Asia’s invisible writers

In The Nation, John Fefer covers Writers From The Other Asia. The day after reading this, I did my standard darshan of Delhi’s bookshops for the week, but this time I made a deliberate effort to look for authors from Korea, Japan, China and the rest of Asia.
In the rare and secondhand bookshops, you still get a lot of the overflow from India’s flirtation with communism–pamphlets, books on the military supremacy of Japan, badly translated Chinese folk tales, plus the usual Venerated Leaders hagiographies.
But in most mainstream bookshops, you’ll find a reasonable smattering of authors from the subcontinent–though even here, some of the best-regarded names from Pakistan or Sri Lanka are missing–but very little from the rest of Asia. There are Asian authors, of course, from Haruki Murakami and Gao Xingjian to Banana Yoshimoto and Jung Chang–everyone, in short, who has been discovered by the English-speaking world, but not necessarily those who’re famous in their own countries.

Fefer writes:

“While Japanese and Chinese literatures have established footholds in intellectual circles here–from the classics of Sun Tzu and Junichiro Tanizaki to Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain and the postmodern fictions of Haruki Murakami–Korean literature remains terra incognita. Japan and China, of course, built empires. Korea suffered the indignities of colonialism at the hands of its neighbors and now endures the frustrations of relative cultural invisibility in the eyes of the West. American novelists such as Chang-Rae Lee and Nora Okja Keller have drawn inspiration from Korean material, but no Korean author has become a household name in the United States–despite the brilliance of Yi Munyol’s meditation on authoritarian psychology in Our Twisted Hero or Ahn Junghyo’s blistering portrait of South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War in White Badge.”

It’s a comprehensive piece, providing an overview of a literature of which most of us, the Babu included, know absolutely nothing, via the review of four recently published works. Fefer has an interesting explanation in passing for why Korean literature hasn’t been more popular:

“Korean culture has a certain pungency that complicates its entry into the global mainstream. Korean movies, traditional songs and fermented dishes are acquired tastes.”





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