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from the June–July 2019 issue

Korean Literature Is Stepping Out

Translator Anton Hur on the increased visibility of queer Korean writers​.

Am I proud of this mini-feature of Korean queer literature in translation courtesy of Words Without Borders

Hell yeah! 

We have Lee Jong San, the second out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction, and an excerpt from that very book in question: Customer

We have Kim Bong-gon, the third out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction, and an excerpt from that very book in question: “College Folk” from Speed, Summer

(The only reason WWB hasn’t published the fourth out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction is because a fourth book doesn’t exist yet. And yes, WWB has published the first out queer Korean writer to publish a book of fiction as well, thanks for asking.)

Korean literature has always had an embarrassment of riches when it comes to queer literature, but having out queer writers—as opposed to closeted queer writers or writers who were out to their translators and friends but not to the public, etc.—was somewhat elusive. But it’s history waiting to happen, and boy is it happening. Last year, I went to a panel for queer literature hosted by Seoul National University where Lee Jong San and Kim Bong-gon sat next to each other and I thought, Damn! We can fill an entire panel now! Kim Bi and Kim Hyun don’t have to be alone anymore!

You don’t have to be an out queer writer to produce unmistakably gorgeous queer Korean literature. I mean, have you seen how gay Korean literature has always been??? But in case you needed a reminder, we have Lee Hyemi’s sensuous poem “The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam” and Kim Hyejin’s About My Daughter, both works that also deal with the closet and what stays “hidden and sweet” or comes marching out of it with a lesbian-in-law in tow.

Queer rights in Korea has taken a battering in recent years: we have a homophobic president, witch hunts against gay soldiers (military service is compulsory in Korea; you want us to serve in the military and go to jail? Make up your goddamn minds!), and Christian fanatics are coming down strong—and violently—against queer pride all over the peninsula. 

But we are fighting back. We have always been fighting back, but there has been something different in the air these past couple of years: the out authors, their books that suddenly seem to be doing quite well, and the domestic and international response, nay, demand for their work is mounting by the day. 

In these very pages, I once wrote about a lunar sorority of queer Korean literary translators. Now, thanks to our authors, we’re ready to step forth into the sun.

"Korean Literature Is Stepping Out" © 2019 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.

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