#AsiaNow Speaks with Yoon Sun Yang

Yoon Sun Yang is Associate Professor of Korean and Comparative Literature at Boston University and author of From Domestic Women to Sensitive Young Men: Translating the Individual in Early Colonial Korea, published by Harvard University Asia Center and winner of the 2020 AAS James B. Palais Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

My book offers a revisionary account of the beginning of modern Korean fiction. The canonical narrative of early twentieth-century Korean literature supposes that the emergence of cultured male characters untethered from their community by their search for selfhood in the late 1910s—a type of individuality closely reminiscent of the modern European counterpart—should be the pivotal moment in the modernization of Korean fiction. My study intervenes in this Eurocentric and male-centered paradigm by stressing that the notion of the individual was appropriated at the turn of the twentieth century by various Korean writers who were trying to make sense of the swiftly changing world. I suggest the first group of modern Korean literary individuals actually appeared in the early colonial domestic novel of the late 1900s—a genre previously considered lacking in modernity for their focus on family women. Unlike the male figures of the individual, women characters in this genre understand their individuality as inseparable from their domestic and communal identities. My book proposes to view the translation of the individual not as a single decisive event but as a series of open-ended practices, which has continued in Korea to this day.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I grew up in South Korea as an avid reader and literature buff. However, it was not until my junior year in college that I came across what I call in my book “early colonial domestic novels.” I was immediately drawn to them because they did not look like anything I had read thus far. I found these stories hilarious and surprisingly thought-provoking. When I finally decided to write about them, not in Korean but in English, about a decade after my initial encounter with them, I was quite disappointed to realize that existing scholarship generally treated them as philologically significant yet lacking in literary value. It was as if they were important only as the fossilized remains of a bygone era. This finding led me to ask how “great literature” has been defined in modern Korean literary histories, what forces were behind this disdainful attitude toward the early colonial domestic novels, how to appreciate literary works that may not immediately satisfy contemporary readers’ tastes, and how to write about those works for twenty-first century readers.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

It was one thing to identify biases embedded in the existing paradigm. It was another to come up with a new conceptual frame to tell an alternative story about the rise of modern Korean prose fiction. It took me a while before I realized the notion of the individual could be an overarching concept for the book. It happened when I was writing about a group of short stories from the late 1910s mainly to give the reader the sense of what happened after the early colonial domestic novel lost its cultural hegemony. These works typically revolve around the complex inner worlds of educated young men, and I started using the term “individual” to describe them. Soon, I realized that these figures’ pursuit of selfhood was often blended with collective desires—for either national sovereignty or the capitalist progress of the nation—without being rendered into the quest for self-government in the Western tradition. Adapting Lydia Liu’s concept of translingual practice, I was able to see this translation as a productive meaning-making process of the global notion of the individual in early colonial Korea, instead of an inaccurate copy of the original European concept. That’s when it hit me: why couldn’t I call the figure of the domestic woman another iteration of the individual? At that point, I recalled that a pioneering writer of the early colonial domestic novel, Yi Injik, had discussed in an essay the individual (kaein) and society (sahoe) as new civilized ideas that his contemporary Korean readers should embrace. Once my thinking reached this point, everything else quickly fell into place. I completed my manuscript less than a year afterward.

What are some of the most interesting stories or scraps of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

I was fascinated by various examples of the Korean translations of the individual. One of the most thought-provoking examples appeared in a late nineteenth-century newspaper published in both Korean and English, The Independent or Tongnip Sinmun, which is a useful source to trace how a number of English terms were translated into Korean for the first time. Here the English term “individual” was rendered not as a singular noun but as a plural noun, “paeksŏng,” which traditionally meant “the people without a government rank.” This translation was eye-opening to me, because it seemed to highlight the communal implication of the term by defining individuality foremost as the human rights given to all people regardless their social status or gender. In fact, some of the female figures in early colonial domestic novels in part personify such an aspect of individuality. Over the course of writing this book, I came to believe that the notion of the individual has been continuously translated and retranslated into Korean in a dialogue with changing cultural milieus to this day. For example, the Korean translation of the English word “individualist,” kaeinjuŭija, has a negative connotation often associated with selfishness in its common usage. However, I have observed an increasing number of attempts to use the term differently, including a recent best seller by a former judge, essayist, and K-drama writer, Mun Yusŏk, The Individualist Manifesto (Kaeinjuŭija sŏn’ŏn, 2015). I would like to stress that I do not mean to suggest that the most recent iteration is closest to the original, or that the older ones are necessarily less valid than the newer ones. My point is rather that the notion of individuality is still open to new interpretations and imaginations.

What are you working on now?

I am currently at work on three projects. For my second monograph, I am looking at the newly discovered archive of a first-generation Korean American writer, Nak Chung Thun (1879?-1953). Born in Chŏngju, a town close to Pyongyang, Thun moved to Hawaii with his extended family to escape from the Russo-Japanese war in 1904 and later to California, where he lived most of his adult life while working one low-wage job or another. His handwritten manuscripts of novels, short stories, and essays, mostly penned after his retirement in the late 1930s, were recently donated to the University of Southern California by a descendant of his. I was initially drawn to this archive because some of Thun’s works have strong stylistic affinities with the early colonial Korean literary archive that I had examined for my first monograph. Now I am most excited about new doors that this archive potentially opens up to literary studies. It is one of the rare archives of a working-class immigrant writer. Though written in Korean, his work was deeply informed by his experience as a working-class Asian man in racially stratified California and, to a degree, it intervened in the racial politics of the U.S., despite its language being one that most Americans could not access. This archive simultaneously engages with the culture and politics of two national terrains on either side of the Pacific and, by doing so, leads us to question and rethink the existing cartography of world literature.

I am also revisiting a group of early colonial Korean short stories that revolve around the figures that I call “sensitive young men” in my first monograph. I am translating some of these short stories into English and compiling them into an anthology in collaboration with my co-translator Sandra H. Lee. Furthermore, I would like to expand on my earlier thinking about these stories in light of the history of medicine in Korea. Many of the sensitive young men suffer from various psychological or physical illnesses named in the stories with terms from both the Western medical lexicon recently introduced in Korea and traditional medicine. I ask how Korean literary discourses mediated the conflict and compromise between Western medical science and traditional medical knowledge in the early twentieth century, and how the literary appropriation of medical discourse allowed writers to explore questions about sexuality, the relationship between mind and body, and the varying dynamics between self and the community.