Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Korean narratives of disconnect and ennui arriving Stateside in recent translations seem to be on the verge of becoming an imported genre. Noteworthy titles over the past few years include Young-ha Kim’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, Kyung Ran Jo’s Tongue, and the forthcoming The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
Nowhere to Be Found, the second in-English novel available from Bae Suah (her translated debut, Time in Gray, is only available from a Korean publisher in a bilingual edition) hit shelves last spring, thanks to AmazonCrossing, a recent imprint charged with “introduc[ing] readers to authors from around the world with translations of foreign language books.” That Nowhere was recently longlisted for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize (finalists announced February 2, 2016; 2016 winner revealed March 1, 2016), has brought the title well-deserved attention. Additionally, that notable Korean-into-English translator Sora Kim-Russell (a U.S.-born hapa Korean American now living, working, teaching in Seoul) is involved bodes favorably for Bae, who herself is a translator of German-into-Korean literature.
In Bae’s slim novel of just over 100-pages, the year is 1988 as an unnamed narrator recounts what happened: “That year was my beginning and my end,” she summarizes. “It wasn’t so different from 1978, and it wasn’t any more or less memorable in comparison to 1998.” The middle child sandwiched in between a brother 10 years older and a sister 10 years younger, she lives in Seoul in a filthy, ramshackle home with her siblings and their alcoholic, unemployed mother while their father languishes in prison for a crime he apparently didn’t commit. [In Korea, adult children commonly do not leave the family nest until they marry.]
At 24, she’s a college graduate, but has been unable to find more than temporary, dead-end work. She shares a brief, passionless relationship with a young man who everyone else – including their mutual families – assumes is her boyfriend. During his short military service, she travels beyond city limits to visit him, only to endure multiple misdirections from less-than-helpful strangers.
Cold inside and out permeates the narrator’s existence. She’s described more often than not by others as “cold,” she recognizes her own frigid state, her surroundings are often chilly, made more so by her unheated home and the lack of proper clothing against dropping temperatures – she and her younger sister share a single winter coat. Her closest relationship is with her older brother, whose inability to support his family eventually drives him to seek opportunities in Japan. Her most intimate, revealing interactions happen in her imagination, in dreams, in letters she composes and never actually writes, in potential experiences she never partakes.
Little more than survival happens here, and yet the resulting novel is a profound, universal reflection on our modern lives, our tenuous connections, our unfulfilled intentions, our very own selves that seem ‘nowhere to be found.’ Sparse in words, dense with multiple layers of meaning, Bae’s work will surely be an international endeavor to follow closely.
Published: 1998 (Korea), 2015 (United States)