Barbara Zitwer broke into tears. She had never told anyone about the stress when helping her husband go through an organ transplant after being diagnosed with liver cancer that ― if left untreated ― would have left him with three months to live. But engulfed in icy mid-January air and leafy mountains in South Korea’s Jeondeung Temple, tended for over a millennium by Buddhist monks, she finally shared the fears she felt.
“We are happy now,” the young monk told her, making her laugh. Why waste the present carrying burdens of the past, she thought, a message she still ponders on today whenever she feels anxious. Zitwer took her first trip to South Korea to discover writers from the country that were unknown to the English-speaking world, in hopes of making their translated works into international bestsellers. But she did not expect what she described as an epiphany about finding happiness while sipping tea with a monk.
“It was a total epiphany, and it was so beautiful and so simple,” Zitwer said in an interview.
Since that first trip nine years ago, she has made a name for herself promoting translated works by more than 40 South Korean writers to Europe and North America. But she has yet to definitively explain what drew her to Korea ― a stubborn question from friends and colleagues ― until she wrote her new book, “The Korean Book of Happiness.”
“Korean people, the culture, the rite… everything about Korea is a mystery,” Zitwer said. “And that’s part of the allure, and that’s part of what’s in all these books.” Unlike American literature, which she called “dull and formulaic,” Korean novels do not have an explicit denouement and focus on presenting readers a puzzle to work through.
Pyun Hye-young’s “City of Ash and Red” and “The Hole” deal with characters stripped of their autonomy, plunged into claustrophobic isolation by circumstances outside their control, and gaslit, indeed, by the narrative itself.
“When I read her books, they are an experience I have lived, and then I feel lucky to be alive and live through it,” Zitwer said. “The point of her books is not to have a pat ending or a period at the end of the sentence. The life of the book continues, and her work sparks my imagination greatly.”
Among Zitwer’s authors is also journalist-turned-writer J. M. Lee, whose novels “The Boy Who Escaped Paradise” and “The Investigation” weave together crime and contemporary Korean history to explore power and human nature.
“Barbara’s always told me that she’s drawn to Korean literature because it delivers the sense of acceptance, and American writers want the sense of clarity, one way or another, in their books,” said Sue Park, a Korean American poet and writer who has worked in Zitwer’s agency for three years.
American writers tend to give clear endings to their stories because they are drawn to social criticism and showing progress and change in the works, Park said. The ambiguity and pushing readers to accept it point toward a higher truth instead of providing a commentary.
Zitwer got involved in promoting translated Korean literature by chance. She was starving for new books to sell when she took her Korean co-agent, Joseph Lee, for dinner in New York. She asked Lee for titles by young literary writers she can represent, and he recommended “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” by Kim Young-ha, followed by others including award-winning “Our Happy Time” by Gong Ji-young and “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang.
“I read these books, and none of these authors were known anywhere in the world. I thought they were amazing,” Zitwer said.
But Zitwer blamed “old, big Korean publishers” for slowing Korean literature from reaching a foreign readership because they do not understand or wish to work with global publishing norms and insist on their ways. For that, authors from South Korea have lost out on opportunities for their works to be published or even adapted for the screen.
Korean publishers’ inability to speak English, the lingua franca in the English-language publishing world, meant they could not communicate and network with counterparts in other countries. Park also said Korean publishers do not understand the specific tastes of Western publishing houses and account for those business niches when striking deals.
Zitwer said the global success of more recent South Korean media such as Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film “Parasite” and the 2021 Netflix series “Squid Game” only emboldened media houses in the country to stick to businesses practices at odds with international norms.
“Some of these publishers rather lose great publishing and film deals rather than work in conjunction with others outside of Korea,” she said. “I hope this sensibility will change with young and new publishers and authors.”
She could see what insiders might be blind to as an outsider, Zitwer said, despite spending more than a decade working with Korean authors to promote their works in the West. “You observe things that are new or different, or you observe things that people who are on the inside don’t even think twice about at all.”
To her, that is not only about the South Korean publishing industry or uncovering hidden and forgotten gems among Korean books, but the broader Korean culture. Her new travel guide-meets-cookbook, “The Korean Book of Happiness,” details her travels around South Korea as an outsider, leading the reader from one travel destination to another, accompanied by her reflections on the traditional culture of Korea and herself.
Zitwer said helping Korean literature find a greater audience is also a way of sharing her happiness with the world.
“When I tell people ‘all these books, they are so fabulous,’ I really mean it,” she said of works by Korean authors. “They’re so unique and different, and I think that it’s just going to continue to grow.”
Source: The Korea Times