1. You are a sci fi genre writer. How have you experienced being a sci fi writer in the realm of the (sometimes very snobby) creative writing world?
Well, you know, that’s an interesting question. I’ve had all kinds of reactions to that. Some people go, “Oh, you write SF!” and they’re suddenly more comfortable, like, they don’t have to act all smart and fake around you. Other people get snotty and dismissive. Still others kind of try to connect by mentioning the SF they’ve read and enjoyed or not enjoyed, and often it is remote from what I have read and enjoyed, for various reasons. Like, I’ve never really read much Heinlein, and I haven’t read the novel Dune, for example. Or the fact I’m not interested much in Asimov. It’s quite weird. It’s like assuming that everyone who’s into mainstream lit is a fan of, say, Michael Ondaatje, or Philip Roth, or Barbara Kingsolver, or even sometimes Diana Gabaldon.
In broad terms, though, among writers, I find that the people worth knowing aren’t immediately dismissive, and that the people who aren’t worth knowing usually act as if I’ve just admitted to having a fetish for doggies in ballerina costumes. I guess in some ways it can be a kind of social filter. The people who are dismissive go off my radar screen anyway, for the most part.
But as far as in academic departments, or the creative writing program I attended? I’d have gotten more benefit in terms of my SF writing if I’d studied science for my MA, I think. I got something out of the classes where I was reading and discussing books, but the prose workshop, aside from an excellent prof and a few cool students, was crippled by an “I don’t know SF,” thing. I was less understanding of it back then, when I was just, “Look, it’s fiction. Critique it.” I assumed that since mainstream fiction was transparently familiar to me, that SF should be to them. But I cam to realized they didn’t know the genre well enough to get some of what I was doing, and I got a little more understanding. Especially after attending Clarion West, where I was with genre-lit people all the time, I understood better. People who read and write fantasy can talk about SF without the hangups of people who’ve never read any kind of speculative fiction in a serious, attentive way.
It’s funny, though: profs discussed my thesis — which was a collection of short stories — quite intelligently and seriously during my defense. I was under the impression the department didn’t take SF seriously, but I found — both in litcrit classes, where I did the odd SF-related presentation, and in my thesis defense — that it was the Creative Writing people who weren’t all that hip to SF. The regular profs weren’t really fazed by it much at all. And one, the very cool Nicola Nixon, even bought me some beer after my defense. (And complained at my advisor, who will remain nameless, for not doing so.)
2. How has being in Korea informed your creative writing? Has it at all influenced your writing?
Oh, my, yes. In a few ways.
The first is topically: I write a lot about Korea. I find that even when I write about other places I’ve been, I’m writing through the lens of Gord-in-Korea. My pet worries and frustrations come out, get mapped onto other places. But even just counting overt things, I write a lot about Korea.
But there’s a deeper level where the effect has penetrated, too. One part of it is that being in Korea means being not-at-places-I’ve-lived-before, and far from people I’ve known before. Someone at the Workshop last summer commented on how one of the tricks in my bag is writing about memory — that when I want to, I can do it quite evocatively. I think this is partly because I live so far from friends, family, past homes… so I carry a lot of my culture and my life around solely as memories.
And of course, I should mention that I came to Korea explicitly to live in a society undergoing future shock. I felt that Japan had kind of already gotten over its future shock, that in China it hadn’t really hit yet, but that Korea would be the right place to witness it. I think I arrived here a few years too late, actually, and I also think that I was right in thinking that the changes I’m seeing in Korea are likely to be more representative of the kind we’ll see worldwide over the next fifty to a hundred years: corporatist, authoritarianism rising, a retrograde embrace of conservativism, government no longer willing or able to fulfill a function that the people still expect it to fill, and a society that’s partly struggling to adjust to waves of change, and partly — to its own detriment — already given up and begun to turn its back on some of the possibilities just now open to it.
3. What has been your best experience about being an expat in Korea?
I’m taking this to mean, best as in best part of it in general, and not specific experiences. In that case, I would have to say it’s the free time, and the luck I had early on. I came here mostly for the same reason I went to Montreal to go to graduate school: I wanted to have free time to write, and just as I got it then, I have it now, too. But I also found, once I had time, I could think; I could read; I could just live. I enjoy having the kind of leisure time a human being should have. Not that I don’t work hard, especially now that I’m preparing all kinds of stuff for content courses. Still, I also have a lot of free time, and I don’t waste it much.
I was also lucky because I met a lot of cool people — Koreans and foreigners alike — in my first year here. Some of them are still relatively close friends, even now.
4. Here’s a random one: cat or dog? Which one? Why?
As I say to Soren Kierkegaard, I say to you: Neither/Nor. The reason is that I’m allergic. But Lime’s pushing for a pet, and if push comes to shove, whichever’s cheaper in a hypo-allergenic breed is what I’ll consent to.
5. What do you miss most about the United States, while living in South Korea? Describe. Why?
Heh. 저는 미국 사람 안입니다! I’m actually a Canadian, though technically I apparently have a right to a British passport, as I was a British citizen before that.
Anyway, what do I miss most about North America? Hmm. I don’t know, I think it’s a certain kind of hope, openness, basic friendliness and expression of goodwill that you see on the street there, and not here?
I don’t mean to say that Korean society doesn’t have goodwill, hope, friendliness, and even pockets of openness. It does, of course. All of them are constrained, but they exist here. It’s just that nobody seems to express it except within small social circles. Towards strangers, nary a smile, nary an acknowledgment. In fact, as far as I can tell, the only reason your average Joe or Jane on the subway or the street acknowledges another person is to shove past that person, or to shove them further into the train.
I walked down a popular street with Lime one day. She went on ahead and I surreptitiously took photos of people walking to the subway, early afternoon. Not one person was smiling. It’s not that they saw me taking pictures, they just were acting naturally, and their faces weren’t just relaxed, or expressionless. People looked pained, drained, worn down.
I think hope really might be the core thing. Young people I know seem crushed by their lives, by expectations. So many people I know — bright, cool young people who’re still a year or more away from graduating from the BAs — are already panicking about getting a job as soon as possible. It’s not like this is absolutely necessary, mind you — it’s not like how I was as a student, living away from home. Lots of them live at home and will continue to do so when they work. It’s expectations. Their parents, their peers, everyone around them simply pressures them by expectations. So you have students missing half of their final semester to take a job in China or in another city. It’s not an exception, either, lotsof students end up doing it. But they’re miserable, they don’t want that job, and they kick themselves wondering why they didn’t travel to Spain or even to China or Japan for a while before settling and working.
Hope — or rather, the lack of it — is what I think makes so many people want to flee. People here say that they hate the USA — it’s almost as if it’s cool to declare that in front of foreign teachers, I think, since I hear such things so often — but you know, tons of people who say that also very eagerly want to leave Korea, and most of them want to go to the USA. (Actually, it reminds me of Canadians and their complexes about the USA, too.)
Hope is what lets people imagine change in the future. But so many young people I know here have a very stifled view of the past, and of the future. They’re cut off from both, so often. I feel like their education has achieved this, I suspect on purpose — a population that doesn’t really know its past has no real power in relation to its elites and its government. This is one reason so many of my assignments involve students looking at Korean history in new ways, through lenses they gain by looking at Western Anglo cultures in unfamiliar or new ways. I think hope can only emerge when people know their history and realize change has happened, and is indeed possible. I think hope is desperately needed here, so people have the courage to not conform, to try new things, to insist on more from their fellows and their elites and their government.
And hope is what lets people bear the present with a smile. Hope gives purpose to society, and hope gives purpose to the maintenance of common courtesies. Of thanking people, or saying hello back to them when they greet you. Older people do that. Younger people seem to have lost something important. I have to say I do have issues with some older men here – the guys I imagine got messed up by army life and lord it over anyone they can, like little tyrants — but it seems to me that this is more of a problem with young people. They seem not to have any sense of people outside their social circle, of a thing called society or community, or even just of the value of human beings in general. It saddens me when I see people reduced to factors in an economic transaction, but even in my favorite diner, this evening at dinner, I noticed I was the only person who said hello, thanked, and said goodbye to the guy serving the food. Five or six other people came, ordered, left, but nobody replied to his hellos or goodbyes or thank-yous with anything like real human interaction. And it’s not simply a cultural difference I’m badly parsing, I know it isn’t, because older people, and some younger people I know, like Lime, don’t act this way at all.
I also miss the fact that it’s just not polite to say astoundingly racist things in public in Canada. Of all the things to be uptight about, it makes no sense to me that Koreans are uptight about holding hands in public, or kissing and hugging in public, or singing loudly to themselves on the street, or about being sufficiently polite to people a year older than them, yet a surprising number of people are totally relaxed when it comes to calling Chinese people dirty, or saying the most outrageous things about Japan, or declaring, without qualifications or caveats or context, “I hate America.”
Oh, and I miss coffeeshops being quiet. They’re useless here for anything when even one couple shows up, since the music is always cranked and everyone talks so loudly in coffeeshops. Maybe because almost nobody ever goes to a coffeeshop alone. I was talking about this with another foreigner I met the other night and he reminded me about how I missed quiet coffeeshops.