Gwangju, South Korea: The 1st Asian Literature Festival


An article by Brother Anthony from the Korea Times

The vast, recently completed Asia Culture Center in the heart of Gwangju, South Jeolla Province, was the scene of Korea's first Asian Literature Festival last week, Nov. 1 to 4. It brought together writers from Asia and beyond, together with a number of Korean writers, for a time of sharing and encounters designed to establish stronger bonds between writers across the globe.

Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka from Nigeria speaks at Asian Literature Festival in Gwangju, Nov. 4. / Yonhap

In his opening remarks, the senior Korean poet, Ko Un, stressed until now the sheer size of the region known as "Asia," together with its linguistic diversity, have been a great obstacle to free communications between the writers of the region. Korean poets have remained unaware of and unable to read the poetry written in other countries and on other continents, and vice versa. Ko Un recalled how the Korean poet Oh Sang-sun wrote a poem titled "Asia's Night" in 1920, in the aftermath of Japan's suppression of the Korean March 1 Independence Movement. He proposed poets coming together now in friendship might be able to produce, nearly a century later, a response he called "Asia's Morning."

In his opening address, the 1986 Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka from Nigeria stressed that humanity today faces a vital choice between freedom and stagnation. Creativity, he said, is only possible in freedom and today, in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, fundamentalist religious intolerance is resulting not only in the destruction of many nations' artistic heritage but in the uprooting and scattering of whole populations. In response, he called for the festival's participants to work together to develop a new "Culture of Peace," binding "all peoples together from Africa to Korea and around the globe."

The Asia Culture Center was built around and under the former Jeolla Provincial Office and other buildings on Geumnam-ro Street, which today form a memorial complex to the victims of the 5.18 Democratic Uprising. It was the site of the final massacre of the civilian militia when the army retook control of the town in the early morning of May 27, 1980. President Roh Moo-hyun first suggested turning the site into a cultural center for the whole of Asia. It was only natural that the festival participants should begin by making a solemn visit to the May 18th National Cemetery, led by Ko Un, and together pay their respects to all who lived and died for Korea's democratization, in 1980 and also both before and since then. Ko Un paid special tribute to poets Kim Nam-ju and Jo Tae-il and activist Yun Han-bong. In the Memorial Hall at the cemetery the visitors saw a special display of poems selected from Ko Un's great "Maninbo" cycle, commemorating some of those who died in the Uprising.

A number of poets from across the world spoke during the festival. The great Spanish poet Antonio Colinas said, in particular, "The poems and prose of the East possess literary and vital roots, about which we still need to learn, of which we must perform a radical reading to escape the chaos toward which we are heading." He concluded, "The poetry of the past has lasted and must endure today in the face of the uniformity and chaos that foments global dehumanization. This was possible because the poetry of the past has been faithful to its primary mission, to go beyond words."

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Question for this article:

How can poetry promote a culture of peace?

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French poet Claude Mouchard evoked his encounter with a homeless Sudanese refugee in France; finally that man lived for eight years in his home and they struggled to communicate despite the language barriers. Mouchard took scraps of their shared conversations and turned them into poetry. The man one day died of a heart attack in the poet's arms, but his words remain, noted by the poet as "perhaps poems." American poet Zack Rogow traced the influence of Asian poetry and art, especially that of Japan, to the writers and artists of France and Russia.

That evening, Ko Un and singer Na Yoon-sun joined forces in a concert, Ko Un's dramatic readings of his poems alternating with the vibrant voice of the immensely popular singer before a packed theater. Ko Un's manner of reading his poems has long made him a celebrity in literary festivals across the globe and at 84 he continues to impress and deeply move audiences.

At the heart of the festival were poets and novelists from a number of Asian countries: Ayu Utami from Indonesia, Damdinsuren Uriankhai from Mongolia, Duo Duo from China, Sagawa Aki from Japan and Shams Langeroodi from Iran, as well as a dozen writers, mostly poets, from Korea. Each of the overseas guests was accompanied by a personal interpreter to facilitate communication. During visits to the top of Mount Mudeung, to the bamboo groves and a traditional garden in Damyang, freewheeling exchanges formed the essence of the festival, as poet met poet across the barriers of distance and language. One literary translator spoke on the last day to stress the essential role of the translator in enabling multiple local literatures written in so many mutually incomprehensible languages to cross all frontiers and become truly "Asian literature" and "world literature."

A jury had screened in advance the work of the foreign participants and the first Asian Literary Award was given to Damdinsuren Uriankhai from Mongolia, whose work combines traditional nomadic poetry with modern, more universal features in a remarkable way. Always dressed in traditional Mongolian robes, his calm smile and warm presence were especially impressive throughout the festival. He received his award from the hands of the poet Do Jong-hwan, who is the current minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

The climax of the festival came with the keynote speech by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka on Saturday afternoon. In it he said, "We know that when we set out into the realms of imagination, we experience liberation at its most unsullied. We are not only free, we see humanity as the very repository and expression of freedom, beyond doctrine and politics." He evoked the many ways in which power has always felt threatened by the freedom of creativity, and striven to crush it, whether in the Chinese Cultural Revolution or the Spanish Inquisition or in the Stalinist USSR, and especially pointed at the current wave of Islamic violence, including in his own land of Nigeria. He paid tribute to the young Kenyan poet Kofi Awoonor who was killed in a terrorist attack on a Nairobi shopping mall. "Poetry is the antithesis of power, and negation of boundaries, not merely physical boundaries but frontiers of thought and imagination that run contrary to our human avocation. Border crossing is the very condition of true explorers." He quoted lines by an ancient Japanese poet, by British, American poets, Sylvia Plath and Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, before widening his references to ask, "Do you know Tierno Bokar, the Sage of Bandiagara? Do you know the Ozidi Epic? Do you even know the Legend of Shaka Zulu or indeed the narratives of Fagumwa? Do you know of the compendium of Ifa oracular poetry? The lamp of the voyager, however luminous, must submit to the sunrise of universal Enlightenment. The ecumenical spirit of poetry urges on the explorer in all creatures endowed with the power of imagination."

To conclude, the participants issued a Declaration "The Morning of Asia: For the Furtherance of Democracy, Human Rights, and Peace" affirming the vital role of literature in the construction of a world of peace, free of discrimination and violence.

The writer is a professor emeritus at Sogang University.