Review(s) of “Sojourn,” and Other Thoughts

I was very gratified a few weeks ago to learn of Simon Scott’s comments about by story “Sojourn”, one of the stories from the 2020 collection  City of Han that he discussed in a review in Kyoto Journal. He begins this way:

In this era of extreme global hypersensitivity to race and national narratives, it is arguably a high-risk proposition for a Western expat author in Asia to write about such things. Yet two of the authors represented in this volume of expat short stories from South Korea, Gord Sellar and Ron Bandun, fearlessly walk the ideological plank of their own privilege and manage to say something that is provocative rather than condescending about race in Asia.

Scott’s analysis is thoughtful and, I think, quite perceptive. (I would think so, he’s praising my story, of course, but it’s obvious he’s read and thought about the text.) In the end, he sums it up by saying, that my use of mutant superpowers and marginalization—and how people react to both in a small Korean cram school—was:

… a clever way for the author to explore issues of race, perception, discrimination, and the cultural status of foreigners in Korea.

It’s heartening to see that at least part of the point of the story got across. Not that I sat down to write something didactic, but certainly the story was informed by the kinds of things Scott mentions.

Meanwhile, it turns out I missed a review last year in the Asian Review of Books, as well, this one by Hannah Michell. She discusses several of the stories, but of “Sojourn” she writes:

A memorable science-fiction story, “Sojourn”, depicts Korea in an alternate reality where people are divided into mundanes and the gifted—those who have extra-sensory powers. An English teacher with the extra sensory gift of observing microscopic worlds witnesses the gift in a student as she levitates her pencil box. She is terrified of her powers as those with gifts are not celebrated but labeled as “deviants” and may be policed and sent away. It is through this extended metaphor that we are offered a glimpse of the stifling education system which punishes those who do not conform to expectations.

It’s nice to feel seen. Or, rather, to feel read.

Indeed, these reviews being so attentive kind of makes up for some less-attentive reviews it’s gotten. One illustrative example is Kevin Lee Selzer’s curious one-line summary of my story in his Korea Herald review “‘City of Han’ tests Seoul’s literary potential”:

The anthology ends with Gord Sellar’s “Sojourn,” a science fiction sketch only incidentally connected to Korea. 

Frankly, I’m used to offhand dismissiveness, like in that word “sketch”: genre fiction authors get used to having this sort of lazy shade thrown their way in reviews. What truly baffled me, though, was this business of the story being “only incidentally connected to Korea.” 

I’ll take the reviews above as sufficient rebuttal, though, instead of responding to a poor review any further. 

Instead, I want to add to Scott’s and Michell’s observations. Scott’s right: the story is definitely intended to explore about the (white, English-speaking, Western) foreigner’s experience in Korea, but it’s also consciously highlight the many strange parallels between how that subset of foreigners get treated here with how kids are treated in Korea. This is something I think kids notice, too, though they react in a range of ways, from vulnerable to aggressive or even demeaning. These parallels are apparent to the adult (white, Western, English-speaking) foreigners to varying degrees, as well, but among those of us who see it most keenly, and empathize most with what kids go through here, I think there’s a familiar sort of pained empathy that goes with knowing your own status as worthless outsider means no serious effort to help will ever be permitted to amount to much.

The fact that Trevor’s effort to help achieves anything as as fantastical as mutant powers, but his desire to help, that’s as real as anything—and so is the fact that, in the end, it was Soojin who had to save herself. It’s ironic that this very natural urge to help someone vulnerable sets so many expats down strange and unhealthy pathways: bitterness, depression, poisonous cynicism, a cancerous messiah/white savior complex, or a slow transformation from the one sane voice in the room to the most broken voice in the room. It is also profound ironic—and not lost on the most empathic of foreigners here—that, as Hannah Michell notes, education is system that crushes the life out of so many children here, while also being the industry in which most white, English-speaking Westerners can reliably find employment here. The individuals who are ultimately the least-respected cogs in the vast machinery of Korean Hypereducation are also often the individuals most likely to feel qualms about what the Machine actually does to kids, and to feel badly about their own role in the process. 

I’m also fascinated by marginality, and think a lot of the kinds of marginalizations both main characters experience run in parallel; they’re both members of the distrusted and feared class who must keep their true (mutant) nature secret; but they’re also from rural (marginal) areas within nations that are also effectively marginal on the world political stage. As a Canadian in Korea, I’ve sometimes wondered over the years whether, on some emotional or psychological level, different sorts of marginalities perhaps might somehow be emotionally interchangeable? It might explain a lot about why so many foreigners—especially Canadians and Oceanians—end up coming to Korea only to discover how the limits of their social and cultural marginality here chafe, and yet go on to choose  to stay long term and anyway, often grumbling all the way. Perhaps growing up marginal leaves one with a sense of “comfortingly familiar discomfort” in living in on the margins, and this matters less than the particulars? I really do wonder whether, as far as the unconscious mind is concerned, marginalities are somehow effectively fungible.

The other thing I’ll say, while I’m talking about the story, is that it’s one of the most directly autobiographical things I’ve ever written, aside from the SF elements. It was directly inspired by the time I spent in Iksan, teaching at Wonkwang University’s Language Center (until I realized I was overqualified for the job and moved on). That was my first year and a half in Korea, and the geography (that rice field), the people (the vulnerable and marginalized kid who needed help, the dudebro expat colleague, and the unthinkingly discriminatory boss), the weird interactions… almost all of it is is straight out of my time in Iksan—except, of course, for the addition of a little material related to mutant superpowers. 

It’s probably not surprising: I wrote this at a time when I was processing having left Korea, but also when, in the back of my mind, I had begun to realize it was possible that we’d return, at least temporarily. In a way, it was a kind of partial summation, processing, and reassessment of my experience in Korea. Little did I know it wouldn’t be my last. 

In any case, if you’re interested in City of Han—which has some other lovely stories in it, by the way—you can get it a few places. The easiest place is, well, you can guess. 

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