- Hwang Sunwŏn:An Appreciation
I first met him in 1979. I was lecturing at Seoul National University, and in the office next to mine was Chang Wang-rok, a professor of American literature and, like Hwang, originally from North Korea. Professor Chang was translating Hwang’s novel Namu tŭl pit’al e sŏda, and he asked me to proofread his work. The next thing I knew I was meeting the author himself. He gave me a copy of The Stars and Other Korean Short Stories, a collection of his work translated by Edward Poitras. It wasn’t my first exposure to modern Korean short fiction—I’d read Agnita Tennant (neé Hong Myoung-Hee)’s 1975 anthology Modern Korean Stories—but I knew immediately upon reading Hwang’s stories that the author was a master of the form. Especially notable was “A Matter of Custom” (P’ungsok), one of the stories Hwang wrote in his early twenties while studying at Waseda University in Tokyo in the late 1930s. I found his treatment of a troubled father-son relationship astonishingly mature. So successful was Hwang in getting inside the head of the protagonist of this limited third-person narrative (not once does he use a third-person pronoun to identify the protagonist) that the story reads almost like a first-person narrative (a point also noted by Poitras in his excellent introduction to the collection).
Thus began a twenty-year relationship that was as meaningful to me as a teacher and translator of Korean literature as my [End Page 187] relationships with mentors such as Kim Chong-un, Marshall Pihl, and Kwon Youngmin. Our initial meetings revolved about the translation of his novel Umjiginŭn song, begun by Ju-Chan Fulton and myself in 1983 and published by Si-sa-yong-o-sa in 1985. In the mid-1990s, when I began my doctoral studies at Seoul National University, we began once again to meet regularly as I prepared my dissertation on his short fiction.
The initial meetings, in the 1980s, were in the vicinity of his residence in an apartment complex near Ch’ŏngnyangni in Seoul and then in the city of Anyang in Kyŏnggi Province. In the Anyang apartment we sat on the floor around a small table bearing a bottle of pŏpchu, a highly refined rice brew that I found delectable. Shortly after he and his good wife moved to Anyang I was to have visited him there. But a change in plans prevented me from doing so. In preparation he had purchased a bottle of the precious stuff and afterward reported to me in a letter that in my absence he thought he should deposit it for safekeeping—in his stomach:
Years later, inspired by English-language sijo master David McCann, I commemorated those occasions thus:
“Drinking With Hwang Sunwŏn”
There we sat, in his book-lined study,Quaffing pŏpchu, the method brew.“Know you how it ferments?” Asked this teller of stories sublime.Flashing his gold tooth, “With rice mash chewed by virgins.”
His final home was back in Seoul, in Sadang-dong, just east of the ridge rising to Kwanak Mt. behind Seoul National [End Page 188]
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University. In the same apartment complex lived his son, the poet and SNU professor of English literature Hwang Tong-gyu. There I was received in a Western-style living room, where we sat on a couch before a coffee table that always bore a copy of a Japanese literary journal. To my dismay, gone were most of the books that had graced the study in his Anyang residence. He had donated many of the precious volumes, including copies of his own works, to Kyunghee University, where he taught from 1957 to 1993, and bequeathed others to friends, he told me.
The core of the translator-author relationship was settled early on. How should we translate your works? Ju-Chan and I asked him as we began work on Umjiginŭn sŏng. His answer was immediate...