Shin Yong-mok’s book of poems, Geochang, My End (Seoul: Hyundai munhak, 2019), is a record of his being in its most critical period. Although Geochang is his hometown, it is also a place farthest away from his life, as the book’s title suggests. This distance is primarily due to the power of time, but is also the result of the poet’s somewhat heavy heart, which has made him avoid it as much as possible. In his hometown there are some names that are fragments of certain of his memories, similar to dreams: the names of many friends who collided with the world and nurtured bruised lives “unaware of their own sadness,” the names of certain books they wanted to use as weapons for quickly changing the world, and the names of love, revolution, and labor. Traces of the time when he was gripped by those names are waiting for his return to his hometown.
The poet’s heart might have been anticipating this list of names, which must be waiting for him. We might also say he was probably anticipating the pain of directly confronting the question of whether or not his present life is up to the challenge of those names. In this situation, the melody of a resigned tone can be an excuse for evasion. “Although history has always been compared to a river/While leaving life with its riverside parking lot, the river, like the jingles dropped from a tambourine in Geumyeong Karaoke,/Only sparkles.” (“Geochang, My End”). The intimations that our everyday lives now exist in a place away from our former dreams of revolution, as if they have nothing to do with those dreams, and that our imagination about history has also become like a prop apart from our lives in reality, feel empty and bitter. However, this emotional agitation comes not from the fact that we have forgotten this truth, but because we know we are trying to hide certain facts within specious metaphors and melodies.
Fortunately, a poetic spirit of gloominess and a resigned tone does not exercise a great influence in this book of poems. Rather, its power that permeates this work depends not on the resignation of the living but on the stubbornness of those who have disappeared—but who can never really vanish. The names of most friends appearing in the work receive caring greetings from the poet and share the sadness or resignation of the survivors, including him; but the name of a friend who devoted himself to the democratization of universities remains apart from this state of emotion. In other words, this particular name is still firm and honorable and causes pain to the surviving. The poet occasionally depicts this firm spirit through the image of a rock, thus creating a tension whenever a rock appears in the poems. The poet’s imagination embraces and transforms this rock into the shining moon and, when, as the image of an eye that does not submerge in the darkness, it illuminates our lives, the here and now, checkered with resignations, seems briefly purified. While struggling with the name for a firm and distinct life, Geochang is reborn to the poet as a space that he has to safeguard until the very end, rather than being an end and margin pushed far away from his life.
The song that the poet conveys in this rebirth is, in fact, something we can recognize. For example, the sound of waves and the moonlight in the poems reminds us of the lyric in a march we are familiar with: the promise in “Let’s not waver until the new day comes,” and the sound of “the hot roar that awakened we shout” that “streams and mountains remember through the years passing by. 1” The poet must have heard people urging each other not to stop marching toward a better future until the very end. He must have heard this among citizens who filled the streets with candles, as they could not stand by, from high up in the air where strikers talked about the dignity of workers, and among the people watching the South and North Korean leaders meet and declare peace while holding hands. And the memories of these sounds must have saved him from being held back by the old melody.
Recently, we witnessed another of these scenes in which the sound of a never-ending march seemed to be heard. Since April 2019, more than 1.8 million people have participated in the petition for “the Liberty Korea Party disbandment,” posted on the people’s petition bulletin board at the Blue House. Some might consider it a simple happening, originating from ordinary people’s anger against the reactionary party’s willful obstructionist behavior; others might find it irrational and offensive that people petition for a political party’s disbandment to the Blue House. In fact, though, most people who petitioned probably knew that the Blue House did not have the power to take such a measure. Indeed, they participated in this petition not simply because they wanted the disbandment of the Liberty Korea Party; instead, their actions contain traces of various wishes that have not yet been articulated clearly. It is also clear that these wishes are closely related to the abolition of deep-rooted evils in our society. In other words, the petitioners expressed their wish to see the end of a long-standing negative current in modern Korean society through the form of this petition for the disbandment of the Liberty Korea Party.
An aspect of this negative current emerges in the repetition of an old habit: randomly pouring out crude talk toward people outside of a group in order to reinforce a group’s own identity. During the spring, as well, we had not only to endure the misery of hearing irresponsible and immoral utterances about the Gwangju Uprising and the Sewol Ferry Incident, but also to become extremely enervated by the crude language that the reactionary camp adopted, labeling anyone disagreeing with them pro-North Korean, thus taking advantage of our tragic reality of division. But the problem with crude words is not only their immorality and absurdity, which outrage most people; rather, these utterances anger people most likely because they reject societal change for the better and block people’s hopes for a better future. Although various hopes included in the petition for the disbandment of the Liberty Korea Party may not be fully understood, would they all not be subsumed in the hope for and vision of the change of the world for the better? The creative imagination of people who want to witness a transformation into a better future is still underway around us, and its power is always filling the space around us in various shapes.
In her book Hope in the Dark, the American writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit confessed that she was surprised by the fact that to talk about hope would anger some people. Her observation is interesting: that obsession with despair by the despairing, those who talk about defects and problems rather than hope, and who insist on failures and disappointments that prolong their gloomy worldview, runs deeper than expected. This observation is worth keeping in mind when we try to understand the cynicism that has begun to occur among people living their everyday realities after the Candlelight Revolution. Nevertheless, in the language used in Shin Yong-mok’s book of poems and that of the petition for the disbandment of the Liberty Korea Party, I see people’s realistic desire for change, a desire much stronger than anyone’s obsession with despair. This powerful desire will lead us on our march toward a better future, by adding strength to the work of progressing history.
This issue’s main features explore the theme “Toward a New History of Korean Literature: How Should We Write It?” While such a history has always be a need, in every great historical phase, it has become an urgent task in the recent historical phase in Korea, from the Sewol Ferry Disaster to the Candlelight Revolution. The articles here deal with essential topics related to the re-writing of the history of Korean literature. While meticulously considering how to solve the task of writing such a literary history in the face of the historical event that might be called “the March 1th Movement Centennial invited by the candlelight,” Choi Won-sik finds a clue in the works of early 20th-century literary critic Im Hwa. Although he does not ignore Im Hwa’s weaknesses as a reformist, Choi perceptively re-illuminates the major issues in literary history that Im Hwa struggled with. Also, through reviewing and weighing the achievements and failures of later theorists’ works, he criticizes some of them as a vulgarization of Im Hwa’s theory of cultural transplantation, while anticipating new possibilities in Korean literature after the Candlelight Revolution through examining major points of national literature theory in the 1970s. We hope that this argument for a new history of Korean literature will generate further lively discussions in the field.
Baik Ji-yeon critically examines current issues in the study of the history of Korean literature, merging with the recent rebooting of feminism. While scrutinizing the radical currents present within the feminist studies, which have developed in conjunction with postmodern and postcolonial discourses since the 1990s, against the canonical history of literature, centered on nationalism, male-ness, and the elite, Baik exposes weaknesses behind the current as well. She also emphasizes that literary criticism would be essential to the advancement of feminist studies, as literary criticism responds sensitively to complex layers within literary texts.
With the phrase “My country is my mother tongue” as a key phrase guiding his task of rethinking a literary history of a unified Korea, Kim Hyung-su freely discusses how to overcome the obstacles of a divided literature. While recalling earlier writers who rejected the framework of division and cultivated a literature of their own, Kim also reminds us of the importance of meeting the other within our mother tongue. The last stop he arrives at is “the wedding hall of neutrality” that the late poet Shin Dong-yup yearned for.
In the Dialogue section, four women’s studies scholars in different positions—two lecturers, a graduate student, and a professor—discuss the relationship between feminism and university reform. Although they find it encouraging to see previously declining the feminist movement within universities enter into a new period of renewal, after the Candlelight Revolution and the Me-Too movement, they also realize clearly that there are many reform tasks, including the “irrational school resource distribution” and the “anti-feminist classroom culture.” Nonetheless, it is thrilling to confirm that we can arrive at new diagnoses and innovative alternatives through the lens of feminism.
In the Articles section, two pieces continue the discussion in the last issue’s Feature section: the “Ongoing March 1th Movement.” Paik Nak-chung carefully discusses the revolutionary significance of the March 1th Movement from the viewpoint of the present, after the Candlelight Revolution. Emphasizing that the spirit of March 1th was founded on the tradition of the Donghak movement and peasant revolution, which embraced Gaebyeok thought, he highlights the consistent current of transformative centrism that has continued since the March 1th. In this sense, the article reminds us that the tasks of the Candlelight Revolution and the ongoing nation-building Korean style are the continuation and materialization of the March 1th as an all-national people’s movement going through a process of phases.
Bruce Cumings discusses the uniqueness of the March 1th Movement from a global perspective, while persuasively presenting how the Japanese colonial rule of Korea was indebted to absolute protection by the Anglo-American superpowers, and laying out the background for the March 1th Movement’s early nationwide resistance. In particular, his polemical arguments on the influence of Japanese “Cultural Rule” on Korean industries, as well as his sharp questions about what Japan earned in the end from its colonization of Korea, have profound implications for the history of Korea and East Asia.
“On the Scene” presents timely discussions on current affairs. Ha Seung-soo not only offers detailed analyses about the necessity of the election system reform proposal, designated as a fast-track agenda on April 29, but also explains the contents and significance of semi-mixed-member proportional representation, and discusses possible countermeasures according to predictable scenarios. In addition, Park Ki-hak makes a reasoned argument about the injustice and illegality of the 10th Special Measures Agreement (2019) between the US and South Korea on defense cost-sharing. At the same time, he asks us to break from the habitual assumption that the US armed forces in Korea is an absolute and unchangeable security partner, in order for us to transition to a peace regime on the Korean peninsula.
Creative writing offerings in the current issue are as rich as ever. In the poetry section, we publish new works by 12 contemporary, leading Korean poets, from newcomers like johaeju and Hwang InChan, to veterans like Ra Hee Duk and Choi Jeongrye. In fiction, we begin installments from renowned writer Lee Kiho’s new novel, Simon Gray, which presents the unpredictable life of the protagonist in a humorous and experimental narrative technique, making us already look forward to subsequent installments. In addition, we publish short stories by Kim Sung-joong, Oh Sun-young, Im Gook-young, and Cheon Woon-young, as well as a novella by Shin Kyung-Sook. Published after a four-year silence, the latter’s What’s Loaded in a Ship Does Not Know the River is worth our attention for its sincere and careful reflections on the meaning of hope and pain, through a tragic event that happened to a close friend of the protagonist.
The current issue’s Literary Criticism section also offers much to savor. By introducing two poems by Shin Dong-yup that are not yet included in the complete collection of his works, as well as a never-published poem, “Baekrokdam Lake,” Kim Yuntae illuminates the concept of “haneul” as the new dawn of civilization and the minjung spirit in Donghak thought. Warning against the newly emergent crisis in Korean society heading toward “retropia,” through his discussion about recent works by authors such as Kim Hye-jin, Jang Ryu-jin, and Jang HeeWon, Kim Nyung asks what we should do together in order to overcome this crisis. In making an overview of works of Okinawan literature that have been spotlighted in the “main” islands of Japan, Sim Jeongmyoung pays attention to the process in which they acquire political import. He examines where the power of Okinawan literature, which does not make for easy empathy and generalizations, originates from.
For “Focus on Author,” poet Seo Hyo-in met with poet Park So-ran, who recently published the book A Person’s Closed Door. It is impressive to see how, during the process of an interview of a poet with a reticent image by an eloquent poet, the latter gradually turns into a listener, while the former increasingly more frankly reveals her thinking. In “Literary Focus,” literary critic Kim Su-i and novelist Ha Sung-ran engage in a lively conversation, as in the previous issue, with invited guest and poet Kim Haeng Sook, concerning six newly published books of poems and fiction. During their spirited discussion, they carefully and fairly point out each book’s individual tenets and characteristics.
Lee Hyangkue’s essay quietly narrates the author’s experience as a volunteer teacher, together with her daughter, at the London Korean Nationality School. The author’s depiction of the moments when she realized her own hierarchical bias about the relationship between South and North Korea, while teaching Korean to children whose parents were from the North, and when she deeply perceived the beauty of Korean language during her time with the children, is deeply moving.
Dealing with new books in various fields, including women, the environment, history, and science, the current issue’s “Book Reviews” offer engaging and exciting reviews by novelists known for their avid and extensive reading, such as Kim Jung-a, Kim Hye-jin, and Choi Min-woo. And, after three long years of searching, we finally announce the winner of the Changbi Prize in the Novel in this issue. We congratulate and cheer on Kim Seol-won, who won with Only a Soft Persimmon for Me, which was found outstanding for its engaging narrative and emotive insights. And we announce that poet Shin Yong-mok joined our editorial board in March. We look forward to his great contributions toChangbi’s renewed emphasis on literature.
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- Quotes are from the lyric of a well-known Korean song, “Marching for Our Beloved,” composed in honor of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising victims, and widely sung in the original and in translation in recent democracy movements worldwide, including in the 2019 Hong Kong demonstrations [Translator’s Note]. ↩