Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Beyond Gangnam Style: Korea’s Real Culture

Now that Psy’s hit single and video “Gangnam Style” have put South Korea front and center in pop music, I hope fans of that song will also explore the enormous outpouring of culture from Korea in many other areas.

I’ve had the good fortune to visit South Korea twice, most recently in 2011 for the 3rd Seoul International Forum for Literature. The forum was organized by the Daesan Foundation and programmed by Kim Seong-kon, professor at Seoul National University and director of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. The events mostly took place in the Kyobo Building, an office tower in downtown Seoul, where the entire basement floor features the enormous Kyobo Book Centre, larger than any in my hometown of San Francisco. The bookstore was packed with customers each day, as are many of the bookshops in Korea.

That enthusiasm for reading is due in large part to the vibrant literary culture in Korea. The well-known writers include the poet Ko Un, often mentioned as a possible Nobel laureate. Ko Un served as the head of one of South Korea’s largest Zen monasteries and later became an activist in the democracy movement, spending years in jail. His wisdom and humor as a poet have made him internationally known, and many of his books have been translated into English, including recently The Three Way Tavern, Selected Poems, translated by Clare You and Richard Silberg.

Korea also is home to many fine fiction writers. They include Yi Mun-yol, whose fiction has recently appeared in English in the New Yorker, among other magazines;  Ch’oe Yun, who writes eloquently about Korean women; and the up-and-coming young novelist Kim Yeon-su.

Korea’s literature, both contemporary and modern, has become much more accessible to readers of English thanks in part to the efforts of Brother Anthony of Taizé, a Christian monk who lives in Seoul and has taken Korean citizenship. Brother Anthony’s recent translations include the work of the younger poet Kim Seung-Hee, published as Walking on a Washing Line.

I had the pleasure of traveling around Korea with Brother Anthony in 2005 when I was invited to the conference of the English Language and Literature Association of Korea by Professor Lee Young-Oak of Sungkyunkwan University. Brother Anthony took me to see a traditional-style house in Seoul; the studio/home of a potter (Korea also excels in ceramics) in the countryside near the city of Gwangju, stronghold of the democracy movement; and a Buddhist temple at the outskirts of that city, where we got to hear beautiful chanting.

During my visit to Seoul in 2011 I was fortunate to visit several historical sites and museums, guided by my skillful interpreter Lee Bome. We visited the Leeum, a museum that houses the collection of Samsung founder Lee Byung-Chui. The Leeum, in a stunning modern building, includes both treasures of Korean pottery, and a terrific selection of contemporary Korean art. 

“Gangnum Style” is a fun video, now viewed by more than one billion people around the world. I hope that will be a wide doorway for many into the exciting and varied culture of Korea.

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 Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

No comments:

Post a Comment