Hanoi – Seoul – Cape Town
Ho Chi Minh, Beginning of a Long Journey
Winter, 1994… I still remember the first impression that Vietnam imprinted on my passport. Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a golden star on a red background. My passport stamped with that visa in hand, I stood in front of the booth at the departure gate at Kimpo International Airport. The officer in uniform looked first at me and then my passport, then me and then my passport – repeatedly and with a probing glance – and he finally found a fault on my embarkation card. I had not written the number of my flight. Although I showed him the number on my ticket, he insisted that I rewrite the card and come back. It did not make me angry. I simply passed the departure gate with sweat on my forehead, though it was winter. I was more than grateful for the permission to go to Vietnam. I looked back with a strange feeling at the booth at the departure gate, which I just passed through. That day, I was on my way to Vietnam for the first time. Indeed, it was my first trip abroad. I had never been outside the borders of my country.
I was about to turn thirty-five. It was a turning point in my life. There were more days I had lived than I would live. During every trip, there is a turning point. The way back is usually shorter than the way forward. I wanted to look back on the roads that I had taken before I went too far to come back. However, I could not see very clearly the roads that I had taken. Around that time, the earth on which we stood was quaking under our feet all over the world. The order of the world was changing. Many values that seemed self-evident were looked at suspiciously or discarded. The twentieth century was hastily receding.
My task was to come to terms with being thirty-five years old rather than to prepare for a new millennium. The year when I turned twenty I entered a creative writing department in college, with the hope of a writing career in heart. Unfortunately, that was 1980. In college, which I entered after a creative writing exam and after going through fierce competition, in which one out of every seventeen was chosen, I wrote far more leaflets than poems. When I met female workers from the Haitai Confectionary & Foods Factory in the prison of Noryangjin Police Station, covered with black and blue bloody wounds, I regretted all the words I used in those leaflets. I had moved from college to factory. I wanted to be responsible for the words I used without much thought.
For me, who published stories and novels as “a writer without face” for ten or so years, during which I spent in an industrial complex, the 1990’s brought another confusion, somewhat different from that of the 1980’s. Standing between the receding twentieth century and the approaching twenty-first century, I decided to just endure. I did not want to thoughtlessly jump on the bandwagon. It seemed not too bad to disappear together with the times, to which I dedicated all my youth. Nevertheless, I wanted to know, however little it would be. What is the nature of the twentieth century that we are leaving behind? And what is waiting for us in the twenty-first century?
In order to reflect, I needed a mirror. In order to look ahead, I needed different coordinates. Why was I compelled to choose Vietnam? I wanted to look at the society in which I had lived, not from inside, but from outside. However, I could not refer to the West, the dominating power of the twentieth century, for my mirror. I wanted to see my reflection in the lives of the people who lived the twentieth century differently from Koreans. I felt that we needed different coordinates and imagination than those of the twentieth century, if the twenty-first century would be different from the twentieth century. I wanted to see the dreams of the conquered rather than the greed of the conquerors, and the wisdom and imagination of the people who endured oppression rather than the logic of the oppressors. I wanted to discover the aesthetic order of nature rather than the aesthetic order based on the appearances of the conquerors.
Since that visit to Vietnam, many pages of my passport have been filled with Vietnamese visa stamps. Through my trips to and from Vietnam I accumulated half the mileage that would grant me a roundtrip ticket to Europe. So many things have changed during those ten or so years. Nowadays, it does not take even a minute to get an embarkation stamp on my passport.
Although the editors of Asia have been contemplating the publication of this journal for a few years, we found it rather complicated to work on this project once we started the job. Even the nature and role of this journal, which we thought would be very straightforward, had to be re-examined. We constantly ran into gaps that couldn’t be easily filled, the gaps between thoughts that were in our minds and their execution through written words. It was no easy task to figure out how to organize this journal into different parts and to look for writings to fill each part. Even translation was not a task free from trouble.
All of us who participated in this project of inaugurating Asia struggled with the following two major questions. How could we create a journal that deserves its title Asia? And how could we nurture Asia to grow into “a mental free trade zone,” a space where creative imaginations of Asia freely interact?
Although Asia’s editors and publisher are Korean writers and although this journal is printed in Korea, Asia’s space should be open to creative imaginations of all Asians. This has been the firm principle for all of us who are involved in this publication. It would have been entirely impossible for us in Korea, located in Northeast Asia, to work on this project if writers from Palestine with their Southwest Asian networks, from Indonesia with their Southeast Asian networks, and from Mongolia with their Central Asian networks did not offer us their help. I visited Southeast Asian countries, and Lee Dae-Hwan, our publisher, visited Central Asian countries and Europe. It was through four lengthy internal seminars and overnight discussions as well as a symposium with writers from seven Asian countries that Asia’s shape became clearer.
Just before we finalized the format of Asia, I boarded an airplane to Ho Chi Minh. I didn’t necessarily have to go to Vietnam in order to inaugurate Asia. But I felt I owed a conversation with those friends who had filled an empty area of my imagination before I actually finalized the shape of the journal.
My friends in Ho Chi Minh City responded with as much enthusiasm as ours to the news of the inauguration of the journal. Ngu Long - the head of the culture section of the newspaper Saigon Giaipong (=Liberation) - said, raising one fist up,
“This is exactly the kind of work we needed!”
Relieved by my friends’ cheerful responses, I began sharing my own secret worries. How could we bring together creative imaginations from all forty-seven countries of Asia in one space? How could we secure equality among them? My friends, however, erased my worries one by one with their characteristic optimism.
“National boundaries do not matter if we try to learn from one another who has been coping with different natural interventions. As there are no national boundaries in nature, there should be no national boundaries in literature.”
Van Le, a poet, also said,
“There won’t be any problem, as long as you approach this work in the same way as you have treated us. If you had tried to teach and preach to us, could we have become friends like this?”
Those of us Van Le called ‘you’ are the writers who belong to “A Group of Young Writers Who Try to Understand Vietnam.” This name characterizes the approach of Korean writers who came together as a group in 1995. We chose the phrase “try to understand” instead of “love” or “be friends with” in order to warn ourselves against love and friendship without understanding. We had already witnessed in the Vietnam War how love and friendship without understanding became violence towards the object of love. It is also what we are currently witnessing in the Iraq War. We called ourselves “young” not so much because we were in our thirties as because we wanted to sympathize with the Vietnamese without any fixed conventional ideas and preconceptions. Instead of “association” or “council,” we decided to call ourselves a “group” of writers in order to reflect our desire to form a humble organization that is governed by voluntary interests of individual writers rather than to become a bureaucratic institution.
“A Group of Young Writers Who Try to Understand Vietnam” has been fairly faithful to this principle during our ten or so year history. We have not had any by-laws or rules. Anyone who participated in it was a member and anyone who did not was not. We did not assign any tasks or services to writers who did not attend our meetings. It was not clear who was or was not our member. If one day someone came to our meeting after one or two years absence, then he or she was a member. If someone considered herself a member, then she was a member. If she did not consider herself a member, then she was not. When Vietnamese writers visited us, our members voluntarily helped them throughout their entire stay. Our members used their own cars, money, and time, but they did not blame those who did not share these obligations.
This quasi-organization has been contributing to the decrease of the distance between Vietnam and Korea through exchanges, writings, and translations. By translating Bao Ninh’s novel The Sorrows of War, Van Le’s novel If You Are Still Alive, and Huu Thinh’s poetry collection Winter Letter into Korean, our members introduced to Korean readers the Vietnam that is completely different from the Vietnam as shown in Hollywood movies. Our biggest achievement was probably that our member writers came to see a world with different horizons.
My conversation with my friends in Ho Chi Minh ended with Van Le’s playful and theatrical statement.
“Thou, keep on going. Then thou would arrive at some place.”
Everyone laughed. It was a line that the character Van Le speaks in the short story ‘The Form of Being’, a story I wrote modeled after him.
Asking for Direction Yet Again in Hanoi
Located a two hour flight away from Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is the city of water. The Hong River flows along the outskirts of the city, and one can spot ponds and lakes everywhere. I stayed at the Hotel Victory on West Lake, the biggest lake in Hanoi. Lying on my bed, I was looking at the sky’s glow setting slowly over the lake when I dozed off for a moment.
I woke up, surprised at the loud bell from the telephone next to my head. It was the poet Tran Quang Dao. Saying that Bao Ninh might not be able to join us, he suggested that the two of us just go ahead and begin our dinner. It had already become dark outside the window.
At the restaurant I found Tuy Duong and Y Ban, two female writers, and Y Ban’s husband, a painter. Y Ban’s husband joked that he was a victim who was conscripted as my drinking partner. Obviously they invited him after they found out that Bao Ninh could not join, especially because Tran also could not drink due to his deteriorating liver condition.
“Looks like Bao Ninh already drank a lot?”
When I asked this, Trin asked me in return, wide-eyed with surprise.
“How did you find out?”
“Well, would there be any reason other than one of the following three for him to not join his drinking buddy who came a long way? Either he fell in love, or he joined an underground movement, or he collapsed from drinking.”
Well into the night I heard from them what concerns Vietnamese authors and how Vietnamese literary magazines are doing these days. As in Korea, writers mattered less and less, and readers’ interest in literary magazines was decreasing. All the way back to my hotel I could not shake off Tran’s remark that the success of Asia would depend entirely on whether or not Asian writers would feel proud to publish their writings in it.
Bao Ninh, whom I met the next evening, said as playfully as usual,
“Who could tell our future? Don’t set too high a goal and don’t expect too much. Just think that you’re doing a fun thing. It would be great simply to connect Asians with each other, wouldn’t it? Vietnamese call Laos their brother country, but we in fact don’t know Laotians at all. We have read many German and French novels, but we haven’t read a single Laotian novel.”
How many Koreans would have read literatures of Palestine and Iraq, countries that we see news about everyday? How many Asians would have read literatures of Thailand, Kazakhstan, or Korea? There are too many neighbors who obviously exist only on our maps but not in our imagination.
Bao Ninh, the most internationally known Vietnamese author, emphasized the importance of an accurate translation and the role of a translator and strongly urged us to avoid a secondary translation.
“It would be inevitable to use English, since we could not translate all pieces into all languages. However, we should respect a writer’s own specific language. Cultural diversity without an understanding of linguistic diversity is a lie.”
Koreans in Vietnam, who read Bao Ninh’s The Sorrows of War in Vietnamese, all deplored that this novel was translated into Korean through its English version, in which process his “gripping sentences”, which held them in shock, got lost.
“Didn’t you just tell me not to set too high a goal and not to expect too much?”
I threw cold water on his suggestion, reminding him of his own words. Translation is definitely a highly challenging task. Koreans aspire to “globalization” so much that some parents teach English to babies who haven’t yet learned to speak Korean well, but you cannot find a single person who can translate Cambodian literature into Korean. This indeed is not just a Korean problem.
“Oops, I’m sorry. I won’t be too greedy. I would consider it successful if Asia can edify a seventeen-year-old Korean traveler in Southeast Asia enough not to deplore how barbaric people in this part are. But then, would Korean youngsters be interested in reading this journal at all?”
When the bar was about to close, Bao Ninh touched my Achilles heel.
“By the way, what about Bac Taieu Tien? What are you planning to do with North Korean literature?”
We had also been contemplating this question, but I did not expect that I would be asked this question from Bao Ninh in Vietnam. Bao Ninh used to live close to the North Korean Embassy in Vietnam when he was young, and was himself a fighter who went to war when he was seventeen and lost almost all of his friends in the war. While his friends were dying in the war against the US, North Korea fully supported them, whereas South Korea, as the primary ally of the US, sent 320,000 troops to Vietnam. Now I am a South Korean author meeting Vietnamese, whereas Vietnamese are living knowing little about North Koreans.
I stopped by the house of Master Sun Tung, Vietnam’s poet laureate, before I left Hanoi. As a disabled war veteran as well as a close friend with such high officials as Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap, and the premier Pham Van Dong, he was known to have refused the state’s offer of a nice house. Instead, he was living in an attic house in a narrow alley, which even a car cannot enter. I used to call the rooftop space in front of his room “the most beautiful garden in Hanoi”. Sitting on that rooftop, I thought: Korea and Vietnam have had similar past histories, but have recently chosen completely different paths. Barbarism of the twentieth century humanity is reflected in the sad history between the two countries that once confronted each other with pointed guns. Colonial rule, division, war… but these won’t be the whole story. Perhaps the ideals that twentieth century humanity aspired to and dreamed of during their pursuit of a better life were breathing and alive somewhere in that history.
Seoul, Imagination Confined within Division
I met Master Hwang Sok-Young, who came from France for a short visit, in Ilsan. He recently moved to Paris after living in London for two years. He was writing a novel about international labor migration. It is simultaneously a contemporary European problem, an Asian problem, and an urgent Korean problem. I felt that this novel was his literary answer to my question about why he was staying in Europe.
We met in Ilsan, in a bar with the German name Krombacher, late at night. When I met him at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany last spring, he was as passionate as ever. Even though most of us were younger than him, he drank the most and stayed the latest. Although he was a constant presence in every night’s drinking scene, he never acted drunk. When he was walking towards his hotel after one of these drinking parties, his back had the feel of someone who had just come out of the sea. It seemed that these drinking parties were, to him, some sort of baptismal ceremony in which he washed his mind and heart. Whenever my roommate, the literary critic Bang Min-Ho, and I visited his room upon his summons, he looked completely sober. I can now only vaguely remember, but we talked about ‘the world’ and ‘Asia’ the most often during our numerous overnight conversations. The world order, the future of Asia, the destiny of Asian authors… He said he “wants to become a citizen of the world.”
I asked him how things are in Europe these days.
“Intellectuals in Paris and London? Their attitude is like, well, we have had a good and fun time so far. Now we’d better return to reality that we had set aside. The reality in Europe is so grave that they cannot help going back to it. As you know, the third world is already inside the old empire. An enormous migration is in progress. The streets of London and Paris are full of non-whites. Before, colonies and the third world existed outside. Now, the welfare and future of the middle class, Europe’s mainstay, has become extremely shaky.”
How is Asian literature in Europe? According to him, they aren’t particularly interested in it.
“As you know, Europe has always been primarily interested in their former colonies. This is true of their intellectuals. They are more interested in Africa and Latin America than Asia. Still, ‘Asia’ is recently becoming an important keyword to writers and intellectuals in Europe. After all, they want to find an alternative to their impoverished discourses from non-western parts of the world. But then, Asia is still only an object of curiosity.”
Remembering how Korean literature rushed to Germany, elated by the recognition of ‘the guest of honor’ status that it received from the Frankfurt Book Fair and how pathetically hard it tried to live up to the honor, I felt momentary bitterness. In the exhibit hall that was offered to us as an opportunity to please European aesthetic tastes, I had to ask myself. How am I living up to the task of holding up everyday lives of the people who live on the land of my mother tongue? How is the land of my mother tongue doing? One side is waging a food war due to lack of food, whereas the other side is waging a diet war because people eat too much. The US threatens North Korea with a pre-emptive strike, and North Korea counters it with the same threat. What can a writer, who neither addresses nor remedies the quandary and dilemma of the land of his mother tongue, represent about his country?
After talking about my visit to Vietnam I asked him, “how should South Korean writers approach North Korean literature?” Master Hwang visited North Korea and met its writers during the time when any contact with the North was punished as an act of treason. As a result, he had to live in exile for five years and eventually was imprisoned for five years.
“Many people simply think that North Korea has a very narrow perspective. But do you think that only the North is still constrained by the division? If you look at the South from outside the bag of division, South Korean perspective is also extremely restricted. Literature is no exception to this. How many South Korean writers are out of the narrow bag of division?”
Then, how would North Korean writers want to meet South Korean writers?
“They are writers as well. Why wouldn’t they struggle with the division of our mother tongue? We have to let them work it out themselves. This doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do. We should first come out of the bag ourselves and prepare for the future with an open mind. As you’ve met North Korean writers yourself, you know their situation, don’t you?”
Last summer, I went to Pyongyang ahead of other writers as an organizer of the South Korean delegation for the South-North Writers’ Talk. I ran into the reality of division even before I set foot into the North Korean territory. July 19th, 2005, I remember that day very vividly. I was onboard Koryo Air flight JS 152 from Beijing to Pyongyang.
“You are now crossing Amrok River.”
Listening to the announcement in a strong North Korean accent, I looked out the window. All I could see was a very thick fog. I could not really feel that I had crossed the border of my divided homeland into the North, where previously I had never set foot. In my hand I was holding a “Democratic Republic of Korea” disembarkation card, on which I could not fill out two questions yet. Nationality? I traveled many countries and had no problem answering this question, but I found it difficult this time. Although both South and North Koreans call themselves ‘Korean’ in English, South Korea calls itself ‘Han’ in Korean, and North Korea calls itself ‘Chosun’. Tae-Han-Min-Guk (Republic of Korea), Han-Guk (Korea), Nam-Han (South Korea), Nam-Chosun (South Korea)… After the announcement that we would arrive at the Pyongyang Airport in fifteen minutes, I wrote ‘Nam (South)’. The last item was ethnicity. Ethnicity? Han, Chosun, Baedal … none of them seemed appropriate. I asked a young woman sitting next to me. That young woman with a Kim Il-sung badge showed me her disembarkation card. Chosun-Saram (Korean). I could not write that. Just before we landed, I wrote ‘Uriminjok (our people)’.
Division does not exist only on the military demarcation line. It pervades all aspects of the lives of Koreans. The disembarkation card that I encountered on my way to Pyongyang was the beginning of the question of whether it would be possible for me to meet the North with the grammar with which I was accustomed. All the while I stayed in North Korea and dealt with its authorities and writers, I experienced my mother tongue becoming infinitely strange.
It was past midnight. By then we had moved to another bar, but Master Hwang did not look tired at all. Other writers had joined, and our topic changed to South Korean literature. Somebody said that novels did not sell any more, a remark that one could hear wherever writers gathered. He seemed annoyed.
“You know that you need narratives, don’t you? Look at the narratives contemporary Korean movies show. If our novels have neither narratives nor reality, wouldn’t one as well read foreign novels that have nothing to do with one’s everyday reality? Wouldn’t that be natural?”
Many “twinkle, twinkle, little stars” appear in Korean literature these days. But Korean literature has not been able to produce young writers who have their own solid perspectives and seasoned personas…
I thought that Master Hwang’s stay in Europe might have something to do with his own “animal instinct” as a writer. His literature has always been at the center of the problematic reality of his time. This might have brought pain and trouble to him, but it was the most fortunate thing for his literature. This positioning of his literature might not necessarily be the result of his intention, but it probably was not entirely accidental. His animal instinct as a writer must have placed him there.
It is clear that Eurocentric values and order met their limits and that the world has already entered a new phase of spatial rearrangement. This does not mean that the non-West or Asia will automatically become an alternative to the West. A culture based on the use of Chinese script, or a mystified Indian culture, or a religious fundamentalism cannot be a pan-Asian culture. None of them alone can become values for the new world. A simple compromise like “Eastern Philosophy, Western Technology” is not our way, either. Asia has a double task of overcoming Western modernity while simultaneously completing the work of modernity. If necessary, we should as well be able to do “Western Philosophy, Western Technology”, “Eastern Philosophy, Eastern Technology”, and even “Western Philosophy, Eastern Technology”. In order to go beyond the world order of the last century dappled with conflicts and war, we have to use both Western and non-Western experiences and wisdom.
I visited Master Shin Sang-Ung’s house. It was Master Shin who had made several suggestions, including Asia, as the title of this journal. To this initial list, such titles as ‘Lotus,’ ‘Rainbow,’ and ‘Asia and Literature’, etc. were later added. Master Shin, my literary mentor, again emphasized,
“Don’t try to do something with this journal. All a medium should do is simply to keep its proper place. It is the writer, not the medium, that does literature.”
One of the biggest questions that troubled us in preparing for Asia was whether we would be able to produce discourses that can be called Asian, i.e. whether we would be able to present values that could replace Western ones. We concluded that we could not. Asia’s task is to play the role of an excellent passageway, where creative imagination born in the land of Asia can reach out to the world. It is Asia’s task not to miss all the significant works that are going on in and around the land of Asia.
“Neither try to follow the mainstream, nor try to become the mainstream.”
We become overly conscious of others when we try to follow the mainstream, and we compromise our principles when we try to become the mainstream, according to Master Shin’s lifelong belief. His words carried different weight with me than other people’s. I don’t know many other elders who have lived as truthfully and honestly as he has.
“It is not just the content of the journal but also our perspective that we should expand to the size of Asia. Only when we look at and approach problems of the Korean peninsula like division and civil conflicts as a part of the entire Asian problem can we call this journal Asia.”
According to his logic, the Korean peninsula is probably a place where the most dangerous problems in Asia exist. Indeed, this was one of the reasons why Korean writers felt the need to build a passageway such as Asia. Together with Vietnam, Korea went through every single affliction that the twentieth century brought to Asian countries. Although South Korea achieved a remarkable level of economic growth and political democracy, it is a country that bears one of the most difficult tasks handed down from the twentieth century. We can see one example of the South Korean dilemma in the fact that that it has to send its troops to Iraq despite its most sympathetic understanding of the disastrous nature of the war in Iraq. Asia is initiated in a country which has reconciliation and peace rather than confrontation and war as its most urgent present progressive task.
Thinking of ‘Rainbow’ in Africa
It took me exactly a day to go from Incheon to Cape Town, the southernmost tip of Africa.
It was 12:45 AM, seven hours earlier than in Korea. I took off my watch and turned the pointers backwards. There were endless shantytowns on the left side of the six-lane boulevard from the airport to the University of Cape Town, in stark contrast to the posh residential area on the right. No passageway was visible between the two sides. The segregation between the black and white residences was complete.
I stayed at “The All African House” at the University of Cape Town. The room was as neat as a hotel room. Probably because of the jetlag, I woke up at dawn. I took out and read Nadine Gordimer’s novel The Conservationists. Gordimer, a Nobel laureate from South Africa, is white but was an opponent of apartheid. It feels special to read a novel in the land where it was conceived. It felt as if a few drops of African blood seeped into my body and made me respond.
After breakfast, I decided to visit the Cape of Good Hope between my official appointments. Dr. Lee Seok-Ho, the director of the Korean Center for African Studies, took time to take me there. It is thanks to him, who introduced Ngugi wa Tiong’o and Chinua Achebe in Korea, that Africa became a part of my imagination.
At the top of the Cape Point, the southernmost tip of all continents on earth, I looked for a long time at the sea where the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean are meeting and mixing their bodies. The Cape of Good Hope is on a hill below the Cape Point. When I was reading the story of Vasco da Gama’s voyage, how far away the Cape of Good Hope seemed to be! I walked down to the beach and rolled up my pants to dip my feet into water. The autumn water was cold. It was spring in Korea. I realized that I skipped over two seasons at the same time as I was going back seven hours.
On my way back, I took out a map and looked at it for a long time. How small Europe was on the map! To me, who grew up imagining the world through reading European literature, Europe was a continent of gigantic size. Noticing that I could not take my eyes off the map, Dr. Lee said:
“Did you know that Congo is as big as the entire Western Europe? This big country, Congo, was a colony of Belgium. Accurately speaking, it was a personal estate of the King of Belgium.”
He is a scholar of English literature who specializes in post-colonial literature. He chose Africa, while most scholars of post-colonial literature, let alone scholars of regular English literature, went to the US or Europe to study. To study post-colonialism, it is indeed natural to study in the country whose major task is post-colonialism. How could we talk about post-colonialism if we do not know what the lives of the people in former colonies are like?
This is also true of English. English is not the language of the US and Britain only. There are as many as fifty-four countries that use English as their official language. Eighty percent of them are in Africa and the Caribbean. The category of English literature should be reconstituted to include more than just twenty percent. The West cannot initiate this reconstitution. As long as the West maintains its initiative in the selection and circulation of literature, cultural diversity is a sham. Each continent should be able to read and speak about its own literature with its own perspective. Creative imaginations from each continent should be able to freely interact with each other without going through the filter of the European values.
“It would be great if Asia can also play the role of a passageway that connects Asia with Africa.”
It is with the same hope that I came to Africa skipping over two seasons.
The next day I went to the Center for African Studies at the University of Cape Town to meet a Nigerian critic, Harry Garuba, Associate Director of the Center. Garuba agreed to be on the Advisory Editorial Board of Asia. He succinctly summarized for me the current state of African literature according to genre, trend, and writers.
“Ironically, African literature acquired an easy international recognition because of the nature of its colonial past. We wrote in the languages of our colonizers, the ‘international’ languages. In the past African literature was mostly interested in anti-colonial struggles, but now it is concentrating its energy on the task of rectifying false images of Africa that the European gaze has been creating. Have you seen the movie “Out of Africa”? Images of beautiful nature but savage humans...”
Four African writers have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, including John Coetzee, who was a professor at the University of Cape Town for twenty years. However, there are other writers in Africa who are more respected and influential among its people. Writers like Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Tiong’o.
With regard to African writers’ interest in Asia, Harry Garuba said that the interest was undoubtedly significant. Yet, only a few Asian writers – such as Kawabata Yasunari, Oe Kenzaburo, and Kim Ji-Ha – were known.
Do they see Asia as some unified entity? Harry Garuba answered without a moment of hesitation,
“It is a European way of thinking – a very dangerous one – to conflate diverse entities into a unified whole.”
March 1st was an election day in South Africa. I met James Matthews at the OBZ Café in the morning. A leading South African poet and short story writer, and a staunch opponent of apartheid, he appeared as an extremely healthy and strong 77 year old man. I asked him in a tentative voice if he voted for ANC (African National Congress). He said yes right away.
“But you have to understand clearly what this power shift means. I did not vote for ANC in order to express my support for a black government but for the government which is working for justice.”
From Matthews, this was not a word play. A recipient of three prestigious literary awards, he did not accept a literary award from Mbeki, president of the ANC and president of South Africa, for three weeks. Announcing that he would not accept any award from a political party, he asked Mbeki to clarify whether it was ANC or the state that was giving him the award. He accepted the award only when it was made clear that the president gave him the award as the representative of the state. He believes that he should be a poet of South Africa rather than of the ANC, even though he supports the ANC.
“Outsiders might think that the South African regime changed hands from white to black, but that is not true. We have to bear in mind that the power shifted from the elite minority to the majority of people. In the 1960’s, our slogan was ‘Black is beautiful.’ But now our slogan is ‘People is beautiful.’”
James Matthews was born into a poor black family. He grew up in a tiny two-room house with seven siblings. He had not worn a single pair of shoes until he entered high school. Since he could not afford books, he had to walk barefoot to a distant library that allowed blacks to enter. He dropped out of high school during eighth grade and at seventeen became a writer while working as a newsboy and office boy.
“The power changed hands, but the poverty remains the same. We have to overcome this problem of poverty and race. Now is a very important time for South Africa. Literature can play a very important role – more than at any other time. Literature should discuss both the achievements and the faults of the current government as truthfully as before. My poems will sing about the rainbow. South Africa should become a country of the rainbow. This applies to the entire African continent as well.”
I did not expect to hear the word ‘rainbow’ in South Africa. The task of literature is to call every different and diverse living being on earth by its proper name. The last candidate for the title of this journal other than Asia was ‘Rainbow’. Rainbow is an entity, in which many things with different colors unite to become one beauty. We envisioned Asia as something similar to a forest that includes different aesthetic personalities. Some suggested “Rainbow Asia” as an eclectic solution, but in the end we decided that we could show the beauty of rainbow by accurately reflecting the diversity of Asia.
The title Asia does not simply denote a specific spatial area. Nor do we have an aesthetic self-governance in mind. It is also not our intention to instigate a cultural separatist movement. We simply would like to look at ourselves with our own eyes. Only when we can see ourselves with our own eyes can we also see others as they truly are. As we prepare this journal, we sincerely hope that this journal bears the spirit of a rainbow.
Meeting with James Matthews was the last item on my official schedule for this trip. I looked at his back for a long time as he was walking away, his small old bag on his shoulder. On his bent back I saw a twelve-year-old black boy who walked barefoot all the way to a free library to read Emil Zola, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and John Steinbeck.
On my last day I visited Robben Island. The entire island had been a gigantic prison. Whenever the ship was riding on a high tide, water charged onto the deck. Although Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after an eighteen-year imprisonment and became the leader of Africa, many other black activists including Robert Sobukwe, a leader of Pan-African Congress, never returned from this island. The tour guide enumerated names of these black activist victims endlessly. A black man about my age, the tour guide’s eyes were wet with tears as he was explaining how black people were dying in that prison during apartheid. All the white people on the bus were ducking their heads. A black couple sitting next to me wiped tears from their cheeks. They were the only black people among the visitors. Until I left Robben Island, I very often found myself looking at them. Their perfect black skin, their whispering conversations in Afrikaans, their sad eyes looking at the graffiti on the prison walls, their painful gestures - everything about them was beautiful. Black was beautiful. At Robben Island, what I saw was neither Sobukwe’s traces nor Mandela’s solitary cell but that black couple.
Although I did not exchange a word with them, they changed my aesthetic sensibility towards everything black. Frankly speaking, the color black did not exist in my aesthetic territory until then. My mind opposed discrimination, but my imagination did not consider black as beautiful. On the land of South Africa, I realized once again that not the fossilized values but the values embodied in living organisms change human beings.
Asia hopes to become the passageway where Asians can communicate with creative imaginations born outside of Asian soils. Prejudices and conflicts arise from ignorance and lack of communication. Asia will strive for communication, in which interaction is based on understanding and understanding is based on interaction. Interaction without understanding can easily become blindness, and understanding without interaction can easily miss substance and become pure presumption. As I was leaving Africa, I decided again to not forget that true communication could change others and myself through understanding and interaction.
In the Editing Room
We will refrain from congratulating ourselves about the high quality of literature included in this first issue. While we were working on translations in the editing room, a Korean reporter from the Korean Broadcasting Station (KBS) was detained in Palestine. I put down the manuscript I was editing and began reading Alie Zein’s text. It pained my heart to read “Do Not Push Me Too Much”, a most extraordinarily pithy description of the internal landscape of Hamas-governed Palestine. I could hear the cry of distress between sentences. I then read Zakaria Mohammed’s prose again. While I was reading his prose, his dashing smile often flashed through my mind. He said in a guest lecture to my students last year, “even if everything disappears, a poem remembers.” He said this with a smile, but I could not smile. I could not help remembering the cruel time that he must have spent in the Israeli occupied territory until this romantic expression emerged from inside his heart.
Related news was coming in every hour, and all eyes of Koreans were turned towards Palestine. I remembered Oh Soo-Yeon, the author of the story “The Gate” in this first issue, and called Kim Hyeong-Soo, the Secretary General of The Association of Writers for National Literature. I felt that, even though Palestinians would not believe what the Korean government says, they would believe what Oh Soo-Yeon has to say. Oh Soo-Yeon not only rushed to the battlegrounds in Iraq to testify to the pain that was inflicted on the Arabs, but also has tirelessly written in order to bear witness to the truth of Palestine.
I found out that Oh Soo-Yeon and Kim Hyeong-Soo were already writing a letter to Palestinian writers. The Association of Writers for National Literature is the organization that dispatched Oh Soo-Yeon to Iraq as its delegate. The reporter was released before the letter reached the hands of Palestinian writers. People will turn their eyes from Palestine and go back to their daily routine. But what have we seen in Palestine, while we were watching it attentively for a few days? Did we really see Palestine? The side of Palestine that perhaps no one saw for those last few days is a part of this first issue of Asia. To us, Palestine is above all the country of Ghassan Kanafani and the stage for “Returning to Haifa.” It is also a country in which there remain poems that remember the hurt. Mongolia, China, Japan, Philippine, Vietnam, Indonesia – all of them became a part of the same memory in Asia.
During the twentieth century led by the West, a century of war and barbarity, innumerable elements and genes of civilization disappeared without any trace. Even now, somewhere on this earth, there are things that are disappearing forever, neglected by our memories.
If Asia claims that it could prevent beautiful beings in Asia from disappearing without any trace, it would be presumptuous and grandiose. Asia does not have an ambition to create specifically Asian discourses that will replace Western modern values.
Asia, however, has aspirations. Asia may not be the very poem that will remember things unremembered, but we would like to become home for that poem. Asia may not be the fierce spirit of the prose that struggles with our squalid daily lives, but we will not give up being an enthusiastic supporter for that fierce spirit. Asia may not become the center of the Asian imagination, but our ambition is to make all our spaces a forest of creative imaginations emerging out of Asian lands. We know what a graceful dream this is. We also know the underwater reality of the swan that maintains a graceful figure over water. Until we publish this first issue, all of us on the editorial board have struggled like those swans that put forth every ounce of their energies into rowing their webbed feet underwater. If luckily there are readers who find this journal interesting, we will not forget that their each and every facial expression will be our signpost that will lead our way hereafter.
May 2006 On behalf of the editorial board,