With an original formula blending playful, festive events and academic discussions around literature, the biennial Seoul International Writers’ Festival is the country’s premier literary forum. Coming back this year between 25 September and 1 October, the event will give readers a rare opportunity to interact with local and foreign writers in a bilingual environment. For expats, it will also be the occasion to stock up on quality books in different languages, which are often impossible to find in Korea. The recent appetite for Korean literature around the world adds a thrill to SIWF’s upcoming edition: Korea is now a trending spot on the global literary map, and the festival’s organisers are not short of ambition.
“It has not always been this easy” Ko Young-il recalls with a wry smile. “We had to fight hard to bring foreign writers to the first edition of the festival in 2006. Korean literature was very endogenous back then. Few of our works were translated and no one had heard of us.” A veteran of the Korean literary scene and founding member of the Seoul International Writers’ Festival, Ko is well placed to measure the remarkable distance covered by the country’s literature in the past few years. Korean writers who used to shy away from international events today cross the globe to attend festivals. Translated works of heavyweight Korean authors are highly regarded internationally, all the more so since the recent award of the International Man Booker Prize to Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian’. Perhaps more importantly for literary-enthusiasts in Korea, the SIWF receives growing international attention, as testified by the established stature of some of the participants. This edition of the festival, the 6th since its inception, will offer a unique opportunity to listen to, and exchange with inspiring writers such as best-selling American author David Vann, powerful Colombian novelist Santiago Gamboa or French-language poet Linda Maria Baros, to cite only a few.
A potent mix
Having started as a modest endeavour, the SIWF still relies on the same founding principles that have steered its success. It operates on an entirely free basis, and targets a large public by keeping an important place to festive programs. Its line-up balances in equal proportion the usual literature-themed exchanges with live performances. Staged readings by invited authors, musical happenings and even a mime show are all scheduled in this year’s program. The importance given to on-stage performance is an oddity in the galaxy of literary festivals, which are usually entirely focused on discussions between writers. For SIWF’s organisers, this is the key to the future. “It is about keeping literature relevant” Ko enthuses. “Mixing it with other genres is a potent way to bring a new, different public to literature. This is where we see the biggest potential for the festival’s development.”
Another cornerstone of the festival’s philosophy is to program young or little translated Korean authors who may not be on the radar of the general public. Exciting discoveries are guaranteed for literature lovers attending the SIWF, while its organisers are happy to broaden the appeal of the local literary scene. This approach also aligns with the mandate of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, the public body behind the festival, to highlight the richness and diversity of Korean literature. The practice takes a whole new dimension in the light of the country’s recent literary fortunes: instead of promoting authors whose name is already established, the SIWF taps into their success to foster a trickle-down effect which, they hope, will in turn sustain the quality of local literature on the long term.
Literary discussions at the festival are always arranged between pairs of Korean and foreign writers. “It really is about creating genuine encounters. We want to broaden the horizons of the authors by initiating meaningful conversations that will outlive the festival”, Ko explains. “We always work in pairs, because we believe that the one-on-one format brings greater intensity.” The SIWF is built on a dozen of such encounters, during which authors discuss a common theme that bring substance and focus to their conversation. The motif of this year’s talk will be “The Forgotten and the Unforgettable”, a choice made by the SIWF’s artistic committee which one of its member, novelist Hae Yisoo, has beautifully contextualised in an introduction text. “A writer is the most sensitive connoisseur of what remains and what has vanished” it reads, “who experiments with combination and decomposition, chooses between restoration and loss.”
The interest of the Korean public for foreign literature is perhaps SIWF’s biggest advantage. The market share of translated works revolves around 25pc in the country, while it makes for a paltry 5pc in most Western markets. Supported by the enthusiasm of local readers and buoyed by the international buzz around Korean literature, the festival’s organisers are now scaling up their ambitions. This year they target a substantive increase in public attendance, notably by foreign readers whom, they hope, will be enticed by the quality of the program. As for future editions, the sky seems the limit. “There is something brewing, clearly” says Ko. “If our writers keep on with the fantastic job they are doing and we stay true to our concept, SIWF can become big. Why not the biggest in Asia?”
Three to not miss:
- Santiago Gamboa is a prominent figure in new Latin American fiction. At once tender and farcical, his novels often verge on the surreal. (Talk: Tue 27 September, 3.30pm)
- Cheon Myeong-kwan has begun his career as a screenwriter. His noted short story collections and powerful novels such as “My Uncle, Bruce Lee” have earned him a place of choice in the Korean literary landscape. (Talk: Thur 29 September, 2.30pm)
- Mime act by Image Hunter Village Company (Tue 27 September, 8pm)
To go further:
- SIWF’s webpage: http://en.siwf.klti.or.kr
- Full program: http://en.siwf.klti.or.kr/bbs/board.php?bo_table=2016_B03&sca=See+All+Days
- Literature Institute of Korea’s webpage: http://www.klti.or.kr/e_main.do