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Becoming 'Flower of Orient'

Publication Date : 25-12-2013


Psy’s “Gentleman” was recently named “The No. 1 Viral Video of 2013” by TIME magazine and Girls’ Generation’s “I Got a Boy” ranked fifth on TIME’s “Top 10 Songs of 2013” list. Indeed, both Psy and Girls’ Generation have contributed greatly to upgrading the brand value of South Korea. It is undeniable that they have done a splendid job as cultural ambassadors by letting the world know about South Korea. No one can possibly disparage or diminish what they have accomplished.

Nevertheless, when it comes to promoting Korean culture overseas, K-pop is not enough. K-pop is a mixture of Korean and Western pop culture, not authentic Korean culture. It is imperative for serious Korean literature to follow on the path opened up by K-pop because it is Korean literature, not K-pop, that expresses a uniquely Korean sentiment and mentality.

Strictly speaking, no matter how popular Psy or Girls’ Generation are, they do not contribute to promoting “Korean culture” overseas; they just contribute to making Korea better known to the world. Yet, few Koreans seem to care about promoting Korean literature; we are too intoxicated by the unprecedented success of K-pop overseas.

Referring to Murakami Haruki’s popularity in Poland, editor Marzena Stefanska of Kwiaty Orientu (“Flower of the Orient”) in Poland wrote in “New Opportunity for Korean Literature in Poland”: “Many Japanese institutions were involved in promoting his name, from Japanese companies through to cultural organisations and all the way up to the Japanese Embassy. But the Korean Cultural Center and the Korean Embassy prefer (to promote) ‘Gangnam Style’ (rather) than encourage Polish young people to read Shin Kyung-sook or Hwang Sun-mi.”

Pointing out the striking indifference of the Korean Cultural Center in Warsaw, Stefanski lamented, “This is something I will never understand. How Korean literature is going to be famous if Korean embassies do not care about it. Korean cultural centres are more interested in ‘Gangnam Style’ than ‘Please Look after Mom!’ How do you expect people to read books if you, Korean people, do not show your passion (for literature).” Then she chided us for our callous attitude: “The Korean Embassy has never approached Kwiaty Orientu ― the only publisher in the world fully dedicated to their literature!”

Kwiaty Orientu, which specialises in publishing Korean literature, was founded by two Polish women who majored in Korean literature at the University of Warsaw. And thanks to the ceaseless effort of Kwiaty Orientu, the Best Book of 2012 honour in Poland went to Hwang Sun-mi’s “The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly”. But when Kwiaty Orientu asked the Korean Cultural Center to invite Hwang Sun-mi to the 2013 Korea Festival held in Warsaw, it received no reply.

Similar things happen even when LTI Korea, a public institution affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, holds literary events in major cities such as New York.

The Korean Cultural Center there is not interested in literature; it is interested only in K-pop and K-sports. When famous movie stars or sportsmen visit their city, they are willing to offer all sorts of voluntary help, but when Korean writers appear to promote Korean literature, they seldom show interest. And yet they yearn for a Nobel Prize for Korean writers! It would be a shame if all the Korean cultural centres overseas were only interested in hosting K-pop events or busy entertaining Korean politicians visiting the city.

Fortunately, not all Korean cultural centres have turned their back on literary events held in their cities. For example, the Korean Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., was so helpful last year that LTI Korea’s literary event held at George Washington University turned out to be a huge success.

At that time, the Korean ambassador to the US encouraged the participating Korean writers by joining the welcoming reception. Last week, LTI Korea held the 2013 European Translators’ Workshop in Rome. The cultural attache of the Korean Embassy attended the workshop, and the Korean ambassador to Italy graciously hosted a dinner reception for the translators from 10 European countries.

Stefanska also pointed out that the prospect of promoting Korea literature in Western countries is not rosy at all because of uncertain marketability. She wrote, “Therefore only those publishers who are dedicated to minority literature are willing to publish translated Korean literature at the risk of financial loss or as a hobby culture. Korea should be offering yet larger marketing funds to foreign publishers.” And I was ashamed and appalled when I read what came next: “We tried to contact various Korean institutions, saying that this is a (crucial) time for Korea, with the aim of receiving patronage, sponsorship, publicity and sales. But not a single institution has responded.” Then I was relieved a little by her ensuing comment: “To partly make up for that, LTI Korea, the Korea Foundation and the Daesan Foundation are acquitting themselves excellently in promoting Korean literature overseas in many facets.”

If we want to be Kwiaty Orientu, that is, the “Flower of the Orient”, we should promote Korean literature overseas.

Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. ― Ed.


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