Tag Archives: Korean Literature

To Capture Someone’s Heart: North Station by Bae Suah

Korean author Bae Suah’s latest writing, although a collection of short stories, is equally as experimental, cutting-edge, and captivating as her novels. Each story in this volume, brilliantly translated by Deborah Smith, is laden with her poetic images and philosophical meditations. One theme that she returns to throughout the writing is that of reconnection after a long period of separation that involves both distance and time.  As in her previous novels her characters are consumed by wanderlust.

In the title story “North Station,” a man and a woman stand silently on a train platform in an unnamed city. As they wait for the train to arrive the gentleman has a strong desire to kiss this woman but the reason for their awkwardness is hinted at later in the narrative: “Young women of a certain type were both recurring characters in his life and predators who preyed on him, and even now he remembers them well.” As is typical with Suah’s writing, one must pay very careful attention to every detail on the page in order not to miss the most interesting parts and striking images of the story.  Daniel Green has written an insightful series of essays at The Reading Experience about innovative female authors and I would include Suah as one of the writers whom he describes as experimenting with the “Movement of Language.”  His description of the writings of Noy Holland as “using an alternative mode of composition through which ‘character’ and ‘story’ are not abandoned but emerge as the afterthought of the movement of language, the characters and plots subordinated to the autonomy of that movement” is also apt for characterizing the language of Suah’s stories in this collection and her novels.

While the narrator in “North Station” is waiting for the train, his lover’s presence causes a series of memories to invade his mind.  During his short time on the train platform, the man recalls a collection of writings by a suicidal, exiled author with whom he greatly identifies; he remembers a woman he met in a different city whose address is the only tangible thing he knows about her anymore; he reflects on the attic room he stayed at during his university days in which he reads passionate poetry.  One of my favorite passages is one in which he reflects on relationships and the metaphor of lover as hunter:

Who would have first used the expression “to capture someone’s heart?” A hunter, perhaps, who would know deeply how it feels to capture a beating heart, a living thing, how the one doing the capturing finds himself captivated, in thrall to the sense of his own omnipotence?  Like capturing a fawn or kit still warm from its mother’s heat.  Someone who, like the hunter, introduces himself into his victim’s eyes at such an early stage.  Who deploys his imagination to render in his mind’s eye that state of utter despair to which the lack of any exit, the terrible clarity of this fact, gives a paradoxical sweetness.  Who reproduces this state through what we call a verbal expression.  In such a way, the expression would have been born not through those who are captured, but through those who do the capturing.  Since the victim has no time for song.

Suah’s greatest strength as a writer lies in her ability to take what at first appears to be disjointed images and scenes and weave them together into a singularly beautiful story. The attic room, the poetry, the woman on the platform he longs to kiss are all connected in her character’s mind with a meditation on time and space: “When was it that he had last kissed a woman so ardently, his lips as passionate as when they pronounced poetry? In that city or this, at the house of his acquaintance or on the platform in the north station, while waiting for the train.”

The entire collection is as riveting and poetic as the title story: an author recalls several visits to her mentor, a young man is reconnected with a former lover while struggling with questions about his sexuality, a playwright experiments with how to portray time on the stage. These stories are a great place to start for those looking to get a taste of Suah’s innovative style of writing. For those of us already familiar with her previous novels, it is exciting to once again encounter more of the author’s intriguing and thought-provoking prose.

Photo credit:  Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Cupid, armed with a bow and arrow, flies in through the window to a room where two naked lovers lie asleep on a couch. Etching.

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Short Stories

Review: Recitation by Bae Suah

I received an advance review copy of this title from Deep Vellum via Edelweiss.

My Review:
recitationBoth of Suah’s books that I have read, A Greater Music and Recitation, are relatively short as far as novels are concerned, but both books took me a week to read;  because of their complexity and language dense with poetry and philosophy they required and demanded my full attention.  When Recitation opens, the main character, Kyung-hee, is in a train station in a European city but has no hotel reservations or a specific address to stay.  She is waiting for a person whom she has never met, a fellow-wanderer introduced to her by a friend who has agreed to let her sleep in his living room for  a few days.  When the fellow-wanderer stands her up, Kyung-hee meets a group of Korean immigrants who become fascinated with her and they take on the role as the narrators of her story.

Recitation is, among other things,  a reflection on what it means to feel at home somewhere in the world, it is a commentary on why we feel grounded and at peace in some places but not in others.  Kyung-hee travels around Europe and Asia, never staying in one place for very long.  She doesn’t identify herself as Korean, Asian, or the resident of a specific city, but instead she calls herself a “city dweller.”  The specific cities to which she travels are vague and not the focus of the text; each city becomes for her a palimpsest upon which she can inscribe her own experiences anew with each visit.  She identifies with the Starbuck’s logo more than any other symbol because it is the one thing that remains the same no matter where she goes.

Kyung-hee meets people to whom she does not assign specific names—the healer, the teacher couple, the German teacher, the East Asian man.  Even her lover is simply assigned the name of “Mr. Nobody.”  One of the few people she meets that she does call by name is Maria, but Maria is a shadowy figure that lingers in the background for much of the book with no specific details given about her life.  We only learn at the end of the story that Kyung-hee meets Maria in Berlin and Maria has allowed hundreds of travelers stay at her home throughout the years.  Another interesting detail about the people she meets is that they are all somehow connected.  The German teacher introduces her to the teacher couple and Mr. Nobody introduces Kyung-hee to his son Banchi who also knows Maria. It is Maria that introduces Kyung-hee to the community of Karakorum who are a tribe of global dwellers, never staying in one place for very long and for whom the mere fact of their wandering makes them uniquely connected and a type of community.

The most interesting and compelling part of the text for me was Kyung-hee’s descriptions of her job as a recitation actress and how an incident one night on stage gave her the motivation to travel the world.  As she is in the middle of a recitation, she walks across the stage and breaks her toe which causes her a great deal of pain.  When she gets the cast off of her foot she has a revelation:

It was probably the incident with the plaster cast that brought about that desire to detach myself from a specific location, to free my material self from being tied to a given set of coordinates, fixed in a single place.  Looked at from a certain angle, perhaps its more accurate to call my soul the author of that shriek of despair, and relegate my toe to the role of intermediary.

In addition, Kyung-hee describes her childhood in Seoul as she grows up under the strict and abusive authority of her parents.  They have little love and affection for their daughter and control every aspect of her life, including the types of books she is allowed to read.  She has a sister who is much older than her whom she rarely sees or interacts with.  In addition, her older sister is not subjected to the same harsh rules as Kyung-hee.  She lays around the house most of the day, has no job and smokes in her room without drawing any type of criticism from their parents.  One night Kyung-hee’s sister appears to her naked in her bedroom and her sister attempts to strangle her.  There are many layers of intriguing imagery that Suah weaves throughout the story of the sisters that makes us question their relationship and connection to one another.  After reading this part of her story I viewed Kyung-hee as less of a woman possessed with a sense of wanderlust and more of a refugee;  she has been forced out of her home by the cruelty of her family and can never return to that home.

Suah’s book ends on a vague note which is fitting for the rest of the narrative in which time, places and characters oftentimes blend together and become blurred.  Kyung-hee herself becomes a shadow of a figure; has she been real all along and since she never had a fixed home will anyone remember that she ever existed?  Is Kyung-hee destined to be one of those nameless refugees that are exiled from their home, never to return to a place of comfort and familiarity?  The Karakorum reminded me of the Greek concept of xenia which demanded that men give each other a warm place to stay, a meal and entertainment when they were traveling.  If a Greek did not offer such hospitality to a fellow traveler then he could be ostracized from his community and the same hospitality would be denied to him as a traveler.  Wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we extended the idea of xenia especially to refugees who are in the greatest need of comfort and hospitality?

 

About the Author:
bae-suahSuah Bae is a South Korean author who was born in 1965.

Suah Bae graduated from Ewha Womans University with a degree in Chemistry. Originally a government employee at Gimpo Airport in Incheon, Bae wrote stories as a hobby. At the time of her debut in 1993, Bae Su-ah (1965~ ) was a government employee working behind the embarkation/disembarkation desk at the Kimpo international airport in Seoul. Without formal instruction or guidance from a literary mentor, Bae wrote stories “as a hobby” while working at the airport; but it wasn’t long before she left her stultifying job to become one of the most daringly unconventional writers to grace the Korean literary establishment in modern years.

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Filed under Literature in Translation

Two Reviews: Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi and A Greater Music by Bae Suah

I am very pleased to announce that I have two reviews in the November/December issue of World Literature Today.  This literary magazine, which has been in continuous print for 90 years, is dedicated to bringing a wide range of literature in translation to the English speaking world.  Each issue contains fiction, poetry, essays and book reviews from writers around the world.  The magazine is available in both print and digital subscriptions.  I feel very honored to have reviewed two excellent books for this issue which is dedicated to women writers.

My first review is Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi.  This title was published in the original French in 2006.  This English edition has been translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman and published by Deep Vellum.

Click this link to read my review:  http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2016/november/eve-out-her-ruins-ananda-devi

eve-out-of-her-ruins

 

My second review is A Greater Music by Bae Suah.  This title was published in the original Korean in 2003.  This English edition has been translated by Deborah Smith and published by Open Letter Books.

Click this link to read my review:  http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2016/november/greater-music-bae-suah

a-greater-music

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Filed under France, Literature in Translation