jang jin-sung + marie mutsuki mockett & emily st. john mandel + michael cunningham

it was an unusually packed week of events -- three in a row!  (this is highly unusual.)

jang jin-sung @ the korea society (2015 february 2)

the korea society puts on some really, really great events.  last summer, they held an event with roberta cohen, co-chair of the committee for human rights in north korea, and jo jin-hye, a north korean refugee, and, on monday, they hosted an event with jang jin-sung, former poet laureate of north korea who had to flee because he lent a friend a book from south korea and his friend left his bag (with the book, which was obviously highly confidential) on the subway.

this event was particularly interesting because jang was part of the elite in north korea and, therefore, has a different perspective.  he worked for the united front department, where he created propaganda material that was intended to create sympathy among south koreans for north korea, and was gifted a rolex by kim jong-il at one point.  and, yes, this was a book event because jang wrote a memoir, dear leader, that was published last year.

  • the united front department was created at a time north korea was confident about unifying korea under kim jong-il.  when jang joined, this was no longer considered feasible, so the department started looking into north korea.
  • kim jong-il wasn't picked for succession.  he was placed in the propaganda department, not in a governmental position (if he'd been picked for succession, he would've been given a governmental position), but this turned out to be pivotal for him -- it's where he learned the power of narrative control.
  • was very surprised by jang sung-taek's execution -- north korea is a system that's built on the supreme leader being infallible, and the execution shattered that.
  • after kim jong-il's death, weird political plays began happening, which fractured the monopolization of power.  the execution statement said that jang sung-taek had been trying to become prime minister of north korea, and he had been trying to gain power along economic lines.  it is assumed that kim jong-un ordered the execution, but it was actually the power-holders of the OGD (organization and guidance department), and there have been no power conflicts since the execution.
  • kim jong-il built power through his network of close friends.  kim jong-un's is built on his position as kim jong-il's son.  thus, kim jong-il's was a total apparatus of power, while kim jong-un's is merely a title.  
  • argues that the only solution for north korea is reunification
  • the world needs to change how it views north korea.  if kim il-sung wore full body armor, kim jong-il only wore frontal armor, and kim jong-un is naked save for a tiny little shield.  and yet the world is still so focused on attacking that shield -- basically, north korea has changed, but the world's approach to it has not.
  • north korea has already been conquered by the US dollar.
  • north korea seeks dialogue because it's only through dialogue that they can make threats, extort, etcetera.
  • north korea operates on a two-prong strategy:  to cooperate on land but maintain tension on sea.  you can't see something like the cheonan sinking as solely an act of provocation but as a result of the dynamics of north korean/south korean relations -- because south korea kept giving, north korea had to keep upping the tension/psychological warfare to maintain its leverage.
  • if the cult of kim keeps being attacked, north korea will keep responding.  the system relies on defending the legitimacy and supremacy of the leader no matter what.

also, i think interpreters are so badass.  the ease with which they turn language around in their brains so quickly ... it's incredible!

marie mutsuki mockett & emily st. john mandel @ asian american writers' workshop (2015 february 3)

mockett wrote a book called where the dead pause and the japanese say goodbye.  read an excerpt from it here!  emily st. john mandel wrote the fabulous station eleven.

  • ken chen (director of AAWW)'s pithy summation of cormac mccarthy's the road:  when a disease takes over the world and turns it into boy's life magazine.
  • mandel:  there's something in art that reminds us of our humanity.  as a species, we're kind of hard-wired to find that grace.
  • mandel researched pandemics and was able to find a kind of hope in how it happened again and again.  ("so the apocalypse has already happened.") (i forgot who said that.  it might have been chen posing it as a question.)
  • mockett:  while she was in japan, she went to see a shaman who would supposedly be able to channel her father (mocket's father passed away).  she wasn't really sure what to expect or believe of this shaman, but she realized that it wasn't that the shaman could literally channel her father but that the shaman's aim was to help her, to help people through their suffering and learn essentially to live and be happy.
  • mandel:  the idea of the museum came out of the idea that we already do this.  there's something very human about collecting weird little things.
  • mockett:  in the writing of this book, she wanted to capture the things she found precious and unique about japan because, who knows, it could all disappear.
  • mandel:  donna tartt's the secret history is kind of her model because it's kind of the perfect novel -- it's beautifully written, but it's also a page-turner.
  • mockett:  two secrets for structure in her book:
    • she didn't have a book (model) in mind.  she was definitely influenced by japanese structure, though -- or lack of structure.  she doesn't really like structure because structure is another of those things we can play with, but she came up with the idea to follow the cycle of the soul, starting with death and going from there.
    • she has a handful of jazz musician friends, so she was also thinking of the book like a setlist, like a gig.
  • mandel:  she found herself looking at the fragility of the world in a way she hadn't.  "this whole apparatus of civilization that surrounds us is incredibly fragile."

it's such a pleasure listening to mandel read.  i'd been weirdly hesitant to pick up station eleven until i went to a reading and heard her read the "an incomplete list" passage (pages 31-2) -- it's a haunting, beautiful passage, and she reads it so wonderfully.

michael cunningham @ columbia university (2015 february 4)

michael cunningham!  he's such a gracious, generous soul, and it was a delight to hear him as part of the creative writing lecture series at columbia.  (i also love going to columbia; the campus is beautiful; and i don't ever trek up there so i like the excuse.)  the lecture series doesn't really provide a structure (i don't think), so he used the time to create characters with the audience and show how that led to formation of a plot/narrative.  it was pretty cool.

  • he opines that any fully-imagined character in conjunction with another fully-imagined character can't not form a plot/narrative.  (and he went on to demonstrate this.)
  • after the basic questions (gender, race, job, family, etcetera), the oft-unasked questions:
    • what does s/he most ardently want?
    • what is s/he most afraid of?
    • what's standing in his/her way?
    • what is it s/he most doesn't want you to know?
  • what characters want -- desire drives fiction, even if what they want is invisible to them.
  • there's no such thing as plot; there are only human beings trying to get something they want and the world keeping it from them, whether through external forces or self-sabotage, etcetera.
  • when creating, tends to start with the physical, with the body.
  • sometimes, if possible, tells students to out and pick a person and follow him/her (don't stalk, though) and come back with a list of twenty physical traits.  it's amazing how often a full human being with a soul will come out of that.
  • if you sufficiently imagine the corporeal, you summon someone.
  • "we walk bold and unafraid into the cliche."
  • you set it up (the characters and such) ... and then you wait for the surprise.
  • a sort of measure of success is when the novel doesn't turn out to be the novel you started writing.  if there's no surprise for the author, then how could there be any for the reader?
  • he writes probably twice the length of the published book and likens it to taxes:  i owe the government half my income, so i owe the wastebasket half my pages.
  • writing is a collaborative process.  you should have a team of readers.  three or four is a good number.  twelve is too many, and one is too few.