NEA Literature Fellowships

Myung-Hee Kim

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(2011 - Translation)

"Steel and Flesh" by Hyun Ki-young

[translated from Korean]

In the dawn, the government soldiers surrounded the sleeping village. They set their fires by means of ropes, lighting one end so that the flame would spread along the entire length and create a big blaze like a bonfire. They began this from the outskirts of the village gradually moving into the center and shooting randomly. They herded the inhabitants toward the T-shaped street in the middle of the village. Byung-soo’s dad rushed up to the roof of their house to put out flames that had broken out in the corner; he was immediately shot and fell to the ground. His mom was hit on the back by the butt of a soldier’s rifle; she fell headlong and was dragged out of the house. In the midst of this chaos, Byung-soo ran to the burning stable and set loose the wailing cow and calf and then he hurriedly followed his mother. The entire village had turned into a sea of flame, firelight filled the village, even the clouds in the sky were blood red. Villagers fleeing from alley to alley were gunned down, along with the horses and cows. Heartbreaking screams came from the livestock and people on fire, who didn’t have a chance to escape from their burning houses. In the hellish blaze men in helmets and white bands ran amuck like emissaries from the Other World. About twenty young people who couldn’t escape were targeted as offerings. Women were not exempt; Byung-soo’s mother was one of those. She was twenty-six.

When the sun rose, they were dragged out of the village. A few steps behind, Byung-soo followed them hesitantly. His mother was at the end of the procession. She waved at him that he should return to home. But he didn’t stop. Then the soldier shook his gunstock as a warning for him to stop following. Though he was scared to death, he couldn’t stop. He hiccupped continuously as he tried to suppress his crying. Finally his mother burst into tears throwing stones at him to keep him away. Byung-soo stood still. One of the stones his mother had thrown stopped right in front of him and rolled under his shoes. He picked it up and held it tight in his hand.

The back of his mother became smaller and smaller then finally it was no longer discernable blending with others. The procession reached the edge of a cliff at the end of the stream. A few moments later a salvo of gunshots rang out. The torrent of hot metal pierced the naked lives, sweeping perfectly healthy human bodies off the cliff forever.

That was how this ancient village which was six hundred years old, and had been originally built as a bulwark of resistance against the Mongolian invasion, came to be destroyed in an instant. Of the three generations who had lived there, the middle generation of young adults had been exterminated. Only the old folks and children were left behind. Byung-soo had suddenly become an orphan.

Excerpt in Korean

About Steel and Flesh: Korean Stories 1945-48

The 18 authors appearing in Steel and Flesh: Korean Stories 1945-48 represent diversity: North and South Korean writers, women and men, major and lesser known writers. Despite their diversity, they all shared a common interest in hebanggi (post-liberation period 1945-48), a turning point in modern Korean history out of which the two Koreas and the two Korean literatures were born. An anthology of this kind will bring together voices from the two literary traditions severed from each other for over half a century and now featured together in English translation for the first time. Included are some major writers such as Rhee Ki-young, Kim Sa-ryang, and Rhee Tae-joon, once banned in South Korea. In his last known work "Dust," Rhee Tae-joon, whose essay collection Eastern Sentiments was published in 2009 by Columbia University Press, shows his "perspicacious sense of reality ridden with premonitions of imminent national crisis – fratricide." (Kim Je-yong). An eminent South-Korean literary critic Yum Moo-woong says of "Steel and Flesh" -- the title story by Hyun Ki-young -- "an experimental form of story…it will be the last flower of modernism unrepeatable in Hyun’s aesthetics...a superb piece that will leave its mark in the history of Korean short stories." Many of writers included in the anthology have been translated into English, Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Spanish and Russian.

A native of South Korea, Myung-Hee Kim has been a long-time resident in Sunnyside, New York, where she attended Columbia University, New York University, City of New York Graduate Center and taught at New York University. She is the English translator of Korean literary works including The Dog Thief (Tamal Vista, 2005) and The Life on the Edge of the DMZ (Global Oriental, 2008). In addition to translating, she has also published some poems in literary journals such as Amerasia, The Literary Realm, and Mizna. She is a recipient of Korean Literature Translation Institute's Translation Grants 2004 & 2005 and Translator Resident-Researcher Grants 2007 and 2008, and NYSCA Translation Grant 2010.

Photo courtesy of Shin Hee-kyung

Translator's Statement

A believer in multi-culturalism, I have harbored the modest dream of using the act of translation as a way to both validate my own culture within an alien milieu and build cross-cultural bridges for mutual enrichment and understanding. Sixty years have passed since the ceasefire between North and South Korea was declared and the two countries still remain “other” to each other.  This has compelled me to take stock of how literature has represented and interpreted the experiences of war and division. I aspire that my translation could ideally serve as a step towards building peace and spreading understanding about the conflict that escalated into a full blown civil war with lasting global repercussions. That is how I have come to conceive my three-volume anthology project Land Also Rises: Stories from the Korean War and Division.

Steel and Flesh: Korean Stories 1945-48 is the first in the series which has been much blessed by KLTI’s grants in the past during its initial stage of research and compilation. Now the NEA Translation Fellowship will provide a vital impetus for the takeoff I desperately needed. The timing of the fellowship is crucial in the long journey of the entire life of the project and it will most certainly enable me to make significant strides toward completing the first volume. NEA support is a huge boost for the project.