• Working the Spaces Between: an Interview with Korea Lit founder Hannah E. Carson

    By Charles Montgomery

    In the last dozen years or so, Korea has made a concerted effort to increase its cultural presence in the “foreign” world. Noting the successes of the “Korean Wave” (also known as hallyu) and hip-hop dance teams, the Korean government has begun to see that what is Korean can also be international, and that Korean soft power can spread around the globe. But this process has been fitful, the country’s governmental agencies sometimes being their own worst enemies. (A blog post about that topic might get my next entry into Korea denied.)

    About a decade ago, when I first visited the Korean Literature Translation Institute (LTI Korea), sweating profusely after a long walk in the blazing Korean summer, I was faced with a wall of incomprehension so impenetrable it would have excited Donald Trump. Although I had come to drop off an entry for a competition of Korean literature translations into English, I could not find a single friendly face, much less on someone who spoke English. But in a bit less than a decade since then, under the stewardship of a series of increasingly savvy presidents, LTI has turned that completely around.

    Now, a visitor to the LTI encounters staff members who speak the languages of many different countries. In its classrooms, students from all over the world are being taught to translate Korean literature into their native languages while non-Korean interns work on a variety of projects. Overseas, Korean books are increasingly being published by non-Korean publishers, and big ones at that. What LTI has done internally, and what they increasingly do externally, is to work with a new class of international citizens who can be thought of as “interstitial” or “liminal” people: Koreans and non-Koreans alike who, for reasons of birth, culture, or circumstance, have come to find Korea fascinating.

    By finding places in the weave of and in between cultures, these interstitial people have become facilitators in the process of spreading Korean culture overseas. I find them fascinating, and over the next few months I will interview some of them about how and why they explore Korean culture and what peculiar experiences they have had due to their liminal cultural status. One might say that these folks date back as far as the early missionaries who came to Korea more than a century ago, but previous generations interstitials tended to come with some kind of mission to change Korea — or “improve” or “modernize” it — by one tactic or another. These new liminals, on the other hand, seem driven by an interest in Korea itself (though few, I suppose, lack the proselytizing urge entirely).

    My first interview is with Hannah E. Carson, who founded Korea Lit, an online journal dedicated to publishing the works of writers who write in English about Korean topics or themes. This sort of thing has been tried to a lesser extent by writing clubs in Seoul and other cities, but Korea Lit is the first real attempt to capture writers and readers from all corners of the globe. (In the interests of complete transparency, I should note that I have had a story published at Korea Lit myself.)

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    First, please explain what Korea Lit is.

    Korea Lit is a web based literary and arts journal with Korea as its common element and backbone. It is a place to showcase new and emerging writers and artists who not only share a love for the arts, but share a common interest in a fascinating part of our world.

    Why did you create Korea Lit?

    I currently live in South Korea. I am also a writer, and in keeping with the old adage “write what you know,” I found myself writing stories based in and around the settings and people that I experienced every day. The same applied to the stories that I desired to submerge myself in. Unfortunately, there were limited places where an English speaker could find these stories. Sure, there were translated novels and poetry, even short stories to be found, but this required some legwork.

    I have considered starting a literary journal previously, but the timing was never right. This time, I knew it was right. I wanted readers and writers alike, to have a place they could go to where the country they were experiencing or longed to experience was at the center. So Korea Lit was born.

    How do you see the Korea Lit journal evolving over time?

    Obviously, the dream is for the journal to be successful. But more that just successful, I want Korea Lit to be appreciated as a literary journal. My hope is that we can continue to produce quarterly editions for download, in addition to our monthly issues. I also hope that as Korea Lit gains more traffic, we can enter the professional market. I am encouraged by the readership that we are already seeing, and hope that this will continue to grow.

    What do you see as Korea Lit’s role in literature in general, international literature, and/or Korean literature?

    Outside of Korea, the Korean language is not widely used. Children in Western schools are not given the opportunity to take Korean language as a course, as they are French, Spanish or even German. Unless a person is living in Korea, they have very little contact with the language. And while they may have an interest in Korean culture, specifically stories and poetry based around the culture, there is very little accessible material to be found. Simply speaking, it is written in Korean.

    Korea Lit is giving English speakers the opportunity to experience a part of the Korean culture. We are bringing Korea to them, making is more accessible. As an international journal, we are also giving writers from all over the world the opportunity to share voice. Someone from India, for example may write from a different perspective than someone from Ireland. A shared longing or experience is translated completely differently based on a person’s culture.

    Do you feel that there is a market for a project like this, with an expat at the steering wheel?

    Absolutely! We have already seen interested from those living in and outside of Korea. Our readership grows with each issue. Being an expat, living in Korea gives me a unique perspective, I think. I am not simply someone who loves Korea because I was raised to love it, much like my American childhood, but I developed a love for it based on my experiences with the country and the people.

    I moved to Korea about two years ago to teach drama. With that move, I made the conscious decision to immerse myself in the culture as much as I possibly could. I didn’t want to simply be a visitor here, or use my time here as an extended vacation. I wanted to make a life, and in doing so, I developed a love for this country and the people in it. It’s due to my experiences that I wanted to create a space where these kinds of experiences could be shared in story form.

    Have you received any interest or notice from any Korean institutions (press, publishing, literary agencies)?
    We have a Twitter page, and have received notice from a few Korean institutions in that regard. Other than that, we have mostly received notice from Korean readers, who speak English as their second language. This is very encouraging and a trend that I hope continues to grow. I would love to think that the journal is reaching Koreans and non-Koreans alike.

    Who is your intended reader?

    Anyone who loves to read. It’s easy to say Korea Lit will automatically attract a certain kind of reader, but honestly, I’ve never liked the idea of lumping readers into categories. If someone stumbles upon Korea Lit and enjoys what they see, then that’s great. If they don’t, then there are countless other well developed journals available to them. We may not publish the kinds of fiction that they ordinarily curl up with, but perhaps we can challenge someone to try something new.

    Who are your authors?

    People who have something to say. Those who have experienced Korea directly or indirectly. A person doesn’t have to eat an apple to be able to write a story about it. The same applies to Korea. Maybe a writer has never lived in Korea, but they have experienced an aspect of Korean culture within their home country. We would love to hear these kinds of perspectives, as well as those of Koreans or expats who have lived in Korea long term. As long as the story is good, we welcome the opportunity to read it.

    What makes you and the Korea Lit team sit up and take notice of a story?

    We aren’t looking for perfection. Korean Lit is an international journal. As such, submissions are coming from writers all over the world. We understand that language can be cultural and personal and as such, we resist the urge to nit pick grammar and nuance. Mostly we just want new and well told stories. We want art that makes us feel something, and poetry that makes us want to read it over and over. We would also love some aliens and sea monsters.

    What makes you instantly put a story down?

    Prostitution and suicide. 80% of our submissions have one of these two elements as the central theme. It’s a hard sell. Every culture in the world has negative aspects, and while we won’t say that stories focusing on these will never be published, we do feel that we need to be very intentional with this kind of material. The story must have purpose and a broader theme. Imagine a journal focusing on a certain country. Now imagine that journal publishing story after story of the negative aspects of that country. That’s not the journal we want to be.

    Related Korea Blog posts:

     The Gwangju Uprising from an American’s Perspective: a Q&A with The Seed of Joy Author William Amos

    Writing About Korea, in Korean, for Koreans — as an American: an Interview with Robert J. Fouser