Between Liberation Space and Time of Need, 1945-1950
An Exhibition of Rare Literary Works from the Korean Collection of the University of Washington Libraries
To better understand the Liberation Space (Haebang konggan) try to imagine Korea as a person rather than a country. In the first half of the twentieth century, to see Korea even as a country is hard enough, and despite many understandable but retroactive nationalist imaginings of Korea as a nation during that time, Korea was something quite different entirely. How then should we imagine Korea during this time, during this period so palpable or pervasive that it is in fact labeled as if it were a physical space ("konggan," space)?
Korea, the individual, was the classic subaltern subject of whom Gayatri Spivak has written -- the individual, downtrodden, dispossessed, subjugated, disenfranchised, wearied, withheld, and silenced for 36 years as a Japanese imperial subject. Thus the Liberation Space represents, or we might even say it embodies, that time / zone in which the voice of the subaltern could first be heard. Rare enough was the time itself, and written artifacts from that time are more incredible still. We can duly modify Spivak’s question "Can this subaltern speak?" and our answer becomes, "Only during the Liberation Space could the Korean subaltern speak." For this reason these books are invaluable.
The extant publications of the period provide us with this answer. Korea could finally speak as it desired. For five years the heretofore filtered or silenced voice of the Korean people, often varied and competing in their interests, could be heard — I would argue it was the first and only such moment for Korea in the modern period. The visual culture aspect must be noted too. Many of the period’s books are designed and illustrated by hand due to lack of material and printing resources. Examining the covers one finds brilliant one-of-a-kind examples of traditionalist, nationalist, modernist, socialist, and even internationalist themes. Scores of the illustrations were done by famous artists and designers. Materially, the works used standard paper, recycled paper, and some used hanji (a Korean rice paper). Overall the collection gives the impression of a struggling but flourishing literary culture not yet marked by the stains of forced production or a commodified culture industry.
Rare, precious, and invaluable are just some words used to describe the documents of this period, documents so well represented in this collection; and scholars of Korean will be aware how these works are equally if not more difficult to find in the libraries of Seoul. One of the first poetry anthologies of the period, a 1945 volume called The Liberation Commemorative Anthology (Haebang kinym sijip), holds a special place even within the collection: it is a very hard-to-find collection of poems that not only sings Korea's newfound freedom, it is also a collection by authors of various ideological stripes. Despite almost universally shared dislike for Japan at the time, the space quickly filled with competing rightist and leftist visions of a better future.
Unspeakable hardship had occupied Korea and would return full-force with the deeply ideological war of 1950 — the “time of need” Heidegger gave to the poet, the phrase brought into Korean by critic Kim Yunsik — but for a few short years the voice of the subaltern could be heard on this corner of the world’s stage. All texts in the collection manifest aspects of that subaltern desire, of its will to survive, of its hunger for a better future. An influential leftist anthology of poems appeared in 1946 to commemorate the failed March 1st Independence Movement — The 3-1 Commemorative Anthology (3-1 kinym sijip). An anti-capitalist modernist vision was put forth by poet Kim Ki-rim the same year: his Sea and Butterfly (Pada wa nabi). Instructive visions about Korean identity and culture uncensored and by Koreans themselves were published, as for example in Readings on Ethnonationalist Culture (Minjok munhwa tokpon, 1946) and there was a new version of The Tale of Hong Kiltong by Pak T'ae-wn (1947).
Let us cite just two more examples from the exciting poetry anthologies of the period, those works where so many voices can be heard within a given volume: The Avant Garde Poets Anthology (Chnwi siinjip, 1946) & The New City and the Chorus of Citizens (Saeroun tosi wa simindl i hapch'ang, 1949). Experiments in form, voice, and theme, and utopian visions of a world free of empire, capital, exploitation, and oppression abound in these works. (Perhaps not coincidentally the UN's Universal Declaration for Human Rights was published between the appearance of these two Korean works.) For the poetry reader, at least, these are the purest voices of a liberated and self-governing Korea, of a Korea that in the future perfect tense has already moved beyond subalternity into being for itself. The linguistic execution by these poet-legislators demands acknowledgment and projects a unified Korean community beyond a time of need.
Sadly we can barely scratch the surface of the University of Washington's rich collection here, so this brief introduction can only serve as invitation. Reading, analyzing, and examining these works is now our only chance to hear what the subaltern would and in fact did say during what was for the budding publishing world a halcyon time and place.