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(Yonhap Feature) Korean literature making small, much-awaited inroads in overseas markets
By Charles Montgomery
Contributing Writer
SEOUL, April 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea has never won a Nobel Prize for Literature, but such a day may not be far away, if progress being made on best-seller lists is any indication.

   In the past few years, Korean modern literature has become much more popular in English-speaking countries, as can be seen in a steady increase in sales and international awards received by Korean authors. In recent weeks, a translated version of Shin Kyung-sook's "Please Look After Mom" has been raising a storm in the English-speaking world, the book becoming a runaway hit.

   Bruce Fulton, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, said Korean literature, though relatively unknown until now, is compelling.

   "There are a lot of interesting life stories. There are a lot of diverse voices. There are some very good storytellers. Put that all together, and there's a lot to work with," said Fulton, who has translated some Korean novels, including Cho Se-hui's "The Dwarf" and collections such as "Land of Exile" and "The Red Room."

   The recent success of overseas publications of Park Wan-suh's "Who Ate Up All the Shinga?" and Kim Young-ha's "Your Republic Is Calling You" proves that there is an international market for Korean literature, and the numbers prove that the market is growing.


Reviewers raved about both books with Kim's receiving acclaim on National Public Radio in the United States and Park's work being called "gripping" and "lyrical" in London's Financial Times.

   Kim's "Your Republic Is Calling You" at one point cracked the world's "Top 100 Mysteries" compiled by Amazon.

   Alongside this has been the steady work and recognition of Ko Un, whose poetry, particularly his Homeric epic "Maninbo," has already stirred Nobel Prize for Literature conversation.

   Ko has already won substantial international recognition. Just this month, he won the America Award for lifetime achievement, an award previously won by such stellar literary figures as Harold Pinter and Jose de Sousa Saramago.

   Ko became the first Asian author to win the award, which will join his growing collection of international awards including the Cikada Award (Sweden), the Griffin Poetry Prize (Canada) and the Bjornson Order For Literature (Norway).

   While Kim, Ko and Park have stepped across the international threshold, it seems that Shin Kyung-sook and her tear-jerking novel "Please Look After Mom" has obliterated the threshold.

   Even prior to the availability of its official publication run of 100,000 copies, a second print was run to handle the building demand. Barnes and Noble declared the book "an important new publication." Oprah Magazine put it on the "Books to Watch for in April" list, and it currently sits comfortably on the Amazon top 50 best sellers list, having reached as high as No. 19. The book also sports a gaudy average reader review of 4.8 out of 5 on the Amazon Web site. This week, the book entered the New York Times best-seller list. In every way that can be measured, "Please Look After Mom" is a massive international success.

   What made this possible, and will the trend continue?

   There is better work between authors and international publishers than before, and Korean authors are learning the international marketing game, industry experts say. Also, technology is bringing the worlds of English readers and Korean authors closer together, and more and more works are being published overseas, where the actual purchasers live and buy their books.

   "Korean literature struggles in the English-speaking world, particularly the United States," said Kim Young-ha.

   But Kim sees the problem easing and notes that part of this is because there is better cooperation between Korean authors and overseas publishers.

   "Now there are good signs on the horizon. Major publishing houses are now working with Korean authors, and the English-speaking audience is becoming more and more enthusiastic," Kim said.

   As each large publisher overseas publishes Korean modern fiction, the success level of the works increases, and this makes it easier for succeeding publishers to consider publishing more.

   When Kim Chi-young, a Korean-American woman who translated "Your Republic Is Calling" and "Please Look After Mom," talks about the success of one book leading to the publication of another, she simply notes that for the publisher, previous success means "it's safer."

   In addition, the authors are becoming more savvy. The translator said in her work on "Please Look After Mom," there were sections of edits that the author agreed to, to make it more plausible or pleasing to "the American eye." Add to this the fact that publisher Knopf is launching a full-scale marketing offensive -- author Kim Young-ha will visit seven U.S. cities and eight European nations.

Novelist Kim Young-ha says there are "good signs on the horizon" for Korean authors. (Photo courtesy of Charles Montgomery)

The success might stretch further than expected. Kim Young-ha said the English-speaking audience is a fully international one.

   "What is interesting to me is how big the English-speaking audience is internationally," she said. "I was recently at literary festivals in Beijing and Shanghai, and those events were for English-speaking audiences, and the events were quite successful with enthusiastic audiences."

   He also reckons that the increasingly networked world will help Korean literature expand internationally.

   "With Amazon, Kindle and iBook, the globe is becoming smaller, and this increases the chances of (Korean literature) finding more audiences," he said.

   A look at Amazon reveals that this seems to be true, as international reviews of Korean fiction are on the upswing. Even better, readers are leaving extremely positive reviews. Reviews of "Please Look After Mom" include comments like, "an exceptional novel," "It was extraordinarily emotional," and "intense and extremely moving." "Your Republic Is Calling You" is called "beautifully written" and "mesmerizing."

   It seems as though the time for an international breakthrough for Korean literature is finally at hand.

   "There are (Korean) voices that need to be heard, and there are enough different approaches to literature that readers shouldn't get bored in the near future," Fulton said.