much, if not all, of what i’ve been creating this year has been in response to these words shared by meryl streep, an attempt to take my broken heart and make it into art.
2017 started off with moving back to los angeles from brooklyn, with leaving home behind and returning to the place i grew up with my tail between my legs, and i came back because of financial difficulties and brain issues that would become body issues that would feed into brain issues. i was suicidal and depressed and anxious, and, as i drove across the country, from brooklyn to DC to charleston to atlanta to new orleans to austin to el paso to phoenix to LA, the fear churning through my brain was simple: that i would die in california, not from getting stuck there and getting old and dying but because the monsters in my brain would drive me to the point of no return.
and, yet, here i am, halfway into the year, alive and present.
it’s a miracle that i am still alive. it’s a greater miracle that i am still alive and doing fairly well, that i am looking to the future and fighting my way back home. six months ago, i didn't think this present me would even exist.
but then it's not a miracle at all because all i've done these last six months is simple: i've taken my broken heart and made it into art.
my mother doesn’t like that i talk so openly about depression and anxiety because she’s afraid of the impact such openness will have on any future prospects, whether professional or personal. i talk about it, though, because i feel i must, because i know how horribly isolating and alone it is to be locked away in your brain, to carry this damage and feel like you’re the only one in your world who must be going through this.
i know how depression and anxiety and ADHD make you feel like a failure, like a freak, like an already washed-up, sorry-ass excuse for a human being who can’t seem to keep her shit together.
i know how that feels. i know how that destroys you from inside out and makes everything worse.
and, so, i talk about it. i talk about it even though i don’t have a “happy ending” to share; i talk about it even though i’m still going through it, even though i still don’t know if i will “survive.” i talk about it in the mainstream, accepted language i hate because depression isn’t something i’ll ever “survive” — it’s something i’ll live with and will struggle with until the end.
and that is okay.
i’ve said it before and i’ll keep saying it, but i’m not a fan of survival narratives. i understand their place in the zeitgeist, and i understand that, sometimes, we need to hear the stories of people who have “made it through to the other side,” who have “survived.” i suppose that, maybe, it’s that, on some level, i don’t understand that because that’s not the way i’ll ever see mental health or trauma or whatever — we carry these things with us, and we can’t mark a clean end to them. the brain rarely compartmentalizes that way.
life rarely compartmentalizes that way, either, and one of the things i’ve been learning is how messy things are. love isn’t simple, want isn’t simple, family isn’t simple. everything is complicated, and, sometimes, it’s contradictory, and, sometimes, it feels like certain elements of things must cancel each other out, though that isn’t the case. maybe that’s vague and ambiguous, but this is something i’m currently thinking about in relation to roxane gay’s hunger (harper, 2017) and trying to put into clearer language, so i suppose we’ll have to wait for me to sit on that a little longer.
anyway, so things aren’t simple, and that’s fine. i was talking to my therapist about how, now that things are relatively stable, i’m running high levels of anxiety because i’m waiting for something to go wrong. she said that that could be an effect of my ADHD, of my being so accustomed to existing in chaos and instability that i’ve learned to embrace it as a coping mechanism, and i thought, okay, that could make sense. no matter how well i organize things, everything erupts into chaos within a day, anyway.
and that, too, is okay, and this is where we go back to my distaste of survival narratives. one reason i dislike them so is that i don’t like why society tends to demand them, this need for something clean and neat and categorizable. it feeds into how society tends to have certain expectations, how it wants to see certain [arbitrary] criteria met to indicate a certain way of being, how it shoves and enforces certain narratives depending on race, sexuality, gender, mental health, etcetera.
because, hey, here’s the thing: just because some of us live with chaos in our brains that might translate into seeming chaos in our lives doesn’t mean we aren’t functioning human beings who deserve respect and contribute our skills to society and thrive in our own ways, on our own terms. and, hey, here’s the other thing: even if we sometimes fall apart, that’s more to do with the fact that we’re human, and we fuck up, and we all have good days, and we all have bad days, and we are not our mental illnesses, just like we are not the color of our skin or our sexuality or our career. and maybe that’s why i talk about my depression and anxiety and ADHD so much. because, yeah, i might not have clear directions about where i’m going with my life right now, but i function well, get shit done, and write and create and think and read and cook and live.
and you know? i am not the only one with mental health issues to do so, and i am really done with the stigma and bullshit and condescension that wrap mental health in shame and inflict so much harm on real human lives. there is a cost for silence, and it is rarely the people enforcing the silence who pay the price.
sometimes, i think that one of my character flaws (i suppose, depending on how you look at it) is that i can’t do the same thing twice. what works for me once doesn’t work the second time (or third) (or fourth), and i suppose you can just look through this site for proof of that. like, for instance, last year, i was fairly diligent about updating my reading as i went along; this year, it has failed completely.
instead, i’ve been blogging more long-form, getting way more personal and open than i ever thought i would, playing with ways to integrate food and cooking. i’ve stopped caring about cordoning myself off into a niche and started intentionally branching off instead, trying to figure out how to integrate all my interests and bring them together. i’ve been thinking a lot about growth and what that looks like.
so here’s a weird transition to books i’ve loved so far this year because, even if i haven’t been regularly logging or reviewing what i’ve been reading, i have been reading a fair amount.
first, we’ve got rachel khong’s goodbye, vitamin (holt, forthcoming, 2017), which will be published very soon, and which i loved. it was the first book i read this year, and i read it while driving across the country and ignoring the various sadnesses exploding within me, and it made me laugh and made me cry and hit all these nostalgic, soft spots in my heart — nostalgia being kind of a theme with me this year because it's also what i loved about yoojin grace wuertz's everything belongs to us (random house, 2017). i did think the ending to everything was kind of weak, but i loved how wuertz tapped into this notalgia for 1970s seoul, which is weird, maybe, because i wasn't even alive in the 1970s, much less in seoul.
and, yet, the novel brought up all these nostalgic feelings for this era and place that i only know through proxy because my father was a student at seoul national university in the late 1970s. he remembers the turbulent times portrayed in wuertz's novel, and i've recently taken to listening to all the stories from his youth (and my aunts' youth) as i can. it's a project i'm trying to figure out, how to travel to each aunt and get her story, because they are stories that should be told and heard, if only because i find them so interesting. they've lived through a lot, first-generation korean-american immigrants. they've seen a lot.
dear friend, from my life i write to you in your life (random house, 2017) is the first thing i read from yiyun li, and it felt like a hug in book form. (i wrote about it here.) and then there was patty yumi cottrell and her fabulous sorry to disrupt the peace (mcsweeney's, 2017) (here) — i love writers who make me imagine new ways of writing and seeing the world and approaching fiction, and cottrell does just that, and she does it confidently, brashly almost, and hilariously. (jenny zhang is another such author; her debut short story collection, sour heart, is being published by random house in september; and you should all read it.)
and then there was bandi's the accusation (grove press, 2017), and this list is a little weird to me because these are all books published in 2017, but i guess, sometimes, i really keep up with contemporary fiction.
the accusation is the first collection of stories published by a north korean writer currently still in north korea. bandi is (obviously) a pseudonym, and the stories were smuggled out of the country, eventually making their way to the south. it's the first book my online book club read, and, hey, that's another cool thing to come from 2017 — this online book club i founded to satiate a need and loneliness, friendless as i am in los angeles.
and, then, finally, there's roxane gay's hunger, and i'd say more about that, but i have a lot i want to say about it, so we'll hold that off for the next post.
this is longer than i'd planned for it to be.
... and yet we keep going.
and, so, now, here we are, at the beginning of july, and the future is a murky unknown. it’s enough for me that the future has light, though, even if i don’t attach much hope to it, and i'm stringing trips into the next few months to keep me going.
next weekend, i’ll be in seattle with my parents. some time at the end of july or in early august or maybe both, i’ll be back in san francisco, hanging out with my BFF and meeting new faces. in september, i’ll be back home in brooklyn, mostly because i want to and mostly because of the brooklyn book festival, the event i look forward to all year, that marks the beginning of autumn and the wind-down to year-end.
i can’t wait to be back home again, to breathe that air and see familiar faces and feel my heart beating in my body again. i can’t wait to feel home again; i can’t wait to feel fully myself again.
and, then, next year, in late spring/early summer, i’m planning on peru, coaxing my cousin(s) to come with me. some time in the next two years, there will be spain because i’m resolved to travel more, to get out more, to see more and eat more and experience more. i’m resolved to pursue new opportunities,to keep playing with form and content here, to finish my goddamn book and push it out into the world and query it and hopefully see it published and do awesome, fun, scary book things.
because this is how i've survived, and this is how i will continue to go on, by taking my brokenness and turning it into art, by going about the world with my eyes and heart wide open, by seizing whatever it is that i can seize to get out, to get better, to get home.
i can package a certain story as a dream and tell it that way. i can disguise my childhood, and as i disguise it i can make allusions, and as i reveal details about the allusions, i can make them appear fictitious, and in this way, i can deceive you all. but you won’t be deceived. (han, 148)
i always hated writing introductions — introductions and conclusions. in college, i’d always start with the stuff in the middle, oftentimes without even establishing a thesis first because the middle had to be worked through for me to discover what my thesis even was. once all that was written and done and good, i’d write the conclusion. then i’d write the introduction. none of this has changed.
coming back to korean literature-in-translation after some time away is one kind of homecoming, and i love how we’re getting more and more of it here in the west. i love that i’ve been reading more and more of it because, a few years ago, this was a wish of mine: to read more korean literature, to be able to know more of it, to be able to share more of it.
and i am so happy to be able to share more of it.
hwang jungeun, one hundred shadows (tilted axis, 2016)
one of the things that i love about korean literature is that it often seems to exist in a korea different from the glittery, technologically-advanced, prosperous, high-achieving state that korea seems to present itself as. hallyu shows off a romantic view of korea, with its cutesy, perky pop stars and shiny dramas, a lot of which has been the product of the government pouring resources into hallyu and generating an idol-making machine within its entertainment industry, while literature has gotten considerably less attention until recently.
i don’t want to go so far as to claim that, as a result of that, korean literature took on different tones (though i have heard that theory before), especially as there is also the question of what and how literature is translated. is it that the gatekeepers to translation just have a love for korean literature that tells narratives of those who exist on the fringes of society? who bear witness to the startling wealth gaps that exist in sometimes jarring juxtaposition in korea?
regardless of whether it’s a translation thing or a trend in korean literature, i’m glad that this literature exists. i’m glad that there are writers out there who aren’t enthralled with this one depiction of korea, who write novels that go beneath the glossy veneer and explore the effects of prosperity, who write about people who exist outside the aspirational “norm.”
hwang jungeun’s one hundred shadows is one such novel.
the novel is set primarily in an electronics market in korea, and it’s a rundown market, one that developers want to tear down and build into something new. unsurprisingly, they use all kinds of means to try to bully the storeowners to leave, whether by convincing them to take a sum of money and relocate their shop in some unclear new location or by blocking off the main entrance of the market so customers believe they’re closed. it’s not that hwang focuses on this aspect of the story; one hundred shadows is largely a story about two characters who work at different shops in the market; and it’s a story, also, about the people in this market, these people who don’t have much, who exist on the outside edges of an upward society, who are trying to resist the shadows that rise and threaten to consume them.
i think that’s the strength of the novel, though, that hwang tells the story of these economic differences in korea without directly telling them. she doesn’t get into social issues or into the nitty-gritty of the conflicts that might exist between these shop owners and the developers — the details are there if you read for them in the way that these stresses and worries are present in and shape people’s lives without necessarily taking center stage.
… for me this whole area is inextricably tangled up with those memories and the way they make me feel, and when i hear people call this place a slum, well, it just doesn’t seem right to me. calling a person poor is one thing, that’s an objective fact in a way, but ‘slum’ … mujae trailed off.
i wonder if they call this kind of place a slum because if you called it someone’s home or their livelihood that would make things awkward when it comes to tearing it down. (hwang, 102)
sometimes, i read sentences and laugh a little to myself because i wonder how they must read in korean, how much of a tangle they must have been to translate. other times, i read sentences that make me wonder what the original korean is, what kinds of decisions the translator must have made and why, what kinds of liberties the translator may have taken. other times, i read sentences that make me sad because i’m sure a lot was lost in translation, that the korean must be achingly beautiful in the ways that korean can be, in the ways that english cannot.
i love the korean language. it’s lyrical and poetic, and you can run the language around in these exquisite loops that seem like they can go on forever without losing themselves. i love the lack of clear third-person pronouns, and i love the ambiguity you can create because pronouns aren’t necessary — in korean, the subject pronoun is often implied, a quirk about the language that is used to create ambiguity in quiet, powerful ways.
i love the words themselves, too, and, sometimes, when i think of korean and i think of english, i find myself thinking how limited a language english is. there are words in korean that cannot be found in english, that require a paragraph just to try to define; there are ways to feel in korean that do not exist in english; and there are ways of encompassing a national identity that cannot be so clearly distilled to be consumed and understood.
in general, i love how much language can reflect culture, and i’m fascinated by and interested in the act of translating, how it’s an act of loss, not simply of words but of culture and history and societal context. this is one of the reasons i love reading korean literature-in-translation, too, because the very fact of it being translation — crucially, of it being translation from korean, a language and culture i know to a certain degree of intimacy — alters the reading experience. in many ways, i feel like i am a much more active reader when it comes to translated korean literature, and that is something i appreciate.
i don’t really like people who go around saying they don’t have any debt. this might sound a little harsh, but i think people who claim to be in no debt of any kind are shameless, unless they sprang up naked in the woods one day without having borrowed anyone’s belly, and live without a single thread on their back, and without using any industrial products. (hwang, 18-9)
han yujoo, the impossible fairy tale (graywolf press, 2017)
choi mia had two fathers. she received twice as many presents as the other children received on birthdays and christmas. she had no siblings. the other children were jealous of her face, clothes, and school supplies. she has never been jealous of other children. choi mia was not given enough time to learn about jealousy. (han, 92)
there is a beauty to the way han yujoo writes violence in the impossible fairy tale — or maybe “beauty” is the wrong word because it’s not that she makes it beautiful or tries to render it so. she’s brutal about it, writes about it in ways that make you flinch, but she does it indirectly without giving way to sensationalism or even without putting it into clearly defined words.
i can’t even figure out a way to summarize this book, maybe that it’s a story about two children, one who has everything and one who does not. it’s a story about violence against children, about the violence children are capable of, about the way violence begets violence in the way that violence is trauma that is felt on every level. it’s a story about how we all must find outlets for our fear, our anger, our desperation — or that, even if we don’t, if we try to suppress everything, things will somehow escape, sometimes to catastrophic results.
somehow, that’s not even the most interesting part of the book, though, because han does a pretty damn stellar pivot with part two, bringing us into an i-narrative voice. it’s unclear who this “i” is, though; is she one of the students in part one? is she one of the two children? what are these dreams she keeps writing about? who is she? why are we suddenly looking at things from her perspective? why am i automatically assigning the female gender to her?
at first, i thought the dream sequences in part two were going on for too long, wondered if han weren’t falling prey to art for art’s sake, ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, which is a particular peeve of mine. i don’t want to discuss any details because i don’t want to give any of it away, but part two unfolds in surprising, thoughtful ways that make the meandering worthwhile.
reading, after all, is an act of trust; to a certain degree, we need to be able to trust the author. we need to be able to trust that she’s taking us on a worthwhile journey (“worthwhile” being entirely subjective), that she is thoughtfully using language, that she knows what she is doing, the story she is telling. we need to be able to trust that she purposefully created this experience for us, that none of these choices is casual or lacking in deliberation. we need to be able to trust that she will raise questions that she will answer satisfactorily, that she isn’t abusing her position as author and creator to send us in circles without reason.
han asks us for this trust, and she asks a lot of questions about what it means to create. she asks what these lives are that we, as writers, as artists, create and give body to, these characters we build and into whom we infuse life and personality quirks and histories. she asks about the limitations of creating, of fiction, of story; she asks about the responsibility of these acts of creating.
she doesn’t necessarily give us any hard answers to any of these questions, though, but that doesn’t mean she leaves us dissatisfied. the questions she’s asking aren’t meant to have hard answers, anyway. they’re meant to get us questioning, to make us active readers, cognizant of the ways in which we might be complicit in the actions of these characters, because the point, as always, is to consider.
in this way, the sole objective of the stories i want to tell is to throw you into an unclear state, to make you believe while you’re not able to believe. (han, 150)
i feel like noting that han does some really interesting things with language in the impossible fairy tale, and i’m so curious (01) to read this in korean and (02) how the translator, janet hong, made some of the decisions she did. i don’t mean the latter in an accusatory way or to imply that she did a bad job; i’m genuinely curious because i love language and have dabbled in translation and regard it with a fair amount of wonderment.
bandi, the accusation (grove press, 2017)
i confess that i have yet to finish reading the accusation. that is not going to stop me from writing about it now, especially as it is a book i am certain to revisit in the future.
bandi is the pseudonym for a north korean writer currently still living in north korea, and the accusation is a collection culled from a manuscript that he has been writing for years. the manuscript was smuggled out of north korea, an action that put not only bandi’s life but also the lives of everyone involved in danger. it was bandi’s hope that his stories be published in south korea, but he never dreamed that they’d be translated and be read outside of korea.
the accusation was published in south korea in 2014. it is published by grove press in the US and serpent’s tail in the UK on tuesday, 2017 march 7. bandi, in korean, means firefly.
as may be inevitable, we give certain books more weight than others, and the accusation certainly is one of such book. as crucial as journalistic and investigative stories about north korea are, as important as memoirs by refugees are, there is a void when it comes to fiction, and i am glad to have this collection.
because here is where i get down to story: i often get annoyed by people who constantly try to downplay the humanities, sneering at books and literature and fiction like they’re mere child’s play. part of this is that i grew up in an environment that considers fiction useless; the korean phrase used to dismiss fiction is “쓸떼 없다,” which translates literally to “there is no use for that.” even now, i continue to be told that the books i read are pointless, that they’re making me see the world in negative ways, that i need to read more essays, more philosophy, more non-fiction, less stories.
stories are the means through which we see the world. they are how we see ourselves in the world, and, similarly, they are how we see others in the world. stories are how essays, philosophy, and non-fiction are structured; stories lie beneath food, art, music. stories are part of our everyday lives as well — when we go home and talk to our family, our friends, we tell them stories from our days at work, at school, at wherever. when we meet new people, we tell them stories about ourselves — where we’re from, what we do, who we are. when we give a presentation, make an argument, think about our futures, we are telling stories, and, when we write, when we create, we are doing just that — we are telling stories, stories about ourselves, our obsessions, the circumstances of our lives.
you might ask, “if stories are in every part of life, then why do we need fiction?” the thing is that, sometimes, fiction allows us to go places that non-fiction doesn’t. sometimes, fiction opens up barriers that might exist in non-fiction that make some stories impossible to tell. sometimes, fiction makes it easier for us to explore darknesses and fears and truths that we might not otherwise confront.
similarly, sometimes, fiction opens up windows to communicate with others, to provide people opportunities to open their hearts in ways that non-fiction cannot. sometimes, fiction makes it easier to consider a new way of seeing people, to empathize in deeper, more personal ways, to realize that we are all people — we are all human, and we all exist on this planet, and we can work to make things better for each other.
by tapping into our empathetic selves, fiction challenges us to feel and, in doing so, hopefully challenges us to be better people and to do good. it hopefully challenges us to see the people hidden behind an oppressive regime and see them as people.
in the afterword to the accusation, kim seong-dong, a writer for the monthly chosun, tells us this: that bandi started by joining the chosun literature and art general league in north korea, that he was published in various periodicals but came to a realization that led to the stories in this book.
and yet, something began to weigh on him: the great famine of the early to mid-1990s, exacerbated by floods but stemming from the disastrous economic policies of previous decades, which the government insisted on referring to by the officially mandated code words “the arduous march.” witnessing scenes of misery and deprivation, in which many of his friends and colleagues perished, provoked him to reflect deeply on the society in which he lived, and his role there as a writer. a writer’s strength, he found, is best deployed within writing. and so he began to record the lives of those whom hunger and social contradictions had brought to an untimely death, or who had been forced to leave their homes and roam the countryside in search of food. now, when bandi picked up his pencil, he did so in order to denounce the system. (232-3)
rather than himself trying to escape from north korea, the writer bandi has sent his work out as an envoy, risking his life in the process. surely this is because he believes that external efforts can transform the slave society he lives in more quickly than internal ones. on handing his manuscript over, bandi said that even if his work was published only in south korea, that would be enough for him. this work should be heard as an earnest entreaty to shine a spotlight on north korea’s oppressive regime. (241)
i sincerely hope that the accusation is received accordingly. i will definitely be revisiting it in the future.
whether something is harmful or not is a matter of personal standards. (hwang, 57)
to be honest, while one of the reasons i started this weekly post series was very much to fight back against a toxic administration, another reason was purely selfish: to give myself a sense of purpose and something to fight for outside the brokenness in my brain and my body.
i live with what is called major depressive disorder, recurrent episode, and panic disorder, and i also struggle with suicidal thinking and hopelessness and general despair. i go to sleep at night hoping i won’t wake up in the morning, and i wake up in the morning disappointed to find myself still here. add onto that that i was also recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes*, so there’s that extra dose of self-loathing added onto everything else, especially when food was that one last comfort i had, that one last lifeline i was holding onto to get me through the days, to get me out of bed and try to care for myself. all of that, with one blood test, is gone — or, at least, altered beyond what i am currently able to handle.
most days, i find myself helpless, unable even to make that effort to care. when i check my blood sugar and my meter gives me back that triple-digit reading despite it only being a week of monitoring and trying to bring my glucose down, i don’t know what to do, so i shut down, stop eating, hope this kills me. maybe it goes without saying that i’m still processing the anger and resentment that comes with this diagnosis, letting the mental temper tantrums run loose when the numbness wears off, and trying to tell myself that it’s not that big a deal, it’s manageable, it’s not life or death — but, truth be told, i hate that, i always have — it’s just another way for people to enforce shame via diminishing, blaming, belittling.
because here’s the truth: something doesn’t have to endanger your life to threaten it, and just because something is manageable doesn’t mean that it isn’t devastating. context matters. the whole of a person matters. and had this happened at some other point, when i wasn’t already so broken, so empty-handed, so hopeless, i might have reacted differently. i might have squared my shoulders and said, okay, and simply dealt with it. but it didn’t — it happened now, and, when all the pieces of my life are lying in shambles at my feet, it’s impossible to take this in stride and get on with it, even as i know that, given time, i will learn to live with it.
so that’s a long-winded way of saying that i won't be continuing these thursday posts. i won’t stop blogging and will continue posting regularly, but, as of this moment, i am not able to continue this once a week schedule. for one, i barely have the ability to focus these days, much less finish books at the pace i did before and write posts with such tight turnaround time, and, for another, even as i know that this is disappointment in myself speaking, a huge part of me, frankly, doesn’t really see the point. thank you for following along thus far; it means more to me than i can express.
* for anyone concerned, i made my kimchi fried rice with brown rice. also, i am new to this and still figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
let's start by stating the obvious: dear lord, it's hard reading in another language, even if it’s a language you grew up with. these posts about the accusation are inevitably going to be as much (or more) about reading in korean as the stories themselves because reading is proving to be an adventure in and of itself, so here’s a little background about my korean.
technically, korean is my first language. my father came to the states to do his ph.d after he graduated from seoul national university, and he didn't actually plan to get married here, was going to go back to seoul once he'd finished his studies. he met my mum, though, (she immigrated to the states when she was ten), and, by then, his parents and four of his five sisters were stateside as well, so my parents got married, committed to a life here instead.
my dad understandably wanted his children to know korean, to be connected to their ethnic heritage and roots even if they were raised in the states. the intense part of it was that he was so dead-set on this that he wouldn't let my mum teach me english at all, only korean, which was fine when i was a tiny little kid in jersey because both my parents worked and i spent much of my days with my paternal grandparents, neither of whom spoke english. when i was four, though, we moved out to california, away from our extended family, to the suburbs of los angeles where my parents, of course, enrolled me in an american preschool.
(a few years later, they enrolled my english-speaking brother in a korean preschool ... my parents, lol.)
once i started school and learned english, i might have lost my korean had my paternal grandparents not moved out west to live with us. the result was that i grew up amazing koreans with my ability to speak and understand korean -- and i say "amazing" because koreans really expect nothing from korean-americans as far as korean goes (i also lack the accent that would otherwise automatically label me korean-american). weirdly, though, it was that ability to amaze that always made me feel self-conscious because my korean has never met my personal standards for excellence -- i'm hyper-aware of the limitations of my korean, constantly frustrated by my limited vocabulary, and i've always wished i was more fluent, a better speaker, and infinitely better reader.
regardless! i can understand, speak, read, write to what my career counselor in law school told me is "conversational ability." i comprehend roughly 75% of korean dramas (set in contemporary times). previous to the accusation, i've read one novel in korean, kim young-ha's memory book of a murderer, and i had less difficulty reading that than anticipated, vocabulary gaps and all because, for the most part, i could fill in the blanks. technical speak and business/political jargon are beyond me, though, which brings me to ...
the first story was more difficult than i anticipated. the vocabulary was tougher, partly because of political terms and partly because of words that are either outdated or unique to north korea. the korean publisher included definitions for the latter in parentheses, for which i am grateful -- and for which my dad's also unknowingly grateful because he was spared what would have been a fair number of texts ("what does xxx mean? what about xxx? and xxx?"). that said, while i had no problems understanding the story overall, there are definitely details that i missed; the primary example is that the narrator's father is punished for what i assume is anti-party something; but the precise political terms still elude me (and my dictionary).
also, wow, i'm slow. painstakingly slow. i read korean out loud, which slows me down more but helps me process, and it's good in that it forces me to read not only every single word but also every single freaking character -- i can't rush through passages (not that i could even if i wanted to), and i have to be 100% fully engaged, which admittedly isn't always the case when i'm reading in english. i have slowed down considerably when i read in english, compared to ten years ago when i'd speed read like crazy (rather impressively, if i say so myself), and i do take in every word, but i can read and comprehend while also having other thoughts simmering in the back of my brain. i can't do that with korean. if i did, i'd be taking in sounds with very little meaning.
one weird thing i struggled with in this story: names.
sometimes, on the rare occasion a name was mentioned (and not many were), i'd go to highlight it only to realize that it was someone's name, and, to be completely honest, i didn't even get the narrator's name until 3/4 of the way into the story. i still don't remember what his wife's name is, if it were even mentioned. i had no problems with the nephew's name, though, but it's a name also commonly found in the south, so there's that.
(fun fact: rhee is a common surname in the north but is uncommon in the south.)
(this whole north/south delineation makes me feel squirmy and sad and furious inside.)
“탈북기" (pronounced "tahl-book-gee," "g" like in "god") means "the record of a north korean refugee," and the story is told essentially in two parts -- the first is narrated by the husband, il-cheol, who discovers that his wife is on birth control but doesn't confront her about it, suspecting her instead until he finally has to address her "suspicious" activity. she gives him her diary to read, and the second part is taken from that as he comes to learn how much his wife has actually thought of him and grieved on his behalf and his nephew’s. il-cheol's father was banned/exiled for (as i said above) anti-party something, and, as is the case in north korea, not only was the father punished, but that black mark has also been placed on his children and grandchildren (three generations are punished and/or executed).
to me, “탈북기” reads in many ways like a portrait of a marriage. in some ways, if you look at it on the surface, it’s not very different from other portraits of marriages — of two people who don’t communicate with each other, who simmer in their suspicions or fears or doubts, who lack affection and seem tied together if only for duty. there’s nothing quite unique about that because marriage has its difficulties and bad marriages aren't uncommon, but then you go in closer and examine this portrait of a marriage in an oppressive regime, and you start looking at it from a different perspective.
you can't remove the human element from it, though, the fact that marriage is, at times, hard work, requires communication and trust and respect, that, as people, we exist in relation to each other -- no man is an island. sometimes, i wonder if there isn't a reductive way of looking at stories (whether fictional or non-fictional) through that one lens of "this is north korea; it is a regime of terror" that's much too prevalent, and to approach the accusation with such a perspective would be to do it a disservice. it would be easy to look at “탈북기” and see it solely as a portrait of life under a punishing regime, but one big thing i appreciated about the story is that it doesn’t lose itself to that. bandi is interested in the human first and foremost, and the story is one about people who live in this country, how they live, who they are. i anticipate the entire collection to maintain this.
going back to "탈북기": the north korean regime is built upon the extreme worship of a cult personality, and it's a society that's class-based, that's about the unit, not the family unit but the greater social unit. it's not about the individual, which means that, in extension, it's not about individual marriages, not about individual families -- hell, it's not even about the individual generation, given that one generation's crimes are passed on to the following two.
you can see that bleeding into the marriage -- how, when a fear of the individual (how ever that is defined) is engrained, there is no room to trust even within a marriage, which requires trust in order to grow and thrive, and that lack of trust and communication, that fear injected into all interpersonal relationships, is another way of enforcing loyalty to a regime, whether that loyalty is assumed intentionally or not.
you can see that with il-cheol's wife, how she wants to protect him, to protect his nephew, but to do so requires secrecy. it requires silence. it means that she can't confide in anyone; she can't even tell anyone how much it infuriates her or breaks her heart that the consequences for the actions of her husband's father extend even to her nephew because, to someone else, that could be a traitorous sentiment. it becomes something she must swallow, words she can only write into a diary she must then hide, and it becomes a secret, something that seems good and born of kindness and love -- it becomes something that must be hidden, not only for her sake but also for the sake of her husband and their families.
thus, love is twisted into something dangerous, and that's what really gutted me about this story. it even extends to motherhood, how there is a guilt and twistedness about wanting to bring a child into such a world. in one passage, his wife writes,
이 땅에 생명을 낳을 때 어미는 그 생명이 복되기만을 바랄 것이다. 한 평생 가시밭을 헤쳐야 할 생명임을 안다면, 그런 생명을 낳을 어머니가 이 세상 어디에 있으랴! 만약 그런 어머니가 있다면 그것은 어머니이기 전에 죄인 중에도 가장 잔악한 죄인이 될 것이다! (45)
when she delivers life onto this earth, a mother can only want that life to be blessed. if she knows it's a life that must push its way through a thorn field all its life, can there be a mother in this world who would give birth to such a life! if there were such a mother, then, before she is a mother, she would be the most cruel sinner among sinners. (45)
it might sound extreme to us, but, looking at it from the perspective of a woman in an oppressive regime, maybe it isn't that extreme at all.
there's strangely (or maybe not so strangely) quite a bit of fear to wrestle with when writing these posts -- a fear of sounding provincial and superficial, of not knowing enough, of not being a smart enough reader, all tied up with a fear that stems from my limitations of language. there's quite a lot of frustration, too, and that's probably also tied into the current in-between status of my life, into a smidgen of regret, too -- and now we're getting confessional here, but i did feel like throwing that bit about the fear out there at least.
i am so curious to see how the accusation will be translated. i wonder how the translator will convey the different ways of narrating — in “탈북기,” the narrator speaks in [what i think is] a particular way of speaking. typically, korean sentences end in “했다, 됐다, 있었다” (haet-dah, dwet-dah, eess-ut-dah) or in a similar variation, but the narrator here ends his sentences in “했네 됐네 있었네” (haet-nae, dwet-nae, eess-ut-nae). maybe the pity here is that i can’t actually explain why this is noteworthy, except to say that it's all about rhythm and cadence, about the way the language flows off your tongue, how something sounds softer or harder, more formal or more casual, more structured or more whimsical based on these grammatical choices. the real pity, though, is that it is impossible to translate because the grammatical structure of english doesn't allow for it; the best a translator can do is capture the tone and convey that in english instead.
like i said in a previous post, translation is an art of loss, in this case, a loss of rhythm and cadence, but part of me thinks that's what makes it such a beautiful art.
i think one of the things we hope stories do is allow people to tap into a deeper sense of understanding than they may naturally be wont. we hope that stories help people access greater sympathy, greater humanity, greater humility even, a sense that we exist in a big, full world populated by all kinds of people in all ways of life — and, in extension, all kinds of people experiencing all kinds of suffering.
one of the books i'm currently reading is rina by kang young-sook (in translation). it tells the story of a teenage girl who escapes from an unnamed oppressive country and tries to get to the country of p, and it makes me think of the refugee narrative, how that is the desired and, in a sense, accepted narrative in the west. we like these stories here, to hear about the hardships, the hunger, the prison camps, the brutality, the cult of kim, and we like the stories of escape, of people driven by desperation to cross the border into china, risking repatriation and death for a chance of something better.
it makes me wonder how much of reality we actually want to know. we hear about girls sold into slavery, the exploitation of refugees, the gross human rights violations going on within north korea's closed borders. we hear about the rape and forced abortions of women in the prison camps. we hear about the cost of escape, how refugees need to pay off so many people just to get out of north korea, to get into china, to get out of china, to get down to southeast asia, to get, eventually, to south korea and/or the united states. do we think about it, though, what that actually means, how that translates into the day-to-day, into the practical? because, when you have nothing to exchange, to barter with, what do you sell?
because what does it mean, on the human level, to decide to escape, to become a refugee, to know that you are putting not only your life but your whole family's life at risk? it doesn't matter if they don’t all try to escape with you; they'll still be punished for your attempt, anyway.
it's something bandi gets at -- at the end of “탈북기,” il-cheol writes,
물론 위험천만한 탈출 방법이네. 해안 경비대나 순찰정의 총알에 맞을 수도 있고 풍랑에 나뭇잎처럼 삼켜질 수도 있으니까. 허나 이렇게 살아 최악의 고뇌에 시달리느니 차라리 죽어 잊어버리는 것이 낫겠기에 목숨을 걸어야 하는 탈출 방법도 서슴없이 선택한 우리들이네. (52)
of course, it's an extremely dangerous way to escape. because we could be shot by the coast guard or by patrolmen, and we could be swallowed up like a leaf by the sea. however, rather than live like this, suffering the worst anguish, it would be better to die and forget, so we have chosen without hesitation even an escape route on which we must stake our lives. (52)
it's sobering, isn't it, the refugee narrative. it's one of life and death, not simply a good story to tell -- and, lest anyone misunderstand, i'm not trying to be patronizing, and these aren't judgments i'm making of other people but questions i am actively asking myself as i read and learn more about north korea and, in a way, as a korean, examine my position in relation to korea, whether north or south. sometimes, i think to be a korean-american is a funny position to be in, all these divisions and delineations we must make in our lives -- but that is something i'll likely continue to touch on in the future.
for now, on to the next story! "유령의 도시," or, in english, "the city of ghosts"!
i have not abandoned this project a week in. i actually finished reading the first story, "탈북기" ('the record of a north korean refugee"), over the weekend, but it's taking me longer to go through and fill in my vocab blanks and write this post. overestimating myself and underestimating the project at hand -- who's surprised?
the post will come soon; i am working on it, focusing all my available time on it actually; but, for now, as an update, here are the photos i took for each day i thought i'd have a post ready to go. (:
thanks for your patience!