(Translated by Steven Sunwoo Lee, Stanford Universiry)
Our topic requires a quick overview of the problem. Therefore allow me to begin my paper on the literature of Koreans of the CIS with an excerpt from one of my own essays, “The Origin of the Phantom” (1995).
The occurrence of literature for the marginal, for the outsider of world outlook, for the aimlessly wandering Spirit, the eavesdropper of the future, in principle cannot be weighed down by anything, since motherland, memory, genealogy of mythological heroes (in accord with your personal mythology) do not have their rigid coordinates. There is only the steady sensation of a flash, a gleam of some kind of transient, irretrievable, past image, as if…you’re sitting in a train, and in the motley flashing through the window something will without fail—in the fragment of an instant—stop and attract your glance. In this case—be brave passenger!—this stroke, this spot, a corner of sky, a cloud of chimney smoke, a stir of autumn leaves, a splash of river—all of these fragments that fall into the field of your vision, is the content of your longing, the unbearable longing for a shred, a piece of this stroke and splash. All of this is a mindless love for that which does not and will not ever belong to you.
Thus, regarding the subject of our discussion, I would like to state immediately that this longing for that which is not yours, this languor, is precisely the main message and reason for the creation of the literature of so-called outsiders, for instance, the Russian-speaking Koreans of the CIS. And of course, I have not been alone in recognizing the metaphysical aspect of “outsider” and minority literature. In fact, the Muscovite writer Anatolii Kim—of my father’s generation, and the first among Soviet Koreans to enter high Russian literature—has written about this with similar pain and bitterness. For instance, in his 1998 book My Past, he writes:
The time has come to define what kind of writer I am—Russian or Korean…One Russian writer, who can easily be regarded as “provincial,” defined me as such. I relate to such so-called “Russian-language” writers and in this way will always remain among second-raters who are not my kin…But when in the fall of 1989 I turned up for the first time in the motherland of my ancestors, a newspaper there published my conversation with a venerable South Korean literary scholar, who, to my face, declared that Anatolii Kim bears no relation to Korean culture…So where should I go?
Indeed, where should he and, more precisely, we, writer-outsiders, go? Moreover, note that Kim asked this weighty question after passing through the bulk of his literary path, meaning that this problem can be interpreted as truly fatal. It’s as if there’s a cross, which we, Russian-speaking Korean writers, have come to bear on our shoulders until death. But nonetheless, we will not let go, and we will try to understand this question today, in the beginning of the 21st century and 3rd millennium, taking into account all of the conditions and particularities of the new world.
I would delineate contemporary literature of the Koreans of the CIS into a few more-than-apparent trends, which are as follows:
- Archaic Literature. It’s known that Soviet Koreans did not immediately begin writing in Russian. In the 20th century there were many Korean-language authors whose works turned to the sources and traditions of ancient literature. And after them, Russian language authors followed suit. What is included into the content and problems of their literature? Basically, this is poetry oriented directly towards the classical Korean poetic genre “sid-zho,” which in turn has much in common with ancient Chinese poetry. Among the sources of East Asian poetic traditions is the “Book of Songs,” complied, according to legend, by Confucius himself. These splendid odes, festive ritual hymns, religious songs, adjoined with sincere lyrical effusions, reflecting the map of public morals. The first among the great poets of the tradition is Choi Yu-an (4th century A.D.) who in his main work “Sorrow of Removal” poses the basic moral and philosophical questions of his poetry. Namely, duty calls the hero to service, but the leader, as usual, is surrounded by treacherous flatterers, and the righteous man is slandered and removed from duty. This is the essence of the conflict facing the hero of Choi Yu-an, who did not restrict himself only to poetic complaints about unjust fate. Ultimately he ended his life. Much later, with the onset of the Tan dynasty (618) a new high poetry formed, the main hero of which was Man, equal to the earth and sky. And who was subordinate to the rhythm of the great Dao, the Path of all existence, and it is namely in nature that the Providence of Dao is plainly visible. Accordingly, the poetry of the given age is, in fact, the voice of Dao, located in the poet’s heart in the minutes of contemplation of natural phenomena and the external world.
And now we return to our contemporary realities. The archaic poets diligently turned and turn to the East Asian poetic tradition, the content of which is Confucianist service or Daoist contemplation. But unfortunately, neither the first nor the second premise has any basis, because of the most mundane reason. We, the Koreans of the CIS, always, to the moment of and after the Empire’s collapse, lived and live on foreign land, but our diaspora is extremely scattered, disjointed, and not very numerous. Therefore Confucianist service within either the Kazakhstani or Russian Korean diaspora is only rhetorical. And even tragic-comedic: at the head of many national centers or associations stand the nouveau riche and former party figures. “The path of inactive Daoist contemplation” is always connected with the unfamiliar and often aggressive post-Soviet world, in which contemplative living is simply impossible. As a result of this total reduction, contemporary models of “East Asian poetry” lose form and content, and turn into a single banal, mournful cry about lost cultural values. Let’s bring in example from contemporary archaic poetry. The Kazakhstani poet Stanislav Li (born 1959) from Alma-Ata writes, “Our Korean names are no more. Our short surnames have remained. Our native food has grown bitter about what’s transpired, and grandpa is silent to questions of the past”.
That is, the lost names are symbols of national memory and the past. Likewise: “Not thinking, we studied in the school our native speech. After thirteen years, bending over the form, I poignantly brooded over the column ‘Native language.’”
Here the hero Li mourns the loss of Korean language. And here’s how he writes about fate: “Onion bed—one length per day. Onion bed—one width per year…How can one not sympathize with those whose life is an onion bed…”
This sorrowful cry is about the fate of many Soviet Koreans who earn their living through agriculture. Today many of them engage in business and accordingly onion beds have given way to restaurants and stores, but sympathy for them, one must suppose, hasn’t diminished a bit. Finally, all of the laments, cries, and sympathies of Li can be summed up with the following image: “I was raised as a pet at home, where there were only grownups. They carried me on their backs, in turns, and sang their best songs. I didn’t forget, and remember their tunes, mysterious and tender. And there was also a maxim: live with dignity, die with dignity…But actually they didn’t know what to do when their dignity was robbed!”
Notice, this is the very “sorrow of removal” of Choi Yu-an! Exactly what dignity of the hero’s is robbed, and namely who commits this, is not clarified by the poem. But it’s obvious that the external, alien world is to blame for everything. The world which, to repeat, robbed the lyrical hero from the possibility of Confucianist service, as well as the realization of Daoist contemplation. That very external world, towards which Korean poets of another artistic tradition were directed zealously and for a great deal of time, recklessly trying to dissolve. With the mastery and spirit of “strengthening”, they understood perfectly well that archaics lead to self-extinction, to “poetical hari-kari.”
- Literature of assimilation. Since we live in many respects in the world of Russian culture, some poets of Korean origin try essentially to assimilate into Russian literature. And here the brightest representative of this path is the poetess from Novokuibyshevsk Diana Kan (born 1964), whose exotic, non-Russian name has been connected by some modest Russian critics with the name of the American dancer Isadora Duncan, the wife of poet Sergei Esenin. In this way, they have unwittingly formed a parallel between Diana Kan and the great Russian poet. And the poetess has not failed to justify this great honor, broadly praising the beauties of Russian nature: “The steppe tries on spring streams…No wonder that I again cannot sleep, the Volga nights, my friends, the Urals, my dear little sisters! I am surfeited in an epiphany of sweet dreams! We have not yet sung a hundredth of the songs we should. Oh, like the resonant voices by the spring streams, the gentle flow before!”
The next poetic theme, of course, is Russian patriotism. At first a cry for Russian fates, lots, destinies, and then a poetic flagellation of Russia’s enemies: “Beneath the wails of hysterial women and vanities, bearing a dainty bite, there lies, on the Procrustean bed, Russia swimming with tears.” Moreover: “God is with us and behind us Russia! Make way, the burred Messiah! He tears the bridles (which were, then were no more) the fiery horse eating the pieces.”
At the same time, remember her Asian origins (the poetess was born in the Uzbek city Termez) Kan turns to her motherland, remembering all of the contradictions of her conversion: “Oh, Uzbek Sogdiana, my motherland! I extend my hand, and you recoil. And you aim at my breast the sharp Damascan spears in defense.”
Ultimately, the lyrical heroine Kan try to reconcile Europe to Asia, obviously before the faces of all of those declared an enemy by her: “On the border of the earth, on the border of time…(An honor beyond my strength guards this dream!) My city sleeps, my city which I cannot forget…It sleeps sweetly, lighted by the full moon, the entire Steppe settlement chilled by the winds. Reflections in the Urals of the thoughtful stars. A bridge linking Europe and Asia.”
This is essentially the main image and symbol of Diana Kan’s poetry—a Eurasian bridge, or that very symbol of assimilation, preferred by many poets of “impure” origin. And if we are to compare this poetic result with archaic literature—the deprivation of dignity, extinction, death…—then of course this exit is more effective, and more importantly, forward-looking. With pride the poetess confirms this in her most famous poem: “I hand in my Russian backwoods. And with these, my right before God and people. And my love for the Fatherland is akin to my fits of provincial sadness. Let me seem exotic to some, like a June storm on a winter day, my Great Russian habit of squinting at non-Russian eyes.”
Let’s agree to add nothing further to this.
- Literature of resistance. I now fix my gaze on the literature of resistance, which in principle differs from all others in one important and absolute aspect. Literature of resistance begins its more than unsteady existence with the fundamental question: “Should it be or not be?” And accordingly, the writer stands before the question: “Should he write or not write?” After all, how can you be in a world where everything is foreign and will never become your own? On what can you rely? And on what kind of physical and metaphysical soil will you tread?
These questions, these echoes of Hamlet, obviously will not permit you to escape to the archaic, in which there is plainly no environment surrounding you, but only dusty, ancient books and the vague memories of the elderly. Likewise, what is the moral reason behind assimilation? This cursed question is the most important one, both in your life and in your creative work. Particularly if the author (now I have in mind namely myself) was born in Korea, in Pyongyang, on the motherland of my father, who took my mother, a Soviet Korean, there after studying in Leningrad. And which my mother and her children left after a some years, without even saying goodbye to my father, due to North Korea’s break with Khrushchev and its subsequent persecution of all Soviet citizens, regardless of their nationality. It this form, fate, circumstances, the world-view of Hamlet, after the loss of his father, who lost the soil beneath his feet, in time became for me a blood-relation, native, and absolutely not far-fetched. Moreover, this rupture, this tragedy, did not have any national boundaries for me. For one day I suddenly understood entirely the universal nature of my orphanhood, akin to Hamlet’s, under the weight of which I needed either to perish, or find remedy. And much later, when I wrote my first story, I understood how to save myself—namely through authorship. And now, allow me to show how my marginal hero became incarnated, from work to work, and to ask along every step of the way: How much is literature able to influence human life?
First stage. My literary hero, still a boy, suddenly realizes the irreplaceable nature of his loss—of his father, motherland, fate. He realizes and mourns this loss. A scene from my first short story, “The Rules of the Game” (1987). Spring. Mother wants to wash the windows. She tries to open the frame. This doesn’t work out at all. The latch gets jammed. Then mother brings a hammer and chisel. She aims and hits herself on the finger. Not in terror, only casually, she “sobs and cries out: ‘It’s as if there were no men in the house!’ I was taken aback and wanted to say that in fact there were none and there had never been—grandpa on concert tours, and myself not yet grown. But I understood as she cried bitterly and long, that she wasn’t voicing her resentment to me, nor to my adoptive grandpa, located thousands of kilometers away, but to some kind of foreign blind force, that took my father, left behind in a different country, and that drove away my real, good-for-nothing grandpa.”
Precisely in this excerpt arises the figure of my first hero, Hamlet the First, mourning his loss, and not yet knowing how to fight with this foreign, destructive force. But nonetheless, the contours of the fight are already defined. And what remains for the author is to apply all of his imagination and, if you like, spiritual strength, so as to correct this situation, step by step. If the true Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, fought with quite concrete enemies, then my Hamlet is forced to fight with a single Emptiness. And this fight is carried out by him to attain both Family and Love. And accordingly, in the next example, from the story “Age of the Family” (1992), the hero lives with his old mother, and long ago, without any clear reason, the father leaves them. The mother weakens in the eyes of the son, retreats into her own world, and the hero, worried about her, summons his sister from another city. She arrives, and tries, as a woman, to bring order to their disordered house, and for that purpose announce a holiday, “Day of the Family.” And at night, when they remain with the brother alone, she raises a wineglass and gives a heartfelt toast to “the golden age of the family, when people would have lived properly together and never would have argued or left home, never would have glanced into other windows, and therefore wouldn’t have looked at anything except each other, so that they could live as one strong family, knowing that they would always have a place to which to return, a place where peopled waited for them with impatience, always with love…And if nothing, brother, comes of this family and this home, then may other people fare better. God willing! Let’s drink to their golden age!”
After this night, this piercing monologue, the mother, who in fact doesn’t sleep and hears all that her children say to each other, having lost all of her strength and faith, unexpectedly ends her own life. The son discovers her body at sunrise. He takes and carries it into her room. He loads it onto the bed, next to which the sister sleeps sweetly. The brother looks at her in detail and understands that she is just about to wake up and see…And when she understands all, she will not abandon them, and will finally enter that very golden age, that very Age of the Family, about which they dreamed for so long.
Another attempt at an exit. Love. The story “Costumer” (1993). The main hero, a costumer, works in a theater and dresses actors. One day he falls in love with an actress, who needs everything—an ecstatic audience, admirers, lovers—and is in no condition to just be herself. Ultimately, the smitten costumer, so as to save her, locks the actress in her closet. When morning dawns, he wakes up and with rapture realizes that she’s so close to him, “as was never and could never be.” Then with bated breath, he embraces her for the first time, covering her with himself, like “some kind of marvelous, inexpressibly beautiful dress, which he sewed for her for his entire life.” And after squeezing her with all of his strength, he sees, believes, imagines “how she freezes, in a fantastic instant of reincarnation, not before a full hall, but before him alone.”
One more tragic outcome. Love as an attempt to overcome the ghostly nature of the world. Or: your beloved might belong to you, but only when she—forever!—is in your embrace. In this form, we need to establish that both attempts at salvation from the Emptiness is doomed to misfortune or some fatal outcome, just as in Shakespeare’s works. Hamlet fights for his father and is killed. And now it seems already obvious that Literature is powerless to change anything in fate—both the hero’s and the author’s…
But nevertheless, this is not so! For with time, when I—in vain, it seemed—broadened the spiritual expanse of my hero, I understood that Literature can and should be a Miracle. More precisely, after languishing long and hard over the figure of my father, one day I understood I was already able to create his figure in the artistic expanse of my works. Here arises the question, why didn’t I do this immediately? The answer: because I had to pass entirely through the many-labored path of my marginal hero and the accompanying author, in order to gain the maturity needed to arrive at this artistic and moral act.
In 2004, I wrote the novel Golem of a Waning Moon, and one of its basic artistic problems was precisely the creation of a father’s image. My hero met with his father in some kind of otherworldly expanse of the past—consecrated by all that was lost. Consecrated namely by his prayers, which made the meeting possible for him. Thus, the hero meets with his father and asks him to relate all that happened to him after he was abandoned by his wife and children. And the father tell him his mournful history of loneliness. About how he fell into despair, and his parents calmed him, as they could, trying to support him, telling him that “you need to fight for love.” But he didn’t know why he should live, surely not to fight…Ultimately, his elderly parents, unable to endure his despair, died away. First the father, then the mother. And when he and his sister buried them and remained alone, he suddenly understood everything about himself and his sister. He says to her: “I know how we have to fight for our love. As a brother and sister. And if even love is so fragile, unsteady and flimsy, then maybe, love is possible between us?…Because if you ever fall out of love with me as a man, then as a brother—never!…And afterwards there occurred between us all that was supposed to occur. And soon my sister conceived.”
This is how I artistically imagined to myself what happened with my father after our departure. His cosmic loneliness, which he tragically tried to overcome through incest. And then my hero carries out the main act! He repents before his father, asking forgiveness for himself, for mother, for their treacherous betrayal, for his relatives, who insisted on the departure from Pyongyang, for his compatriots, who at times live with such difficulty beyond the motherland, and for the korean motherland, which at times so thoughtlessly expels its sons. And the father, of course, forgives him and all others, and it is just at this moment that the aforementioned Miracle occurs…Because the father is also my hero, and this means that he is also I, the author. Which means that through the father, I, the author, forgive my marginal hero and in his person, my cold fate, which condemned me and those like me, to such an unhappy destiny. Through this confessing character, I simultaneously forgive my fate! Or accept it without condition. Telling myself and the world that, indeed, my life has not been so simple, but nonetheless, all of this—though dramatic and tragic—nonetheless has Meaning for me. And precisely at this moment, my hero, at last accepting his fate, becomes human!
This means—and this is of primary importance!—that he has the right to penitence, forgiveness and acceptance of his fate precisely because he does not try to fall in love with the “corpse” of archaic literature. Does not try to submit to the “step-father” of assimilation literature. Does not try to mimic, under the eternally suspicious gaze of the external world…He remains entirely faithful to himself, to his Loss, Life, Fate, to his Creativity, and therefore this Christian, all-human sacrament becomes attainable. In this form, we have arrived—as opposed to Shakespeare!—at a Third Hamlet. That is, if the First was mourning, the Second fighting, then the Third has become penitent and forgiving. And namely through this final Hamlet, by my deep conviction, we have created not just a break-through hero, but an entire marginal literature, that has come into being for the first time.
And now let us turn to definitions. We’ve been talking a great deal about the literature of the Koreans of the CIS, with mention of all of its outlets and directions, but all the same, the inevitable question arises—what is it as a whole? To be sure, it is not Russian literature and not Korean! It’s written in Russian, is Korean in its mental plasticity, and clearly existential in its final outcome, with all of its Hamlet-derived questions. However, how should we define and call it?
In 1991, I wrote my first essay on the topic of the marginal consciousness of Soviet Koreans, entitled “The Invisible Island.” In this essay I showed how Russian-speaking Korean writers tried to overcome their desolation through artistic literature. The first to value my work were Soviet Jews, Germans, Armenians, Kazakhs, and only afterwards, as a result of their conservativeness, Koreans. That is, I want to say that we should not regard diasporas with any kind of narrow ethnic boundaries! Of course, we are different in our statistical experience (language, traditions, cuisine, folklore), but united in our dynamic, existential experience! That is, in all that is important, inspiring us to speak of a new ethnicity that is founded on basic, ancestral, national landscapes and changing and developing in all contexts of the contemporary, multi-national world. Therefore, Korean writers, living and writing in America, Indians in England, Russians and Kazakhs in Canada, are extremely interesting and close to me. Given all of this, as a person from the former realm of really existing socialism and the unbroken proletariat, I would like to proclaim a new slogan for the 21st century: DIASPORAS OF ALL NATIONS, UNITE! United in one global diaspora, joining all of its experiences and dispatches, in the name of existential commonality. And accordingly our linguistically diverse literatures comprise a single Literature of a Global Diaspora—or the Literature of True Self-Identification in a Multipolar World.
Finally, we return to the point from which we began. Namely, to our hero, the brave passenger, who travels in a train and sees in the motley flashes through the window that which will never belong to him. One day, at the end of his life, he exits from the train…And what can he say in the court of honor and conscience? Clearly only that he passionately loved all that did not belong and will never belong to him. Moreover, that he loved everything so selflessly, so faithfully, that one day his Love became God, and God, Love. And if at the end of his path, he remains an illegal, unreliable person, then regardless, he was, is and will be reliable in himself—in the faithful service to his, by no means, fabricated God. Our hero becomes reliable in his fixed and absolute existence.
November 7, 2006