Imagine a city with no streets but networks of amputated limbs. An officious city of criminal investigations and inquests whose soul is a square of cheap, grey carpet and a water dispenser. The tinkle of pachinko, the sudden sirens of attack. Those women with the hand bills, so stubborn and intent upon their mission, invading the bodyspace of the factory workers like an influenza. Sheets of steel carried by a dozen men at a time towards the railhead. Rain in bursts of noise upon their heads. Somewhere there is a map of the city's improvements but no one I speak with has seen it. Wheelchair-bound ladies protest at the new constructions rising up around them in terrifying spirals. No-one is allowed to see them. Behind their riot shields, the policemen are only boys. Some of them wear white sneakers, as if they have been called in from basketball practice. Sleeping street people curled up like scraps of paper on the subway stairs, trusting that the spirits will protect their small change, their street salaries. Mandarin peels in the gutters. Sewer smells that hit the face like a nervous pigeon, the frightful proximity of disease. A hollow city, stained with sad skirmishes and pickled fistfights. Gouged-out eyes that speak. Tables hoarded under orange shelters. Old men dancing in parks for citizens, while other citizens peer out at the sky like lost kittens in bamboo. Squeals. Drums. Discarded cloths, blood-stained. News of another separatist attack filters through stale cups of coffee, cigarette butts neatly stacked like bullets. A simulated odyssey through virtual historical battles gains popularity in the parlours. No one speaks of it; these things require no advertisements. Beware the reconstituted cutlets of crumbed meat: that way annihilation lies. Pull back the tarpaulin to reveal today's wares— a rack of twisted and burnt squid, dried suckers and flattened jerky. Remove hospital identification barcode. Shoulder arms.
I’ve now completed the complete first draft of ‘Steam’, a story which may one day become a novel. Steam started out as a sequel to ‘Smoke<', a much shorter story about a woman living in Neo-Melbourne. As you'll see, each part of Steam hyperlinks to a section of Smoke, and although the connections between the stories become more tenuous as Steam progresses, the intention has always been to join these stories at some point, either by using alternating narrative voices or some other technique (perhaps italics). As Steam progresses, the sections get longer and longer. I'm not really sure why this happened - perhaps it just took me a while to warm up. In any case, what seemed like appropriately manageable and readable text chunklets in the early sections pretty soon became much longer (and perhaps less easy to read) superchunks. I’m also not sure, in hindsight, whether it was wise to pursue this ‘prose poem’ style in the story. By the time I wrote the final section, it was all just pure Kerouac flow, whereas with some intermediate sections I made the effort of inserting paragraph breaks and more recognisable dialogue markings, as in a more conventional story. I suspect that the second draft will require a lot of this kind of editing, to make the text more readable and well-paced.
That being said, as each section of the story was written in a single burst, it does almost seem appropriate to present the work in its present form. The only difficulty I had writing the story in this way was that when it came to dialogue, where I used italics, it was hard to write two statements one after the other. I always had to insert a ‘he said’ or another descriptor when one character stopped talking, before moving on to what the next character said. Also, as the thoughts of main character in the story are also italicized, it does get a bit confusing at times.
This could also be said about the plot or narrative of the story as a whole. As Duck-young himself recognises in the story, the plot is full of gaping holes, and there are several characters who are introduced but who are not very well developed. Obviously I could just put this down to the need to paint in broad brush strokes when writing the first draft. However, I also recognise that a bit of planning might not have gone astray.
Nevertheless one of the greatest joys of writing, for me anyway, is sitting down and creating a narrative or plot line in real time. I could never have imagined where the story might end up – indeed, the ending of the story is still very confused and rushed, and needs a lot of work. Still, it was a great experience to just go where the story lead me, even if it meant following ridiculous and improbable hunches, or trying to write a synopsis for a non-existent film.
I was aided in these efforts by some very useful books, courtesy of the Korea Language Translation Institute here in Seoul, who have very generously made their library available to me. I would like to be able to claim that everything in this story is made up but, unfortunately, it is not. Much of the story is inspired by writings on Korea past and present, and is of course also informed by the people and places I have come to know during my time here.
In particular I have been inspired by both the owners and patrons of Mania Street, the real-life inspiration for the bar Shesa Maniac in the story. Perhaps one day, if the story is ever translated into Korean, some of these people will recognise themselves in it. I am a little nervous about such an eventuality, mostly because I have taken great liberties with reality in the story.
Then again, that’s fiction. It’s been a huge challenge for me to write fiction again, after so many years pursuing poetry. One thing I was not prepared for was the immensely draining experience of writing prose, even in 1,000 word chunks. It’s also been a bit of an eye-opener in terms of the difficulties prose writers must experience in attempting to represent the passing of time on the page. The majority of the story happens over a period of just one day, and I was constantly amazed at much effort it took to even make my characters walk down the street, or engage in a conversation.
Now that the first draft is complete, I think I’ll just take a little rest, and think about where to go next. I’d welcome any comments or suggestions on the draft. I look forward to improving it and hopefully, one day, presenting the story as a finished whole.
By this time tomorrow I’ll be winging my way to South Korea via Helsinki, touching down at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport and hoping that the BBC’s weather forecast for Friday – fine and sunny, 30C – turns out to be accurate and long-lasting. Otherwise, I’m afraid that my hoju body will not be able to cope with the stifling humidity, sheets of bucketing rain and all-out urban mayhem that is Seoul in late summer. Sure, the typhoon season’s just about over – but something tells me I’ll be in for a wild summer storm or two before the weather starts to settle down in September. By then I’ll hopefully be well settled down myself. I’ve already secured an apartment for my three month residency, and it’s in a good location (I hope) in Banpo-dong on the south side of the Han River. It’s very close to Gangnam and the KLTI (or, as I’ll refer to it from now on, ‘The Institute’) in Samseung. While I’m still not exactly sure what I’ll be doing at The Institute, I’m certain it will involve lots of reading, even more writing and a healthy dose of conversation. More than that I am not prepared to say. Tomorrow is always another first day.
In the northern summer of 2005, I caught a plane from Frankfurt to Seoul to undertake an Asialink residency at Sogang University. This summer, I’ll be doing it all again, only this time my host for the residency will be the Korea Language Translation Institute (KLTI) in Gangnam.
I’m really looking forward to returning to Seoul. The four months I spent there in 2005 were really beneficial in terms of the amount of writing I got done, as well as the rewarding (if challenging) experience I gained while teaching in the Korean educational system.
This time around I’ll be doing something completely different, namely assisting the KLTI with the editing of English translations of Korean texts. And if that sounds like a bit of a tongue twister, you’re probably saying it right. I mean doin ir rong.
The KLTI is located in Gangnam, on the other side of the Han from Sogang University and Insadong, the touristic part of Seoul where I lived in a hostel for the duration of my stay in 2005. I’m hoping this time around to find somewhere in Hongdae or even closer to Gangnam itself …
The Seoul metro system, which I caught every day to and from Sogang University, is fast, cheap and reliable. It’s a great buzz to ride the metro at peak hour, and to see the fantastic cross-section of Korean society travelling together, slowly waking up. In that sense it doesn’t really matter where I’m staying anyway.
Seoul is of course a networked city in several other important respects. The city boasts one of the highest rates of broadband internet usage in the world; while at street level this excess of connectivity flows through the PC Bangs and via roaming mobile broadband networks. The flow of people and ideas.
In 2005 I spent a lot of my time in PC Bangs, probably too much time. I’m not sure whether I want to spend up to four or five hours each day writing in these places like I did then. I wrote about thirty poems (a selection of which were later published as Morgenland) and forty prose poems in PC Bangs.
I also took a lot of photos of PC Bangs signage and logos, of which the example above is possibly the most exuberant.
Since then a few of the poems, and several of the prose ‘Imaginary Cities’ have been published in various journals. In another respect however, these pieces now seem more like first drafts than anything else – dense, over-expressive, abstracted, occasionally unintelligible.
I’m looking forward to finding ways of building upon the ideas expressed in these early pieces, and it might be fun to see how many of the original PC Bangs I can re-discover – just as long as there’s a cold beer waiting for me in some shady beerhof afterwards.
Till next time, annyeung.
Last year, as part of my Asialink residency in Seoul, I wrote an article for the Australian National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) on the subject of my experience of teaching a course on Australian culture at Sogang University. Here’s a quick excerpt:
I have sung the national anthem (‘a capella?’ one incredulous fellow-traveller asked me) and ‘Waltzing Matilda’, tried to explain bizarre Australian terms like ‘beach bum’ and ‘laconic’ and even spent a few moments discussing Shane Warne’s penchant for cigarettes and text messaging. I now have sitting in front of me a stack of essays on famous Australians, including Ned Kelly, Kylie Minogue and Oodgeroo Nonnuccal. Strangely enough, only one student chose to write about John Howard.
‘Taking Kylie To Korea’, NTEU Advocate (March 2006)
The article contains one small factual error: in the final sentence I state that the way to say ‘I am Australian’ in Korean is hoju saram, when in reality the correct way to say it is hoju saram ipnida.
Just in case anyone’s ever called on to explain US foreign policy while travelling in Korea.
Then again, perhaps it’d be even more useful to know how to say ‘I am not an American’ in that delightful but difficult language.