Skip to content

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Korea Tour: Cowboys and Yangban with Charles Montgomery

charles montgomeryNotebook on Cities and Culture‘s Korea Tour is brought to you by Daniel Murphy, David Hayes, and The Polar Intertia Journal, an outlet for artists and researchers documenting the urban condition.

In Seoul’s Haebangchon district, Colin Marshall talks with Charles Montgomery, professor in the English Interpretation and Translation Division of Dongguk University, editor of the site, and global ambassador of Korean literature in translation. They discuss the first Korean books that excited him; the mistakes he made in choosing his first works of Korean literature to read; the significance of bestseller authors Kim Young-ha and Shin Kyoung-sook; the impossibility of getting around the literary prize system, and how that suppresses genre; how the substantial literature of the Korean War compares to what literature America has of its own Civil War; how his Korean best friend influenced the course of his professional life; why he burnt out as a marketing director and how it led him to Korea; the intense nature of Korean emotional bonds (and the intensity of their absence); why you have to treat everyone in the United States as a “potential shooter”; what happens when you read Korean literature with an understanding of the culture; whether Americans can ever internalize the Korean sense of obligation to society; how much Korean literature makes it into English; the idea that, to write for foreigners, a Korean writer somehow becomes less Korean; the popularity of Haruki Murakami in Korean translation; how he got “inside the elbow”; America and Korea as cultural antidotes to one another; why cities back in the U.S. seem to lag so far behind those of Korea; how one translated bestseller “drags” the rest of its country’s literature behind it; how Dalkey Archive handled Korean literature; the Korean preference for short stories and novellas over full-length novels; the insights into Korean society that literature still gives him; why Korean characters seem to lack agency; what Western literature he likes; which Korean writers have a tantalizing amount of work still untranslated; why Koreans have considered so many elements of their culture unknowable to foreigners; the exalted status of the 작가님; the signs that will let us know Korean literature has made it; and what stands a chance of becoming Korea’s geisha, chrysanthemum, sword, sushi, and Shinjuku.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.