Tony’s Reading List at the Melbourne Writers Festival 2018 – Part Two

After my afternoon with J.M. Coetzee, I had an hour to get to the second event of the day.  However, both the festival schedulers and the public transport system had decided to make this as difficult as possible.  The next session was held at Flemington Library, well outside the CBD, and with the train line offering the optimistically named ‘replacement bus services’ while works were being carried out, I opted to rush back down Flinders Street to get a tram to get me to the session on time.  Luckily, I managed to make it – and here’s how it went 🙂

Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairytale was well received in both the UK and the US, and the book recently received an Australian edition, published by Brow Books (the publishing arm of The Lifted Brow literary magazine).  I suspect that it was for this reason that she was invited to the festival, where she ended up taking part in a number of events.  This one was all about her, though, and in the company of local poet Elena Gomez, she was here to talk all about her first book to make it into English.

Rather unexpectedly, though, it turned out that my Korean abilities were also about to get a work-out as Han wasn’t confident enough to do the session in English, instead relying on interpreter Lee Rima to relay her lengthy comments in Korean.  There was the usual Q&A format, with translations, and about half-way through, the writer read a short extract from near the start of the novel before Lee read the corresponding text from the English version.

The talk started with some general questions on Han’s activities with an experimental writing group (Ru) and Oulipopress, a publishing house she runs.  She explained that it’s hard for unconventional works to be published in Korea, and that her small press was to be a home for ambitious texts (such as a friend’s A3 sketch-pad poetry release, with poems that can be torn off for wall posters).  After that, she touched on her translation work (all books by old white men that she translated for the money – she soon realised she was far more of a writer than a translator!) and her teaching (where she admitted that she was initially a little afraid of creating rivals…).

Eventually, the talk turned to the novel, and much of the focus here was on children.  Han said that a lot of what the children experience in the book are things she felt and saw, but only to a certain extent, of course.  When she wrote The Impossible Fairytale, her twenties were still too close, and she felt she could be more objective if she looked back at her early teens.  In addition to drawing on her personal experiences, she wanted to make readers feel uncomfortable, deliberately confronting them with the miserable life Korean children often led – and perhaps, in many ways, still do.

When pressed on just how personal this all was, Han admitted that in some ways both the writer/narrator and the child came from her (as she noted with a smile, this could perhaps be seen as a little narcissistic!).  However, she also wanted to make it clear that neither of the characters were based on her own life.  She was very clear about the importance of drawing a distinct line between herself and the writer/narrator, stressing the point repeatedly.

There was a lot to like about the talk, with a nice exchange about the wordplay in the book one of the highlights.  Han discussed her relationship with translator Janet Hong, admitting that in a sense the English version is a rewrite in some places.  Having approved of the translator’s earlier work on several short stories, Han was more than happy to give Hong creative licence, which proved essential in a book with so much wordplay.

I wouldn’t say I was completely happy with the session, though (even if it was free…).  The stilted interaction owing to the three-way dynamic didn’t help, of course, but I don’t think Gomez did a great job here.  She confused the writer on occasion with unnecessary comments, and several times she didn’t seem to be prepared with her next question.  In addition, she failed to really probe into areas that would have been interesting, instead focusing on random details (such as the fainting game the children play).  I certainly didn’t come away feeling that the talk had managed to give a real sense of what the book is about.

Overall, I’m glad I went.  I got to say hello to the writer and have her sign her story in The Future of Silence collection, and it’s the first time I’ve seen any Korean author in the flesh.  However, it felt a little like a token effort, a small affair outside the main festival, and I was a little disappointed afterwards (the two-hour journey home didn’t help with that…).  Perhaps that’s something the organisers should think about when they prepare for these events – even if it’s not a session featuring a world-famous writer, a bit of preparation goes a long way 😉

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