Being hybrid is cool: Korea Herald columnist

Cleaners cleaning the stairs as a man using a mobile phone walks by Sejong Centre for the Perfoming Arts in central Seoul on March 8, 2013.
Cleaners cleaning the stairs as a man using a mobile phone walks by Sejong Centre for the Perfoming Arts in central Seoul on March 8, 2013. PHOTO: REUTERS

By Kim Seong Kon

The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

For some dubious reason, Koreans tend to think of themselves as ethnically homogenous people. Naturally, they take pride in sharing a pure bloodline. That is why in Korea, people translate mixed-blood as "twigi" and hybrid as "japjong," both of which are derogatory remarks in the Korean language.

At school, kids frequently pick on mixed-blood classmates and tease them or make fun of them cruelly. At work, mixed-blood persons, who are likely to be excluded and alienated, easily become social pariahs.

Koreans should realise that we now live in a world where homogeneity and pure bloodlines are no longer of value. Instead, hybrid is the new cool.

Take hybrid cars for example, they have proven to be more efficient than conventional gas-fueled cars. Smartphones can be another good example of multipurpose hybrid devices that excel single-purpose ones.

Indeed, a smartphone is a combination of so many things: phone, camera, computer, telephone directory, navigator, stereo, game player and TV set. Smartphones have replaced newspapers, magazines and books as well.

Recently, I met a group of senior novelists who were blissfully unaware of the changes taking place in this age of electronics.

One of them furiously asserted that since young people were addicted to smartphones these days instead of reading books, the devices should be taken away from them.

On hearing her, I sighed heavily. For young people, smartphones can also function as books.

The novelist, instead of proposing such extreme measures, should have tried to find a way to upload stories and novels electronically so that youngsters can read them on their smartphones.

Perhaps, the essence of literature does not change. Surely, however, its vessel or medium can, with changes in paradigms.

I heard another novelist comment, "Since the film industry lures away fiction readers, let us launch a campaign to boycott theaters."

At this naive thinking, I was aghast again.

Film is by no means an enemy of literature.

On the contrary, literature and film can be good friends. For example, the Korean translation of Jane Austin's "Pride and Prejudice" became an instant best seller in Korea when the publication of the novel coincided with the release of the film version.

Often, a movie version of a novel can intrigue the curiosity of the audience and make them buy and read the original work. Film is not a killer of literature, but a resuscitator.

I was embarrassed when another novelist maintained that the government should financially support writers who have meager incomes.

To my surprise, he solemnly declared, "Writers cannot make a living from writing these days. Since we produce pure literature, we have every right to demand financial support from the government."

He did not realise two things. First, the age of pure literature is gone. We now live in an age of hybrid literature that integrates highbrow and popular culture, or serious and genre literature such as fantasy, science fiction and detective novels. Today, as boundaries between nations, literary genres, and highbrow and middlebrow cultures are rapidly collapsing, cultures are consolidating and so are literatures. The boundary between pure and popular literature, too, is being blurred.

Second, writers by nature do not want to rely on their government's financial support. In fact, writers from advanced countries would be reluctant to receive any money from their government. Besides, writers are engaged in writing not because they want to make money out of it but because they love literature. Why then do Korean writers expect their government to take care of them financially?

I heard another writer vehemently denouncing the relationship between literature and the market. He protested, "Do not insult writers by mentioning the market. Literature has nothing to do with the market whatsoever." But is it not true that every writer clandestinely wishes for his or her work to become a best seller? If so, how could they say that literature has nothing to do with the market? Without the market, how could they become best-selling writers in the first place?

Korean writers, however, do not seem to perceive the underlying contradictions and as a result develop a misconception that their novels and poems are too pure to be marketable. However, if you ignore the market and the changing tastes of readers, your books will be left stacked in a warehouse. What good is a book that no one reads?

Yet, many Korean writers still advocate pure literature and deprecate fantasy, science fiction or detective stories. But our classical novels such as "The Story of Hong Gil-dong," "The Story of Sim-cheong," "The Queen Swallow's Gift," and "The Dream of Nine Clouds," are all fantasies.

In "Culture and Imperialism," Edward Said states, "Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved in one another, none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated and unmonolithic."

With the advent of the Internet and Wi-Fi, the age of pure literature and highbrow culture is in decline. We now live in an age of hybrid cultures that embraces popular literature, subgenre novels, and middlebrow culture.

*The writer is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.