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(Yonhap Feature) Forgotten literary pioneer decades ahead of his time

All Headlines 09:00 March 02, 2012

By Charles Montgomery
Contributing writer

SEOUL, March 2 (Yonhap) -- As an English saying goes, "Pioneers get arrows, while settlers get the land." At this moment, as Korean literature expands overseas with authors such as Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha and Yi Mun-yol settling comfortably into magazines and onto best-seller charts, it is an auspicious time to look back at one of the bravest of all the Korean literary pioneers nearly forgotten, Kim Yong-ik.

Kim's career writing in English began in 1957 and spanned nearly four decades. He published one book of folk tales, six novels, dozens of short stories, two essays, one television show and one movie (in Korea). He was published in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle, and the Hudson Review among other magazines, had a book of short stories published, and was anthologized several times.

Kim wrote amusing stories for juveniles and penetrating and multi-layered works for adults. His influence went beyond the works he wrote; he also profoundly affected other authors. American poet Robert Bly once commented on Kim's advice, saying, "I've been grateful for (it) for years."

Yet, today, when we think of successful Korean authors in English, Kim Yong-ik's name rarely comes up.

Kim was also a skilled teacher. From 1957 to 1964, he taught at Ehwa Womans University and Korea University in Seoul. Kim also taught at the University of California, Berkeley as a visiting professor from 1972-1973 and then at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from 1973-1990.

It is Kim's writing that will leave a mark on history. Unfortunately, like most Asian writers of the era, Kim struggled to get out of the various pigeonholes English publishers and readers tried to place him in. The first edited collection of Asian-American work in the United States was published in 1972. The "Asian-American Authors" did not include South Korea as part of Asia, and consequently did not include any South Korean authors. Publishers often did not know exactly what to do with Kim, and looking back at the covers of his first novels is to recognize that regardless of content, publisher were trying to sell his works as juvenilia. Still, Kim persevered, and as time went by his works moved from being recognized as juvenile to adult.

Kim wrote with strong echoes of traditional Korean literature about diasporic states, a theme that would naturally have modern meaning for a Korean author steeped in memories of Japanese colonialization and the very real modern reality of a sundered nation. Many of Kim's stories focused on relocation or dislocation, the experience of being physically moved to a foreign land or being psychically separated from one's social milieu and second an eventual return to unity.

Kim wrote his first English short stories in 1957. "From Here You Can See the Moon" focused on a son returning to Korea and contained Kim's first formal statement of his life-long theme of relocation as a process that eventually brings you back to where you begin -- "The town is good enough for anyone to return to."

The Diving Gourd (1962) was his first book and also strongly emphasizes physical displacement. In his early work we see characters that are sketches for the more complex characters that Kim later created. Early works were unanimously placed in Korea and featured only Koreans, but as Kim became more familiar with the U.S., his scope widened. Kim first addressed international topics in "They Won't Crack It Open," the first of three stories Kim located in the U.S. This work is still anthologized in some multicultural collections including Imagining America: Stories From the Promised Land and taught on university campuses across the English-speaking world.

Kim's late-middle period featured a troika of works that revisited, often with a hard edge, themes of cyclical diasporism within and across cultures -- "Moon Thieves" and the short stories "The Snake Man" and "The Sheep, Jimmy and I."

His fiction also describes Kim's personal path -- from Korean village to internationally published author, and finally back home before his death.

That Kim was thematically "on the way back home" is demonstrated in the existing four-page fragment "Home Again (1945)" from his unfinished novel Gourd Hollow Dance. The narrator, Yang Ho, has been released from Japanese prison camp and returns home. Yang Ho explains how time spent in a prison cell in Japan has given him a vision of home, and the road home.

"Water Root in the rain, Water Root in the sun - the poplars against the sky - I was home again. In the Tokyo jail, scratches of fingernails, cracks in the cell well had turned into waving trees. Warm water in the throat, a little food, at such moments I saw in the scratches and cracks the road to the sky by Water Root."

Kim's wife, Kim Udam, in her elegy of the writer described Kim's life as a process of departure leading to return to home and unity.

His shell is now resting at a sunny hillside family plot near his beautiful hometown.

He is now with his truly beloved.

Even today, Kim is not much known as a member of the Asian-American literary canon. One absence may stand in for many in this regard; Kim is absent from Asian American Short Story Writers: An A-To-Z Guide (Huang and Nelson), which is a work dedicated to collecting biographical information on all important Asian-American authors.

Why is it that this pioneer is forgotten? It is because Kim advanced to the beat of his own drummer. In his early years as an author Kim wrote fiction that focused on Korea and Korean issues in a language whose speakers did not know of Korea and/or Korean issues. In his later career, always the iconoclast, Kim continued to stand alone, often refusing to identify himself as an Asian, Asian-American, or Korean-American writer.

In his interview and writings, Kim repeatedly tried to make the point that his work was consciously outside of any "group." Kim once famously said, "Am I Asian American? It depends on how you interpret 'America.' I write about minorities and forgotten people. I never think about Asian American. You know, I'm a little bit of a loner." Kim, with his eyes solely on his literary task, was seldom concerned with appearances or labels.

The good news is that while Kim is not as well known as he should be, he continues to live on in universities across the world. Readers looking for the works of Kim Yong-ik can find two stories in Martha Foley's Best American Short Stories, and six of his short stories are available online as PDFs on the Korea Journal web site. His short story Crown Dick was made into a PBS film after winning the PEN Syndicated Short Fiction Project in 1984.

A follower of Korean fiction, a follower of international fiction, in fact a follower of any and all fiction can only hope that the tremendous early contributions of Kim Yong-ik will someday get the recognition they deserve.


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