Pine needle tea in the home of a writer who disappeared

Discovering the literary legacy of Yi T’aejun in Seongbuk-dong, Seoul

During our flight from Chicago to Seoul, I caught up on a good few issues of the New York Review of Books. One of the essays I found to be most thought-provoking came from Emily Wilson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who carved her way through the tensions and complexities of literary translation in theory and in practice.

Since English is my first and only fluent language, I’ve often appreciated the significance of books I never would have read were it not for the meticulous and time-consuming dedication of translators. I’ve rarely reflected, however, on the nuance of what might make any given translation “better” or “worse” than another, as Wilson writes, given the imprecision of words as they attempt their work across languages.

While in South Korea for a wedding, I thought little about my limited familiarity with Korean literature until the bride brought our group to a teahouse nestled into Seongbuk-dong, a hillside village within Seoul. A plaque inside the front gate introduced the property as a former residence of a writer I didn’t know: Lee Taejun.

We walked through a peaceful garden up stone steps into a cozy room set apart from the main house. Eliza crawled while Cathlin and I savored puffed-rice treats and a cold cup of pine needle tea, sweet with a tinge of citrus and rich with a dappling of pine nuts. An enclosed bookcase featured rows of Korean manuscripts, and placards of other authors adorned the wall.

Choosing our teas at Suyeonsanbang

The teahouse was the kind of space where I would have been contented to sit for hours with a book or notebook, which tends to be difficult while traveling with a baby. But none of us were able to spend too long this visit, since we had a tour reserved together at the nearby Korean Furniture Museum almost immediately after finishing our drinks. Before we left, I made a mental note to seek out any available English translations of Lee Taejun’s work.

But in trying to learn about this particular teahouse’s famous former resident, I was struck again by the imperfection of translations, especially when transliterating from one script into another. Travel blogs and tourist websites tend to spell his name as “Lee Taejun,” in the same style as the teahouse itself, or else hyphenate it as “Lee Tae-Jun.” Others mention him in the inverse, as “Tae-Jun Lee” or “Tae Jun Lee.”

Few provide much detail of his life or literature in English, except the existence of one short story published as a children’s book in Australia as Waiting for Mummy and in the U.S. as Waiting for Mama. The accompanying Amazon description dubs Taejun “one of Korea’s most-loved writers.”

It wasn’t until I found additional variations of the name written as “Yi Taejun,” “Yi Tae Jun,” and “Yi T’aejun,” that I was able to uncover a deeper exploration of his life and the mystery of his death, beyond what’s celebrated on the tourist trail. The teahouse notes his residency from 1933 until 1946, but what’s left out are the years following Japan’s rule over Korea and the division of the country into North and South.

An essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books incorporates Taejun’s “Before and After Liberation,” reflecting on the countries’ relationship and “outlining the political and theoretical chaos and struggle within the field of Korean literature.” And for the first time, a collection of his writing is now available as Dust and Other Stories from Columbia University Press, thanks to the efforts of translator Janet Poole, an associate professor at the University of Toronto.

Dust and Other Stories, Yi T’aejun, translated by Janet Poole (Columbia University Press, 2018)

As for what happened to Taejun: A French Wikipedia page, citing a brief biography on Naver, a popular Korean portal, suggests that he left Seoul in October 1946 to travel throughout the Soviet Union before settling in North Korea, from where he filed dispatches as a war reporter. Ten years later, he was questioned and expelled from South Korea, or else he defected.

The Australian publisher of Waiting for Mummy includes on its author profile: “Little is known of his activities thereafter, except that he disappeared in 1956, presumed purged by the North Korean Communist Party.” Harvard Review provides a sharper cut: “The date and circumstances of his death are unknown… It was a pitiful end for a writer who had worked so diligently to meet the ‘current of the age.'”

None of these details were featured, at least not in the English translations, on display in the peaceful Seongbuk-dong home where we savored our cup of tea.


Teahouse: 수연산방 / Suyeonsanbang / Suyeon Mountain Tea Room

Address: 8 Seongbuk-ro 26-gil

Google Maps / Foursquare / TripAdvisor / Visit Korea

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