By Mitali Chakravarty

Was that Mountain Really there? by Park Wan-Suh, an award winning and well-known Korean novelist, has recently been translated by Hannah Kim and published by Kitaab. The novel depicts the trauma of partition faced by civilians in a war that reft the country in two, less than a decade after India was sliced into multiple segments. While Indians suffered in the name of religion, Was that Mountain Really There? portrays the suffering caused by a war created by the clash of communist and capitalist ideologies.

Park Wan-Suh was separated from her mother and brother by the border etched by the Korean War (1950-53) and found herself in the South while her family was in the North. Korean critic Kim Byeong-ik states that her writing is ‘the only record of how people survived in Seoul during the Korean War;’ however, her book is equally relevant in the current context of the ravages of war and refugee influx, a worldwide concern to date.

According to Theodore Hughes of Columbia University, ‘Park Wan-Suh is important for the ways in which her writing is at once popular (nearly all her works are best-sellers) and canonical. She is widely discussed in Korean academia and she has become the subject of dissertations. While this is also the case for many male writers, Park Wan-Suh may have combined the two levels more successfully than any other novelist.’

More than half a dozen of her novels have been translated into English, the latest being Was the Mountain Really There? Translating a book of this calibre is undoubtedly a daunting task and one that Hannah Kim performs very well. This translation highlights both the uniqueness of Korean life and culture and the universality of human sufferings and interactions that transcends borders of all kinds.

Hannah Kim is a translator and writer at Arirang TV. She has translated works on a variety of topics including literature, politics, music, visual arts, history and economics. She currently works in conjunction with the Department of Anthropology, Seoul National University. She combines a passion for music along with her passion for words and performs as a classically trained soprano in concerts in Southern California. In this interview, she highlights the challenges of translating and talks of Park Wan-Suh’s contributions to literature and the importance of words that can ‘inform, connect, and change the world’.

Hannah Kim

Mitali: The book is very personal – autobiographical in its historical sweep and    emotional proximity. How did you, as the translator, negotiate this emotional core? Did it involve research?

Hannah: Translating this novel definitely involved research but not so much for its emotional core. I had to study the events of the Korean War, the military tactics, and some period terms. Studying those technical aspects was not difficult. It was the emotional delivery of the text that was challenging. It was important for me as a translator to use the English language to conjure up the same or similar emotional reactions as those who had read the book in Korean. However, there were certainly cultural and linguistic barriers I tried to minimize, as there were words and expressions that could not directly be translated. So trying to get as close to the emotional core of the original language in English was definitely challenging.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh was one of the most remarkable women writers of her times. Can you tell us more about her life and works? What made you choose her and this particular book of hers for translation?

Hannah: She was and still is one of the most beloved and celebrated writers in Korea. What was so remarkable about her was how prolific she was given that she had made her debut as a writer in her 40s. She never received formal training in writing — she had attended only one semester at Seoul National University before dropping out at the outbreak of the Korean War.

I chose Was the Mountain Really There? because I liked her writing style. Her writing is unembellished, frank, piercing, and vulnerable all at the same time. Also, having grown up in the U.S., I was always interested in learning more about Korean history. My father was in middle school when the war broke out and he told us stories of how his family survived when my siblings and I were young. South Korea was destroyed and reduced to rubble when the armistice was signed and the war was suspended in 1953. The miraculous economic development of South Korea since the end of the war was dubbed as the Miracle on the Han River. I wanted to trace its history and see how the war was experienced and narrated by a civilian, not by a second-source historian.

Mitali: Park Wan-Suh lived through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. Her first hand experiences are found in her autobiographical novel Who Ate Up All The Shinga, translated in 2009. In her foreword to the sequel, Was The Mountain Really There? she says she ‘wasn’t able to form the pattern (she) truly wanted’. What could have been the pattern, the sense of relentless change or of man taking over and destroying a natural way of life? Do you think the book has been able to convey this ‘pattern’ quite well despite how she felt about it as its writer?

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About the book:

The Bride’s Mirror (Mirat ul-‘Arus) was the first bestseller in Urdu. First published in 1869, within twenty years it had gone into several editions and sold over 100,000 copies. An English translation was published in England in 1903 by G. E. Ward, and the book has been almost continuously in print ever since. The novel tells the story of two sisters, Asghari and Akbari, who are married to two brothers in Delhi. Akbari, the spoilt, mean-tempered and impetuous sister, fritters away all the advantages she is offered and makes a mess of her life. Asghari, who has to contend with all sorts of disappointments and setbacks, prevails in the end and makes a success of everything she turns her hand to.

All through its existence, The Bride’s Mirror had been hailed as one of the most important works of Urdu literature ever published. The portrait it provides of the lives of those who lived in Delhi over a hundred years ago is an indelible one.

Bride's mirror-1

When the news of Batúl’s death reached him, Dúrandesh Khán sáhib was very greatly distressed, and it was with a troubled heart that he wrote to his daughter the following letter:

Book Review: Horizon Afar and Other Tamil Stories
by Jayanthi Sankar

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

Horizon Afar

Title: Horizon Afar & other Tamil short stories
Author: Jayanthi Sankar
Translated by P. Muralidharan
Publisher: Kitaab, 2016
Pages: 230

Horizon Afar is a collection of twenty-one translated short stories from the Singapore-based Tamil writer, Jayanthi Sankar. Spanning the last two decades, the stories shuttle between life in Singapore and India, creating links between the two countries and drawing on the writer’s multicultural experiences and interactions in the country where she lives.

Often her stories centre on teenagers and young people. The title story is about a teenager who shuttles through a surrealistic experience to find his footing in junior college (high school in Singapore). The most interesting read was a darker story, Mother’s Words, which deals with a reformed convict who is ostracized by the world yet loved by the mother.

A Few Pages from Yuka Wong’s Diary depicts the changing mindset of a multicultural population and their ability to transcend hatred to discover a fascination for a country that had unscrupulous expansionist ambitions in the 1940’s Japan.  The story is told through the pages of a young girl’s diary and makes an interesting and effective use of the device.

Melissa’s Choices is about a young man’s discovery of the fickleness of a young girl’s choices. School Bag, Revelation and Rehearsal are stories about teenagers’ journeys of discoveries in a multicultural society. Seventy Rupees, set in the midst of an auto-rickshaw strike in India, is a glimpse of the apathy of middle class towards the plight of the poor.

The stories often circle around the tedium of modern day existence and focus on the darker aspects of life. The issues faced by workers ‘imported’ from small villages of Tamil Nadu are dealt with in a couple of stories. While Cycle focuses on a flesh trader located in Singapore preying on an innocent Tamil migrant woman, Migration deals with an Indian domestic helper’s inability to adjust in Singapore. There are stories about unwed mothers, a girl who rebels to adopt a trans-sexual lifestyle, university life, school life and marriages arranged within the Tamil community in Singapore.

By Dr Kamalakar Bhat

H.S. Shiva Prakash

O my Kannada words
You became my companions
In far-off Peru
Thanks for keeping me company
From day dreams amidst clouds
To the heights of Machu Picchu
Where eagles circle
And from there
To the cities of the ocean-goddess
And of a god with thunder’s name
With bricks and stones stained with blood
And from there
To the depths of Caral the mother city
And you, voices from the Machu Picchu poem
By my elder brother Pablo
Beloved hearts of my dear readers
That befriended me on my lonely journey;
The fruit of our journey
Was not sand, stone or ancient Peru’s mother city
But these few proverbs I stole from primordial dreams:
Peace is inevitable; not war
Dying is inevitable; not killing
Worship is inevitable; not sacrifice
Mating is inevitable; not longing
Trade is inevitable; not cheating
Enchanting flowers, the dreams of rocks;
Beauteous forms, the dreams of deserts;
Exquisite cities, the dreams of void;
The joy of all, the longing of the soul
Write these down in the slips of paper
Of our dying worlds,
Tie them to the claws of dream doves,
Let them go flying
Into all times
Into all spaces
Into all worlds

— From “Heights of Machu Picchu, Depths of Caral” by H. S. Shiva Prakash

Poet, playwright and translator, H S Shiva Prakash (born 1954) is among the foremost living writers of India. He began as a poet and playwright writing in Kannada and eventually became a bilingual poet and a translator across multiple languages. He teaches English at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and has served as the Director of the Cultural Centre at Berlin, known as the Tagore Centre.

He has nine collections of poems, fifteen plays, and several other books to his credit in Kannada. He has also published a collection of poems in English and many of his plays are available in English translation. His works have been widely translated into French, Italian, Turkish, Spanish, German, Polish, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu. His plays have been performed in Kannada, Hindi, Meitei, Rabha, Assamese, Bodo, Tamil and Malayalam. Shiva Prakash has also translated the Kannada vachana literature into English. His interests include Bhakti movements of India, and Sufi and other mystic traditions. He has to his credit many ‘best book’ prizes for his books of poems, plays and translations accorded to him by Sahitya Academy, Delhi, Sangeet Natak Academi, Delhi and Karnataka Sahitya Academy. He is also the recipient of many awards including the Rajyotsava Award given by the Karnataka government and the Kusumagraja Award given by YCMOU, Nashik. While he has been invited to read his poems or present talks in various countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and America, he was also invited to the International Writing Program in School of Letters, University of Iowa.

Shiva Prakash began his writing career when ‘navya’, the modernist literary movement was dominant in Kannada. No doubt influenced by some of the major modernist Kannada writers, when he began writing, Shiva Prakash, wrote out of the many memories housed in him through the years of his growing up. In so doing, in his initial output, he marked a distinct poetic manner – both in form and content – from the one that was then popular. By the time his second collection was published, this difference began to be celebrated by his readers.

Kamalakar Bhat: Your poems forsake the path of obscurity that much of the navya Kannada poetry had chosen though you began writing during the period. Was reaching out to the reader important to you? 

Shiva Prakash: When I first started writing, I thought that my business is to write without bothering about reach and accessibility. Because I was influenced by modernist poetics and thought that one writes for a discerning individual. That was my belief at that time. Later, I discovered that when I read my poems in person, well-read people expressed admiration but the common people were not feeling good.  Then I said no, I must write for these people, not for the scholars and critics. I decided I should make the simple style my model.

Looking at the whole tradition of Kannada poetry and what kind of relationship exists between the poet and the audience, I discovered that in the best of Kannada poetry, even in classical Kannada poetry, the most memorable lines are very simple and they are immediately communicable. Whether it is Pampa, Ranna, Raghavanka, Kumaravyasa, all are very simple.

See, once a poet establishes a kind of rapport with the audience, people remember him.
Because poetry is not a communication of meaning. It may be the discovery of meaning for the critic and the scholar, but for people poetry creates an impact. And nobody reads poetry for accessing meaning. I think I endorse the classical notion that poetry is about impact, not communication.

Book Review: Was that Mountain Really There? By Park Wan-suh (Translated by Hannah Kim)

Reviewed by Anushka Ray

Was that Mountain Really There

Title: Was that Mountain Really There?
Author: Park Wan-suh
Translator: Hannah Kim
Publisher: Kitaab International Pte ltd
Pages: 332
Buy

Autobiographies typically present the picture of perfect bravery; they are a testament to fortified bulwarks authors build up as they trudge along, with a complimentary voice depicting a clear story line and eventual victory. Was that Mountain Really There? is rare in its sense where the narrator remains at her core so impenetrably humble and human, it is no longer a retelling of a story. Instead, it becomes a reflection on adolescence, a growing up which just so happened to coincide with the 1950-1953 Korean War. Park Wan-suh upholds an honest narrative voice, with a raw sincerity that transforms even the most tumultuous of moments into something delicate and fragile.

Every word has a distinct purpose. Even the seemingly mindless title is explained in the author’s foreword, with the retelling of how Wan-suh witnessed the construction of a new gymnasium in replacement of a hideous mound in her hometown. This development, although praised by the neighbourhood, somehow struck a chord within her, as she campaigns to immortalize the memory of the small hill. The strange memory effortlessly portrays the sense of futility which existed in her childhood, especially growing up in an age where everything around was demolished. It is this fear of history being forgotten which compelled Wan-suh to publish the novel, a way to tell the world ‘that’s how we lived’.

Was that Mountain Really There? explores the life of author Park Wan-suh as a 20-year-old caught in the Korean War in 1951. Accompanied by her relatives, Wan-suh navigates the eruptive state of Korea, where the constant battle for power between the North and South Koreans controls their actions. She navigates the country both literally and figuratively, as she briefly escapes Seoul and finds a short-lived refuge in Gyoha (part of the then country Paju) before returning home. While a palpable fear is instilled from the opening pages with Wan-suh’s brother suffering from a North Korean inflicted gun wound, there is a clear reluctance to encounter South Korean soldiers due to the family’s previous communist history. All this accumulates to a constant state of paranoia when faced with any militia, and an underlying commentary on whether either army was in the right. This paranoia sustains throughout the novel but gradually grows subdued and muted, dictating their decisions yet not exposing them to any violence.