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Korea Blog: Six Expatriate Writers Give Six Views of Seoul in a New Short-Fiction Anthology, “A City of Han”

As a cradle of expatriate literature, Seoul has thus far proven to be no Prague, Mexico City, or Tangier, to say nothing of a Vienna or Paris. That’s not for lack of desire among expatriates themselves: every few months here I get word of the existence of another Westerner-oriented writing workshop, or contacted by another reporter or teacher certain he’s got a novel in him. But many such expatriates, yet to find their way out of self-published obscurity, will admit that this city is something of a faulty launchpad for a literary career, at least for those writing in languages other than Korean. In English, attempts are nevertheless made from time to time to harness the writerly energies of the expat population, the latest of which takes the form of a six-story anthology called A City of Han, compiled by Seoul native Sollee Bae.

In her introduction, Bae writes of asking others for explanations of her hometown’s failure to gain literary traction. “Their answers were surprisingly unanimous,” she reports. “Seoul did not have a defining character. It was too bland. It was the quintessence of a modern metropolis, made up of concrete buildings and wide roads and a grey sky. If we were to compare it to a person, it would be that man or woman who worked for a marketing firm, dressed sensibly, and carried the last year’s model of iPhone (but no older).” That’s not an entirely unconvincing explanation. For my part, I’ve long wondered if the city simply looms too large to clearly be seen. Unlike the capitals of the US and Europe, whose size and power haven’t persuaded the countries that produced them to consider them exemplary rather than exceptional, Seoul — in the eyes of all but nature poets and travel writers — is South Korea.

The difficulty of rendering Seoul with a distinct identity, not unexpected among a class of residents who often struggle to understand the signs in its storefronts, afflicts Korean writers as well. I once stumped a well-known novelist here by asking for recommendations of novels with rich visions of the city, and he’d written an internationally acclaimed one himself. Korean authors telling stories with Korean characters can’t easily avoid writing about Seoul, but expatriates can — and in various forms, do — tell stories of Seoul practically without involving Korean characters at all. This owes to the intersection of the “write what you know” principle and the insular lifestyles of a certain kind of Westerner in this country: those who fashion for themselves an approximation of the life they’d have lived back in their homeland, associating exclusively with Westerners and the kind of English-speaking Koreans who take pains to set themselves apart from their countrymen.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.