Korea Recap: Seoul Man & K-Lit

February 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

Back in early December I was fortunate enough to participate in my third editors’ trip of 2014 (the other two were Germany & the Netherlands over the summer), this time to SOUTH KOREA!

I started writing this blog post BEFORE CHRISTMAS and got sidetracked by the holidays, and then spent nearly all of January prepping The Art of Flight to send to print, and other business endeavors. It’s hard running a publishing house single-handedly! Which reminds me, if you want to see your name in the backs of Jón Gnarr’s The Indian or Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, subscribe NOW! These books are going to press next week at the latest!!

Fun story: I gave blood the day before starting to write this post (weeks and weeks ago…all y’all should go give blood every 56 days; not only does it save lives, yadda yadda yadda, it’s really good for you. Consider it a detox, or a flush [literally!] or an oil change for your body!), and one of the attendants at the Red Cross remembered me from the last time I gave blood and so she asked me where I’d traveled most recently (they get a kick out of the responses I have to give them every time the question pops up: “Have you left the US in the past 3 years?”). So I told her I’d most recently been in South Korea, and she was like, “What does a book man do in Korea?! You read Korean??!?!” Of course, I don’t read Korean, but thanks to the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, I can read Korean literature like never before!

LTI Korea (which used to be called the Korean Literature Institute of Translation or something like that, but thankfully abandoned that woeful acronym!) is a tremendously useful organization for publishers: they provide synopses of Korean works, and often commission the translation of works, and then send those translated versions to publishers all over the world to let them know what is going on in Korean literature. They have language specialists dedicated to promoting Korean authors in English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese, etc. (and I’m sure others, you get the idea).

I was invited on this totally awesome editors’ trip thanks to the recommendation of Chad Post of Open Letter Books, and also invited was Ross Ufberg of New Vessel Press (Consortium family, unite!). Yoonie of LTI Korea (pictured below) helped set everything up, and LTI Korea paid for our travel to & from Seoul, took care of our lodging while we were there, and all travel and a lot of food, and they also set up meetings for us with Korean publishers, authors, translators, and critics across Seoul (and Paju, more on that below). It was an unbelievable experience, not only was the hotel among the nicest I’ve ever stayed in, but the toilet in that hotel room was straight out of the 22nd century, and man, it makes you feel like you’re traveling back to medieval times when you come back to the US and you don’t have toilets everywhere that wash and dry your posterior WITH HEATED SEATS! Like, what are we wasting our innovations on if not toilets?!?!?!?!  Certainly not books. Certainly not toilets. Which are two of the more important things in MY life, I dare say.

Back to books. Korean books. Korean books have had a bit of a moment in the US & UK recently, including the successes of Your Republic is Calling You by Kim Young-ha (Mariner, 2010), Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom (Knopf, 2011) & I’ll Be Right There (Other Press 2014—man, I love that cover), the Dalkey Archive Library of Korean Literature (they’re committed to publishing 25 books from Korea’s modern literature of the last 100+ years—if I recommend any, start with Jung Young Moon’s stories, A Most Ambiguous Sunday, he’s in pictures below, he’s so cool, tall, handsome, and an unbelievable writer), Hwang Sun-mi’s The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly (Penguin, 2013), Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found (AmazonCrossing, 2015), or Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Portobello, 2015, currently sitting at #2 on the Foyles London bookshop bestseller list behind mother___ Murakami!!) the list could go on. Korean literature rules. And it’s not bound by politics, style, or aesthetics: you can read everything from experimental fiction to feminist surrealist poetry (Kim Hyesoon FTW!!) or sentimental love stories or deep and dark political sagas & historical epics….KOREA RULES!

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With Dr. Seong Kon Kim, head of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea outside of their offices in Gangnam

The current head of LTI is Dr. Seong Kon Kim, whom we met on our second day in Seoul. Their offices are in the neighborhood of Gangnam (the answer is yes, hell yes, we did the horse dance more than once on this trip and yes, everywhere we went in Seoul Yoonie & our interpreter Alice pointed out places Psy had played massive outdoor concerts in public squares and huge streets). Dr. Kim is finishing up his three-year term this month or next, which is a bummer, he’s a wonderful guy and an American literature specialist. In fact, he’s translated a few classics of American literature into Korean, including Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49!

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Open Books offices inside the Mimesis Art Museum in Paju Book City

After landing on Sunday night and grabbing a dinner and feeling like WHOA I’M IN ASIA FOR THE FIRST TIME, we jumped right into our first full day of meetings Monday morning by hopping in a cab and setting out for Paju, a town about an hour northwest of Seoul, right across the river from North freaking Korea. But some years ago the Korean government asked the entire publishing industry to move to Paju, gave them some land and tax incentives or something like that, and most of the country’s publishers MOVED! It’s this weird quasi-urban space that feels distinctly American suburban, a sprawling city out among the hills of northwestern South Korea, and packed with beautiful modern architectural buildings that house a TON of publishing houses, and they told us that 100,000 people worked there every day. But the kicker is that almost NONE of them live in Paju, and have to commute an hour by BUS each way to get to Paju from Seoul! So in some respects it feels like the inverse of many American downtowns (*cough*Dallas*cough*) that are packed with office workers during the day and nearly ghosttowns at night.

We had some pretty awesome meetings right off the bat, including Open Books, an art and mostly-translated literature publishing house based inside the Mimesis Art Museum. We met with one of their acquiring editors, Gregory Limpens, a native Belgian who used to be a lawyer many moons ago who moved to Seoul for work, fell in love with the country, the language, and the literature, and who left his job in law to go work in publishing (only in Korea…).

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Meeting with Open Books’ acquiring editor Gregory Limpens, a native Belgian (and lawyer!) who moved to Seoul, fell in love with the country (and the books) and helps acquire Open Books’ amazing translated (into Korean) titles

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Open Books’ Bolaño box set (!)

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Dinner with Deborah Smith, translator of, among other works, Han Kang’s (really disturbing & brilliant) The Vegetarian for Granta/Portobello #NameTheTranslator #GiveTheTranslatorAFace

Our first night in Seoul, to backtrack a bit, we got to hang out with Deborah Smith, a London-based translator of Korean literature who is single-handedly responsible for my obsession with Korean literature. She has impeccable taste, and she’s a damn fine translator (read her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, out from Granta/Portobello).

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Bromance! With Chad Post of Open Letter Books outside of our hotel in the holiday lights (and holding our thick volumes of translated samples of over a dozen Korean authors put together by Yoonie at LTI)

Day two of meetings included hitting up the traditional center of Seoul, near the palaces, and we met with Yi Mun-yol, pretty much the most widely-read and important author of the last half-century in Korea, who’s only had a handful of his books translated into English (most notably Our Twisted Hero, though he’s quite widely read and popular in France and Germany). Our meeting was in the amazing Arario Museum, and what’s cool is that building used to house a publishing house called SPACE, and the museum acknowledges that history on every floor by naming their cafes and restaurants after the former publisher, so we met at the Cafe in SPACE, there’s also the Boulangerie in SPACE, the Restaurant in SPACE, and the Bar in SPACE!!!! I LOVE IT!!

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Ross Ufberg of New Vessel Press listening to one of Korea’s most well-known and admired writers, Yi Mun-yol at Cafe in Space in the Arario Museum

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Ross of New Vessel with the poet Kim Yi-deum on the way to dinner

At Cafe in SPACE we also met with the poet Kim Hyesoon, who has several books of amazing poetry out in English, including the Best Translated Book Award-finalist ALL THE GARBAGE OF THE WORLD, UNITE! from Action Books. We were joined at dinner by Kim Yi-deum, a young poet who lives in Busan (and who was in town, sadly, for the funeral of a fellow poet). Yi-deum was “discovered” by Kim Hyesoon, and her poems are radical, amazing, feminist anthems that delve into the body and space in an awesome way. Can’t wait to read her debut collection in English when Action Books publishes it!

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Dinner at the lovely restaurant Bok-Jung with the poets Kim Hye-soon and Kim Yi-deum

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The poet herself, the inimitable Kim Yi-deum

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In Korea’s largest bookstore, Kyobo, they have a poetry bestseller section!!!!!!!

Our meetings were all awesome: the Korean publishers we met with had great ideas for literature, and it’s amazing that we three American publishers combined publish 25-30 books a year, and each of the publishing houses we met publish 200-1000 books a year. This is the sad state of affairs in publishing, small publishing houses in the US can publish the biggest and most important authors of nearly any foreign country. While that’s sad in general, it’s a tremendous blessing that publishers like us can step into the void left by the “market” and help bring these incredible authors into English. Here’s Ross & I outside of Moonji, a really interesting and big-time publishing house who publish my favorite young Korean author, Han Yujoo (whose debut novel, Impossible Fairytale, will be out from Graywolf next year in Janet Hong’s translation, here’s a reader’s report PDF on it by Jake Levine).

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Ross of New Vessel & I outside the offices of Moonji, a very awesome publishing house with some very awesome authors

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Our lovely host from LTI, Yoonie, speaking with Jung Young-moon inside Munhakdongne Publishing Group’s bookstore/cafe: Cafe Comma

At one point we met with the publishers of Munhakdongne Publishing Group, I think the biggest publishing house in Korea (basically their Random House/Penguin). They publish an incredible list of literary titles in addition to commercial fiction, graphic novels, children’s books, cookbooks, etc. One of the most interesting things about Munhakdongne is that they’re part of an increasing trend in Korea where publishers are starting cafes (which are ubiquitous in Seoul, I’ve never seen a city with more cafes) that stock their own books. This bookstore/cafe concept is amazing (and something I’m trying to do in Dallas), and one of our meetings was at Munhakdongne’s bookstore/cafe: Cafe Comma (here’s an article about Cafe Comma, “Should Publishers Open Bookstore Cafes? They Are in Korea,” from Publishing Perspectives in February 2013).

At Cafe Comma we met with Jung Young-Moon, an extremely tall and handsome man who has one book already out in Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature series and has his newest novel coming out next year or so (it won the biggest literary prize in Korea last year). An alum of the Iowa International Writers Program, he was a hilarious guy to hang out with, apologizing when introducing himself to us because he had partied too hard with some friends the night before and he was a bit hungover. It was endearing, and he had a wicked sense of humor that only grew the more we talked. PLUS he’s an awesome writer, so keep your ears/eyes peeled for more news from him in English soon…

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Our interpreter, Alice, on the left with the very awesome (and very handsome, and very tall) Jung Young-moon in Cafe Comma

From one cafe to another we bounced across Seoul, from Cafe Comma in the uber-hip student-packed neighborhood of Hongdae to the uber-hip, foreigner-foreignized neighborhood of Itaewon (also the namesake neighborhood of my favorite K-pop song, “Itaewon Freedom,” introduced to me by my sister, who lived in Korea for a year teaching English, this song inspired me to ask, quite seriously, Chad or Ross every time we saw Nam-san Tower, “Do you know Nam-san Tower?”), where we met Kim Ae-ran, one of the most exciting and buzz-worthy young authors in all of Korea.

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The group with one of the brightest young talents in Korea: Kim Ae-ran

By this point our trip was almost over, we had three days (and nights!) of meetings, Monday thru Wednesday. Chad and I left on Thursday, Ross (who arrived a day earlier than us) left on the Friday. Wise man, that Ross. But for our “farewell” dinner, we met with several authors, a literary critic, and another colleague from the LTI Korea office. The food in Korea, by the way, is as good as the literature.

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Ross of New Vessel with the super cool author Kim Yeonsu

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Last dinner in Seoul at the lovely with (from top left wrapping around the table) Claire of LTI Korea, Jeong I-Hyeon, myself, Kim Yeon-Su, Ross of New Vessel, Kim Kyung-uk, Alice our interpreter, the critic Kwon Hee-chul, Yoonie from LTI, and Chad of Open Letter

On the Thursday morning & afternoon before my & Chad’s flights we were able to sightsee for a bit for the first time, and so we hit up the center of town to visit the Palace, the Namdaemun Market, a cat cafe, a fish-eating-your-feet spa, and other “When in Seoul…” types of sights. But of course, what did I hone in on?

Texas. In Seoul:

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Yeehaw, y’all

This trip was a massive success for all parties involved. LTI Korea gave us an invaluable first-hand introduction to contemporary Korean literature and the lay of the publishing landscape in Korea today to us all. The three of us came home bursting with ideas and the desire to publish so many authors we’d met and those we’d heard about, which is exactly the point. Expect to hear more from all of us about publishing Korean literature very soon, and if you’re curious, some great resources for you to check out Korean literature are linked here:

If you have suggestions of South Korean authors and/or books for me (or Chad or Ross or anyone) to check out, please email them to me!

지금은 한국어를 배우고 갈 필요가 읽기 주셔서 감사합니다!! ^_^

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