A Queer Libertine’s Heartbreak in Seoul

Literature


Ery Shin’s Spring on the Peninsula encompasses two winters of grieving: Kai, a white-collar worker in contemporary South Korea, struggles to process his breakup. We follow Kai’s inner musings, from his various sexual conquests to solo mountain pilgrimages. But alongside heartbreak, Shin’s debut novel explores the aesthetics of fatigue; the novel depicts generations of Koreans marked by burnout and political turmoil. As one character says, “Give me indefatigability or give me nothing.

Dipping in and out of different perspectives, Shin crafts a chorus of voices of what it is like to live in today’s South Korea: a nation that skyrocketed towards modernity, one based in deep historical trauma and extreme inequity. I was struck by how fluidly the novel covered a range of social issues—class, gender, queerness, expats, generational divide, forced military service, U.S. military aid, the education system, and more—while also being so playful and experimental in form. Shin’s prose feels timeless, evoking a certain type of nostalgia.

With its emphasis on the dream-like and the symbolic, Spring on the Peninsula intentionally leaves certain things a mystery; I came away with a new appreciation for the book—and a desire to reread—after I had the chance to chat with Shin. We talked over the phone about the repetitive nature of heartbreak, how she blended Korean idioms within English, and serendipity.


Jaeyeon Yoo: What is this novel about, for you?

Ery Shin: It started off as a breakup book, which I think everyone can relate to. It almost immediately started to transform into something more—as a metaphor for various generations, a metaphor for the nation itself: its political history, its turmoil and heartbreaks. So, it started working on several different levels, even though it started off with just the main character and his memories.

JY: I did sense the political as an omnipresent backdrop, lurking and seeping through everything with potential consequences. Could you expand on the role of the political in the novel?

ES: In terms of the political conditions, South Korea has been through so much. It’s a relatively new democracy; it only became a democracy in 1987. It’s not a long time; it’s not a short time either. But I think Koreans, and the rest of the world, forget that. [I wanted to] digest the legacy of that as we move forward, instead of just violently pretending everything before the 1980s never happened. It’s always lurking under there, the repressed unconscious. Of course, it’s not just South Korea. Even if you look at Germany and France, they didn’t become democracies until the last century or two. It’s not that they’ve been democracies for forever, since always. But especially in South Korea, I think there’s been this real push to gloss everything over and make the outer surface take over the whole package. There’s constant judgment to prove oneself again and again. But by whose standards and for whom? It’s OK to slow down. We don’t have to rush forward and put on such a show for everyone, including ourselves.

JY: Yes, there’s really a national culture based around efficiency and speed. How did you try to address what you just talked about in the novel?

ES: For starters, it’s not a lot of action. It’s not rushing; it takes its time to go through all of Kai’s moods and the moods of the people around him. The novel quite literally enacts the slowness that we’re talking about right now. A lot of it is introspection, pauses, silences, quiet time with yourself. And there’s no clear resolution or closure at the end. Simply on the level of plot and action, that slowness and sense of leisure is there.

JY: For me, the book captured the circuitous, never-ending and then re-surfacing, the incessant nature of heartbreak. I’m curious about the element of repetition in the novel; how did you want to explore heartbreak?

ES: First, there’s just the obsessive thought patterns when you’re missing or yearning for someone. Repeating has a lot of magical, incantation effects. It’s soothing to repeat, especially if you’re repeating mantras to not despair or to forget somebody. Conversely, it’s also a way to keep their memory alive, if you don’t want to lose someone’s memory. In the novel, it’s not just heartbreak over the ex—whoever this person may have been in Kai’s life—but all the other exes in his life. There’s mourning over his aging process, mourning over his aging parents. There’s a lot of grief and anxiety about several different things that he feels is slipping away from him. Repetition is also the way that we talk. We repeat ourselves constantly; conversations emerge elliptically, in spurts. They don’t run smoothly or linearly. So, I think writing repetitively is the most realistic way. Paradoxically enough, it feels less artificial than writing very smoothly.

JY: I can relate, when I think about my memories of heartbreak. I also appreciated how you framed the “ex” as a stand-in for the many other things to grieve in his life. The “ex” becomes more like the “X” factor in algebra, a shorthand that can stand for anything and everything. And speaking of shorthand, I noticed how most of the characters in the novel go by one syllable names, versus the more typical two syllable names in Korean.

ES: There’s a lot of symbolic potential I think that can be read there. I don’t want to give too much away here but suffice to say that there was definitely some thought put into it, so readers can have fun. I personally had a lot of fun thinking about all the different possible meanings of the names and playing with them. What could be their last names? Are we already going by their last names? If we’re just going by first names, what does that mean—especially with charged names like “Jung” [roughly translating to “bond, affection, and/or love” in Korean] or “Han”?

JY: I wanted to chat about your depiction of queer life in Seoul. I particularly appreciated how queerness wasn’t a target of family conflict in this novel, but an almost accepted given. What was behind the decision to make Kai into a queer libertine?

ES: I’ve been working with Marquis de Sade for a while, so there’s going to be some connections with that French tradition. But besides the French and Continental tradition, this is—paradoxically enough—kind of in the life of the “every man” figure in South Korea. An increasingly growing number of women and salaried men do go to hostess salons; they do play, they do have fun. Much of Kai’s behavior is actually not that remarkable, save for the gender of the people that he spends time with sometimes. In that sense, is he really a libertine—or is he just an average millennial, a millennial with a taste for nightlife? For me, it was important to just show queerness in this incredibly mundane, unremarkable way. I think that is as much of a political statement as other narratives that more explicitly and overtly address coming out stories.

JY: I agree. I remember interviewing translator Anton Hur, and he said something about how there have always been queer people in Korea; queerness is not a new invention, it has been a part of Korean everyday reality for a while. I want to go back to what you said about being a millennial, because I thought the book really captured the struggles of being a millennial in Seoul; could you talk more about your decision to focus on this generation?

Repeating has magical, incantation effects. It’s soothing, especially if you’re repeating mantras to not despair or to forget somebody.

ES: Absolutely the millennial generation, but the book also encompasses some of Generation X and also the Gen Z people who are just leaving college right now and going into the workforce in 2018. Around 30% quit their jobs after one year. Burnout is happening to almost everybody, coupled with all the stress about unemployment. And then, especially for women, they are just being paid less and treated poorly while at work, when they’re educated to expect more and to expect to be treated with full human rights. So there’s burnout going through all generations, younger generations and older generations, too. There’s a lot of tiredness and fatigue. South Korea didn’t get where it was in a day; it happened because people worked themselves to death. There’s definitely a reckoning that comes with that. At the cost of what, this bright, beautiful facade with all of these fixings and these trappings—at what expense, at what sacrifice, and was it worth it?

[Historically], there was the political turmoil of when the country transitioned to a full democracy, not just to name but also in function. Then, right after that when things seemed to be going along swell, in the late 1990s, the IMF crisis struck. There were so many suicides, so much stress. Money disappeared, mounds and mounds of money, entire fortunes, entire family savings just disappeared overnight. Can you imagine it? South Koreans aren’t getting a break at all. First the dictatorships, then trying to recover from the IMF. It really doesn’t seem like there has been a smooth period, until actually right now. But then, of course, beneath moments of “smoothness” and “tranquility” are always student protests, demonstrations, unease and employment stress, and the threat from the North. North Korea is always in our news, and we’re so used to it. It’s not really an immediate threat, but it’s always this burner in the background.

JY: Yes, and even within these supposedly peaceful times, there’s so much governmental neglect that goes on. Even last year, there was the Itaewon stampede, before that the Sewol ferry sinking, then before that the Samsung department store collapse—the list goes on. There are always these massive skeletons in the closet.

ES: And egregious acts of nepotism. In terms of political corruption and extreme class inequities, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in South Korea. I only say this because South Korea claims to be an incredibly advanced nation. But if we’re going to put the mirror there, of what it markets itself as versus what it actually is, there are a lot of harsh realities that South Korea has to recognize, stomach, and try to deal with. I did also want to include commentary [in the novel] about the Korean military and what goes on there, such as sexual violence but also just violence and hazing. The military, like so many other places, is a place that needs to be more publicized, especially because same sex acts and couples and relationships are still not sanctioned within the military.

JY: I know you’ve published a scholarly monograph on Gertrude Stein’s work. I was struck by some resonances of Spring on the Peninsula with Stein’s writing qualities you highlighted there: cinematic repetition and brutal eroticism, for example. Was Stein an influence at all for this novel? I’d love to hear more about some of your creative influences.

Burnout is happening to almost everybody, coupled with all the stress about unemployment. And especially for women.

ES: Stein showed me that you really can stretch the rules or break them as far as you can. I think it was David Antin who said this, that modernism is simply just testing the formal parameters of any medium. Stein took that to the max for me. You don’t have to have any story, you don’t even have to have grammatical sentences. You can have basically gibberish, yet still keep people invested. That gave me huge freedom. It takes the pressure off; there’s really no template that you have to follow.

In terms of other influences, I do like Han Kang’s style, the way she talks about women’s inner lives, death, and human bodies as plants or other inanimate objects. Of course, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Saramago, Yi Sang. Yi Sang has a very particular bittersweet sadness that I find very interesting, very moving in his work. Then there is a lot of Korean literature they teach children in school. Everyday literature—I’m missing all the short stories, the 대중가요 [popular tunes]. There’s a lot of succinct elegance there. But these things aren’t really known. I’m just about to send my publisher a musical soundtrack to accompany the novel, which is going to come out in a blog post. It might be interesting for people who want to see what music the characters had in mind, as they’re partying and living their lives, or trying to go to sleep.

JY: I’m curious about the role of language and translation; there’s not much Korean, but we do get a mention that a text has been translated into English.

ES: I originally wrote it in English but, all throughout, I wasn’t trying to standardize the English. Because I’m fluent in Korean, I was bringing in Korean sayings, whatever that saying would be; I would put Korean idioms in naturally and nested them into my English. Some would say it sounds like slang or idiomatic. It’s a fusion or hybrid language that way. It’s deliberately meant to be strange and idiosyncratic because of this pastiche of influences. The way that people talk about “cat on a hot tin roof,” sayings that people say in English that only American people know. There’ll be little phrases or lines passed off nonchalantly here and there, where it’s really not an English saying or a saying in American culture—it’s Korean.

The only section that was originally written in Korean and then translated is a letter that [a character] sends. Funnily enough, even though that letter was translated into English from the Korean, I was very satisfied to see that the quality of the language sounded pretty similar to the rest of the book. So, then I succeeded: I made the language strange and exciting.

JY: I’ll have to reread the novel and keep an eye out! And perhaps it was because of this experiment with English that you just talked about, but Spring on the Peninsula did feel oddly very rooted in this present moment of burnout—“roughly now,” as the book’s blurb says—but also somehow timeless. How did you think of the novel’s timeline?

ES: I was thinking about movies where you don’t really seem like you’re in any particular time. It seems strangely vintage, but also very present. For instance, the horror movie, It Follows, is supposed to be “now” but there are also technologies and backgrounds and TV sets that seem like they’re from the ’70s or ’80s. I deliberately wanted the strange mixing and matching of times to be the historical backdrop of the novel. I wanted it to feel, like you said, very present and very current and very today, but also timeless—especially because we’re talking about Korean history and the Korean people as a whole. And because so much of the novel also seems dreamlike or exclusively takes plays in dream.

JY: What appeals to you about the daydream and the surreal?

ES: I think the old sayings are true: so many of our hearts’ desires, so much of what we really want are revealed in dreams. It’ll come to us night in and night out, week in and week out. You can know what your real self is through dreams and, at the same time, you can take that too seriously. This becomes a kind of puzzle, to figure out which dreams can help us find our inner pilgrimages. To find out more of who we are and where we really want to go with our lives, especially if you are one of the generations that are trying to find your future in an uncertain Seoul and uncertain South Korea. And then, on the flip side, there are dreams that are dangerous dreams and are best left not indulged. Doors not to open, to be led astray into this black hole.

JY: It’s tricky to tell the difference! Did this focus on dreams also lead to the future section, which felt like a reverie?

There are a lot of harsh realities that South Korea has to recognize, stomach, and try to deal with.

ES: I wanted the apocalyptic visions or that revelatory kind of energies to really culminate. If we’re talking about the past and the present, how can we not talk about the future? So, letting time run its natural course.

JY: That last future section was surprising for me, especially how we were introduced to a new character.

ES: There’s a serendipity. There are people that we don’t think we’re affecting, of just lightly rubbing elbows with their shoulders within life. But sadness and also joy can sift from one person to the next, spread across time and space.

JY: This reminds me of Past Lives, which I just watched on the airplane back from Seoul—especially its focus on “inyeon,” the way we touch and intersect with others’ lives.

ES: I think it’s also comforting in a way, especially in a book like mine that pushes deeper into the more anti-social aspects of our psyche and existence. This is a comforting counterbalance. We may think we don’t matter but, of course, every action has a consequence; every cause has an effect. So in a sense, we do always matter. Not necessarily for good, but it can be good, hopefully. And change will happen. I’m more patient about change. It doesn’t have to happen overnight, but it’s getting pushed forward.

JY: What are current developments that you’ve seen in South Korea that have given you hope? Or at least a small moment of change pushing forward?

ES: Actually, the declining birth rate gave me hope. What other drastic way, fastest way to protest? Women are simply saying that enough is enough: I’m not going to have kids without the support, the infrastructure, the equity at work that I need. People aren’t being passive and taking things lying down. There’s life.

Read the original article here

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