Monday, November 6, 2017

Reflections on the First Asian Literature Festival, Gwangju, South Korea, November 2017

I had the good fortune to be invited to speak at the First Asian Literature Festival, held in Gwangju, South Korea, from November 1 to 4, 2017. Convened by the conference organizer, the distinguished Korean poet Ko Un, the festival brought together topnotch writers from several Asian countries, including South Korea, China, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, and Mongolia. The festival also included authors such as France’s Claude Mouchard and Spain’s Antonio Colinas, writers who have a deep and enduring interest in Asian literature. 

Writers and festival staff at Mudeung-San, a mountain near Gwangju, South Korea
Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka from Nigeria gave the keynote address. He has a resounding basso voice, and a virtuoso ability with language that commands attention, not to mention a lofty physique surmounted by a white afro, which Ko Un described as a cloud of hair. Soyinka underlined two major problems for the world literary community: the one-sided view of culture by many in the West who see no reason to go beyond the walls of their own circles, and the threat to the freedom of imagination and speech from totalitarian forces, both religious and political power-hungry fanatics whom Soyinka called “anti-minds.”

“I know you, but do you know us?” Soyinka said, challenging the exclusiveness of the Western canon. “That is, I know Dante, I know Homer, I know the Symbolists, the Imagists, the Romantics. I know your Shakespeare, I know Baudelaire, I know Racine, I know T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Gogol, Mangakis, and I know Proust…but do you know us? That is, do you know Sundiata? Gilgamesh? Mahabharata? Do you know Kahlil Gibran? Do you know the writings of Tierno Bokar, the Sage of Bandiagara? Do you know the Ozidi Epic? Do you even know the Legend of Chaka the Zulu or indeed the narratives of Fagunwa?

One magical part of this conference was Ko Un's role as organizer and host. He not only created intellectual and artistic sparks throughout the festival, he gave the invited writers a personal tour of his Korea. Ko Un showed us a South Korea that has bled to achieve democracy, a country with great natural and cultural treasures.

We began the conference with a visit to the May 18th National Cemetery, where the fallen of the 1980 rebellion are buried. That uprising resulted in a brief and free commune in the city of Gwangju, violently repressed by the military government’s forces after ten days.

The cemetery for the victims of that suppression is deeply stirring, with photos by the grave of each victim of the dictatorship’s repression in Gwangju, many of them not even old enough to attend high school or college when they were murdered. 

Ko Un at the grave of his friend who took part in the Gwangju uprising in 1980
It was moving to follow Ko Un through the burial ground as he stopped at the grave of each friend who had fallen or been imprisoned, giving details of their lives: Tae-il Jo, whom Ko Un characterized as a heavy drinker who took part in the protests on the streets of Gwangju; and Han-Bong Yun, a poet whom Ko Un knew in jail as such a principled purist that he cleaned his cell three times a day. Ko Un slapped the latter’s gravestone and said, “Take care.”

You might think that keeping up with a poet born in 1933 wouldn’t be that difficult, but you’d be wrong in the case of Ko Un. Two days later he led us on an amazing odyssey around the countryside near Gwangju, not one of us able to keep pace with him on the hikes. We visited Mudeung-san, a mountain known for its columns of granite, the tawny-tufted reeds that grow in its meadows, a candlelight procession against military rule that switchbacked up the slopes, and a down-to-earth monk who used to prowl its peaks centuries ago.

Nearby we stopped at Wonhyo Temple, the Zen monastery where Ko Un had been a monk in his youth. We sampled buckwheat tea, lotus flower tea, sugared ginger, and tangerine gelatin shaped in tiny flower molds, while we looked out over the mountains with the head monk. At that moment, stress seemed not to exist.

On that excursion Ko Un also took us through a bamboo forest in Damyang and recounted how an egalitarian circle of Chinese poets used to gather in a bamboo grove to read in the third century C.E.


Poet Cecilia Son recited a poem in the bamboo grove with the wind rushing through the leaves overhead, a wonderful accompaniment to the writing.

Ko Un’s nighttime reading in one of the four beautiful theaters in the new Asia Culture Center in Gwangju was one of the most energetic and engaging I can remember. That poet can scoop up an audience’s attention like no other, dominating a large stage and space.

In talking to many of the writers at the conference or reading their biographies, I was struck by how many of them had experienced either imprisonment, censorship, blacklisting, and/or exile by governments trying to silence them. Even torture, in the case of Ko Un. Getting to know these writers personally was eye-opening. I hear regularly about authors being deprived of the freedom to write, but to meet these wonderful people, and to know that they endured these terrible violations of their rights, reminded me keenly that we can never stop our vigilance in supporting freedom of speech wherever it is threatened.

The Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, site of the conference, was a fabulous venue for this event, which will continue on a biannual basis. Completed in 2015 and headed by its President Bang Sun-gyu, the center is a magnificent complex of theaters, art galleries, conference rooms, libraries, gardens, and offices, devoted to enhancing the knowledge of Asian arts. Designed by Kyu Sung Woo Architects, the center is located at the site of the final massacre of the 1980 democracy protestors. It is a moving memorial to those demonstrators, and a lasting embodiment of the free exchange of ideas that they fought for. As Wole Soyinka said in his keynote address, “When we set out into the realms of the imagination, we experience liberation at its most unsullied.…We are not only free, we see humanity as the very repository of Freedom.”

With Uriankhai Damdinsuren, poet from Mongolia
Writers at the 2017 Asian Literature Festival included:
Duo Duo (China)
Ko Un (South Korea, Chair of Organizing Committee)
Shams Langeroodi (Iran)
Claude Mouchard (France)
Zack Rogow (USA)
Sagawa Aki (Japan)
Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)
Uriankhai Damdinsuren (Mongolia, recipient of first Asian Literature Award)

Ayu Utami (Indonesia)

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration

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