Editor, the Quarterly Changbi . Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Seoul National University
This address was delivered at the opening session of the 2007 Jeonju Asia-Africa Literature Festival (AALF) at Jeonbuk National University, Jeonju, Korea, on November 9, 2007.
ⓒ Paik Nak-chung 2007
Yesterday I gave a welcoming speech as chair of the AALF Organizing Committee. Today I am going to offer you some personal thoughts according to the decision by my younger Committee colleagues, who, without consulting the chairman, invited me to deliver this speech. I am nevertheless honored and delighted by the invitation.
Asia and Africa are vast and diverse places, each comprising a world on its own. Even the concept of a continent with the name ‘Asia’ or ‘Africa’ did not emerge until Europeans gave those names. Numerous civilizations merely have come and gone, many of them with histories much more ancient than Europe.
Asia and Africa, however, share the common experience of being marginalized by the Europeans as the Other, and of having had most areas fall victim to European colonialism. Among those that escaped direct rule by Western nations, China suffered from various colonialist invasions and partial occupations, and Korea was colonized by a surrogate imperial power. Even Japan, which achieved early success in imitating the West, has not been free of cultural and intellectual colonialization and, in my opinion, still shows symptoms of its aftereffects.
Africa and Asia also share the feature that the preponderant majority of their population is suffering from poverty, disease, dictatorship and exploitation. Among them, Iraq suffers direct occupation by the hegemonic superpower, while Palestine would offer an instance of surrogate occupation. As for Korea, although I do not believe foreign powers are solely responsible for the continuing national division on the Korean peninsula, the division initially engineered mainly by the United States continues to fetter the people of both Koreas.
In short, the rich legacy of African and Asian civilizations has been either defaced or insufficiently recognized because of such a state of affairs, and the creative energies of Asian and African writers have been either oppressed or, when productive and fruitful, have been marginalized on the world stage. Even our mutual contacts are usually dependent on the languages and publishing markets of the hegemonic nations.
Endeavors were not lacking in the past to build direct networks of dialogues and solidarity, overcoming dependency and marginality. A good example is the Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference and its activities in the middle and late decades of the past century. There were also attempts to include Latin American writers in a wider solidarity. Some of you in the audience have personal experiences of working in these movements.
Although they advocated ‘non-alignment’, African and Asian writers’ movements in the past century were actually on closer terms with the socialist bloc, and in any case operated within the framework of the Cold War regime. Therefore, the end of the East-West Cold War and the collapse of the socialist bloc led to the weakening and virtual demise of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference.
The Korean peninsula failed to make significant contributions to that movement. Politically, North Korea was an important member of the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’, and even hosted the Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference in Pyongyang, but their literary contributions, I believe, were rather limited. South Korea, on the other hand, did have a vigorous presence of writers espousing what we then called ‘the Third-World perspective’, but because of its heavy dependence on the United States could hardly claim a respectable share in the Non-Aligned Movement or the Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference.
When we Korean writers look back on this regrettable past, we are all the happier that we can host this Asia-Africa Literature Festival in Jeonju. This has been possible because in the ensuing years South Korea has successfully struggled for democracy and economic development, and continued to reduce its dependence on the United States. At the same time, the world today needs a new type of solidarity in order to resist the ever-spreading sway of global capital after the end of the East-West confrontation.
Now more than ever we need to realize that ‘the Third-World perspective’ should serve not to divide the globe into three parts but to see the problems of a single globe from the point of view of ordinary people rather than that of the vested interests of either the ‘First World’ or the ‘Second’. It is time that we organized our creative energies and collective wisdom accordingly. This festival, too, is a part of that project. In a sense, it seems appropriate for a country like South Korea to play a special role in this endeavor, a country neither too rich nor helplessly poor, placed somewhere between the so-called First World and the Third World, a country that, moreover, has entered the process of reconciliation, cooperation and gradual reintegration of the socialist North and the capitalist South. In any event, it is beyond all doubts a great blessing for us Korean writers.
The encounter with fellow Asian and African writers will also be a valuable occasion for us to rethink and sort out our own literary agendas.
In the days when we were fighting military dictatorship and had to struggle for the very space for reunification movements, the idea of ‘national literature’ served Korean writers of resistance as a rallying point their political and literary endeavors. ‘National literature’ in this context is a very specific notion based on the unique reality of divided Korea. Refusing to be the literature of only one half of the divided nation, it aspired to be the literature of the entire Korean nation-in other words, a literature of the people, representing the desires and needs of the preponderant majority of the population across the peninsula. However, ‘national Literature’ no longer serves as a productive slogan in today’s Korea. Since the Democracy Struggles of June 1987, South Korea has continued its process of democratization, accompanied by a further deepening of capitalism, and as a result, it now shows signs of rapidly turning into a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.
However, I cannot agree with some of those in Korea’s literary world who dismiss as outmoded nationalism even the vision for a reunified Korea contained in the discourse of national literature, especially since that vision proposed not a simple end to the partition of the land but the building of a more humane society than that under the current division system and thus contributing to the endeavors toward a new civilization for humankind. Such a wholesale abandonment of the project of ‘national literature’ with its emphasis on writers’ sense of responsibility for the realities of national division, can only make ourselves more easily subject to the neo-liberal trends that all the more effectively carries out the essentially anti-artistic and anti-poetic logic of capitalism by tolerating or even encouraging a certain degree of individual and collective differences.
I believe the Asian and African writers in attendance today will not find it difficult to empathize with the problems faced by Korean writers, even though you belong to societies very different from Korea. For you must have worked to give voice to the sufferings of your own people, and often espoused urgent national agendas, but you must also have felt the need for international solidarity and the importance of high artistic standards. We do have to move beyond simple-minded militancy and nationalism, but we should not surrender ourselves, in the name of ‘global standards’ and intellectual sophistication, to neoliberal global domination that threatens the life of literature itself.
The Third World, I repeat, cannot be confined to specific regions of the globe. The Third World is there in the so-called First World and in the erstwhile Second World as well; while within the nations designated as the Third World, we find First-World elements, and even attempts to enlarge their privileges by touting the cause of the ‘Third World’.
That art and literature that enable us to see this complex world with clear eyes and a balanced mind will truly deserve the name of art. In order to achieve such genuine art and literature, we shall have to pay much more attention to the experiences of continents and nations alienated from the center of the world-system, even though the concept of the Third World is not a cartographical one. And we have to build a network of dialogue and communication of those writers who tend to be neglected in the world literary market precisely because they respect the experiences of Asia and Africa, so that these writers can come together to recognize their mutual good will and can strengthen their passion for true art and literature. Needless to say, each of us will need above all to devote ourselves more wholeheartedly than ever to his or her daily creative work.
I hope this 2007 Asia-Africa Literature Festival in Jeonju will be a point of departure for many more creative encounters. Thank you very much.