This Korean Woman Reads: Review Of ” The Disaster Tourist” by Yun Ko-Eun (Translated By Lizzie Buehler)

Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Song

“This Korean Woman Reads” is a book review series by Anna Song, who will be writing for the site reviewing books written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Australia and from other parts of the world.

Headlines: An easy-to-digest translation of a Korean novel that makes us contemplate why we love to travel and the consequences we leave behind. 

Mood: rekindling wanderlust, ethically

Pair with: Clean shots of soju (sweetened and prettily mixed fruit soju not recommended)

With COVID-19 effectively cancelling my overseas trip, I still felt desperate for a holiday. Trapped within the 5km radius of a Stage 4 lockdown in Melbourne, I searched online for a read that could take me far away from here – it certainly beat mindless scrolling for accommodation options in exotic places.

The title ‘The Disaster Tourist’ and the genre ‘eco-thriller’ intrigued me. That it was written by a Korean woman and translated into English made me click ‘add to cart’. And so this holiday began, via a contactless pick-up from my local bookshop. 

The first page of the book sets the pace for this strong and fast-moving plot driven story. I instantly found Yona relatable as a character contending with job survival in South Korea’s cut-throat capitalist economy. 

The author Yun Ko-Eun’s ability to establish such a bond between her protagonist and the reader had me wonder whether she was much older and wiser than the glance at her dust covered photo suggested. Or perhaps this is the magic of intimacy found in literature that can be formed when the reader, writer and the protagonist are of the same background; in gender, age and culture. Finding a reflection of yourself in a good book is a rare privilege that I certainly don’t take for granted.

Turning the pages, Yun’s commentary through Yona on the ethical conundrums in tourism felt raw and honest, without any glossing over the darker forces that fuel the industry. That we, myself included, sometimes consume comforts and luxuries as a tourist to the detriment of the environment and local communities.

The book also tempts the reader to reflect on the use of English as a medium of telling stories from other places. As a bilingual reader in Korean and English, I had to fight back the urge to imagine this book in its original text. I had to stop myself reading between the lines for subtle Korean cultural cues or letting my mind fall into an automated translation from English to Korean.

Author Yun Ko-Eun

From the memory of studying The Task of the Translator by Walter Benjamin many moons ago,  translation is referred to as a straight line that meets the circle of the original – the translation should carry the effect but is liberated from the original language. 

By reading ‘The Disaster Tourist’ in English, I wanted to hear the literary voice of Lizzie Buehler, who translated the text, a bit more. Instead, Buehler’s voice felt like a ghost who was careful not to disturb the original narrative, but yet couldn’t help but be present. As a bilingual reader, if I only wanted to experience Yun’s voice I would have just bought the book in Korean!

But wanting to hear Buehler’s literary voice doesn’t mean I want English to have a distinct character in a translated work. For me, it is preferable that English is used as plainly as possible; it is a mere vessel and the less distracting its presence is, the better the outcome.

Buy this book as a gift to: a) any bilingual reader; b) anyone who often travels alone for business (bonus points if they work in the travel industry); and c) any desperate tourists wondering if we will ever travel again.

Here’s to happy reading,

This Korean Woman Reads.

You can follow Anna Song on Instagram by clicking on “This Korean Woman Reads”

Header image via First Post and other images via Serpents Tail

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