Novelist Christina Nichol has what you might call a wee case of wanderlust: according to her website, she has taught in such far flung places as Kazakhstan, Kosovo, and India. Now she is based in California, which probably won’t be exotic to readers of this piece, but would be to the hero of her picaresque debut novel Waiting for the Electricity, which I reviewed (very favorably) for the Rumpus back in 2014. I loved Waiting for the Electricity so much, in fact, that I often lament that Georgia (the country, where Nichol also taught) doesn’t come up more in casual conversation so I can recommend it to people. In this month’s edition of The Read Along, Nichol takes us with her as she spends time at a writers’ residency in Seoul, where she is working on a new book with one of the best titles I’ve seen in a long while. She also takes a deep dive into Korean literature, and, before bed, catches up on some classics of anthropology and psychology.
I arrived at Seoul Art Space, a small hilltop for writers in the midst of Seoul’s metropolis, the day after Chuseok, Korea’s harvest celebration. Since the grounds were so quiet, I assumed all the Korean writers were still away with their families. “Oh no!” the director told me. “All fifteen of our writers are here. But you might not meet them. Korean writers like to stay in their rooms and write.” She was showing me the other buildings on the property. Pointing to the gym, downstairs from my room, she said, “You won’t meet them there either because Korean writers don’t like to exercise.”
I came to Korea for four weeks because I’m working on a book called Women Who Love Monks Too Much, based, in part, on having taught English many years ago to a couple of tremendously unorthodox Buddhist monks. South Korea, at that time, was so hastily industrializing that one of the only vocations for an artistically inclined or otherwise nebulously rebellious person was Buddhist monkhood. Now that K-pop and K-dramas are helping to make Hallyu, or “flow of Korea” a global phenomenon, the Korean literary movement has been gaining some attention.
Few Korean novels have been translated into English; the ones available I’d downloaded on my kindle: Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin and Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by the poet Kim Hyesoon. The Library of Korean Literature, published by Dalkey Archive Press, began translating a series in 2013. Those are hard to find, though I’d downloaded samples of the ones available online. I’d also brought the novel The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It just won the Man Booker Prize and, according to the journal Korean Literature Now, the Korean literary community is thrilled. The story is about an upper-middle class Korean woman who stops eating meat and (like a few breatharians I know in California) tries to survive only on sunlight because she believes she’s turning into a plant. Western critics went gaga over this book. One remarked, “Han Kang has written a remarkable novel with universal themes of isolation, obsession, duty and desire.”
Why do Western critics love to brand our idea of “self” onto other cultures, or call isolation a universal theme? The Korean friends I had talked to, though happy with its reception, were puzzled that the book had gained so much attention.
After spending the morning reading outside and meeting nobody, I went to the art space’s empty media lab and found two books in English: a collection of speeches by former President Kim Dae June, and a guide to Seoul. I perused the guide looking for a good museum to visit.
The National Palace Museum of Korea contains 20,000 royal relics from the Joseun Dynasty (1392–1910) a period that covered twenty-seven Confucian reigns. Walking through the exhibit, I learned that historiographers had followed the kings around recording, with “impartial objectivity,” every detail of their lives. These deeds, published only after the king died, served to encourage wisdom and benevolence in succeeding kings. 1700 volumes still preserve the history of the whole period. Called Annals of the Joseun Dynasty they are now available online. I stayed up late that night reading some of it. Then I looked through the book of speeches by President Kim, considered by many to be the Nelson Mandela of Korea. In one speech he said that Korea was poised to become a new leader in the information age because Korea values education so much.
I was awoken by a low bellow coming from the basement. I figured the Korean writers had finally congregated down there to drink. Maybe I’d meet them tomorrow.
The next morning I sat outside again and finished reading The Vegetarian. The only person who came by was a policeman patrolling the grounds. He sat across from me, and, ascertaining that I was here to write about Korea, asked, through a translation app on his phone, if I understood true Korean sentiment.
“I don’t know,” I typed back. “How would you describe it?”
“Deep emotion and heartburning,” the policeman typed.
I decided to go to Kyobo bookstore to see what other books I could find. Fortunately, on the map at Kyobo’s subway station, the bookstore was marked, as were the public schools and social services. I stared, a little awed, at Working Mother’s Support Center, Lifelong Learning Center, Blood Donation Center, Eastern Social Welfare, Elderly Person’s Community Center, and Self-Sufficiency Promotion Center. After listening to an American election season of presidential debates, half of them denouncing the social sector, I couldn’t help but feel that this society was more functional than my own.
I spent the afternoon in the mobbed bookstore skimming through Ask a Korean Dude by Kim Hyung-geun and learned about the high percentage of Korean women with pigeon phobias. I also discovered that it’s currently fashionable for Korean TV shows to express animal thoughts with thought bubbles; that a person with high nunchi has the ability to read the emotional atmosphere of a group; and that there is a Korean expression for “laughing so hard that the blocked thing got torn.” I thumbed through Who Ate Up All the Shinga by Park Wan-su, Scenes from the Enlightenment by Kim Namcheon. Lost Souls by Hwang Sunwon, and Little Pilgrim by the Korean Buddhist poet Ko Un, and decided I enjoyed these books more than The Vegetarian.
That night I skimmed the essay, “From the Native’s Point of View,” by Clifford Geertz, for a humanities class I am teaching online. He said that when trying to interpret another culture, a blink can be an eye tic; it can be a form of communication; or it can parody a form of communication. I thought about that as I fell asleep, how little I probably understood Korea.
I was woken by another cry from the basement. This time it sounded like someone was in some kind of emotional pain. I wondered if I should call someone. I wished I had taken that policeman’s number, but I didn’t have a phone. When I’d lived in Korea many years ago, the monks I knew had looked at the quickly developing society and said, “Buddha says life is suffering, but I look around me and the people seem happy so maybe Buddha is wrong.” The people in the basement didn’t sound happy. Maybe Buddha was right.
The next day I visited Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple built in the 8th century in what is now the Gangnam district. Once located on the muddy side of the river where the popular monk adage was probably invented—“You can live without a wife but you cannot live without galoshes”—now a land-filled, nouveau riche shopping center. In the temple’s bookstore, I found a thin book called Diary of a Zen Buddhist Monk by Jiheo. No one knows when he was born, but his diary covers the period of a three-month mediation retreat during the 60s. As I read, I could hear hip-hop music coming from the COEX mall across street, where a Gangnam street war dance festival was happening. The question that now plagued me was this: These days, would someone still become a monk if he has the option of becoming a Gangnum street dancer?
That night I fell asleep to Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, a book we were also discussing in my class. Once again, I was awoken by that strange cry of anguish in the basement. Now I was seriously troubled. Maybe Han Kang’s reviewers were right! Maybe underneath what looked to me like a well-functioning society—a culture that valued books, education, social services, being able to read the feelings of other people, and, now, hip hop!—a deep Freudian pathology was taking place. Maybe The Vegetarian did represent universal themes of the Freudian self, how when we are subjected to overly repressive forces, something neurotic arises. What forces in Korea was I blind to that created such anguish among these writers in the basement? I know that the suicide rate in Korea is high, and that the neoliberal global trend of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer has infused the Korean nation, and that their current president is the daughter of a despised dictator, but the cries I heard sounded more like universal grief than isolation. I felt relieved when I heard someone soothing that man again.
But the next morning, when I walked outside and saw a very pale, almost naked woman wrapped up in a white sheet sprawled out on the grass, I knew something was seriously wrong here! Were Korean writers feeling so repressed that their psyches were actually turning into vegetables? Should I tell the director?
And then, sitting around the outdoor picnic table, a whole group of writers had gathered. Here was my chance! I approached them, introduced myself, and asked them what they were writing about. They cried out in unison, “We’re not writers! We’re performance artists!” They explained they were here for only a week, but had created six art installations throughout the premises, pointing to the woman sprawled out on the grass. “Can we show you another?” one of them asked, grabbing hold of my wrist. She pulled me down the stairs to the gym and dimmed the lights. And there, on a little piece-of-paper stage, with paper-cut out trees, I watched a solemn love dance between two sets of fingers. A pen flapping up and down in the mouth of the performer played the role of the magpie. After dancing through tiny autumn paper leaves, one set of fingers died and the other cried out in anguish. It was the same anguish I had been hearing every night. They had just been practicing their performance.