Since he came to Korea to teach English at a middle school, Barry Welsh has become acquainted with Seoul,
difficult and unfamiliar at first, mostly through books and movies. These days, when he invites a famous author to
his monthly “book talk concert,” the 200-seat hall is filled to capacity.
Barry Welsh of the Seoul Book and Culture Club speaks to the audience at a “talk
concert” featuring novelist Jo Jung-rae, seated at left, as guest speaker. Welsh is currently
an assistant professor of English speaking and writing at Dongguk University.
One day in early January, foreign residents of Seoul arrived
one by one to fill the 200-seat hall of the Seoul Global Cultural
Center in Myeong-dong, downtown Seoul. They had
come for the Seoul Book and Culture Club event hosted by Barry
Welsh, a Brit living in Seoul. The guest writer that day was Jo Jungrae,
author of “Taebaek Mountain Range,” “The Han River,” and
“The Great Jungle.” “Taebaek Mountain Range,” his masterpiece, is
a saga consisting of 10 volumes. Selling more than 10 million copies
so far, the novel is regarded as an iconic work of Korean literature
that delves into the unresolved problems of national division
and ideological conflict in modern Korean history. It is among the
most sought-after books at university libraries.
The event lasted two hours. During the first part, Jo and Welsh
talked with the help of an interpreter. Characteristically, the veteran
writer covered a wide range of topics from the high-handedness
of world powers to nationalism and the immorality of politicians.
Despite the weightiness of the subjects, the audience was
engrossed in the dialogue. The second part was a question and
answer session. Hands shot up here and there. A young woman
from New York asked a question.
Welsh looked a little embarrassed
and grinned awkwardly when Jo spoke accusingly of Britain’s colonial
domination around the world over two centuries.
The event came to a close, and Welsh presented Jo with a bottle
of single malt whisky he had brought from his hometown in Scotland.
“I’m a Brit. Not English, but Scottish,” Welsh said. “You know
‘Braveheart’ [1995 film depicting the Scottish War of Independence],
don’t you? The lead character was in the same position as
Admiral Yi Sun-sin portrayed in ‘Roaring Currents’ [2014 Korean
war film, aka ‘Myeongnyang’]. So I can fully understand the grudge
people have against invaders.”
Welsh’s book club is well-known to foreigners in Seoul. Since it
was launched in 2011, the club has hosted an event once a month.
Many of the regular participants have come to know each other and
naturally linger afterwards to say hello. It appears the membership
of the book club overlaps with that of the Seoul Film Society Welsh
launched in 2013.
“We’re lucky to have Mr. Jo at our event today. He uses neither
a home phone nor a mobile phone, but can be reached only by fax.
And he rarely attends outside gatherings,” Welsh said.
In October last year, Welsh wrote an article for a local newspaper
in which he expressed the hope that more works by Jo —
which deal with Korean history and culture and can help people
from other countries understand what historical influences have
shaped Koreans — would be translated into foreign languages. Jo,
who had read the article, gladly accepted the invitation to speak at
the book club. Moreover, Jo declined the honorarium, which made
Welsh happy because the proceeds from admission fees (5,000 won
per person) were just enough to pay the interpreter's fee and other
expenses. Any money that is left is spent on the film society screenings
for which admission is free.
Welsh currently teaches English speaking and writing as an
assistant professor at Dongguk University. “The book club and the
film screenings are my long-time hobbies,” he said. “I plan, implement,
and promote each and every event by myself. Of course, my
wife helps me. I’m fortunate in being able to rent such a good hall
from the Seoul Metropolitan Government for free. And it’s very
rewarding to meet good people.”
Setting Out on his Journey
Welsh majored in English literature at the University of Liverpool
and obtained an M.A. in film studies at the University of Edinburgh.
In 2008, when he was working for an investment company on the
Isle of Man, the global financial crisis left his career unstable. He
decided to teach English in Asia for a year or two and save some
money before traveling around the world and returning home. He
stumbled upon a job opening for a native English speaker in Korea
with attractive terms and conditions. He applied and landed the job
at a middle school in Seoul. The school provided him with airfare
and housing. He arrived in Korea for the first time in August 2009.
“I was under enormous pressure when I was working for the
investment firm. I had no days off and the work was hard. Here at
the school, I got off work at 4:30 p.m. sharp every day. And I liked
teaching. Besides, the transport was convenient, stores were open
till late at night, and it was fun to hike up the mountains in the surrounding
area on weekends,” Welsh said.
Having lived on his own since he was 18, adapting to a foreign
country when he was over 30 was not too difficult. But he needed
some time to get familiar with a new city.
“As I was intimidated by the scale of Seoul and its modern chic
was beyond imagination, I didn’t go out much for a while,” Welsh
said. “My life consisted of working at the school, reading at a café
near my home after work, and then going home to sleep. Then I
plucked up courage and started to explore the city little by little.”
The audience listens to Barry Welsh during his book club meeting held at the Seoul
Global Cultural Center in downtown Seoul. This event is posted on Welsh’s Facebook.
After his contract with the middle school expired, Welsh worked
as a visiting professor at Lingua Express, the language education
institute at Sookmyung Women’s University. In January 2013,
he fell in love with a woman named Roh Hyun-ui to whom he was
introduced by one of his colleagues. She was working for a trading
company after graduating from the university’s English Literature
Department. Like him, she loved literature and films and playing
with her cat at home. They could trust each other and felt they were
meant for each other. But he suffered for a while because her parents
did not agree with their daughter’s choice of husband.
Welsh said, “I said nothing to try to win them over, like how
I would buy a house, what my goals for the future were, or that
they wouldn’t regret their decision to let their daughter marry me.
Instead, I just asked them to respect our decision. This made her
parents a little uneasy. That was just due to cultural differences. We
are all happy and respect one another now, of course.”
They married in 2015. An English-speaking docent at the ICT
Exhibition Hall of Digital Pavilion in northwestern Seoul, Roh Hyunui
also helps him run the book and film clubs. Earlier, Welsh did
everything by himself, including posting announcements about club
events in English because he did not know Hangeul. But, with his
wife's help, he started making announcements in Korean, too. This
attracted Koreans to the club events and their participation has
enriched the dialogue between invited authors and the audience.
“I didn’t know foreigners in Seoul had such great interest in Korean literature. I also realized that
an event with an invited author is a very effective way of helping them understand the author's
works and literary world.”
Roh Hyun-ui is an important contributor to the operation of Welsh’s book and film clubs.
Talks with Authors
The first Korean literary work Welsh read was “I Have the Right
to Destroy Myself,” a novel by Kim Young-ha. He was attracted by
the title, and enchanted by its hypermodern style and theme. He
gathered a few friends to start a reading club, believing that they
would also like the novel. At first, he chose prominent novels
and hosted debates on the works, never thinking of inviting their
authors. Then one day, he invited Krys Lee, a Korean-American
author and professor at Yonsei University whom he had come
to know through Facebook, to a small-scale event at the Seoul
Global Cultural Center. The topic was “Drifting House,” Lee’s
first collection of short stories. Welsh was astonished to see as
many as 200 people turn up for the event. His next guest was
Shin Dong-hyuk, a former North Korean writer who defected to
“I didn’t know foreigners in Seoul had such great interest in
Korean literature. I also realized that an event with an invited
author is a very effective way of helping them understand the
author's works and literary world,” Welsh said.
Subsequently, a galaxy of star authors has been invited to the
events. Once he had succeeded in inviting Kim Young-ha, the
rest came naturally. “When I mentioned that Kim Young-ha had
participated in one of my events, everything became very easy
all of a sudden,” Welsh said with a smile.
Renowned authors featured so far include poet Ko Un, novelists
Gong Ji-young, Hwang Sok-yong, Han Kang, Lee Changrae,
and Shin Kyung-sook, and children’s story writer Hwang
Sun-mi. Welsh was elated when Han Kang won the Man Booker
International Prize for “The Vegetarian” soon after her book
club appearance in 2016. Hwang Sok-yong kept the audience
laughing to the end and Ko Un mesmerized the audience with
his passionate poetry recitations.
Welsh said he was impressed by such Korean novels as “On
the Road to Sampo” by Hwang Sok-yong, short stories by Pyun
Hye-young and Park Min-gyu, “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang,
and “Modern Family” by Cheon Myeong-kwan. He not only
likes the novel “On the Road to Sampo,” but also counts its film
adaptation as one of his top five favorite movies.
Though immersed in Korean literature and films, he still
depends largely on translations for literary works and on subtitles
for films. To improve his Korean, he keeps taking lessons.
“I don’t know what other adventures I’ll have while living
here with my wife,” Welsh said. “Life is what happens while
you're busy making other plans, as John Lennon once said in a