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An American Latina in South Korea

Reyna Grande -- June 7, 2011

In October 2010, I received an email from a man named Woo, Suk-Kyun, inviting me to participate in a literary conference in South Korea. I was flabbergasted. Ever since my first novel, Across a Hundred Mountains, was published in June of 2006, I had received invitations to speaks at schools, teacher conferences, author luncheons, graduations, and literary conferences, all here in the area or within the U.S. Yet I had never been asked to present abroad. South Korea? I thought. Who in the world knows me in South Korea?

What was even more odd about that email was that Woo, Suk-Kyun had written to me in Spanish. Yes, Spanish. I had never met a Korean who spoke Spanish. I had never met a Korean whose Spanish was even better than mine, a Mexican-born immigrant. True, I have lived in the U.S. since I was ten, and I had been hit on the head by my teachers that I must master the English language and therefore, neglect my native tongue, but I couldn't believe that someone who had learned Spanish as a second language, in Korea no less, could write so eloquently. "Le agradecería mucho si podría darme respuesta afirmativa..." was how the email ended.

I replied to Mr. Woo and he quickly sent me more information regarding the conference. The 2nd Asia, Africa, Latin America Literature Forum would be taking place the final weekend of April 2011 in the city of Incheon. They were asking me to speak about immigration and feminism. They wanted me to write a 10 page essay which I would present at the conference. The official language would be English with translation into Korean. They would be paying my airfare, meals, hotel, transportation within the city, and I would receive a stipend. I know other authors who have been invited to places such as Germany, Spain, Argentina, Peru. I couldn't believe that now it was me who was going abroad!

At 5:00am of April 28, 2011, I found myself at the Incheon International Airport after a 12 hour flight, getting picked up by Mr. Woo, who turned out to be a shy, sweet man who spoke perfect Spanish with a Korean accent. He drove me straight to the Harbor Park Hotel where I only had a few hours to rest before the first event of the day, the opening ceremony. The hotel's complimentary breakfast was a buffet of western and Asian food. The opening ceremony was attended by important city officials, including the mayor of Incheon, reporters, the conference organizers, and of course, the guest author speakers: Samuel Shimon (Iraq), Bi Feiyu (China), Li-ang (Taiwan), Narayan Wagle (Nepal), Makarand Paranjape (India), Pooneh Nedai (Iran), Diana Ferrus (South Africa), Nurudin Farah (Somalia), Luisa Valenzuela (Argentina), and Rafel Olea Franco (Mexico). Then, there was me, of course. What was strange about the way I was listed on the program was that I didn't get a country next to my name. Instead, I was listed as Reyna Grande (Latino).

The conference was strictly for authors from Asia, Africa, and Latin American. Even though I live in the U.S., I was there to represent Mexico. However, the committee hadn't listed me as such. I pondered on their reasons for not giving me a country and I decided that perhaps it is simply that I don't exactly have a country. Although I was born in Mexico, I came to the United States at the age of 10. I am now 35 years old. Although I write about Mexico, my books aren't available in Mexico. Yet, here, my books aren't considered "American Literature". So I'm not exactly American either. During the conference, I found myself asking "What am I?"

During the three days of the conference, the authors were fed breakfast at the hotel and then for lunch and dinner we were taken to nice places such as Korean, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants. We were put at the best hotel in the city. We were treated like movie stars. The committee members were always asking us if everything was okay and if we needed anything. They spared no expense. I wondered where all their funding came from and how it was that they could afford to pay travel expenses, meals, and lodging for all of us authors.

There were two important things I learned at this conference. One, I got a chance to see the world through all those authors that were there. Through their presentations I was able to learn the experiences of an author outside of the U.S. Yet no matter our differences, what united us all at that conference was our love for the written word. Even outside of the panel rooms I continued to learn from them as we sat around talking about our country's customs and food. The second thing I learned at this conference was this--what a difference money makes! While I served as the Program Director of the Latino Book & Family Festival 2009 and 2010, it was difficult to do anything because the festival had no budget. We couldn't pay authors to present. We couldn't pay their travel or lodging. We struggled to even feed them, and luckily, we managed to get a restaurant to donate the food at the last minute. This was one of the reasons why I decided to quit my position at the LBFF. I just couldn't bear the thought of not being able to give authors the proper treatment they deserved. The AALA showed me what a difference it makes when you have sponsors who appreciate authors and books, and when you have the right leadership to make things happen.

There were two events I loved at the AALA. One was the poetry readings done by immigrants who live in Kore--immigrants from Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. As an immigrant myself I related to their homesickness and their nostalgia for their native country. "Lotus flowers remind me of my hometown. In Cambodia lotus flowers are in season all year round…" read one poet. The second event I loved was the culminating event of the conference held on Saturday the 28th. All the authors were asked to put our hands in clay because the committee was planning on hanging up our handprints on the walls of the Incheon Art Platform. I felt as if I were a movie star in Hollywood! After our handprints were taken, we were lead into the main room and given a concert by various Korean singers who put music to poetry. As they sang, the poems were projected in English on the huge screen behind them. It was a beautiful way to end the conference, and I left feeling sad that it was over.

What makes me happy is knowing that I will be going back again to the AALA and South Korea. While I was there, the committee members managed to get me a contract with a Korean publisher to have my novels translated and published in their country. Five of the authors who were there at the AALA had just had their books published in Korean. Next year I will be returning to the AALA to celebrate the translation of my own novels!