A walk down any shopping street in South Korea reveals countless images of glamorous celebrity women, endorsing skincare products from the windows of stores such as Olive Young and Innisfree. Seoul’s affluent Gangnam neighborhood is crowded with buildings filled with competing plastic surgeons, and decorated with commercials with before/after photos showing the starkly unadorned next to the newly beautified. Job applicants may find themselves asked to include a headshot with a resume and cover letter. In casual conversation, it won’t be long before appearance comes up, along with myriad techniques and products that can improve it.
After many years of cutting a fairly small figure in the larger affairs of the world South Korea has spent the past decade transforming its profile among the middle powers, especially in the Asian region. Ramon Pacheco Pardo sees this as the result of a quiet but determined strategy combining economic clout, “soft power” cultural influence, diplomatic initiatives, and a growing military profile.
Yu Miri in her novel The End of August tells an extraordinary tale: the saga of her Korean family and the story of their nation. Her story spans space and time, giving voice to both the living and the dead. It is a tale of Korea, from the brief, failed attempt to stand at the end of the 19th century as an empire against Imperial Japan, through the colonial period that ended with Japan’s surrender in the Second World War in 1945, to the postcolonial period that came to a close at the end of the 1970s. Settings range from her ancestral village in colonial Korea to Japan’s wartime continental empire in Manchuria and occupied China to Japan. Characters speak Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, some of them switching from one language to another as circumstances demand.
A sprawling, multigenerational epic, Hwang Sok-yong’s Mater 2-10 tells the story of a working-class Korean family and details their struggles against the tides of the 20th century, from the Japanese colonial era through the division of the Peninsula to South Korea’s economic boom. Their agitation for workers’ rights spans the generations, as does the unique ability of the family’s women to speak and affect events from beyond the grave, both of which define the family and mark the epochs of the story.
Sae, former journalist turned a young mother of two in 1992 Seoul, is waiting for her husband, an engineer for a small construction company. He’s late. A neighbor rushes down with the news: a high-rise downtown has collapsed, trapping hundreds inside—the same high-rise that Sae’s husband is working.
Although the stories in Paul Yoon’s latest collection range from northern Vermont and the Costa Brava to the Russian Far East, and chronologically from 17th-century Japan to more less the present day, with stops along the way in Tsarist Russia and the Cold War, they all feature protagonists who are Korean in one way or another.
When East Asia opened itself to the world in the nineteenth century, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean intellectuals had shared notions of literature because of the centuries-long cultural exchanges in the region. As modernization profoundly destabilized cultural norms, they ventured to create new literature for the new era.