Tag Archives: Martin Merz

Asia Literary Review 23

Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 23, [Northern] Spring 2012

Issue 18 of Asia Literary Review has a sense of occasion about it. Like some previous issues, this one is devoted to a single nation. But a collection of English language pieces on China or Japan can confidently assume its readers will have heard of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or those poets who are in trouble, even if they haven’t read any of them. This one, on Korea, can expect to be giving many readers their first real look at a national literature. All the more so as both North and South Korea are represented. The sense of occasion is marked by an appearance by the journal’s publisher, Ilyas Khan, who contributes a note on his personal connection with Korea and his appreciation of the Korean people.

If the state of the short story is any indication of the vigour of a literary culture (a big if, I know, but think of Australia in the 1890s), then South Korean writing is thriving. All four short stories here are grippingly weird: in Kim Young-ha’s ‘Ice Cream’ (translated by Dana Zur) a suburban couple phone to complain when a packet of their favourite ice cream tastes of petrol, with unsettling results; Park Mingyu’s ‘Is That So? I’m a Giraffe’ (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) takes the situation where commuters are pushed into the underground trains of Seoul and turns the surrealism up to full volume; in Jeon Sung Tae’s ‘The Korean Soldier’ (translated by Jae Won Chung) the hero, who seems to be the author’s alter ego, has a thoroughly civilian and richly comic adventure in Mongolia; ‘Black-and-White Photographer’ by Han Yujoo (translated by Janet Hong) is a chilling tale on what Martin Alexander’s editorial tells us is a recurring theme, the lost child. The lost child turns up again in the other piece of fiction from South Korea, an extract from What You Never Know by Jeong I-hyeon (translated by Chi-Young Kim), which I’m guessing is a gripping novel – at least I was left frustrated when the extract stopped and nothing was resolved.

Of the South Korean non-fiction, the stand-outs for me are the excerpts from Liu Jiaju’s memoir, ‘My Experiences in the Korean War’ (translated by Martin Merz), and Michael Breen’s ‘Image and Identity’ (crosscultural reflections of an Englishman who has been living in Korea for thirty years).

Two North Koreans speak directly in these pages. The first, Jang Gil-su, does so in a pencil drawing he did when hiding in his mid-teens on the way to successfully escaping to the South. The drawing shows a man being executed by a uniformed figure with a rifle. The caption informs us that everyone is expected to attend executions in North Korea, ‘including children’. The other, the poet–defector Jang Jin-sung, is represented by five poems (translated by Shirley Lee) as stark as the drawing that precedes them. I don’t generally ‘get’ poetry in translation, but these speak to me very strongly. According to the editorial, Jang Jin-sung will be representing Korea at the Cultural Olympiads, which must be happening round about now.

Of the pieces about North Korea, I felt most enlightened by ‘Pyongyang: City of Privilege and Pretence’ in which journalist Sue Lloyd-Roberts ranges far and wide trying to make sense of the outpouring of grief at Kim Jong Il’s death, and Daniel Levitsky’s ‘North Korea’s Revolutionary Cinema’, which lays out a part of the jigsaw explaining how people can accept the regime. Possibly the scariest piece in the whole issue is the photo essay ‘Holiday Tours to the DPRK’ by Simon Cockerell, an Englishman who has been taking tourists into North Korea every month for the last ten years. His text is as carefully noncommittal as the faces in his photos, and any irony in his final sentence is totally deniable: ‘A week at a beach resort may be temporarily refreshing but the same amount of time in the DPRK provides an experience that will last for a lifetime.’

I’m writing this on the iPad in Kayaköy, near the Turkish Mediterranean, and creating links to all these articles is more complex than I’m prepared to do while at this particular beach resort (about which I’ll write something tomorrow – it’s seven Ks from the beach, and not exactly a resort). But I’ve listed the translators because everything here read beautifully in English and at the same time retained its sense of having come from elsewhere. Many of the pieces I’ve mentioned are up on the Asia Literary Review site, where there’s an online supplement of material that wouldn’t fit in the magazine, which is well worth a look.

I’ve read most of this issue in Turkey, quite a bit on public transport. One friendly Turkish man picked it up, skimmed the pages, and asked, ‘Where are you from?’, clearly failing to fit me to his mental image of a Korean. The Art Student kindly gave permission to use this photo:

20120628-130109.jpg

Asia Literary Review 21

Stephen McCarty (editor), Asia Literary Review No 21 ([Northern] Autumn 2011)

[Note added in 2021: All the links in this blog post are broken except the ones in the journal title above and in the image to the left. The whole journal is still available online to subscribers.]

Under Stephen McCarty’s editorship, the Asia Literary Review tends to have themed issues. The last three focused on China, Burma and Japan respectively. This one moves to a subject that transcends political and geographic boundaries: food.

Where a focus on a single country can lead to a journal as diverse – and as integrated – as anyone could wish, other kinds of themes, even one as vast as food, risk crossing the line between relatedness and sameness. This issue comes close to that line a couple of times, but it manages to stay on the right side. Notably, Felipe Fernández-Armesto kicks things off with ‘History à la Carte‘, a short essay on food as an ‘instructive historical document’, particularly about the ‘relative input of different cultures to a globalising world’ over the centuries – and the pages that follow provide a number exemplars of the kind of thing he means: Fuchsia Dunlop, an Englishwoman who has trained as a chef in Sichuan, writes of her childhood love for sweet and sour pork, and explores its origins as a dish invented for despised foreigners (or was it?); Bernard Cohen’s story about a disintegrating marriage, ‘The Chinese Meal, Uneaten‘ can be read as a meditation on the cheap Chinese restaurants of a bygone Australia; in Erin Swan’s ‘Tomatoes‘, a couple of western tourists in the Himalayas get some humility about their privileged status thanks to a box of tomatoes; Jennifer 8. Lee’s ‘Making Pasta Sauce: My Independence’ tells of a Chinese New Yorker’s discovery in Italian cuisine (this little memoir-recipe, sadly not available online to non-subscribers, has had a significant impact on the cooking in this house); in Wena Poon’s story ‘Fideuà’, a woman who was a ‘China baby’ adopted by a Spanish couple finds in seafood noodles a deep emotional connection between her birth home and her adoptive one (a Chinese matriarch watches the protagonist cook Spanish fideuà in a paella pan and says, a little scornfully, a little proudly, ‘This pan is like our wok. This noodle, come from China. Seafood, same. All same. We call it hoi seen meen. We use same ingredients.’). Perhaps because a jungle of self-sown vines is producing abundantly in our tiny back yard, I particularly enjoyed the way tomatoes kept appearing: here we learn they are known in some parts of China as barbarian aubergines, there that Europeans thought they were poisonous for hundred of years after they were brought over from the Americas, in a third place that they have delicacy status in Himalayan villages.

I should mention Lizzie Collingham’s fascinating piece of history, ‘Japan and the Battle for Rice’, which makes the case for thinking of Japan’s participation in World War Two as in part a war about food, of which we may be about to see many more. Chandran Nair stops short of making that prediction in his chilling article, ‘The World Food Crisis – An Asian Perspective’, which echoes the Annie Leonard video I posted yesterday by calling on Asian governments to ‘reject the consumption-led growth model and adopt instead an approach that makes resources conservation the heart of all policymaking’. Good luck to us all with that!

Oh, and there’s ‘Table d’Hôte’ by Murong Xuecu, translated by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan. It’s the journal’s only prose piece translated from an Asian language and easily its most powerful fiction, with something of the feel of that contemporary Chinese art that plays around with death and mutilation.

And there’s plenty else. I’ve linked to the stories that are accessible online. If you want to read the others you have to subscribe.