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Training for Pyeongchang 2018: Reading South Korea

By Susan Harris


The Winter Olympics kick off tomorrow in Pyeongchang, South Korea. While you’re boning up on the difference between skeleton and luge (head first vs feet first, same terrifying track), reviewing the finer points of double loops and triple axels, and trying to distract yourself from what North Korea might be up to, why not immerse yourself in some literature from the host country?

Our first South Korean issue in November 2005 included Lee Gi-ho’s singular “Earnie.” The story of a young prostitute with a booming voice who escapes via a fortuitous encounter with a music impresario, it appears in two renditions: the text, translated by Yu Young-nan, and a rap version penned by rapper Kyle Myhre, better known as El Guante. Just as Earnie translates her singular talent into rap stardom, El Guante recreates Yu’s English version in a salute to verbal and career transformation.

Yun Ko-eun’s “The Chef’s Nail,” translated by Charles La Shure for our Korean feature in December 2012, opens with an event sure to send any editor into a dead faint: Jung, an absentminded newspaper copywriter, misreads a client’s name and misspells it in an ad. This isolated slip sets off a chain reaction of errors that results in Jung’s termination, which in turn triggers her eviction from company housing. Desperate, she finds a job with the Bookworm Advertising Agency, riding the subway in a permanent loop and ostentatiously reading a book to plant its title in the minds of her fellow passengers. But it’s Jung’s now-fragile mind that the book, and her work, permeate, in a metafictional jumble that hurtles toward the end of several lines.

And from our encore issue in April 2014, Young-ha Kim’s “The Suit,” translated by Sora Kim-Russell, finds a Korean poet and editor summoned to New York to collect the ashes of the father he never met. Tracked down by a private detective and directed to a strange address in Flushing, he finds not only the remains of his father’s body, but also the telling artifacts of his youth. In this case, clothes truly make the man.

These are only a few of the wildly varied and equally entertaining works by South Koreans in our pages. Between our dedicated issues and the many contributions to our themed months, there’s something to suit fans of everything from alpine skiing to speed skating, and to keep anyone reading till long after the snow and ice of Pyeongchang have melted away.


Published Feb 8, 2018   Copyright 2018 Susan Harris

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