Professor Janet Poole talks about Korea under Japanese rule in her new book When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea (Columbia, 2014). This new work focuses on the late colonial era and the sense of restricted possibilities that affected the writers of this time period. For the first time, Professor Poole talks about her new book and what drew her to studying this topic.

How did you get interested in Korea as a field of study?

I like learning languages and it was the late 1980s, so I started learning Japanese because that’s when the Japanese economy was booming and if you’re an undergrad student who liked languages, it seemed like a natural thing to do. I was in a place called The School of Oriental and African Studies, which is part of the University of London, where they have people studying a huge range of different languages from Asia and Africa. In my department of East Asia, there was an old professor, Bill Skillend, I believe he was the first professor of Korean literature in Euro-America and it was his last year teaching. He was teaching Korean, so I took it as a minor along with Japanese out of curiosity. In the 1980s there was still a military dictatorship and South Korea was on the news every day. So I was curious about other aspects of Korea because at the time you only heard about human rights and the economy. So my curiosity led me to learning Korean and reading Korean literature. In a way, my interest in the colonial period came about naturally, because so much of the writing from that period is written in Japanese.

How did the Japanese colonial period really change the Korean language?

When you get to the late 1930s, with the more difficult stories, especially with these high-modern writers, the sentences make more sense when translated into Japanese. It seemed like the syntax was off in Korean, which made it difficult to read. So my sense is that the language really changed. Part of the decolonization involved thinking about the language and clearing out remnants of Japanese imperialism at the language level. If you read writers from the 1950s, it’s still pretty similar, once you get to the 1960s, sentences are so much simpler and shorter, and it feels very different.

Did you have any difficulties working with texts and translating them?

I’m actually a literary translator, so I love this kind of work. A bigger challenge for me was to hold onto moments when meaning wasn’t totally transparent, being careful not to impose meaning, and to keep that openness there. Under colonial rule, a lot of the language can be rather nuanced and indirect because there was so much censorship and people might not write as directly. I feel that indirect nature of language is particularly characteristic of that period, the meaning could go either way and I want to keep that multiplicity instead of imposing my own view.

With the purposeful alteration of Korean history under Japanese rule, why did you focus on the disappearance of the future instead of the disappearance of Korea’s past?

Ultimately I wanted to see the connection between the two, how this sense of the disappearing future turns into an exploration of different pasts. The past and the murky repetitive present are the two senses of time that come to the fore in fiction, and the past is always so interesting precisely because the colonial power wants to impose a certain version of the past that says “Korea deserves to be colonized because it was backwards and not doing well, so we came in and saved it.” So there are certain kinds of colonial interests in producing certain versions of the past. I find with different writers, the past comes to the fore but in different ways, sometimes, maybe not deliberately, even reaffirming that very colonial view of the degraded past. However, it is also exoticized in an interesting way, like with Yi Taejun, by the time he is writing in the late 1930s, he himself feels so far away from the precolonial past that it is very romantic and exoticized for him as well as being politically charged, there is a kind of pleasure in exploring the past or trying to reenact it as well as wanting to stake a claim on a more glorious past than is being presented. I am interested in the past, and I wanted to show how the rise of interest in the past does not happen separate from a sense of present and future. It is connected with the disappearing sense of future and in many ways very present-centred, it is not a distanced past but a reimagined past and present and that is what I wanted to stress.

Many post-colonial writers are faced with the dilemma of having to either write in their native language and have their voices muted, or write in the colonizer’s language and be seen as traitors. Is there a particular side for which you would advocate?

I deliberately would not advocate for either. In my book, the last chapter was added because I had not said much about writing in Japanese – the imperial language, and I felt like I needed to. And I wanted to stress that by the wartime period, writing in the imperial language is not an active choice, even though writers are often criticized for writing in Japanese. Today, that’s the most controversial issue and they are considered national traitors. I wanted to say that it is not a choice, although in earlier moments people may have actively sought to write in Japanese because they thought more people would read their writing. They thought that if they wrote in Japanese, they would be translated into English. So writing in Japanese was about authority, and the possibility of being translated into other languages that might be deemed even more authoritative. But by the late colonial period, I think it becomes inevitable for different reasons. When there’s nowhere to publish in Korea, then what do you do, do you stop writing or do you write in Japanese? And when you write in Japanese, who are you writing for? Are you writing to Japanese people or, by the early 1940s, is that really the language of Korean writers? It’s not really clear cut. In my book, I say that we don’t get to choose the languages we write in; it’s rarely an act that is so deliberate, that I will sit down and write in this language. It’s much more complicated than that, so I wouldn’t advocate for either. I’m really struck by the fiction that was written in Japanese, it is often more nuanced than I was expecting, even when I read the so-called propaganda stories. There were a whole bunch of stories where writers had to write about the army during the war. Usually, they would be taken to a military base on a tour and they would have to write a story on it. If you read the stories, it is not clear cut that they are pro-army. There is a story where the female narrator takes her son to a Japanese army training base, he loves the army and the Japanese soldiers showing him around, it seems very glorifying of Japanese soldiers, but then the narrator has lunch with the soldiers and she hears the sound of saliva in the soldier’s mouth because there’s not enough food, and it’s just a small detail to describe what’s going on, but that’s not really propaganda. On the one level, the story is glorifying the army, on a different level, it is making comments that would be read differently by the readers. Equally, there could be Korean language stories that are very propagandistic. It’s just not clear cut that one language takes you one way or another.

Due to Korea’s history with Japan, how would you say if affects their current relationship?

It’s been very fraught. Throughout East Asia, there is still an ongoing sense that this period has not been dealt with, for complicated reasons that are not just to do with East Asia, but to do with US occupation of Korea and Japan, the Soviet Union and North Korea, and the different kind of powers that got involved during the Cold War period. There is very much a sense that things have not really been dealt with, that colonialism is not over. Post-colonialism in East Asia, as in many places, is not “post” as in “after”, it is that very sense that this history is still lingering.

So many writers are mentioned in the book, do you have a personal favourite or any works that you really recommend?

I translate, which is such an investment of time, so you end up translating your favourites. I have translated Yi Taejun’s essay collection, and I am currently doing a collection of short stories by him. So he is a favourite and the other one, Ch’oe Myŏngik, is a really interesting writer and I’ve been translating some of his work recently. I found his stories from the 1930s absolutely captivating, he only wrote about six stories before 1945. He’s originally from Pyongyang and he stayed in Pyongyang after division and he kept on writing. He also did not meet the unfortunate end that many of the other writers met. Those six stories from 1930s Pyongyang are just so evocative of a certain kind of place and moment. Pyongyang was developing, with different new technologies coming in, all while a violent stymied atmosphere exists in the background. The way he sets up encounters between different characters and their debates, I find them very interesting.

Is there anything that you didn’t get a chance to include in your book, but would like to?

The original project was supposed to be 1930s through 1940s, going to the end of the Korean War. It didn’t happen. When people talk about Korean history, 1945 is such a big year. Those time periods get separated, the before and after. So my grand plan was not to do that, but I ended up in many ways doing it because I felt there was so much to talk about for the early 1940s, that I didn’t see the point of breaking it down, even though it is important to cross that divide, at the expense of really understanding the complexities of the early 1940s.

In the book, I just have a very brief epilogue about the writers’ afterlives, which were very interesting, and often very painful and tragic. And it is hard to not always have those in mind, so if I did have another ten years I would definitely look into the late 1940s and the way in which the different trajectories worked out.


-written by Katy Wang, a fourth-year student double majoring in English and Psychology at the University of Toronto.

This article is part of a series of articles written by undergraduate students affiliated with the Asian Institute about Asian Institute affiliated faculty.