Yi Sang’s Queer Time in Colonial Korea – A guest lecture by Prof John Treat

Written by Sini-Petriina Kuusisto, PhD student in the School of East Asian Studies

There are some seats free on the front row. Dr. Pendleton has just introduced me and two of my colleagues to the guest speaker, John Whittier Treat, an Emeritus Professor at Yale University. We find ourselves making awkward small talk about small Japanese houses – kyosho jutaku – before Professor Treat excuses himself to get prepared for his talk. I try to hide my relief as I am painfully aware that I know nothing about Japanese architecture.

The students sitting in front of me are chatting in Korean and behind me I can hear native speakers exchanging appropriate greetings. I glance around the room and wonder what part of today’s talk, Yi Sang’s Queer Time in Colonial Korea, has attracted such an audience: the author himself, the Queer, or the Colonial Korea? Perhaps some have come just to hear Professor Treat, a rare opportunity in the UK.

Treat introduces Yi Sang (1910-1937), a Modernist writer in colonial Korea, as a controversial figure who seems to have been equally unimpressed by his countrymen as well as his colonizers. Influenced by Western literary concepts such as Dadaism and Surrealism Yi Sang remains a debated figure, according to Treat, and could be considered queer; not only on the basis of his own possible sexuality, but also due to his avant-garde stance. Different, abnormal, weird, mentally unhinged and narcissistic are words that Treat uses in his speech. Whether these are his assessments of Yi Sang and his work, or someone else’s, is not clear to me.

Treat’s proposition is that Yi Sang’s Wings (Nalgae, 1936), additionally to its conventional reading as a depiction of Korean colonial time and experience, can also be read as a portrayal of queer-time versus straight-time. In Treat’s opinion, queer-time can teach us something about colonial time and vice versa. I think he is referring to the structures of power, and the idea resonates with me.

I have not read Wings and shy away from making judgments of its queerness, but it seems timely to talk about Korean queer-time in general. On the 28th of October, Jeju province successfully celebrated its first Queer Culture Festival despite the efforts of its protestors, from the 2nd to the 8th November, Seoul will host the 7th Seoul PRIDE Film Festival and as I am writing this, the newest petition to legalise same-sex marriage in South Korea has been signed by 14,000 people. Korean queer-time is now more public than ever before.

When asked whether looking for queerness in Korean literature is as much of a sport today, as it might have been in the past, Professor Treat agrees that it is the job of literary critics and academics to interpret and re-interpret. Texts travel. We read and construct meanings to reflect our time and experiences, and whether Yi Sang’s Wings is queer, or reads as queer, is up to debate – a debate, I think, the Korean queer community welcomes with open arms.

Read the abstract from Professor Treat’s talk.