East meets South – Korean PhD student explores link between African and Asian literature

23 September 2002
NOT ONLY did his doctoral thesis earn him the distinction of becoming the first Korean scholar to complete a PhD in African literature at an African institution, but now Dr Seok-Ho Lee is extending it into a book, drawing unique comparisons between South African and South Korean literature.

Lee, who graduated from UCT in June this year, is no recent proselyte to African literature, having compared the works of famed Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe with those of Joseph Conrad in his first doctorate, which he completed at Hankook University in South Korea in the mid-1990s.

He has also translated a number of books and short stories by African authors, including South Africa's Richard Rive, Lewis Nkosi and Steve Biko, into Korean.

Following his appetite-whetting studies on Achebe, Lee made his way to South Africa for the first time in 1997, looking for an institution from where to continue his studies into African literature. He came back in 1999 to establish the Seoul-based Korean Centre for African Studies, and to start on his PhD under the supervision of Associate Professor Russell Kaschula of the Southern African Languages and Literatures Section.

Taking an "Africanist perspective", Lee tackled a difficult thesis on Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Third World Post-Colonialism, completing his work in June.

Rather than heading home, he is still in South Africa with his wife and baby son, to extend this doctorate into book form, among other things.

In this revised text, he is looking at the similarities between Ngugi's novels and the verse of dissident Korean poet Chi-Ha Kim. Parallels are not restricted to style and content, Lee points out.

Few know, for example, that Ngugi wrote his 1981 novel, Devil on the Cross, in honour of Kim's namesake poem which the latter penned in the early 1970s.

It is this take on African literature that is so unique, observes Kaschula. "I had never thought of the parallels between South Korea and Africa before," he says. "But sometimes it takes somebody from outside to bring a fresh perspective."

Keen to expand cultural relations between the two nations, Lee – a theatre director in Korea – has also joined up with a group of local actors to establish the International Guerilla Theatre, which is working on a play on Sara Baartman.

This production will not only be performed in Cape Town, but will also make its way to Korea sometime in the near future.

Lee sees these cultural incursions as an opportunity to introduce his compatriots to the many offerings of Africa.

"In Korea, many academics and students are fed up with Eurocentric aesthetics, and they are looking for some kind of new aesthetics," he notes.

"In this regard, Africa can be a very good alternative."

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