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Korean literature's overseas success 'still a long way to go'

May 3, 2011 - 17:59 By 이우영
Renowned Korean author says he will resume podcast soon but never return to Twitter

Korean author Kim Young-ha in New York  (Kim Yoon-mi/The Korea Herald)

NEW YORK ― It has been quite a while since Korean novelist Kim Young-ha was last heard from.

Apparently burned by the heated online debates over systemic problems in Korea’s literary scene and the tragic death of aspiring screenwriter Choi Go-eun, Kim had declared in February that he would quit tweeting and blogging.

However, Kim, during an interview at a small rest area near Lincoln Center Theater in New York, seemed cheerful, easygoing and more open to the outside world. He is currently staying in New York as a visiting scholar of East Asian Studies at Columbia University.

The 42-year-old has been frequently compared with Korean novelist Shin Kyung-sook, whose book “Please Look After Mom” was brought out in the U.S. market on April 5 by the big name publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. Shin’s book ranked in the top 40 on the list of’s 100 bestselling books, and Kim’s book “Your Republic is Calling You” made it to the world’s “Top 100 Mysteries” on Amazon.

“Honestly, Korean writers, including Shin and I, still have a long way to go. I haven’t noticed any big buzz around Korean literature in New York yet,” Kim told The Korea Herald.

“Of course it was rare that Korean books ranked that high, but the U.S. book market is too big and diverse to say we have made a meaningful impact,” he said.

Kim said, in the global publication market, writers are ranked in many different tiers; there are “A-list authors” whose works are found in airports all around the world; those not found in airports but still acclaimed; and those whose works were translated into other languages but couldn’t reach the hearts of overseas readers.

“Here, even if a million copies of a Korean book are sold, it won’t make much impact. Plus, it is another story whether a well-sold book receives a good literary evaluation,” he said.

Kim’s two novels that are available in English ― “Your Republic is Calling You” (2006) and “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” (1996) ― were translated by Kim Chi-young, the star translator who worked on Shin’s “Please Look After Mom.” “Your Republic is Calling You” won the prestigious Manhae Literary Award in 2007.

His next English book will be “Black Flower,” (2003) which won the Dong-in Literary Award in 2004.

The English translation will be out in the U.S. some time next year by publishing house Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kim said. The book was translated by Charles La Shure, a professor at the Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. La Shure fell so much in love with the novel that he volunteered to translate it personally, Kim said. Kim showed the translated version to his agent and they decided to make it the next English book. It tells a story of Korean diaspora forced into slave labor in a Mexican plantation.

“The novel covers Korean history but also touches upon a universal theme of diaspora,” Kim said.

Among Koreans, the author is also known as a tech-savvy writer, whose personal iTunes podcast “Time to read a book” encouraged many listeners to revisit the value of Korean literature by reading excerpts of literary works by famous writers and commenting on them.

After recording 28 episodes, the last one is of a reading of late writer Park Wan-suh’s book “Ode for Longing” on Jan. 23, Kim indefinitely suspended podcasting.

However, he said he will resume it soon.

“I caught a cold recently but I’m thinking about resuming the podcasting soon. Even though New York is a busy city, I feel more relaxed here than in Korea,” he said.

“Podcasting is one of the good things I learned in New York. It’s a pity that Koreans do not really engage in personal podcasting when they have such strong IT infrastructure,” said Kim, adding that he found it really weird to see Korean university students squandering their powerful gadgets such as Apple MacBook laptops to only surf the Web in Hongdae cafs.

While Americans tend to create their own content when blogging, Korean people are more focused on commenting on social issues, Kim said.

“But I guess it is a richer society where people continually create their own content,” he said.

But he made it clear that he does not want to take part in Twitter again.

“Since I quit tweeting, I could think about issues as long as I wanted. To speak about certain things is like opening the lid of a pressure cooker even before the rice is fully cooked,” Kim said.

“When I see a movie or read a book, I can create chemical changes of the content within me by rolling them inside me. If I speak about them too quickly, they are consumed too quickly. So, I’m not coming back to Twitter.”

Kim is currently working on a new novel, which will be his sixth work of fiction.

Although he kept it a secret as to what kind of story it will be, he said he is reading classical literature including “Samguk Yusa,” or Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms ― a collection of legends, folktales, and historical accounts relating to the Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla kingdoms.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to write a masterpiece, but I just want to do good to myself, just as people like to give good and beautiful things to their children,” he said.

“I try to do valuable things, meet good people a lot and share hearts. Then, I’ll find myself aged.”

By Kim Yoon-mi, Korea Herald correspondent


[단독인터뷰] 김영하 '트위터 다시 안 할 것'

'팟캐스트 ‘김영하의 책 읽는 시간' 곧 재개할 생각'

트위터를 접겠다고 선언했던 소설가 김영하는 최근 코리아헤럴드와 뉴욕에서 가진 단독 인터뷰에서 트위터를 다시 할 생각은 전혀 없다고 밝혔다.

트위터를 다시 할 의향이 없느냐는 질문에 김영하는 “트위터를 안 하니까 편하다. 안 하고 나서 좀 더 느긋해졌다”고 대답했다.

그는 “(트위터를 할 때는) 매일 뭔가를 얘기 해야 할 것 같고 그랬는데 여기서 그걸 끝내고 나서 1주일이건 한 달이건 어떤 문제를 혼자 생각할 수 있게 되었다” 라고 말했다.

그는 어떤 이슈에 대해 말을 한다는 건 “압력솥의 뚜껑을 여는, 김이 새는 효과”와 같다고 설명했다. 밥이 되려면 닫아놓고 오래 압력을 가해야 하는데 자꾸 사회적 이슈에 대해 발언하고 하다 보면 김이 빠져버리는 것과 같다고 한 것이다.

“영화나 소설을 보고 내 안에서 궁글려서 화학적 변화를 야기할 수 있는데 그걸 툭 던지면 너무 빨리 소비된다. 그래서 트위터로 돌아가진 않을 것 같다”라고 그는 이어 말했다.

한편 많은 독자를 누리고 있는 그의 팟캐스트 “김영하의 책 읽는 시간”은 1월23일 28번째 에피소드를 마지막으로 무기한 연기되고 있다. 팟캐스트를 다시 할 생각이냐는 질문에, 그는 “다시 시작해볼까 생각 중이다”라고 명쾌하게 대답했다. 그것이 언제가 될 예정이냐고 묻자 그는 “곧 시작한다”고 대답했다.

“뉴욕이 빡빡한 도시이지만 한국보단 매우 여유롭다. 한국은 뭔가 늘 해야 하는데 여기서는 리듬이 느려 진다. 조금 천천히 해도 되지 않을까” 라고 말하며 29번째 에피소드가 곧 나올 수 있을 가능성을 열어두었다.

그는 미국에 비해 빈약한 한국의 팟캐스트에 대해서도 안타까움을 표시했다.

그는 한국은 매우 훌륭한 IT인프라를 가지고 있고 젊은이들은 좋은 장비들을 가지고 있는데 왜 그걸로 생산적인 콘텐트를 만들지 않는 지 의문이라고 말했다.

“홍대 카페에서 정말 좋은 애플 맥북 가지고 웹 서핑만 하고 있는 세대”가 안타깝다고 말했다.

그는 “여기는 블로그 하는 사람들도 자기 컨텐츠 중심으로 하는데 우리나라 블로그, SNS는 현재 사회적인 이슈에 대해 커멘트를 달고 있다. 자기만의 콘텐트를 꾸준히 견지하는 사회가 더 풍성한 사회인 것 같다”고 말했다.

김영하는 현재 뉴욕 컬럼비아 대학교에서 동아시아 연구(East Asian Studies) 방문 학자(visiting scholar)로 활동하며 그의 여섯 번 째 장편소설 집필에 몰두 하고 있다.

(뉴욕) 김윤미 기자 / 코리아헤럴드