Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture, vol. 8 (2015)

Editor’s Note
David R. McCann, ix

Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture Volume 8, 2015
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
Once again, readers will discover a rich and varied array of contemporary Korean literary and image work in the current issue of Azalea journal. We celebrate the 100th anniversary of the births of two of the twentieth century’s great Korean writers, Midang Sŏ Chŏngju, the poet, and Hwang Sunwŏn, the short story and novel writer. Periodically, as the cultural, political, and historical tides in Korea have fallen and risen only to fall and rise again, these two writers have been lionized, denigrated, taken as emblems of Korea’s literary capabilities and accomplishments, or set to the side as passé, out-of-sync, politically unacceptable, or just too old to matter. Yet readers will find a rich array of reflections on these two writers and examples of their literary accomplishments. May you savor and treasure. Let us resolve to keep these writers central to our understanding of the terrain that Korean literature traversed in the twentieth century and to comprehend how much it would lose if it did not value, even treasure, these and others in the twenty-first.

Writer in Focus: Lee Eyunkee

Translator’s Note
Tahee Lee, 1

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Lee Eyunkee, or Yi Yun-gi as published in Germany, is admittedly better known in Korea for his translations and non-fiction works on Greek and Roman mythology than his works of fiction or essays. This, however, does not reflect the emphasis he placed on, or the time and effort he poured into, writing fiction. In one of his essays, explaining his decision in 1991 to scale down his translating career and leave for the United States, he admits:

“Translating was important to me. But it wasn’t the most important work for me.

“I had debuted in 1977 as a writer, but since publishing my first collection of short stories in 1988, I hadn’t written a single proper novel. The trifling reputation and fairly good money I earned as a translator were holding me back by the ankle.” (“To Crawl the Bottom” from Writing That Makes Zorba Dance)

He confesses in the same essay that when he returned to Korea temporarily to receive the Dong-in Literary Award in 1998 he thought that the years he spent abroad “let him come back to being a writer.”

The Bow Tie
Lee Eyunkee and Tahee Lee, 5

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Unless you live in a small country where there are only a handful of schools, it would be extremely rare for you to have a lifelong classmate, someone who went to the same school with you from elementary school through middle and high school all the way up to college. Yet I do have such a rare friend. His name is Pak Nosu. There are people in this world who give the school system too much credit and think Pak Nosu and I would be similar in our ways of thinking and behaving, but that is not true. A man does not stand alone. I think each man has a universal subconscious which preserves everything from his family’s household history to the history of humanity. That is why I consider education to be ancillary—like bridesmaids and groomsmen at a wedding—when a man faces the times by himself.

It was probably the times that made me a lifelong schoolmate of my friend Pak Nosu whose portrait I am now going to attempt to paint by stippling. An event considered coincidental in one era might turn out to be inevitable in another. The characteristics of an age often blur the line between chance and necessity. When Nosu and I were in school, it was considered a virtue for a man’s personal and social values to be completely consistent with those of others. In that age, men hesitated to step out of the bounds of shared values if they could help it. In that age, there was one sure formula:

Don’t get any ideas into your head!

If you were branded “the kid with ideas,” the road to recovery was going to be a long one. Imagination was a dangerous thing.

The Visitor
Lee Eyunkee and Tahee Lee, 51

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The sun had shriveled up in the early winter cold, leaving the afternoon gray. Over the sea, seagulls were screeching and seagulls were flying away.

On the hill where the ridge ended abruptly and the ocean appeared again a boy stood. He was looking down on the crests of the waves coming at him like a herd of white horses abreast in a line. To the boy, born and raised on the shore, this view of the ocean and its waves seemed ordinary.

The boy had a yellow-green ankle band, daenim, hooked on his fingers. Blown by the wind, it kept clinging to his sleeve. His pant legs, still wrinkled from having been fastened with ankle bands, also fluttered in the wind at the tops of his feet.

The boy turned around and blew his nose. His eyes were red, but he didn’t appear to be crying.

Taking a few steps back, he hurled the ankle band toward the ocean with all his might. But the band’s lightness prevented it from prevailing against the headwind. Far from falling to the sea, the band kept getting blown back and tangled in the young bushy pine trees clustered behind the boy.

Special Feature

Sŏ Chŏngju and Hwang Sunwŏn

Sŏ Chŏngju

I Remember My Father, Midang, Sŏ Chŏngju
Paul Suhr, 83

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I remember my father. He told me once how much he had disappointed his own father. My grandfather took him to Seoul to enroll in a private school. After the registration, he took my thirteen-year-old father to the Imperial School of Law. They could not get onto the campus. Standing outside looking in, my grandfather told his son that one day he hoped he would attend the school and become a lawyer. This did not happen. A few months afterwards, my father, along with three other students, was arrested and expelled from the school for throwing rocks at Japanese policemen on horseback.

The Japanese prosecutor told the boy that he was too young to get involved in such matters and asked him whether he missed his mama. The boy, my father, broke down in tears. He was released soon afterwards. When the boy returned home, his father sat across from him at the dinner table. Both were silent. The father seemed to put a spoonful to his mouth. All of a sudden the spoon fell from his lips and dropped onto the table. My father heard the sound. After a long silence, he saw his father stand up and leave. Twelve years later my grandfather died, heartbroken, his dreams shattered by his son’s expulsion from school. My father was jailed again later in life on the suspicion of sedition by Japanese authorities. Perhaps, after all, my grandfather’s broken dream was finally realized when I became a lawyer in the United States.

A Note, on the Occasion of the Centenary of the Poet’s Birth
David R. McCann, 87

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Sŏ Chŏngju was born one hundred years ago, in 1915, a century ago. He used to remind me with a grin, when we met, that my father—born that same year—was his younger brother, having been born several months later.

The essay that follow were prepared for the 1994 PEN conference in Kyŏng-ju. I sought to describe my sense of the open-ended nature of Sŏ Chŏngju’s poems, and in particular to pull them out into the open, by that reading, from the historical constructions into which so many of Korea’s literary works had been confined by the literary histories and critical practices of the day. This Note suggests how, directly, indirectly, through poems and poetry, meetings and conversations, translations and recitations, our paths became entwined.

Sŏ Chŏngju and Modern Korean Poetry
Kevin O’Rourke, 105

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It is the fate of many poets to pass into obscurity when they die. Korea’s Sŏ Chŏngju is no exception. There have been the usual graveside commemorations, the annual Midang Literature Prize, the Midang Cultural Festival, the Chilmajae Cultural Festival, and the seasonal pictures of Chilmajae chrysanthemums. In 2005 Semunsa published a large tome of Sŏ Chŏngju studies. The project was planned by Kim Haktong and a group of professors, lecturers, and graduate students, mostly Sogang University staff and students. The focus of the project was Sŏ Chŏngju’s various collections with a special emphasis on biographical and bibliographical materials. In 2011, Saemunsa published Kim Haktong’s Sŏ Chŏngju: A Critical Biography. This is a useful reference book but not a Western-style critical biography with a wealth of authenticated sources, letters, and references. Kim Haktong readily admits that a lot of work remains to be done before we have a definitive work on the biographical and bibliographical material. There have also been a number of studies of the pro-Japanese charge. In his autobiography (vol. 2, 153 ff) Sŏ Chŏngju admits his great shame over this phase of his literary life. He explains it in terms of an enormous naiveté and ignorance about who was winning the war and what the future had in store for Korea. The explanation is inadequate, but ultimately, whether people like it or not, Sŏ Chŏngju’s Japanese stance does not determine his stature as a poet.

Hwang Sunwŏn

A Hwang Sunwŏn Centennial
Bruce Fulton, 145

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On March 26 of this year Hwang Sunwŏn would have turned 100. There is much to celebrate in his sixty-plus years as a creative writer. We can imagine him, somewhere in the ether, fixing with a wry smile those of us producing critical writing on Hwang the writer and his work, for he had a lifelong distrust of critics. At the same time he had a profound respect for readers—a quality that makes his works accessible in a great variety of ways.

The three story translations and two essays that follow serve several purposes. First, spanning more than forty years, the three stories offer us a glimpse of the development of arguably the most accomplished writer of short fiction in modern Korea. Each story is distinct: “The Sick Butterfly” (Pyŏngdŭn nabi, spring 1942 [date of composition]) is told from the limited third-person perspective that Hwang perfected early on; “At the School for the Blind and Mute” (Maengawŏn esŏ, May 1953) reflects his considerable insight into human psychology; and “My Tale of the Bamboo Wife” (Na ŭi chukpuin chŏn, July 1985) hints at Hwang’s gifts as a storyteller. There are similarities as well: the author’s imagination, bordering on the surreal in several of his works; the precision of his composition; and his ear for the spoken word.

A Sick Butterfly
Hwangn Sunwŏ and Heinz Insu Fenkl, 147

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Old Man Chŏng’s afternoon walk begins when he grabs his cane and steps out through the alleyway. Outside is a small street, and northward, not far up on the left side, there is a carpenter’s shop. Not a small shop—it makes mostly coffins—and Old Man Chŏng doesn’t just pass it by when he goes out for his walk. He stops inside. So frequently, in fact, you might say that was the sole purpose of his afternoon walks.

He had ordered his first coffin there. Afterwards, if he happened to hear that a new one was coming in, he would stop by in the morning, and if the new one was better than the one he had already ordered, he would pay extra and exchange his for the new one. And then, while the new coffin was being made, he would stop by every day to keep vigil. He would help plane the wood, as long as his strength would last, and when the new coffin was finished, he would help paint it. When a coffin of premium knot-free white pine arrived one day, Old Man Chŏng paid nearly 50 wŏn for the exchange, and when it was finished he came by—again and again—to paint it with his own two hands. To stop at the carpenter’s each day on his walk—to caress that smooth, gleaming coffin—was one of his great pleasures. He didn’t just run his hands over it. He would picture himself lying inside that gleaming, smooth coffin. And that left him purged of all other desire.

At the School for the Blind and Mute
Hwang Sunwŏn and Jane Lee, 157

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At the news of Yŏng-i’s disappearance he shot a glance toward the open sea. The blind child waiting by his door did likewise.

It would be a while before the new day dawned. From the push-up window in the dormitory inspector’s room at the school for the blind and mute, the sea off the Songdo coast near Pusan was still pitch black. The fresh morning breeze was decidedly cool on his neck.

As he changed into his clothes, he was already thinking that the chances of finding her were slim. An image of Yŏng-i sinking into the dark water flickered before his eyes. Most likely her body would never surface—probably she had looped a heavy rock around her tiny neck.

One gloomy night at the end of February he had emerged from a restaurant to discover a blind girl standing by the gate. In the dreary darkness he made out a delicate neck supporting a pale face in which only the black eyebrows moved.

The girl proceeded to tell him she had lost her sight during the recent war, from a head injury caused by a shell fragment. She had lost her parents too. She had turned fifteen this year.

My Tale of the Bamboo Wife
Hwang Sunwŏn, Bruce Fulton and Ju-Chan Fulton, 173

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For the first time in a long while the elderly Mr. Han had a visit from J, one of his former high school students. Under J’s arm, wrapped in paper, was a long, round object that didn’t seem all that heavy for its size.

After an exchange of greetings, J placed the object on the coffee table. “Sir, I’d like to give you this.”

J was now an associate professor of classical Korean literature. He was also quite talented in calligraphy, a framed sample of which, in a style emphasizing simple strokes, adorned Han’s living room wall: 文者求道之器也, “Behold writers, truth-seeking vessels.” You could almost feel the power of the brushwork. And then there was the time J had dropped by with a porcelain vase bearing the two characters 守拙, which Han liked to think of as meaning “stick to your guns,” executed in a semi-cursive hand. Fresh out of his friend’s kiln, J had reported.

Now what? Han wondered as J began unwrapping the parcel. He hadn’t the faintest clue what it might be.

Hwang Sunwŏn: An Appreciation
Bruce Fulton, 187

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I first met him in 1979. I was lecturing at Seoul National University, and in the office next to mine was Chang Wang-rok, a professor of American literature and, like Hwang, originally from North Korea. Professor Chang was translating Hwang’s novel Namu tŭl pit’al e sŏda, and he asked me to proofread his work. The next thing I knew I was meeting the author himself. He gave me a copy of The Stars and Other Korean Short Stories, a collection of his work translated by Edward Poitras. It wasn’t my first exposure to modern Korean short fiction—I’d read Agnita Tennant (neé Hong Myoung-Hee)’s 1975 anthology Modern Korean Stories—but I knew immediately upon reading Hwang’s stories that the author was a master of the form. Especially notable was “A Matter of Custom” (P’ungsok), one of the stories Hwang wrote in his early twenties while studying at Waseda University in Tokyo in the late 1930s. I found his treatment of a troubled father-son relationship astonishingly mature. So successful was Hwang in getting inside the head of the protagonist of this limited third-person narrative (not once does he use a third-person pronoun to identify the protagonist) that the story reads almost like a first-person narrative (a point also noted by Poitras in his excellent introduction to the collection).

Buried in a Stained Sweater: The Politics of Misogyny in Hwang Sunwŏn’s “Sonagi”
Heinz Insu Fenkl, 199

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Hwang Sunwŏn wrote short fiction over a period that spans three quarters of modern Korean literary history; his prose style ranges widely—from realism, to O. Henry-esque trick endings, to avant-garde minimalism, to French-influenced surrealism—and as a counterpoint to his stylistic innovations, his work also explores the effects of industrialization, capitalism, and—more recently—cultural imperialism, on traditional Korea. Hwang’s work also implicitly addresses the major traumas of modern Korean history: the Japanese Annexation, the Korean War, and the continued bifurcation of the country into north and south.

Following his debut as a poet in 1931, he published well over a hundred short stories, seven novels, and two poetry collections; he won every major Korean literary award, including the Korean Literature Grand Prize; his works have been adapted as stage dramas and films; and, significantly, he has been translated into English more than any other Korean writer, living or dead. In fact, during his lifetime it was long the hope of certain Korean ministries that Hwang would be Korea’s first contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.


Kim Young-ha, Russell Burge and Hajin Jun, 263

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As usual, the subway to work was packed. The air was thick with the pungent odor of damp umbrellas and the stench spewing from passengers’ mouths. The man standing next to Sugyong nodded off to sleep, his hand still gripping the subway handle. He was wholly unaware of the wet umbrella in his other hand brushing against Sugyŏng’s leg with every jerk of the subway car. She contorted her body to avoid it, but it was no use. Sugyŏng shook her head in defeat. And in a small, imperceptible voice she muttered, Life is nothing special. If a wet umbrella sticks to your skin, you just endure it. As she said this, she felt like she really could endure. Sugyŏng repeated the words in her head lest she forget. Life, wet umbrella, skin, endure. Life, wet umbrella, skin, endure.

Park Min-gyu and Andrew Krebsbach, 281

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Two days had passed since the Tortoise Shells were opened. Dmitri was the first to awake from deep sleep. He didn’t feel particularly strange; it was entirely different from the last time, when he had experienced severe vomiting. He calmly closed his eyes and pushed the button, and could hear the heavy footsteps of scientists approaching. “Open your eyes.” A faint voice whispered the command through earphones connected to the immersion fluid. His eyes gradually began to sense the light. It was Madam Yan who checked his pupils. The tedious examination went on for about forty minutes. “Prepare to dive. If everything is OK, sign.” As he listened to Yan’s instructions, Dmitri checked himself—his body, the feeling. Will it be all right? Yes, probably, he thought. He pressed the button. As the equipment began to detach from his body piece by piece, he slowly steadied his mind. The most dangerous moment was at hand. Accidents were frequent, even after flawless checkups, and an accident meant death. That was why they all feared diving. Roughly speaking, the process involved pulling the submerged body out from the immersion fluid, but they all referred to it as diving because, contrary to the physical action, the conscious sensation was like falling from a great height. The countdown began. Though he had already completed five dives, he always dreaded this moment. He closed his eyes. His submerged body, maintaining its gentle angle, was slowly raised. Feeling the lap of the fluid’s surface against his skin, Dmitri took a deep breath.


Chido / Map, and: Kohyang / Hometown, and: Pirobong 1 / Vairocana’s Peak 1, and: Paengnoktam / White Deer Lake, and: Changsusan 1 / Long Life Mountain 1, and: Changsusan 2 / Long Life Mountain 2, and: Kusŏngdong / Nine Forts Valley, and: Pi / Rain, and: Indongch’a / Honeysuckle Tea, and: Ch’un-sŏl / Spring Snow, and: Sapsari
Chŏng Chiyong and Emily Yoon, 65

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Translator’s Note
Chŏng Chiyong is known today as one of the greatest modernist poets in Korean history, but scholarship on his poetry began to flourish only after 1988, when South Korea lifted the ban on literature by writers who defected to North Korea. Chŏng was born in Okch’ŏn, North Ch’ungch’ŏng Province, in 1902. He attended Hwimun High School in Seoul (1918-1922), where he started his literary activities by publishing the literary magazine Yoram and composing his first fiction and poetry. He studied English literature at Doshisha University in Kyoto (1923-1929); while at Doshisha, in 1926, he made his debut as a poet with nine poems including “K’ap’e P’ŭransŭ” [Cafe France] in the inaugural issue of Hakcho. After graduating from Doshisha, he returned to Hwimun High School to teach English, where he taught until Korea’s independence from the Japanese occupation in 1945. Then he taught English and Latin at Ewha Women’s University and assumed the role of chief editor for the Kyŏnghyang newspaper. With the onslaught of the Korean War and the confusion that followed, Chŏng became a member of the leftist National Guidance Alliance (or Bodo League; Kungmin bodo yŏnmaeng) against his will along with other writers from Chŏson Writers Alliance (Chŏson munhakka tongmaeng). He was abducted to North Korea in 1950 and is rumored to have died in 1953. Until 1988 his name nonetheless had the bad reputation of a writer who voluntarily went to the North. Even though his life after 1950 remains mysterious, thankfully one can now glimpse Chŏng’s and colonial-era Korea’s histories through the poetry he left behind.

The Solitude of the Dying, and: Thoughts on the Sound of Water, and: Thorny Lotus, and: Black Bile, and: In the Darkness
Cho Yong-Mee and Krys Lee, 237

A Mathematician’s Morning, and: Therefore, and: Okinawa, Tunisia, Francis Jammes, and: Battleground, and: Metaphor’s Mass, and: Tamam Negara
Kim So-yeon, Brother Anthony and Chung Eun-Gwi, 243

I Exist Filthily, and: Marana: Heroine in a Porno Cartoon. Part 3, and: Marana: Heroine in a Porno Cartoon. Part 4, and: Nonsenso, and: Passing the Cotton Field the Boy Went Away
Park Sangsoon, Brother Anthony and Chung Eun-Gwi, 253

Kiss, and: Time for an Unfamiliar Animal, and: At Noon, Sex Is Green, and: Room Full of a Host of Butterflies, and: Ladyhawk
Gang Jeong, Brother Anthony and Chung Eun-Gwi, 303

Hug, and: The Location of a Neck, and: A Bed Speaks, and: Kiss in a Forest, and: This Book
Kim Haeng-suk, Brother Anthony and Chung Eun-Gwi, 313

A Ghost 3, and: Tambourine in the Shade, and: The Tree Is Going, and: Ch’ŏnan, and: Like an Ash Tree
Yi Yeong-gwang, Brother Anthony, Chung Eun-Gwi, 319

Sejong Cultural Society

Sijo Writing Competition Winners

Sejong Cultural Society Sijo Writing Competition Winners
Ivanna Yi, 327

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What a pleasure and honor it has been to serve as a judge for the Sejong Cultural Society’s annual Sijo Writing Competition. Each year, we receive hundreds of entries from pre-college students with a diverse range of subject matter, including themes traditional to sijo such as meditations on nature and love but also modern themes such as living in an age of constant communication, environmental change, and making a life as an immigrant in America.

Sijo is a Korean vernacular verse form in three lines that was originally sung. Although most sijo today are written for the page, it is significant to note that the oral dimensions of the form remain in Korea and that sijo is still a form of musical performance. In the sijo form, the first line introduces the theme, the second line expands and develops that theme, and the third line generally has a “twist” or surprise that often changes how the entire poem is read. As Professor David McCann has remarked, the sijo form can be understood as a “martini with a twist”!

Another Perspective

Inverse Modernity: Literary Representations of the Contradictory Flow of Technology and Ideas in Colonial Korea
John M. Frankl, 335

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Any monolithic definition of modernity has long since been problematized, if not wholly discredited. Perhaps modernity is best viewed as an ideological claim. Even if one concentrates solely on the concept as it has been deployed in the West, as Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar points out, “Western discourse on modernity is a shifting, hybrid configuration consisting of different, often conflicting, theories, norms, historical experiences, utopic fantasies, and ideological commitments. Such contradictions within claims and projections, rather than being challenged, only grow in significance and salience when the question is extended beyond the West. In 1997, four years prior to the publication of Gaonkar’s edited volume on alternative modernities, Tani E. Barlow had taken up the more specific question of colonial modernity in East Asia. Though the work, as its title implies, covers enormous geographical and disciplinary ground, it is immediately relevant here for its clearly expressed “desire to experiment with ways of stepping around some well-rehearsed impediments to critical scholarship.”

Reprinting “Azaleas”: A Meditation on Volume and Volumes
Wayne de Fremery and Sanghun Kim, 366

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I’m going to go out on a limb. We may be heading into a new era for books. People will say that it’s here, already. But, really, it’s not. We still design our screens to look like pages, materializing our texts in page-like shapes that organize the alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems that we have been using for millennia. We think of books as a collection of planes, of flat pages. This despite the fact that we call them volumes and they, the pages and the books, have it—volume. The same can be said of computers that make our books, when we recognize them, the computers, as physical objects. Circuitry arranged as motherboards occupies space, as does a computer’s memory, which can be partitioned, yes, into volumes. The machines that we use to compose, compile, and then rip (raster image process) the files that instantiate the plates that sit on the drums of offset presses pressing ink onto the sheets of the books that we (still!) read also show us our “books” on screens. Yet, as Matthew Kirschenbaum points out, books on screen are not books; they are models of books.


A Note to the Exhibition “reallyGood, murder”
Noh Suntag, 222

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reallyGood murder # BIK0504, 2008 Chŏllado, Archival pigment print on fine art paper, 140 x 100cm.

This series of works looks beneath the surface of the so-called weapons show, questioning what is hidden behind the high technology that we enjoy and admire today. At present, almost every enterprise boasting of its high technology produces weapons. The scale of the market sharply expands every year. Due to the strained relations between South and North Korea, South Korea was listed as one of the top importers in the international arms market. And yet it also developed into a “dark horse,” dramatically increasing the export of arms to the third world and countries in conflict. In one way or another, the current state of a divided Korea is indelibly associated with the weapons industry.

Image Index, 404

Notes on Contributors, 406