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The World Eyes Novelist Hwang Seok-young

2007/04/18 Source

Rave reviews in Germany

Hwang's novel "The Piper" (Der Gast), which was translated and published in Germany, is receiving a favorable response from the local media. The novel, jointly translated by three writers, was published late last year by famed German publishing house Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag (dtv). DTV also inked Hwang's previous works "The Old Garden" and "Han's Chronicle". On why the story used the motif of the Korean shamanistic ritual "gut", Hwang said his intent was to ease the banality of the frequently used material of a divided Korea.

Many German media outlets including Detschland Radio, NDR (North German Broadcasting) and newspapers have introduced the book. The media interest is also helping its sales. Hugendubel, Frankfurt's biggest bookstore, displayed "The Piper" at the front of its store.

Hwang Seok-young can be considered the avant-garde of Korean literature. He has always pushed the limit and crossed boundaries. As his 1993 controversial visit to North Korea illustrates, his political and literary passion brought about geopolitical repercussions by expanding Korean literature, which had mostly been limited south of the inter-Korean border. Hwang has been the most active writer in altering the Korean literary landscape.

Hwang is famous for his eloquent outspokenness in literary circles. He would mesmerize foreign diplomats in Seoul with hours-long stories of his writing career. Those who hadn't known of Hwang's reputation were thoroughly entertained at his stories and engaged in sincere discussions about the Korean literary world.

Spearhead of Realism

Hwang's literary achievement in the 1970s and '80s particularly shined. He made his impressive debut with a novel and play that were both lauded at a major domestic daily's spring literary contest. His first creative collection "Away from Home" in 1974 instantly earned him the title of a lead realism writer. Novels such as "Away from Home", "Han's Chronicle" and "The Road to Sampo" from the collection are still regarded as the apex of literary realism. That same year, he launched the series "Jang Gil-san" in the Hankook Ilbo daily, an exceptional feat for a novice writer. The series, which continued for ten years, is considered the best historical novel written since national independence. The series, whose main character was a chivalrous Joseon-era thief, provided a break from the oppressive social mood of the 70s and 80s. Hwang's affection for the laypeople as shown in "Away from Home" and "Jang Gil-san" is also exemplified in his real life.

During the country's early modern era, Hwang worked at a factory and did odd jobs. He was also a cultural activist and the first farmers' activist in the post-Korea War era. Mingling with the public, he was part of the May 1980 Gwangju resistance against the authoritarian regime and led progressive cultural movements throughout the 80s. In 1989, as part of a unification campaign, he visited North Korea and held talks with its now deceased leader Kim Il-sung several times. He later published a travelogue of his Pyongyang visit "People Lived There" even while the publisher was arrested. After wandering about Germany and the U.S., Hwang returned to Korea in 1993 and he was immediately arrested on arrival.

In addition to his brazen talk, his singing and people skills are also known to be outstanding. Serving behind bars, his nickname was 'prison chief'. He befriended fellow inmates and even the prison guards with his glib talk and gregarious nature. But perfectionism and a meticulous nature characterize another side of Hwang. Before using the computer to write, he would waste hundreds of pages of paper to produce one page he considered worthy of publication.

The Orient Express in the European Literary Circle

His stay in Europe and his sufferings as an international migrant created the image of Hwang as a member of the literary avant-garde. In Europe, Hwang is referred to as the "Orient Express". Major German, British and French dailies have carried intensive reviews of his works. At the 2005 Frankfurt Book Fair in which Korea was the guest of honor, Hwang was the most specially regarded Korean writer. He resided near Frankfurt throughout the festival period and consequently developed ties with major European publishers. Due to all these combined factors, Hwang's works gained enough attention overseas to have "Jang Gil-san" (1985) published in China, "Away from Home" (1986) and "Shadow of Weapons" (1989) in Japan, and "Hwang Seok-young's Novel Collection" (1988) in Taiwan.

Meanwhile at home, his series "Baridegi", appearing on the The Hankyoreh daily, has gained popularity. The story is about a girl named 'Bari' who escapes North Korea because of acute famine and settles in London. The series began in January and will wrap around mid-June, after which it will be published as a book. In the format of traditional Korean storytelling, the fictional work will touch on key global concerns including North Korea's food shortage, migration of the international workforce, terrorism and imperialist invasions. Book deals with foreign publishers have already been signed, demonstrating keen interest in his latest work at home and abroad. Some even expect 'Baridegi' to replace "Shadow of Weapons" or "The Piper" as Hwang's number one masterpiece.

1943 Born in Changchun, Manchuria
1962 Short story "Ibseokbugeun" published in?Sasangge?
Drops out of Kyungbock High School
Graduates from Soongsil Univ. philosophy major
Graduates from Dongguk Univ. philosophy major
1966?1967 Serves in Vietnam War
1970 Short story "Pagoda", play "The Sail of Welcome" both win the Chosun Ilbo daily spring literary contest
1972 "Han's Chronicle" published
1974 Member, Council of Writers who Practice Freedom
1984 "Jang Gil-san" published
1984 Member, People's Literature Union
1985 Chief executive member, Writers who Practice Freedom
1985 Chief executive member, People's Literature Society of South Jeolla Province
1987 Member, Association of Writers for Nat'l Literature
1988 Member, Korean People's Artists Federation
1988 Trustee, Association of Writers for Nat'l Literature
1988 Director, Institute for Research in Collaborationist Activities
1989 "Shadow of Weapons" wins 4th Manhae Literary Award
1989 Spokesman, Korean People's Artists Federation
1989 Visits North Korea with Pastor Moon Ik-hwan
1989~1993 Resides overseas
1990 'River that doesn't flow' series published by Hankyoreh daily
1993~1998 Prosecuted for N. Korea visit
1999 President, Mir Film
2000 Novel "The Old Garden" & "Let's go to the North, Come to the South" revised edition published
2001 Awarded at 9th Daesan Literary Award
2004 Grand Prize at 8th Manhae Literary Award
2004 Art Award of the Year by the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation

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