acknowledge what had happened to the comfort women during the war, Keller’s books feel downright revolutionary. 2016-04-26 23.29.44 (1)Smith adds that Korea’s female-centric literature is a particularly interesting field to watch these days: “Korean society is changing all the time, becoming more globalized. role of women is a particularly interesting one, I think—the way a Western reader might read a Korean book and think they have it lucky, but also get to wondering whether we’re really as free as we might like to think, or at least whether we’re using those freedoms as much as we might.”

 

 

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Korean Fiction – Now Emerging?

Sleeping On Jupiter By Anuradha Roy

jupiter

In an era when rape and pillage and the wanton destruction of villages are scattered across TV shows and fantasy and historical fiction books, Anuradha Roy’s beautifully rendered novel provides a sharp contrast, looking at the devastating consequences one such event had on one person.

 Sleeping on Jupiter is set not in Westeros or Ancient Britain but in real life contemporary temple town Jarmuli in India, where the improbably named Nomita Fredirikson returns to visit the town where she grew up. This is no nostalgia trip, but a journey of catharsis. She goes back to re-examine the wounds of her painful youth and perhaps gain some peace of mind.

Readers get an idea of the harrowing nature of that childhood in the devastating opening chapter, which describes how Nomita, or Nomi, at childhood was orphaned and shipped off with a group of other children to an ashram.

The world looks on in approval at this holy place, where abandoned children are charitably brought up. The reality of it is very different.

An apparently benign guruji rules over the ashram and preys on the vulnerable children in his charge, sexually abusing the young girls and oppressing the few men who are around the place.

Roy’s choice of setting may be highly politically charged, with fiery religious debate raging through India at the moment, but she maintains the focus on Nomi and for the most part avoids politicising the novel.

Throughout, the maturity of her prose is on display. If there is judgement on Indian society or on religion in general, she stays clear of the cardinal sin of proselytising and sticks to describing events and emotions, leaving judgements to the reader.

Everything is seen through Nomi’s eyes, and her experiences – the friends she makes among her fellow orphan children – particularly Piku – the pity and horror she feels when seeing some of the events unfold before her young eyes.

ROY Anuradha
Author Anuradha Roy

When eventually the reader is forced to come face to face with the sexual abuse of Nomi herself, the scene is so sensitively described that is provokes extreme pity for the protagonist rather than the righteous anger put on by politicians when such events become public.

The book does not follow a straightforward chronology. You become aware of the events in Nomi’s childhood only as she remembers them while wandering around Jarmuli as an adult. She comes from her foster home in Oslo, and you have to read through the book to find out how she ended up a foster child to a Norwegian couple.

She brings with her all the baggage of an Indian returnee from a Western nation, something most Indian ex-pats would find all too familiar. Her re-discovery of her home nation is often painful and destructive, but compelling throughout.

 Along the way, she encounters a variety of characters. Her view of them is stereotypical and understandable. Yet those stereotypes of Indian society don’t hold up to scrutiny, as the author describes. Roy explores the lives of those other characters, and this is the true strength of the book.

Perhaps the most compelling of these side narratives are an elderly trio of women who come to holiday in Jarmuli, defying the bonds of age and custom. Each of Gouri, Latika and Vidya become distinctive characters as the novel progresses, and travel on journeys of their own – even forgetting to fast for Navratri in the process.

Badal, the temple guide, Johnny Toppo, who runs a seaside tea stall, and Suraj, a failed cinematographer who is commissioned to help Nomita in making a documentary on Jarmuli’s temples, provide the male section of the cast.

Two of these characters is rendered with such clarity that you sometimes wonder if Roy’s understanding of the male psyche is even better than that of her understanding of women. Johnny Toppo’s singing provides the soundtrack to the novel, and Badal’s illicit love for a young male tea seller is sensitively described.

Roy cannot hide her curiosity in the internal workings of Suraj, an epitome of the abusive proto-chauvinist. This is in sharp contrast to the distant treatment the book’s other oppressors receive, but it provides the counterpoint to those who have been abused in its description of the crippling guilt felt by the abuser.

The book’s strongest point is the strength of its imagery and its forensic description of difficult emotions. But it is flawed by an inability to pull all the threads together in a satisfactory manner – you are left with more questions than answers at the end of the novel.

You are left with a conviction that Roy is a great artist, able to pull together images and emotions at ease, but her ability to tell a story leaves something to be desired. The book will leave a lasting impression on you, but the impression, while powerful, will likely be blurred and confused.

2016-06-12 09.47.42 Abhinav Ramnarayan is a Journalist and Foreign Fiction Blogger.

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Sleeping On Jupiter By Anuradha Roy