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Outsider Writing

This entry is part 31 of 70 in the series SF in South Korea

Now that I’m back in Korea, and have a free morning, I’m just catching up on some blogs and fiction online and so on. I ran across a very interesting post at Aliette de Bodard’s blog, titled, Writing cultures: insider vs. outsider, about the various advantages and pitfalls faced by authors writing about a specific culture either as an insider, or as an outsider, for a Western audience (as in the dominant SF-reading audience, for example). It’s worth a read, including the comments, especially if you’re interested in my thoughts on the subject.

The subject of writing a culture as an outsider has been discussed a lot, and I’ll turn to it below, but for the moment, I want to look at something rarely discussion, and which may explain why SF from certain cultural mileux seems not to work so very well in English translation. I think Aliette’s quite right about the insider view having drawbacks that make it just as hard when writing for an outsider audience — the bakery example is a good example. But if we go a step further this specifically problematizes certain genres, like, say, SF.

A note: as much as I’mn touted as some kind of “expert” on Korean SF, I’m not. I have watched almost every Korean SF movie made, but the literature is locked behind a language barrier, one I have not yet climbed sufficiently enough to see over. I’m going by hearsay, and I’m sure I’m getting things wrong here. I welcome any corrections.

But some of my observations are based on things I’ve been told by Koreans. A great example a Korean translator/author acquaintance Jeong So-yeong mentioned to me while I was interviewing her for this article, is how in Korean society folks confronted with a problem are more inclined to reconcile themselves to living with the problem until it somehow works itself out than to seek for the underlying reason and prescribe solutions for it — the detailed, analytical assessment of the system responsible, and an according change in operations so natural to Westerners confronted with something that is (when they care to notice or recognize it) unfair or wrong. (Other reactions I’d add including kludging together a short-term workaround instead of fixing the broken system, or, when all else fails, to appeal (or protest) to someone in power to please fix it.)

It’s not that we in the West don’t do these things too, of course: the difference is which tendency dominates in which society. In Korea, something I’ve witnessed time and time again in Korean organizations — from social groups to workplaces and businesses — is that the systematic assessment and adjustment is the last thing to come, usually long after it would in a functional Western organization. It just  becomes a fact of life when you live here. If the outcome is okay, then for most Koreans the system just isn’t broken enough to need fixing… even when getting the good outcome took hours of unnecessary worry or work, even when it’s mostly just luck that things didn’t come out badly. As one friend and longtime expat in Korea wrote to me once (in confidence, so I won’t link his blog here), “I think every institution here is two steps away from collapse, and no one worries because they’re not one step away.” Actually, I’m not sure whether the need to fix a system kicks in at one step away, or after a case of dramatic, public collapse has begun, though the latter seems likelier in a lot of cases (such as in various scandals involving cops doing nothing to protect sexually-assaulted women and children or to catch their assailants, or the handling of the 1997 economic crisis here, or, for a small and recent example in ym own life, the complexity of red tape faced by a student re-enrolling early after taking a full year off school). One could think of it as, “If it ain’t broke enough to kill us all, don’t fix it,” but of course, one becomes less snide about it after reflecting that South Koreans and their ancestors lived under one or another form of authoritarian rule (domestic monarchy, Japanese colonial rule, and finally domestic dictatorship) until just a few decades ago.

This is definitely cultural, though whether it’s especially Korean, or was also a feature of other societies at some earlier stage of cultural modernization, I don’t know. I’m not saying it’s absolutely Korean, and in fact I bet we could find the same sort of attitude in English or American culture if we wound the clock back enough. (Probably to the Victorian and Edwardian eras in England, for example.) But this does inform Korean SF, in ways that make it different from Western SF, but also in ways that could make it aesthetically difficult for Westerners to digest; especially, it seems, when the solutions for problems come from far outside the characters actions and decisions themselves, and are likely to feel, to a Westerner, like some kind of weird deus ex machina.

(The examples So-yeon gave were of stories where school kids escaped from the hell of Korean high school into space, somehow though I don’t believe it was quite clear how they got there; and of an astronomer who had had a car accident after years of study and astronaut training, and thereafter suffered on Earth as she watched others go into space until one day her turn came with a government initiative to put more crippled people into space. The latter story was her own, and I have to admit it sounds, well, sort of baffling as SF stories go. Why not just use a Waldo? Why not have her find her own clever solution?)

The interesting thing being that Western SF in translation is popular among SF fans here, and doesn’t seem to pose them the same kinds of digestive problems. I guess cultural hegemony of a kind, and huge American media penetration, will do that for you.

The other thing is that the longer I’m in Korea, the more I discover that for this culture, at least, the more people claim that X or Y value is universal, that nobody would transgress taboo Z, there is someone — or many someones — who does nothing but repudiate value X or Y, and someone (or many such someones) shamelessly transgressing taboo Z on a regular basis. The trick is remembering that the character is being “different” and knows it too. This isn’t license to just build a completely foreign character and inject him or her into local skin, of course. One needs to understand a society’s self-contradictions and fantasies about itself, and this is a tricky proposition as an outsider, even when living somewhere for a long time.

(For example, I would have a very hard time writing a story about a truly intelligent Korean who somehow believes the Koreans-are-one-blood propaganda. There are highly educated people who believe it, but I haven’t met any very intelligent people who didn’t at least feel doubts about it. Yet I’m sure they exist, since smart people have always existed who, for whatever reason, believed patently ludicrous propositions on one subject but not on others. Just as there are some Canadians who are both very intelligent, and possessed of a kind of nationalistic chauvanism, a sense that Canada is somehow “special,” there must be intelligent Koreans who believe not just that Korea is unusually homogenous (also problematic, but at least debatable) but also believe the one-blood myth is literally true. I’m not sure I could write such a character believably for either a Korean or non-Korean audience, though now of course I am beginning to think it a hell of a challenge for myself.)

One finds sometimes transracial characters are used to explore this kind of unclear space between cultures well — the title character in Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, the protagonist in Bruce Sterling’s “Green Days in Brunei,” and probably dozens more that aren’t coming to my mind. That’s a dangerous gambit, of course: if one is less careful than the esteemed authors above, one will find the transracial (or otherwise supposedly transcultural) character is really just one or another culture poured into a racially ambiguous skin. And of course, one must watch out for the temptation to exoticize the halfie… or hapa, or whatever else such a character might be termed. I wish I could remember the term Nalo Hopkinson used back at Clarion West when she described mystical, oh-so-exotic transracial characters as one of the newer remixes of the Magical Negro trope.

But even here, of course, experience tells me there’s a degree of freedom available with which to play: in my experience, overseas Koreans and Koreans of mixed-ancestry (or those of mixed ancestry including Korean, but living abroad) have a far different experience of Korea and Koreanness than, say, white guys like myself, or Afro-Canadian women, or Nepali factory workers, or Filipina mail-order brides. (Though, then again, I think class and education and workplace and personal idiosyncracy all play into it: one South Indian PhD I know and occasionally have a beer with seems to be having an experience of Korea radically more similar to mine than many white male expats I meet here.) But I also find that it’s not hard to figure out why so many overseas Korean have such a difficult time adjusting here, especially when one observes their interactions with locals a bit.

The text mentioned in a comment appended to the post, <i>Imaginary Homelands of Writers in Exile</em> looks like a wonderful book, even if it is far too expensive for me to get a copy. I’d love to read it and see how much applied to myself, as an expatriate writer. Though it seems a particularly funny thing that so many non-Western (or non-Anglo, maybe?) writers today end up writing (in English) about their “homelands” after emigrating, while so many Westerners I know who end up abroad write less about the familiar “homeland” than about the place they’ve ended up, or some analogue. Actually, even the expats who “go home” seem to do this more often than not, in my experience.

(Though, thinking in broader terms, meaning beyond just the people I’ve known and beyond SF, I guess maybe there’s an even split of Anglophone authors who write about home, and those who write about the foreign, “exotic” place where they live or lived.)

Looking at my own writing, I recently realized that often when I write a story about a Korean, I impose a rather Western aesthetic onto his or her situation. In Korean narratives, just as in real life here, coming together and joining the group is so often crucial — the key to things moving forward, whether it’s promotion, having a social life, solving some problem, or whatever. (Which is why having a meal together is such a common, recurrent symbol in films here; it really does signify communion to Koreans.) Yet in my stories, I constantly challenge characters with a situation I often see in reality here: that is, that joining the group brings one to an impasse, and one can only move forward by breaking away from the group and going it alone, or drawing lines within the group and splitting it up.

But going it alone — in almost all the Korean fiction I’ve read in English translation, anyway, and the vast majority of the films I’ve seen — seems to be a traumatic experience (or the echo of, or response to, trauma), and seems to lead to some kind of sad ending, to a bad ending, to erasure or disappearance of a character, while joining groups, forming cohesion, working together seems from my limited experience to be, almost by default, a positive thing. (Which is why a film like Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is such a devious film, with the parents of murdered children and the woman wrongfully imprisoned for the murders team up and, well, torture the real murderer to death.)

(By the way, I welcome correction by someone who knows more about Korean Lit than me. Are there significant numbers of examples of a character breaking away or going it alone, which don’t end in tragedy or where going it alone is depicted as a good, necessary thing, as opposed to, say, a temporary strategy, like in The Host? Has, for example, the Korean version of cop drama been deeply affected by the Hollywood trope of the cop who defies his supervisor, loses his badge and gun, and goes out on his own to solve the crime?)

My paricular inversion of this apparent pattern isn’t simply rooted in ignorance, of course. Though I didn’t realize I was explicitly inverting it in my fiction, I have known of this cultural difference for a long time. There are two things going on here: one, there are Koreans who go it alone, and Korean naratives that focus on that. One is the film Cheong Yeon (Blue Swallow), which I adored but which flopped in Korea, I think, mainly for reasons of historiographically unpalatable realism. (I discussed that film here, and while my view has changed a little — especially with regard to the perplexing popularity of the success of the competitor film, The King and the Clown, it’s close enough for the moment.) The other thing, I think, is a combination of my own predilection for characters and narratives like this — folks who have no choice but to go it alone at times to do what needs to get done — and my own reaction to what is, for me, a kind of over-valuing (and sometimes fantastical romanticization) of the group over the individual in Korea, not just in stories but in real life as well.

(Which is not to say that it’s just a clash of North American individualism versus Korean communality. It’s just to observe that communal solutions don’t — and can’t — work for all problems, just as individualists cannot always go it alone to achieve what needs getting done. It’s just interesting that my emphasis in the stories I’ve set in Korea have the same focus as Korean stories on the unfairness of society, but (perhaps) rather individualistic, independent responses on the part of characters.)

As my stories are beginning to get translated into Korean, I cannot help but feel curious at what the reaction will be: amusement, puzzlement, or careful annotation of what I got “wrong” — as well as how much of a grain of salt I’ll need to take all that with. (If a small selection of honest and trustworthy Korean beta-readers don’t see a problem with a character speaking or thinking a certain way, or choosing one or another response to a problem, how seriously can or should one take public criticisms?) The great experiment would be to write such a story, publish it in Korean under a Korean penname, and see how it was received, because, as so often is the case, who is writing seems to play as much of a role in the reception of a work as what is contained therein.

Hmm. Which reminds me, I need to proofread my long-deferred (for a month!) review of Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days, which also deals with some of these issues, specifically related to the realm of SF… especially as to the question of why I think Western authors ought to be trying to write creditable SF set in places we usually don’t see it set in, concerning characters of backgrounds we rarely see in SF.

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