(NOTE: This is the first bit of my effort to recreate the narrative of how I got interested in Korean literature, what it’s meant to me, and a little bit about the literature itself. These essays, if that is the word, will be collected under the “Finding Hong Gildong” menu at the upper right. This may not be interesting to most readers. ^^)
As the plane descended from a clear sky, through angry clouds and down to a surrealistically white Incheon airport, dusted in snow, I was not thinking of Yun Danyeong’s Between Heaven and Hell, a novella which features indistinct whiteness as a main symbol. In fact, I hadn’t heard of that book or seen it, much less read it.
I was thinking of a Calvin and Hobbes comic. After eight years in a job I loathed I had quit. I had proposed to my girlfriend of 14 years. And I had taken a job at a University in Daejon, Korea, leaving both my job and my now fiancée behind.
I had a blog, and before I left the United States I had considered what to post when I landed. The snow clarified it for me.
On December 31st, 1995, Bill Watterston retired his brilliant comic strip Calvin and Hobbes with a beautiful Sunday panel in which Calvin, a young boy, and Hobbes, his stuffed tiger and friend go out to play in freshly fallen snow. Hobbes says, “Everything familiar has disappeared.” This was more or less how I felt. Calvin responds twice, “It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy. …. Let’s go exploring.”
This seemed to fit how I felt about everything, and it was duly posted to my personal blog. I posted that on February 25th, 2008 from a hotel near Incheon airport, where I was staying the night, as it was too late to catch anything down to Daejeon. I went out exploring my neighborhood and found a GS25 where I purchased two beers and something that, to appropriated a clever bit of writing from Douglass Adams was “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a sandwich.” I also purchased a Korean newspaper (in English, obviously) and returned to my room to read it, occasionally staring out the window into the blur of snow that continued to fall.
I had only the slightest inkling of where my exploration would take me.
The inkling I did have was that I would explore literature. My Master’s Degree had been in literature. My best friend in the United States was a Korean expatriate who had taken a Comparative Literature degree at the University of California at Berkeley, then gone on to get a Master’s Degree in Translation from the Monterey Institute. I loved to read, as did my fiancée, although I would characterize the kinds of things we read quite differently. In a polite word I would call my reading a bit more literary. She might disagree.^^
In any case, at the time of my landing, I had already established a blog aside from my personal one. The non-personal blog (KTLIT, which you are reading now) was focused on Korean Literature, though I had done very little writing about it. This was largely due to ignorance.
When I first arrived in Korea, I had read one short story (They Won’t Crack it Open by Kim Yong-ik) and one novel (Our Twisted Hero by Yi Mun-yol). I was interested in Korean culture, my best friend was Korean, but it was relatively alien to me despite the fact I had visited twice already. I wanted to dive right in, but I was limited by my poor Korean, lack of reading, and ignorance of the culture.
Still, one of the places were my search for Hong Gildong can be documented to have started, if anything can be said to have ‘started’ anywhere, is on blog, “Morning Calm, Night Terrors,” which was the original name of KTLIT when it was published on blogger. It focused on Korean Modern Literature with a little bit of writing about culture and marketing. On January 6th, 2006, calling myself “Mr. Crackerman,” I posted:
Mr. Crackerman sez…
Well, here we have the start of some….. thing……
I have plenty to say now, no doubt, but will certainly run out of steam. And Mr. Ox is as phlegmatic and retiring (though equally as broad-shouldered and swivel-hipped) as his namesake. So who know what comes from that quarter?
The notion here, I suppose, is to discuss Korea, Koreans, Korean-Americans and Americans through a primarily critical (in the literary, not attacking sense) lens. I would like this website to eventually grow to include complete forums and IMPORTANT DISCUSSION! .
But I have the megalomania that comes from being an Anglo in the land of Empire.
For the moment I leave it at that as I have just put all this …. “stuff”…. up and must send some info to Mr. Ox.
That post, full of silly bluster and uncertainty, suggests that this was far from the actual start while at the same time it wasn’t really much of a start. In fact the reference to “Mr. Ox” points to a much longer provenance – basically discussions of literature and Korea over soju and Sam-gyap-sal with my best friend.
It is interesting to read this, nearly 5 years later, and notice that I had named the blog for Korean literature, but was far too scared and ignorant to actually talk about Korean literature.
I didn’t begin writing again on KTLIT until after my first semester in Daejeon. Everything was exciting and new (Calvin was right!) and I had barely begun to read Korean literature. I was mainly writing on my personal blog, and about all kinds of things. But once I did, in January 2009, the blog came right along. This was for several reasons.
The first reason, I suppose, is I am flighty. In Geoff Dyer’s highly amusing book, Out of Sheer Rage, in which he recounts his own struggles writing about D.H. Lawrence, Dyer notes:
“There are people who like to complete all the reading, all the research, and then, when they have attained complete mastery of the material, then and only then do the sit down and write it up. Not me. Once I know enough about a subject to begin writing about it I lose interest in it immediately.” 105
And I am a bit like that, so something like the blog was necessary as a kind of ongoing notebook from which I could draw and redraw from as necessary to write papers, articles, etc., when the time came for that.
There was a bit of judgementalism involved as well. Dyer notes that D.H. Lawrence often could not resist beginning to write, to judge. On a trip to Florence, on the very first night, Lawrence’s traveling companions found him, “Fresh off the train, ‘tapping out an article on the state of Florence at that moment without knowing enough about it to make his views of real value.’” (114)
And of course this is a version of what I was doing with my blog – my complete lack of knowledge about Korean literature was far too small an obstacle to stop me. I was full of evaluations and judgments. This book was good. That book was bad. Pundhan Munhak was intolerable. Translation should only concentrate on making works easily digestible to Western readers. I was full of these kinds of absolute ideas. It was all very .. well … western. There was only one right way, my way, and the alternative was the highway.
One interesting side-effect of reading Korean history, literature, and philosophy, is that this kind of Manichean approach, which I certainly still indulge in, has somewhat fallen away. Some of my initial stances remain – I can’t, for instance, fathom why Hwang Sun-won’s Sonagi should be so popular in Korea, the subject of movies, musicals and relentless retranslation and republication. But others have changed. When I first read Buckwheat Season, I was appalled. On the blog I called it a shaggy dog tale without the dog and expressed complete bafflement as to why it was so popular with Koreans. Over time, and the result of more knowledge of Korea and more reading of its fiction, Buckwheat Season has come to make more sense to me.
Finally, I had been studying the blogs of Western expats in Korea long before I had landed. This was initially to try to develop some relationships ahead of my arrival. But it also became clear that a small but growing group of Koreans was watching these blogs, and that this might represent some kind of opportunity in the future. I had no idea what kind of opportunity that might have been, but it seemed like another good reason to work on the blog. Even with that, as mentioned above, the blog did not come into its current form until January 2009. I don’t recall making any kind of resolution for the New Year, but from that point on I, and KTLIT, was away.