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Books 22 – 24 of my Lunar New Year List

As promised, a few more books I’ve torn through during my holidays:

Book #22: War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches edited by Kevin J. Anderson.

I admit it. After seeing the horrendous Spielberg film, I wanted to reread the original novel, but of course, my HG Wells omnibus was in my apartment in Korea. However, I was pleased to dig out this anthology, to which I hadn’t given a single thought in years, and dug into it. After the first story, it was a done deal: I knew I was bringing the anthology back to Korea with me.

Now, not all of the stories are brilliant. My favorites were the Dave Wolverton’s Jack London story, Connie Willis’ brilliant-mad spoof of an academic paper on Emily Dickinson (who, you may know, was dead by the time of Wells’ fictional alien invasion), Howard Waldrop’s Texas Rangers story, a story by Mark Tiedermann in the voice of Leo Tolstoy, and a beautiful Lovecraft romp by Don Webb. There is some really bang-on comedy to go with the horror and drama in these stories. Great collection, in my opinion, and organized along the lines of a brilliant idea.

Book #23: Same Difference And Other Stories by Derek Kirk Kim.

I think that I first encountered the work of Kim in a post written by bluejives at The Asia Pages. I followed a link, and dove into Derek Kirk Kim’s webpage (LowBright, it’s called) with gusto, emailing the link to friends who I knew would appreciate the funny, bright, and very thoughtful comics of this young Korean-American artist.

In an interview I listened to after reading the book, Kim spoke about how he didn’t want to make this book overbearing in the “Asianness” he included; yet he doesn’t shy away from the topic either. Instead, it’s a natural part of the characters lives, and from conversations with one another and with other minor characters who pop up within the story, the subject of Korean-this or I’m-not-Chinese that come and go. These characters remind me of the Asian-Canadians and Asian-Americans (and the lone Asian-Australian) I know. As Kim said, “It’s not as if we wake up in the morning and go, “Oh! I’m Asian!” It’s part of life, a powerfully informing force, often in the background, but not the center of the story.

And then there are the short stories. Some of them are hilarious, focused on expat experience in Korea, on the difficulty some guys have meeting women, on the trials of being an Asian-looking guy in America. The stories, by the way, are available on the website, and if you’re curious, you should have a look there: but be warned, after I saw them, it was an inescapable conclusion that I should go ahead and buy that book the first chance I got.

The first chance I got, by the way, was in the Virgin Megastore in Vancouver, BC, earlier this summer. I picked up the book, and my friend Helen (with whom I was staying, and who happens to be Chinese-Canadian) read through it in one sitting. But I was determined not to read it before getting back, and saved it, reading instead books that I did not wish to bring back to Korea with me.

But now that I have read it, I can’t say enough nice things about it. Of all things, the book made me sit up and write a letter to Kim for wroking so hard and being so honest in the book. (I’ve yet to post it, though.) It’s that kind of a book. It makes you go, “Wow,” and you’re not even sure exactly why. It’s just… it feels like the guy who sat and wrote that story, who painstakingly drew every single picture in the book, really did give you something worth much more than however much you paid for it.

Oh, and by the way, it seems you can read even the main story from the book here. I hope that like Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow, Kim’s posting the whole thing online has helped, rather than hurt, his sales. I’m sure, though, that it has.

Book #24: Korean Cultural Series Vol. X: Tales From The Three Kingdoms by Tae Hung Ha.

One of the difficulties for me in researching my ghost story set in Korea was the scarcity of folkloric materials available to me. I looked around a lot, but it seemed impossible for me to find much in the way of, say, traditional (ie. more than a hundred years old) ghost stories or tales of supernatural creatures. Sure, sure, there are the Ttokaebi, there are the jangseung totems outside of towns, and there is a (sadly modernised) stable of ghost-centered horror films set in Korea. But I wanted something more the equivalent of reading Western grail myths, Chaucer, the Grimm Brothers, and that sort of thing.

That’s what brought me finally to look for translations of the Samguk Yusa and Samguk Sagi, collections of tales from the Korean Three Kingdoms Period.

Now, reading them in the original (which I guess would have been Chinese characters) or even just in modern Hangeul would be preferable to me, but since both forms are quite beyond my abilities, and considering that no shop in Jeonju carries anything like this regularly, I decided to go ahead and borrow this book of selected translations from the library at the University where I work.

The book was fascinating in its way, as well as deeply frustrating. For reasons I cannot be sure about, the translator decided not only to “Westernize” but also to “Christianize” a lot of the supernatural content, so that there are occasional references to “God” as well as mention of “angels”. There are tidbits of Greek myth, in references to “nymphs” in a forest, as well as some Western European pagan terms like “fairies”. Now, for me, all of this is quite frustrating because such things just do not fit into a Korean story. What is a fairy? A nature spirit? Or the spirit of a flower? A messenger of the gods? What is “God” supposed to be? Is it the Mountain God, or some God of the sky? And these angels—I imagine they cannot be anything like the angels in Christian folktales and Biblical legend. But the text does not contain the Korean terminology, of course, nor does it attempt to address such terms.

Perhaps the translator thought that Westerners would not be able to grasp the nuances of supernatural beings so alien to their own cultural mythology—a fair suspicion, I might add, since most people in any culture have a hard time really putting aside the way they’ve learned to imagine the world so that they can see clearly how others imagine it. Or maybe the translator just figured that “fairies” and “angels” were close enough to the concepts in Korean—a less understandable attitude, I suspect, and one that suggests perhaps the translator had some unwarranted assumptions about what Western fairies and angels are supposed to be. Or worst yet, it is possible the translator set out to meld the unique Korean (or Northeast-Asian) supernatural mythology to the Western one for some other strange reason. All in all, though, I find myself wishing for a more natural, direct translation of these terms, because for me, the differences in supernatural beliefs are far more interesting than any forced similarities.

However, this aside, the book was outright fascinating and entertaining. Some of the patterns I’ve noted—including a propensity for newborn princes and kings-to-be emerging from eggs birthed by women—were quite alien to me and therefore very refreshing. It put me in mind of the Mahabharata story of the woman who birthed her sons by pushing a huge iron ball out of her womb, which was cut up with the pieces put into water, each sprouting into a man. (Apologies to all, especially Ritu, if I’m remembering that wrong from the Peter Brook dramatization I watched years ago… I’ve still got to get around to reading the copy I bought in Delhi.)

The stories in this collection remind me of that; they’re the curious, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad and frightening history of Korean people as they told it themselves for a long time. As usual for me, there are far too many kings and far too few commoners putting the kings in their place, but this is a complaint I level against all mythology, not just the Korean one. It’s also, I suspect, a distinctly modern complaint.

Anyway, I am hesitant to recommend the book, since I myself am now on the lookout for a more careful and also more complete translation of one or the other of the Three Kingdoms story-anthologies. But if you want a simple introduction, this book is pretty interesting and can give you at least some idea, no matter how skewed, of what kinds of stories and mythologies are floating around deep under the surface of contemporary Korean culture.

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