Meeting Royalty: Yi Munyol

My blog, having been initially noticed, began to bear excellent fruit.

One day I got an email from HUFS. They were having a very important author come to lecture and they needed to “internationalize” the audience.

This is a very Korean thing – Korea is quite interested in being international; even festivals in the smallest towns, festivals which could only see non-Korean faces on television, will put “international” or “global” in the name of the festival.

Some expatriates, mainly short-termers who work in hagwons, see this as evidence of Korean presumption or foolishness. I see it a different way. I think it is essentially Korean, and laudable, to set goals and publicly name them. And, if you don’t always achieve the goal? You’ve set it and named it.

And globalism is clearly a Korean goal.

This is why, even in my first year in Daejeon, I make sure to go to any festival or event that I can attend that has the word “international” in it. Of course, in Seoul? It likely is international.

But in this case I think they thought they might be short on non-Korean faces and the author, Yi Munyol, is indisputably international. His brilliant novel “Our Twisted Hero” has been translated into multiple languages and even today is one of the best short novels to work issues of power and relationship. If you aren’t familiar with Korean literature, you could think of it as a less violent version of “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding.
Which is a long way of telling the short story that I was invited to his lecture. Somewhere in the invitation (which was translated for me by my endlessly patient colleague Kyosunim Kim Soonyoung) was the idea that I should ask a question.

This put me in a palpable state of panic, and unfortunately I could find no one appropriate to palp me out of it.^^

I spent the next the next three days, with various Korean colleagues, carefully crafting a question in Korean. What I came up with was this:

이문열 선생님,
미안합니다만 한국말 잘 몼어요. 저는 찔문이 잇숩니다.
지금 까지 책 네권이 영어로 번역되었는데. 다음에 번연될 책은 무엇입니까?

At the event, I just sat there staring at these words on a piece of paper, wondering how in the world I had ever let myself get into this situation.

Finally, question time came, and I waited for a couple of other questions…

Then stuck my hand up and in a voice that might have come from a 13 year-old in the first stages of puberty, asked my question.

As soon as I sat down I turned around to two HUFS students who were sitting behind me and shrugged my shoulders and asked “Kwenchanayo” (OK?). One of them gave me a thumbs up. Apparently Mr. Yi also understood my crap Korean, because he immediately stared at me like I understood what he was saying and launched into a response that must have been 7 minutes long. I understood nothing, but as long as he was looking at me I stood up and took it. 😉

About 15 minutes later, the lecture ended. I had brought my copy of “Our Twisted Hero” and ran down to get an autograph. I also had a photo snapped of the two of us, but that has disappeared into the general morass of my disorganization.

As we stood there, I did start to hear some Korean I could understand… “shik” and “shiktang” were being tossed around like Dorothy in a tornado. Someone official came up to me and asked if I wanted to go to dinner with other professors and the author.

Of course I did!

We went out to a sushi restaurant (Korean style, which is a bit different from what we have in the west – the soups are really the highlight of these dinners) and although I understood little, I did understand that Yi Munyol was a story teller of prodigious skills and drank like a man. He kept the table in stitches, and politely broke every once in a while to pour me a drink and ask a question through a professor with good English.

The only thing I was able to pull out of the conversation was that Yi was creating a library in Suwon, and as I sit here typing this now, I realize I should follow up and visit it.
Then, it was off to home and the only experience I’ve ever had in Korea of a taxi driver taking the long route home. I saw both sides of the Han, several neighborhoods I’ve never been able to find again, and think.. think, I might have seen a rabbit with a large gold watch disappearing down a rabbit hole. All in all, that cost me little when I finally popped out some bad Korean “Ajusshi, odi ga? Noksapyeong Kayo?” and the driver took me home. It added up to something like a dollar more on the fare and I felt like a little shit for caring about that, given the precarious existence of Seoul cab drivers.

I spent the next day in a kind of after-glow,  super-psyched that I had met such a famous author.  I suppose it also could have been a slight hangover.

As an amusing after-note, I posted my account of this meeting on I came back to look at their page the next day, and my post had mysteriously disappeared. I posted again and once again it was disappeared. I sent an email to Nanoomi’s small-faced and fearless leader asking why. She responded that the level of my Korean question was not suitable for the Nanoomi site.

So I knew where my Korean language was. Somewhere between good enough to go out and drink with Yi Munyol and not quite good enough to be used, even as reported speech on

It may have been at this precise moment that my dream of ever speaking Korean died.^^

But my dream of meeting other Korean authors lived on..

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