In this interview, Samuel Perry, the editor of the new collection of stories Han’guk ŭi k’wiŏ munhak: Han segi, published simultaneously with Perry’s translation A Century of Queer Korean Fiction, discusses what inspired him to translate queer Korean stories, how readers can understand queerness in a Korean literary context, and how he chose the stories for this collection.
MLA: What inspired you to translate a collection of queer Korean fiction, and in what ways is this project timely?
Perry: When I lived in South Korea in the early 2000s I didn’t meet any academics or translators interested in queer writing. The past two decades of queer activism in Korea, however, have led to an efflorescence of queer Korean culture as well as a growing body of Korean scholarship on queer culture, which convinced me that it was high time to begin collecting queer stories and translating them for my classes. So many of these works, it turned out, appealed to my own students that I felt compelled to make them available to a broader audience. Although many contemporary queer writers are now being translated widely, earlier writers—including some of Korea’s most celebrated—worked within a long history of compulsory heterosexuality in twentieth-century Korea, leaving behind a rich archive of literary texts that feature characters who reject binaries of gender and sexuality in ways that young people today find compelling. The stories in A Century of Queer Korean Fiction only scratch the surface of the queer literary archive, but they nonetheless constitute an important resource for students interested in learning more about a long-forgotten part of Korean history and literature.
MLA: How should readers understand queerness in a Korean literary context?
Perry: The Korean word k’wiŏ is an adaptation of the word queer and has been used by South Korean activists for more than two decades to refer to cultural practices and identities mostly associated with the contemporary LGBTQ+ community. As an umbrella term, k’wiŏ has also become widely used in South Korea in reference to literary and cultural texts that were written well before the advent of twenty-first-century activism and that deal with people and practices often stigmatized by earlier generations within discourses that drew on a combination of modern sexological, as well as traditional, vocabularies. These terms include tongsŏng yŏnae (“same-sex love”), namsaek (“male-male desire”), pyŏnt’aesŏng (“perversion”), midong (“beautiful boys”), same-sex tchakp’ae (“partnering up”), and geiboi—some of these terms having come into the Korean language by way of Chinese and Japanese as well as Western languages. Modern Korean literature, in both its popular and elite forms, drew on many of these categories—and the experiences of the people inhabiting them—in complex ways, whereby social class, generation, colonial status, and nationalism intersected with norms of gender and sexuality to generate a wide range of queer subjects specific to Korea’s modern history.
MLA: How did you go about selecting stories for inclusion in this collection?
Perry: Since there was almost nothing published on queerness in Korean literature when I began collecting queer stories almost a decade ago, I realized I would have to reach out to as many people as possible for recommendations and to read voraciously. My students and research assistants at Brown University helped me enormously in this process and especially with the final selection of contemporary pieces. My original plan was to include stories from the early colonial period up to the present day, but I was also committed to including queer subjects that represent different genders, generations, and socioeconomic positions. The finalized collection includes stories about college graduates, schoolgirls, middle-aged actors, hairdressers, and even farmers, though I regret not being able to include several works by the famous poet Ki Hyŏngdo, a fascinating work by a transgender sex worker, and a story about the gay son of a Christian pastor. I arranged the stories in reverse chronological order, in part because the more contemporary stories were especially compelling for my students, but also because I didn’t want the connections that readers make between the individual stories to be tied to an assumption of gradual progress toward queer liberation, which can often elide the true richness of queer history and representation.
MLA: Which stories in the collection do you think will resonate most with readers? Which ones might surprise readers or challenge them?
Perry: College students will probably find the award-winning author Sang Young Park’s “Yundo Is Back” and Yi Seoyoung’s “My Queer Year of Junior High” most relatable, given how these two stories focus on contemporary queer culture, including issues of coming out, class inequalities, cosplay, and online communities, as well as the kind of homophobic backlash against queer people that we have seen throughout the world in recent years. Readers interested in more experimental writing might appreciate being challenged by the jarring shifts in time and space of O Chŏnghŭi’s story “Traditional Solo,” which explores the repressed memories of an itinerant musician, while readers drawn to the idea of a queer past might find the selections from Yi Kiyŏng’s historical novel Spring, set at the turn of the twentieth century, especially compelling for their portrayal of sexual practices between young men in the Korean countryside.
MLA: In what courses do you envision this book being assigned, and how might it enrich them?
Perry: For years Korean literature courses left out the experience of queerness, in part because of a lack of translated material, so this anthology helps fill this gap in courses that focus on the literature of modern Korea or even modern East Asia. Classes on modern Korean history, sociology, and popular culture might benefit from the wide range of stories in this collection, which are products of specific moments in the Korean past, as would classes that focus on the experience of Japanese colonialism, given how Korean discourses on sex and gender in the twentieth century were largely mediated through forms of Japanese modernity. The volume’s extensive introduction offers detailed historical context for each of the stories, which should enable teachers to incorporate them into courses about gender and sexuality that fall outside Korean or East Asian studies.