Big in Korea

21st July 2017

Ruth Barraclough didn’t expect it, but the translation of her 2012 book Factory Girl Literature has become a history bestseller in Korea.

On July 3 2017 it was published in South Korea under the title 여공문학 - 섹슈얼리티, 폭력 그리고 재현의 문제 [Factory Girl Literature]. The book has attracted major mainstream attention in Korea and since publication Ruth has been interviewed by Hankyoreh, Seoul Daily, Chosun Ilbo, Tonga Ilbo, and Kyonghyang Daily News.

Ruth explains, “My book is about the factory girls who generated Korea’s industrial revolution while at the same time cherished ambitions to be writers, novelists and poets.

“When I researched this ‘factory girl literature’ from the 1920s to the 1990s I discovered a genealogy of labour feminism that took literary form. Some of this literature, authored by and featuring a central working-class female protagonist, has become canonical works of fiction in Korea today.

“It is fascinating because it is buttressed by a whole culture of worker night schools, worker autobiographies, Proletarian Literary Evenings and labour literature. All this produced an extraordinarily rich and vibrant working-class culture in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Readers in Korea have told me that the most important part of my book is its focus upon gender politics and sexual violence. I did not begin by researching sexual violence. I was struck reading these coming-of-age books of teenage girls coming to Seoul to find work, bursting with dreams and desires for their new life in the city.

“When I looked for where they might encounter romance, love and sexual pleasure, I found that expressing desire was always dangerous in these books, overshadowed by sexual violence that took advantage of their social and economic vulnerability. So my book is about the ways in which sexual violence in industrialisation worked to control potentially independent, unruly young women.”

The original English version of Ruth’s book, Factory Girl Literature: Sexuality, Violence, and Representation in Industrializing Korea was published in 2012 by the University of California Press. It has been well-received in academic circles, but why has the translation proved so popular in Korea?

“Korea is a country of avid readers. Feminism there is vibrant and exciting, tackling some of the issues like sexual violence that I write about in this book.

“This work proves the importance of historical research, of finding archives and uncovering the work of those who have been marginalised.

“Another key reason is that my editor at the publishing house Humanitas was excellent, the best I have worked with. Also my book was translated and introduced to readers by two of the most well-respected young academics in Korea, Kim Won and Jiseung Roh. So I am lucky there.”

“South Korea has elected a new President and under a more liberal regime is celebrating thirty years of democratisation. The labour movement was been critical in both bringing down the military regime and ushering in a more democratic society, so there is renewed interest in reflecting on these achievements and their costs. But I think the most important factor is the emergence of a new generation of young feminists in South Korea (female and male) who are interested in critical issues such as sexual violence, and also in learning about past feminisms in Korea – a kind of genealogy of feminism - and my book speaks to that.”

Updated:  7 July 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, Culture, History & Language/Page Contact:  CHL webmaster