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Write-In Progress: How Jjangguk Took Down Kim Noh Wang, The Madman of Pyongyang

Well, this weekend the members of my Clarion West class have organized a write-in, and like many, I am participating. I’m not working on a new story, but rather, on the rather drastic rewriting of my superheroes-in-East-Asia story.

The story is, on one level, a riff on the Cory Doctorow story “The Superman and the Bugout”, which is a Jewish-Canadian Superman riff on the American superman story (available as aa PDF, or as a podcast from Doctorow’s site, by the way: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). I think when I read that story (in his great collection, which by the way you should just go and buy) about the same time I first saw The Incredibles, and at the time, my mind went wild with the idea of writing a story about superheroes. After all, I figured, the American superhero tradition has all these teams of superheroes working together for a common goal, usually, saving the world (but especially America-as-the-world).

But in Northeast Asia, you have these relatively similar countries — relatively similar in the way different regions of America are relatively similar — but with all kinds of complicated politics between them. Inter-Korean politics; the shared animosity of Korea and China (and others) towards Japan; the complex presence of Americans in Korea; the variety of religious traditions and value systems in play in the region; and of course, the look at home life afforded by the whole “mom” thread from the Superman tradition, which was eonderfully carried off in the Doctorow story and expanded in The Incredibles. And lastly, I probably got a little of the idea of dramatizing nations (or segments of them) as characters from the way that, in a lot of short stories by older-generation Korean authors I’ve read in English translation, North and South Korea are often emblematized as two lovers or as brother and sister who have been split apart by war or other misfortune, but finally are reunited in the end. (Of course, not being a radical Korean leftist, I perceive North Korea as being the likeliest candidate for villain, with China as a semi-trustworthy ally to the South, at least in the South’s mind, and America as a resented and envied ally. Japan? Deeply resented and envied, especially it’s relationship with America…)

Well, I played with the idea of the story for a while, even drafting a very short (maybe 2000 word) attempt at a beginning, but it never seemed to come clear in my mind. Then, at Clarion West, I realized I really could make a story like that work, and I started it again. I think I produced about 3000-4000 words, and realized I could make the story work, but not on the timeframe I was working on then… after nearly a week of very slow, pained straining, I realized the story wasn’t ready to be written, or I wasn’t ready to write it, more likely, and produced something else, more within my range, in maybe three days. (I think the thing I produced instead was the draft of my story “The Country of the Young” that people got to see in week 4.)

I fiddled more on the flight home, and produced a lot more text, but there was a whole, rather frustrating sideways lurch in which, while lost, I riffed too hard on another of my favorite superhero narratives — Mystery Men. There was some genuinely funny stuff I came up with — losers with useless powers like flaming farts, or the ability (held by a nursing mother) to shoot milk from her breast over any distance with debilitating force. But it was a misstep, and I knew it within a few pages. I kept drafting, hoping that the misstep would lead me towards the right direction, but something was missing. Some extant character was not being used, not being brought back in, that needed to be present.

What was wrong, of course, was that I’d strayed too far from the allegory that had begun the process — the idea that the interaction between North and South Korea, and China, and Japan, and America, and the rest of the world, could be dramatized as the interactions of superheroes and super-villains. Of course, too stick too closely to that allegory would make the story unreadable… it would be all tense negotiations and arguments and threats. The politics, though, had returned to being so distant from my mind that I wasn’t at all sure what I wanted to say about domestic South Korean politics, inter-Korean politics, or the relationships between countries like China, America, Japan, and South Korea.

The recent nuke test, though, brought all that into sharp focus in my mind, and as I read more and more about the reactions on all sides, in the back of my head, this story started to take what I now regard as its proper shape. There’s still all kinds of hilarity, as well as a look at those infamous after-work parties that so many office-workers end up having to attend; a lot of good old Korean mom stuff, a love triangle, a menacing North Korean villain with a none-too-flattering name, and even a shrieking Thai ladyboys on Khao San Road, in Bangkok!!! What’s not to like?

Anyway, I’ve just reached about 8000 words in my rewrite, and I’m going to throw in another 4000-5000 or so tomorrow (which puts this thing into novella range), and then immediately shoot my story out for crits, not only with my regular crit group (for anyone who can respond soon) but also a few other people who’re qualified to offer feedback on things more Korean-related. I’d like to get it F&SF while North Korea’s nuke test and its after-effects are still, at least somewhat, present in the mind of the publisher and still turning up occasionally in the American press.

All in all, though, with 8000 words down and more than half the thing rewritten, I’d say that so far, the write-in has been tremendously worthwhile for me.

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