Friday, November 24, 2017

Ku Sang Awards 2017

As a tribute to the great poet and book lover who passed away in 2004, the Ku Sang Literature Awards celebrate confirmed poets (Kang Eun-kyo in 2015, Lee Il-hyang* this year) as well as very young or amateur talents, and emerging writers of Korean fiction. Yesterday, I had the pleasure to return to Yeongdeungpo Art Hall as a jury for the Ku Sang Young Writer Award.

In Korea, poetry remains the dominant form of literature not just by tradition, but also because fundamentally, the Korean language and its infinite nuances allow the most creative and powerful forms of expression with an economy of syllabs. On the other hand, people don't have much time to read fiction and long formats, particularly during their study years, the most formative ones for authors... but let's not digress, and venture into yet another rant about an education system known for destroying creativity in all its forms.

Speaking of form, or rather format... modern Korean fiction often comes in novellas, which can be a blessing: more room for character or story building than short stories, easier to test / taste new authors (e.g. no risk of endless ordeal in case you don't enjoy the journey!).

Asia Publishers provides series of small and colorful books that have a knack for jumping into your pack and holding you company wherever you go. They're all full of vitamins (bilingual editions augmented with short critics or comments), and sometimes you meet a true gem.

'The Summer' begins with a touching love story, which happen to be a story of lesbian love in smalltown Korea. Rewarding such a theme would send a very positive message from/to the country and its literature, but I voted for Choi Eunyoung's work because of its intrinsic qualities. As its protagonists move to Seoul, become adult, experience life's sometimes most frustrating twists, 'The Summer' grows into a tough, delicate, timeless and universal story of life, and a sincere, true literary feat. So congratulations to Choi Eunyoung - I'm looking forward to reading more from her.

Which will require, considering my embarrassingly miserable command of Korean, more work for translators, 'The Summer' being the first of her works to be available in English. If Han Kang and Deborah Smith shared the Man Booker International Prize, I'd like to thank Jamie Chang for sharing 'The Summer' with us. 

And while I'm at it, thank you, Brother Anthony of Taize, for sharing so many works of Ku Sang, and countless works of great Korean authors... not to mention, over last night's dinner (and in the great tradition of Korean literature), more stories and shots than I can recall.

CHOI Eunyoung receives the 2017 Ku Sang Young Writer Award (20171124 -
"The Summer" / "그 여름" by CHOI Eunyoung (Asia Publishers 2017)


I'll realize that I didn't post my reviews for the 2015 edition** on this blog. You'll find them right below (NB: my vote went to Geum Hee's 'Ok-hwa', the award to Cheon Myeong-kwan's 'Homecoming'):

"Ok-hwa" by Geum Hee (Asia Publishers 2015)

Each one of the four short stories nominated for the 2015 Ku Sang Young Writer Award proposes its own special and unique take at the elusive Korean dream, diversity, and identity. We follow the interactions of characters coming from different backgrounds, different countries, and sometimes different continents, who may share the same look, but seldom the same destiny… except maybe for that universal, all too human sense of loneliness and alienation.
"Ok-hwa" by Jin Jin-ji / Geum Hee
Ok-hwa is about “the anxiety of people who lived on the land of people not on their side”. Where is home? Is it this ethnic Korean village in China struggling with illegal “escapees” who do share the same look, but have that “particular North Korean scent”? Is home that fabled, far-away South Korea where Chinese Koreans and North Koreans alike feel mistreated? Deaconess Hong may be a rock in her community, her heart and convictions start melting as soon as she’s confronted with shifting mirrors and memories.
All characters in this story are somehow outcasts in the making, starting with ‘the woman’: everybody at the church is embarrassed by that unnamed escapee from North Korea begging around for money. Will she really leave for South Korea? Hong wants her out of her sight also because she reminds her too much of another escapee woman, and that one had a name: Ok-hwa. Ok-hwa was never cast out by the community, to the contrary: she was the one who rejected all others by suddenly vanishing, shattering the nucleus of Hong’s family, which welcomed her and married her to its precious son. Is the outcast Hong’s brother-in-law, who just returned from South Korea, where he felt like a sub-citizen? The main outcast could be Hong herself: she can’t escape anywhere, she can’t disappear in thin air, but is she truly there, and is there anybody “on her side”?

"Time Difference" by Baik Sou linne
In “Time Difference”, a married woman is tasked by her mother with meeting Jung-hun / Vincent, a cousin from the Netherlands whose existence is hidden from the rest of the family. Their secret encounters spice up her predictable life, and she is troubled by this man who is seven years older, but looks younger than her. Vincent is at the same time so similar and so different, like an inaccessibly free alien brother. She has a mission, a message for him, but she keeps procrastinating, and simply lives these lively moments. Yet she can’t fully enjoy them, because she already knows that she can lose a brother.

"Old Man River" by Lee Jang-wook
Old Man River” flows around Alex, a Korean adoptee who, since he lost his American father Nikola, is also orphan of both adoptive parents. Back from Iowa to his native country, with little chance of finding his biological mother through some tearjerker of a TV show, he feels like a total foreigner in a place where everybody looks like him. Alex did have once a girlfriend, but Lien had to leave Cedar Rapids for Vietnam with her father. Vietnam, USA, Korea, the same places emerge from the stories that his boss, a Korean bar owner in Itaewon, keeps telling again and again. But Alex has his own broken record: he’s obsessively mumbling the story of Heath Ledger’s tattoo, “Old Man River”. Is this lone soul going to drown completely?

"Homecoming" by Cheon Myeong-kwan
In “Homecoming”, the single father of a mixed boy struggles for survival in a dystopian future. They are ‘blankets’, homeless people at the bottom of a society of casts where only 10% have a job, and where the only safety net is a closefisted system of vouchers. At the top of the pyramid, the Gangnam superrich play with the lives of the Gangbuk superpoor, sometimes adopting their kids on a whim. Even by sacrificing himself, the father can’t afford feeding his son, or paying for his medical treatment. Will he accept the offer and abandon him, like his own father abandoned his family decades ago? What does ‘do the right thing’ mean in such a broken world?

Through the magic of fiction, Koreans from all horizons are confronted with four disturbing and sometimes distorting mirrors for the whole world to see. Now I’m confronted with a tricky choice: which room to recommend most in a house of mirrors that deserves a full tour?
My vote goes to "Ok-hwa" precisely because Jin Jin-ji’s story is, by itself, a whole house of mirrors. You know that you’ve stepped in a fiction, you are aware that with each character the author introduces new angles of reflection, new social and interpersonal constraints, you know that she’s also playing with time and voices to add confusion, and you know that you’ll end up as tangled as the main character.

Jin is not telling a story, but building an architectural trap where fiction forces the reader to see all sides of reality. And if all four stories somehow reach for a better mutual understanding within the ever more diverse Korean world, “Ok-hwa” may have the power to change the way many people look at each other as well as at themselves.

Seoul Village 2017
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* Giuseppe KIM sang beautifully one of her poems on stage, and both the guitarist and the poet ended in tears.
** I unfortunately couldn't attend last year's edition

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