Last month, I rehoused a post I wrote for the ‘Why This Book Should Win’ section for last year’s Best Translated Book Award, and today, in possibly the last of these external posts, we’re looking at a very similar piece. Back in 2016, I knocked up a short piece on Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) in which I hinted at the writer’s chances of future success as well as stressing how unusual Korean fiction was in having a large proportion of its books in English written by women. If you’re interested, the original review can be found here, but I hope you enjoy this mini-essay, too 🙂
Anyone with more than a fleeting interest in literature in translation will be aware of the lack of women published in English, but Korea seems to be a country that could buck this trend. Despite the passing of the grande dame of K-Lit, Park Wan-suh, and the ageing of other major writers of that generation (O Chong-hui, Ch’oe Yun), there are several female writers ready to make a splash in the West. Over in the UK, Han Kang is the one who has made the biggest waves so far, but across the Atlantic it is Bae Suah who might become the new face of K-Lit, particularly if she takes out the Best Translated Book Award this year. It certainly wouldn’t be undeserved.
Nowhere to be Found is one of two Bae Suah novellas released by Amazon Crossing (both translated by Sora Kim Russell), and what it lacks in size, running to only around sixty pages in print form, it makes up for in quality and emotive writing. Bae’s narrator is a young woman in her mid-twenties, stuck in the lower rings of what young Koreans call ‘Hell Choseon’, a country where those who fail to excel at school are destined for a life of crappy, badly paid jobs (and those who do can look forward to working 100-hour weeks while being screamed at by their boss for the next fifty years). Although the story was originally published over twenty years ago, I suspect little has changed since the story first appeared in Korean, and anyone in a country where the working classes are exploited will be able to empathise with the characters (which, I guess, would be just about all of us…).
With the nameless narrator finding herself as the main breadwinner for her family, for reasons that only become clear towards the end of the book, she is forced to work almost around the clock. Friends and family assume that she will marry her high-school friend Cheolsu, an average guy in the middle of his mandatory military service, yet she’s not the kind of woman to simply give in to keep everyone else happy, even if getting married to a spoiled mummy’s boy will make her life a little easier. Just as is the case in the earlier novella, Highway with Green Apples, Bae’s character is a strong woman in a society geared towards serving men’s needs, perfectly willing and able to stand up for herself when necessary (and when she says she doesn’t like chicken, just go with it…).
What lifts Nowhere to Be Found above Highway with Green Apples (and many of the BTBA longlist titles), though, is the way the writer spends half the story creating a tone before suddenly shattering it in a few brief paragraphs, the casual account of a humdrum daily life giving way to a frenzied moment of passion and self-harm. This pivotal moment half-way through the story turns the action on its head, preparing us for the second part of the book, which we now suspect might not be as calm as we were expecting. In fact, it becomes ever more confused. After a bizarre visit to Cheolsu’s army camp, in the course of which she begins to lose touch with reality, the narrator’s life drifts slowly along until we return to the scene we glimpsed at the heart of the work, which this time is even more disturbing…
Of course, none of this would work if it weren’t well-written, and Bae, even at this early stage of her career, manipulates the story masterfully. She excels in sudden shifts of pace, deliberate attempts to unsettle the reader, and you often find yourself being dragged from the middle of one anecdote into another, as if the narrator had just remembered something and needed to get it off her chest before continuing with her tale. Whether random asides about subway stations full of people she used to know (and others she will meet in the future), or stories about her brother’s past relationships, everything she comes up with is interesting and also somehow linked to the bigger picture, providing another detail which may, or may not, help us to understand what her story is all about.
For those who enjoy it (and I suspect many will), Nowhere to Be Found is a frustratingly brief glimpse of the abilities of an excellent writer, but never fear – help is at hand. Two longer titles will be released later this year, Recitation from Deep Vellum and A Greater Music from Open Letter (with the latter publishing another title in 2017), news that will gladden the hearts of those who are desperate for more of Bae’s work. It appears that the future of literature in translation may well lie with writers like Bae Suah and her countrywomen, and I, for one, welcome our new female Korean overlords (or should that be overladies…).