[KS] Only Correct: Margaret Drabble licks her Red Queen wounds in the TLS

Afostercarter at aol.com Afostercarter at aol.com
Thu Jul 28 18:39:02 EDT 2005

Listmembers may be interested in an article in the current
Times Literary Supplement by Margaret Drabble, in which
she reflects on some hostile reactions to her novel The Red Queen.

Ms Drabble is a leading British novelist, now in her 60s.
As her article relates, The Red Queen has a Korean context:
interweaving the Tale of Lady Hyegyong - imagined as still a
ghostly presence today - with another story set in contemporary Seoul.

Not having read the book, it's hard to comment; perhaps those 
who have, will. But the issues are general and important ones.

She's surely right to point out the contradiction between on the
one hand complaining that the world/the west ignores Korea -
but then, when someone new and well-meaning enters into an
imaginative encounter, deploying postcolonialism as if it were
a policing operation to throw the foreign trespasser off the premises.

Then again, that "39th parallel" (twice) doesn't half grate...

Because the TLS goes quickly to paid archive, I hope the List
will let me reproduce the whole article as well as give the URL.

all best

Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds University 

Home address: 17 Birklands Road, Shipley, West Yorkshire, BD18 3BY, UK 
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Only correct
A reluctant combatant on the Orientalist battlefield

Margaret Drabble
27 July 2005

Safely embedded in the Sixth Edition of The Oxford Companion to English 
Literature (2000) is an explosive entry on cultural appropriation. Explosive not 
because it is written in an inflammatory manner (it is notable for its 
objectivity and even-handedness), but because of its subject matter. It appears 
anonymously, as do all the entries in the volume, but its author, the Guyanese-born 
writer Jan Lo Shinebourne, is named in the opening credits. She bravely took on 
this dangerous topic, and I have been carrying her calming definition round 
the world with me as a talisman. Cultural appropriation, she notes, is a term 
"in general used to describe Western appropriation of non-Western or non-white 
forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance". Shinebourne 
belongs to the world of crossed borders, and in her summary she covers the 
field, from Benin bronzes and Lakota war shirts and the Elgin Marbles to the 
Modernist enthusiasm for African art. She also comments on voice in literature: the 
appropriation of gender in James Joyce, and of ethnicity in Gertrude Stein. 
The field she covers is a minefield.

I recently returned from a literary conference on "Writing for Peace" in 
Seoul, where we travelled north on an outing to the 39th Parallel which divides 
South and North Korea. Shortly after entering the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) our 
military escort (who looked Korean to me, but who was tentatively identified by 
our American poets as a US corporal from the Midwest) pointed to the golf 
course, and its sign which read "Do not attempt to retrieve golf balls from the 
minefield". This set the tone for a theatrical tour of staged tension, where 
opposing armies confront one another on the most heavily fortified frontier in 
the world. In "Conference Row", which straddles the invisible Parallel, their 
representatives interpenetrate, like pieces on a chessboard, like the teeth of 
a pair of pinking shears. We were warned to exchange no glance or gesture with 
the North Korean guards, standing at one point only a few feet away from us. 
Communication of any sort was prohibited. A smile, a frown, could be used as 

This parade of frozen aggression had the advantage of making us feel that the 
cultural frontiers between West and East, between language and language, were 
slightly more permeable than the political frontiers. What are conferences 
for, if not for communication, exchange of ideas, suggestions for translations? 
Many pious hopes for peace and friendship were aired, and we discovered areas 
of common ground. Korean scholars spoke of Kant and Derrida and Edward Said 
and Carl Schmitt. The Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe quoted from T. S. Eliot and 
R. S. Thomas and William Blake. Kenyan-born Ngugi Wa Thiong'o diplomatically 
deployed Aimé Césaire's aphorism, "Contact between cultures is the oxygen of 
civilization", and I brought out E. M. Forster's "Only connect". George 
Orwell's ghost was omnipresent. It seemed that, at one level, we were getting on 
famously, mingling languages and cultures, reciting our poems, and understanding 
one another well. 

But behind this façade of good manners, communication was not simple. 
Resentments and misunderstandings were dormant, and from time to time erupted. 
Koreans protested that the cultural traffic was flowing in one direction. The 
English language was perceived as dominant and exploitative. I was told that Korean 
children, forced by ambitious parents to learn English too young, have a habit 
of falling psychotically silent in all languages. The phrase "world 
literature" usually means "Western literature", argues the distinguished éminence grise 
of the Forum, Professor Uchang Kim, an intellectual famed for the brilliant 
obscurity of his spoken discourse and his shining clarity on the page. The 
novelist Hwang Seok-Young, a combative, once imprisoned, and now much translated 
writer, argued that what we call universality is a fallacy of Eurocentrism, a 
boundary put in place by those with power: when Goethe advocated "world 
literature" he thought the world was Europe. Park Wan-Suh, a celebrated woman 
novelist (b 1931) who lived through the Japanese Occupation and the Korean War, 
recorded that when interviewed in France in 1997 about influences on her work, she 
had mentioned several important Korean writers and one or two Westerners. When 
she saw the clip of the interview only the names of Dostoevsky and Chekhov 
had survived in translation. None of the Koreans was cited. She felt they had 
been stepped over, as though they were ants. 

The West has some legitimate problems of perception. Koreans joke that their 
family names are notoriously similar, with a predominance of Kim, Park and 
Lee, and variations of transliteration make these names even more difficult to 
learn and retain. Nevertheless, we took Mrs Park's point. In an underlying 
agenda, American and European participants were being urged to connect with Korean 
literature, to listen to Korean poetry, to enter into a two-way discourse, to 
balance exports with imports. 

There were, for me, many painful ironies in these sometimes unspoken suggest
ions and negotiations. I had first visited Seoul five years before, in 2000, as 
a guest of the First Seoul International Forum for Literature, on the theme 
of "Writing across Boundaries: Literature in the multicultural world". I had 
delivered an innocently academic paper on issues of post-colonialism (The 
Tempest, Conrad, Chinua Achebe, Naipaul, Marina Warner, Said on Mansfield Park), 
which as far as I know caused no offence. But that visit moved me to read a 
celebrated Korean literary masterpiece, the Han Joon Nok, in a translation 
recommended to me by a scholar in the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the 
British Museum in London. This is a book of memoirs written by a Crown Princess of 
Korea who died, at the age of eighty, in 1815. It had an overpowering effect on 
me, and I could not get it out of my mind. If anything is world literature, 
this work is. This woman and her story haunted me. I sought other translations, 
read as much contemporary material as I could find in English (there are some 
very fine poems of the period), visited galleries and exhibitions and 
lectures, and revisited Korea to see the palace where the Princess had been immured 
for most of her adult life. 

If the Forum had intended to arouse my interest in Korean culture, it had 
succeeded beyond expectation. I decided to try to write a novel based on the 
Crown Princess's extraordinary story and my response to it - a response which was, 
of course, as closely connected to life in the West today as to the 
historical facts of life in the eighteenth-century Chosun court. This was to be a 
transcultural novel, a novel which raised questions about cultural relativism and 
essentialism, family dynamics, learned and innate responses, evolutionary 
biology and the universality (or not) of the Oedipus complex. One of my models was 
Mark Twain's time-travel fantasy A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court 
(1889), with its darkly comic double take on American capitalism and Camelot 
chivalry. My Crown Princess would glance at the death penalty in the United 
States, and the abuse of the Hippocratic oath in Britain, with the hindsight of 
200 years of history, and pronounce her damning verdict on progress. 

Drawing on a Korean narrative for The Red Queen was a foolhardly enterprise, 
and I was well aware of the dangers, dangers which were an integral part of my 
theme. Being aware, I proceeded, as I thought, in a correct manner, 
contacting the most recent and most scholarly New York-based translator, and, through 
her, the American publishers, and declaring my interest. My translator and I 
agreed detailed acknowledgement of sources and payment for use of copyright 
material as appropriate, and I proposed the inclusion of a foreword and afterword 
by her which could place my fictional efforts in a critical context. I 
envisaged, with what now seems like a childish naivety, the possibility of shared 
platforms and public discussions. 

For a year or two, I thought I had been welcomed over the boundary into a 
neutral zone, but I was to discover that I had entered the battlefield of 
accusations of Orientalism and cultural appropriation, of ignorance, cynicism and 

Novelists are always nervous when they hand over the product of three years 
of solitary labour to a new reader, and I was apprehensive about what I had 
done, but I had not expected either the tone or the content of the response I 
received from my first reader in New York. I had tried to behave correctly, but I 
had not been correct enough. My attitude towards the original classic Korean 
text was, according to the view from American academe, full of "egregious 
error". American academe, appearing to speak on behalf of and in defence of Korea, 
declared that The Red Queen was full of crimes, the least of which was a 
reference to Korea in the eighteenth century as a frozen land and, by implication, 
a "hermit kingdom". This latter phrase has been used by Koreans and 
Westerners for centuries, referring to the Chosun dynasty's undisputed policy of 
isolationism, but it is, I was told, no longer correct. We are now to believe that 
the Koreans never were and are not now hermits. They welcome cultural 
interchange and debate. Nevertheless, the phrase "hermit kingdom" was not to be used, 
and the publication of my novel could not be approved. The position seemed to 
me to be paradoxical. (When I commented recently on the fact that the much 
praised exhibition entitled Encounters: The meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800, 
at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2004, contained only one Korean artefact 
amid a profusion of images from China, Japan and India, I was informed by the 
curators that this was because there were so few encounters. However, it is 
incorrect to refer to the "hermit kingdom".) 

My novel, I was told, would probably be greeted with ridicule in the United 
States, because "educated readers" in the US are aware of issues of 
multiculturalism, and indeed many universities include a one-year course in non-Western 
civilization in their degree requirement. Had I never heard of Edward Said? 
(His ideas are embedded throughout my text, and his name appears towards the end, 
but I don't think my would-be censor got that far.) Was I not familiar with 
the debate over Madame Butterfly? I had Orientalized the Crown Princess - or 
had I perhaps Westernized her? Objections came from both sides. It was not clear 
to me whether I had made her too feeble or too strong-minded, but whatever I 
had done, it was not condoned. I had also, in an attempt at even-handedness, 
Orientalized the Romanovs, whose barbaric home life comes in for criticism from 
my time-and-space-travelling narrator. (My comments on the American 
twentieth-century habit of executing minors and the criminally insane, a practice 
condemned within the last months by the US Supreme Court, went unnoticed.) My 
interpretation of Lady Hong, or the Lady Hyegyong, was inadmissible. It was not 
even clear which of her names I was allowed to use. 

This Korean author, whose words had moved and inspired me, died in 1815. She 
was disadvantaged in life, and she was being censored, it seemed to me, in 
death. These objections came not from her own country of Korea, but from the 
standpoint of contemporary American political correctness, which claimed the right 
to halt my publication. Was it not the practice in England, I was asked, to 
submit one's work to peer review? Was this practice uncommon in 

I had clearly caused great offence; I was, in turn, offended. I readily admit 
to unintended factual errors, some of which could have been removed by a more 
tactful response. It was a mistake to describe the floors of the Korean 
central-heating system (the famous ondol flooring) as wooden: they are made of 
stone covered in varnished paper. It was a mistake to refer to Koreans being 
obliged to compose the infamous Chinese "eight-legged essays". It was not a mistake 
to suggest that the Crown Princess might have seen some Western works of art 
brought to China by the Jesuits, though it was improbable that she had. (I 
needed to suppose that she had, because I needed to invoke the question of 
artistic perspective, a concept introduced into Korea at this period.) I was 
probably right in guessing that she had not heard of her contemporary Voltaire, but 
wrong to suppose that she could have read Freud or The Golden Bough by Sir 
James Frazer, or known about immune-deficiency disorders or stem-cell research. 

Enough of this nightmare. It was clear that the level of misunderstanding was 
profound, and that the kind of critique being offered was irrelevant to my 
purpose, and directed at some book other than the one I had hoped to write. In 
my view, copyright was being used as a form of censorship, but it is by no 
means clear what copyright resides in one translation of an ancient text, 
particularly when there are other translations available, and the facts are in the 
domain of history. The novel I actually wrote received no critical attention, 
either hostile or appreciative. I was accused of appropriation, and that was 
that. The multicultural censor looked no further. No questions were asked about my 
text, my intentions, my meaning. I did have a meaning, or I once thought that 
I did. I was so profoundly shocked that I hardly knew what I had done. 

Appropriation, like racism, is an ugly word and an easy allegation, not 
easily addressed in the courts. The nature and ethics of cultural transmission are 
endlessly fascinating. When is a borrowing a theft, and when is it a benign 
sign of cross-cultural fertilization? Is there some common source from which all 
stories rise? It is strange how subjects catch the Zeitgeist: witness the 
recent crop of novels inspired by the life of Henry James (and watch out for 
Wendy Lesser's forthcoming addition to them, The Pagoda in the Garden). Closer to 
the Orientalist theme, one notes a bizarre clustering of versions of Laclos's 
1782 novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses, which was adapted by Christopher Hampton 
for the stage in 1985 and for the screen in 1988. While Hampton and Stephen 
Frears were working on their film, the director Milos Forman was simultaneously 
and coincidentally at work on his, which appeared in 1989 under the title 
Valmont, Hampton's version having pre-emptively appropriated the original title. 
Years later came the Korean version of Laclos, screened in England in 2005 as 
Untold Scandal, and set in the eighteenth-century Chosun court at the same 
period as the events of Han Joon Nok. This sumptuous and elegant film is a clear 
example of the adoption, adaptation and Orientalization of French material: it 
is equally clear that the subject reached Korea through England. This is a 
devious route, but Laclos and Hampton are not calling their lawyers. Stories 
travel where they will. They have a life of their own. They are not like 
artefacts: they can exist in more than one place at a time. 

In the British Museum there is an illuminated manuscript portraying the 
lavish ceremony of 1809 that marked the sixtieth anniversary of the consummation of 
the marriage of the Crown Princess to her husband, the long-dead and brutally 
executed Prince Sado. Its provenance is dubious: it was captured from its 
native land by a French admiral, and purchased by the British in 1891. This too 
was a devious route. My novel, which discusses some of these matters, appeared 
in Korea in a somewhat mutilated version last year; I rewrote extensively, in 
an attempt to avoid further difficulties, and felt unhappily driven to employ 
a degree of self-censorship. After its publication, I received my invitation 
to the Second International Forum for Literature, and of course was obliged to 
accept. Honour compelled me to go back to Seoul to retrieve my golf balls from 
the minefield. And I was curious about the response from Korean readers and 
scholars. Would it be considered that I had abused historical material? Or 
would I perhaps find a different level of reading? And how would my novel look in 

I encountered, as I had expected, one or two accusatory questions about 
Orientalism, and some readers who seemed unable to cope with the notion that the 
"real" Princess of Han Joon Nok could have been (as she clearly was) an 
unreliable narrator. But I also met with more complex, less defensive responses. 
Professor Lee Young-Oak at Sungkyunkwan University (founded in 1398) had taught my 
novel in English, and her students and colleagues engaged in lively discussion 
about tragedy and tragicomedy, female narrative, the ethics of cross-cultural 
adoption of babies and books, and the culturally-specific meanings of acacia 
and of magpies. This debate was full of oxygen. It was exhilarating. 

Acacia thrives in Korea. It is an import from the time of the Japanese 
Occupation, and although pretty, it is also invasive, and it is driving out native 
species. Magpies are thieves, and in Britain they bring bad luck. In Korea they 
traditionally bring good luck, or so I was assured. But Korean Americans have 
adopted the bad luck line, and in my view they therefore misinterpret their 
own texts. This is confusing. 

Not all the week was spent on such trivia. Ethnicity and gender were also 
considered. Teaching gender studies must be uphill work: the complexion of the 
conference was overwhelmingly male. There is a flourishing school of African 
studies in Seoul in Hankuk University, and a surprising number of Swahili 
speakers, but Korean society is far from multicultural. Ngugi's response to one 
participant's comment that her three-year-old child thought that black faces were 
dirty was a model of tact. If she was being interpreted correctly, she seemed 
to be suggesting that racial prejudice is innate, not learned. Children are 
very direct, Ngugi said, smiling mildly, before invoking the healing words of 

The main matter of the conference was not peace but war. Great waves of 
anti-Bush emotion swelled through speech after speech of helpless and impotent 
rage. Five years ago, the official talk was of détente, the Sunshine Policy and 
reunification. "Peaceful and prosperous co-existence" is the new slogan, but 
Korea is a weak and divided country, with the South occupied by increasingly 
unwelcome American troops. Calling North Korea part of the "axis of evil" did 
incalculable harm to prospects of peace in this much-damaged peninsula. What can 
writers and intellectuals do, in this poisonous atmosphere? They mock 
themselves for uttering platitudes, and sign or refuse to sign a Peace Declaration. Oe, 
in Japan, has founded a group of independent intellectuals to resist 
rearmament and Prime Minister Koizumi's changes to the pacifist Japanese constitution. 
Oe is an engaging speaker and a Nobel laureate, and his protests do not go 
unheard. The political scientist Choi Jang-jip, of Korea University's Asian 
Study Center, spoke passionately about the dangers of the new right-wing 
Japanese-American alliance, and advocated a counterbalance in the form of an East Asian 
Union of economic and cultural interests. There is a palpable fear of a 
"surgical strike" by the US against North Korea, and of further military displays 
by an overweening and reckless superpower. American diplomats call this new 
Cold War a game of chess; for those living within an hour's drive of the 39th 
Parallel it seems less playful. 

Meanwhile, as a lone female British postcolonial voice in Asia, I parroted 
the words "Only connect". But connecting, as Forster knew, is a slow and arduous 
process, liable to misinterpretation. Connection without accusations of 
appropriation or invasion is no easy matter.

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