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Yu Miri: The End of August at LONDON LITERATURE FESTIVAL 2023

Photo by Katsumi Omori, Courtesy of Southbank Centre

In the Purcell Room on the 22nd of October, I heard The End of August read aloud for the first time. Alongside her translator, Morgan Giles, Yu Miri read sections of the book in Japanese before Giles followed with the English translation. The back and forth was gripping—you could hear the emotion in Yu’s voice, its crescendo and urgency—even if you could only understand the English. What it did, I think, was illustrate what was beyond definition; that despite Giles’s excellent translation there was something in Yu’s latest novel that went beyond the words printed on the page. Suzy Feay, who facilitated the conversation, likened the book to Tolstoy’s War & Peace, for its long cast of characters and length but also the legacy it will inevitably leave behind. It’s a novel rich in historical background; when asked about how long it took to translate The End of August, Giles laughed before saying, ‘Three years, which is quite a lot of time to spend in one world. The amount of research required was truly staggering. I genuinely think that I could do a PhD in Modern Korean history now’.

The End of August is inspired by Yu’s personal history; her own grandfather was a strong contender for the Tokyo 1940 Olympics, just like the grandfather in her novel. There is even a character named after her. Yu is a Japanese author of Korean descent, her parents having come to Japan during the Japanese Occupation. Yu conducted over a hundred interviews in the village her grandfather grew up in for research, saying of the novel’s genre: ‘What is in that book is fiction, but there are no lies at all’. Feay nodded, saying that the semi-autobiographical book formed ‘a historical record in its own right’. Neither her parents nor her grandparents wanted to talk about why they’d moved to Japan. ‘There was a long narrow tunnel between their time in Korea and Japan,’ Yu said. She was not made privy to it, and wrote this novel to explore her Korean identity.

She described the ‘double distortion’ she felt growing up in a Korean household while consuming everything in Japanese— from books and schoolwork to cartoons. Her grandparents spoke Korean, while she and her siblings spoke Japanese. And so although she left it up to Giles to decide which parts would be translated from Korean and Japanese to English, Giles decided to retain Korean words and phrases throughout the book, especially those relating to family. During the conversation, it was clear how much respect Giles held for the text, which was lovely to watch. A translator’s job is to know when to let the barebones of the text breathe and when to bridge the gaps to help an international reader understand its full meaning.

Giles detailed the only instance in the novel where she had to add a sentence of her own. In

countries that use Chinese characters, they pronounce a person’s name as it would be pronounced in their own language. ‘If your name is Suzy, and you go to Poland and they pronounce it as if it’s Polish— that’s the kind of feeling,’ she explained. In one scene that takes place in a school, a Japanese teacher refers to their students with the Japanese versions of their names. At the time, Japan had passed a law forcing all schools to teach in Japanese. No explanation would have been required for a Japanese or Korean reader, but Giles had to find a way to give the English reader the same feeling— of alienation, perhaps, or silencing. The enforced bilingual environment of that era had to be reflected in her translation.

Such decisions could feel ‘othering’ for Japanese readers, but Giles thought that it would be welcoming for Korean readers in turn. ‘This is also their story,’ she said. ‘Trying to preserve the life of the creative text involves this balancing act between bringing people into it and pushing people away at the same time’. Feay then asked about a specific character left untranslated in the book: ‘Han’ (한/恨). To this, Yu said that han ‘is translated simply as “a grudge” [in Japanese]. But for this reason, when Koreans talk about “han”, Japanese people think that Koreans are grudgeful and cannot let go of their grudges’. Yu then explained the difference between the Korean ‘han’ and a grudge. Instead of directing feelings of resentment towards the perpetrator, the feelings involved in ‘han’ are directed towards the self. She cited the Korean folk song ‘Arirang’, and its lyrics that talk about going past the Arirang Hill. ‘There’s a sense of bypassing pain and going beyond it. That’s the mentality of the Korean people,’ she said. Giles reflected on generational trauma and bringing in such a word, untranslated, into the text; in the end, she decided that adding anything to it ‘would be trying to define something that isn’t my own’.

Feay’s next question about the supernatural elements in The End of August allowed Yu to expand on her intentions behind the novel. This was the part of the event that captivated me the most— I admired how unafraid Yu was to act politically in her work and speech. She did so in a way that expressed that it was unavoidable for her work to be anything but— her work takes place in political spaces because they exist in this world, therefore stripping it and making it apolitical would rob it of its power. It is reality. ‘The idea of bringing in the supernatural was linked to the concept of time,’ she said. ‘[The Korean War] is always seen as a conflict in historical recognition, but it’s an ongoing issue.’ In writing The End of August, she wanted to question the concept of a neat, straight line of history.

On the subject of the book’s length, and whether or not it was truly necessary, Yu said that she wanted it to be jumbled on purpose. ‘Anyone who is trying to survive is not experiencing time the way the clock is ticking,’ she said. She wanted the people who experienced trauma during this era to reach a ‘boiling point’ and have each moment pour into the future. In order to achieve this effect, the structure had to be broken down. Feay then asked about her decision to include a chapter that involved tarot cards. ‘The chapter is about shuffling. To move away from an ordered concept of history, I wanted the writing itself to be a little bit more distorted. I thought it would be dishonest to describe the events in a neatly aligned version of them in the book. It went against my morals.’

It turned out that what Feay really wanted to know was whether or not she liked tarot cards— the audience laughed. The answer? Yes!

We then moved onto the audience Q&A, where Giles talked about ‘the word's role in the soundscape of the text’. Because Yu’s work was very sound-oriented, she worked to preserve the rhythm in order to give the reader the same depth. In the book, she encountered ‘some of the most beautiful descriptions that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on, and then some of the most disturbing portions of any story that I’ve ever had to deal with’.

‘Who did you write your book for?’ asked another audience member. ‘I am always writing my books for those who don’t feel like they belong anywhere. I started writing because there was nowhere I felt I belonged. I didn’t really have any place at all. To create a space for myself, I started writing fiction. I found solace in it. The End of August is targeted towards the same people, to those who feel lost,’ Miri responded.

‘Given that this is both a family story, and the story of a nation, how did you feel when you were writing it?’ they then asked. Yu talked about her experience interviewing the people in her grandfather’s village. ‘All I focused on was being an antenna, to catch their signals as much as possible. Not just to focus on their words, but on their silence as well’. She spoke about the scene she had chosen to read to us earlier in the event. It involved the man who would’ve been her great uncle, who was killed. Like Yu’s grandfather, he was a runner, but he got involved in communism. The police shot him in the leg while he was on university grounds, and he went missing. His family was helpless.

Yu discovered all of this through interviews, which told her that he was shot and tried to escape, but was inevitably captured. Yu described a chilling scene: one day, a group of students were gathered around. Their arms were strapped to their backs and their thumbs were secured with wire, and they were taken in a canvas covered wagon, never to be seen again.

‘There were some who knew too much about how the thumbs were tied together with the wire. They explained that you don’t have to tie their wrists. As long as the thumbs are secured, there’s no way to untangle [them]. I felt that that person must have been involved in the capturing, but I didn’t question [them]. I was just there to listen and take in the information. Somebody has described how the students were buried alive; holes were dug in the ground, they were put in there, and soil would be placed on top to cover them completely. You would still see the soil moving, but they would say that all you need to do is jump on them, stomp, and then the movement would eventually fade. Those who lived in the lowest stream of the river would see on the day of heavy rain, many human bones being carried from the river and end up near their homes. An older lady described that event.’

Yu then explained that the novel was originally serialised in a newspaper, published in both Korea and Japan. She was aware that she was writing to audiences that had two different perceptions of history. Then, the Iraq War erupted while her series was running, and suddenly the newspapers started reporting predominantly about the War. Sharing a space with these war reports and articles pushed her to face the question of what a writer could offer while an actual, real war was happening. With the continuing violence in Gaza, Yu’s thoughts and feelings feel more immediate. It is terrifying that the questions she was grappling with twenty years ago when she was writing The End of August—a novel about events that had happened decades before—remain just as pressing today. What is a writer’s duty?

She was then asked how she thought her grandfather would feel upon reading her book. In answer, she turned towards names: ‘Miri’ (미리/美里), meaning ‘beautiful hometown’, while her younger sister’s name means ‘loving hometown’. ‘Those names really convey his feelings for the homeland he needed to abandon,’ she said. ‘My name, Miri, also comes from the village they grew up in as well: Miryang.’ Her uncle’s name meant ‘spring living’, while her younger brother’s name meant ‘spring tree’. Her youngest brother’s name was ‘spring meet’, or ‘meeting in spring’. ‘What’s significant about that is that he didn’t tell [anyone] his younger brother’s name, certainly not to me, but also to his daughter— my mother. I only found out after I went to Korea,’ Yu explained. ‘There’s a cyclical concept [there], almost like a reincarnation. You can see that he’s left some clues, like keys, in all of our names. I don’t believe that he had an inkling that I was going to be a writer, but maybe somewhere in him had hoped that some of us would unlock what had happened in history. I wonder how he would see my book.’

Yu Miri’s The End of August and the conversation around it brings into question our existing conceptions of history and ownership, of naming and unnaming. Her writing is radical not because it is overtly political in what it chooses to say but in its silences, just like in the interviews she conducted before writing it. The very nature of the far-reaching exploration she had to go through to find out so much of her family’s wartime history speaks volumes about how forceful silence is, and what it takes to get through to the other side. Today, unresolved tensions remain between Japan and Korea due to Japan’s former colonial occupation of the country. The Korean War is often called the ‘Forgotten War’ because it was overshadowed by other conflicts, and Morgan Giles’s translation brings it into the present day. This novel and its subsequent translation opens up a dialogue not only between Korean and Japanese people but also between people of all nationalities and ethnicities on an international stage. War today often looks different from the war of the past, but in many ways it is still the same; colonialism has evolved with the times, but at its core it is still the same; suffering appears to have changed but only because it is often silenced at will and brandished when found useful by those colonial powers. In The End of August, we are immersed in that suffering because we must remember the history. Like Suzy Feay said, its fictionalised nature does not detract from its gravity. The novel’s existence is a testament to what good literature should stand for.

The last question in the Q&A was the perfect place to end. She was asked whether or not she had found the answer for her lack of belonging. After all, she had spent so long—and so many words—crafting it for herself. In response, she said, ‘I run a bookshop. I believe that books are carriers for the soul; they carry through what the soul needs to explain. I found a place in creating the space for people who are still looking for a place to belong.’

This article is part of STRAND's coverage of London Literature Festival 2023.


Edited by Lara Mae Simpson, Literature Editor


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