Recently I spent a rainy Saturday afternoon in the company of kindred spirits – those who love literature, who love to lose themselves in a book or withdraw completely into the world inside their heads and bring it to life by putting pen to paper. At this particular event, I saw famed Korean writer Jo Kyung-ran being interviewed by equally famed Korean-American writer Krys Lee. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the work of either woman, but plan to once I get my paws on their books. Still, I was intrigued by the discussion they had, particularly about Jo’s latest novel called I Live in Bongcheon-dong. This is because I, in fact, used to live there too. That was years ago, and as she spoke, most of it filtered through a translator, dozens of memories bubbled up from the depths of my subconscious. You see, this area in southern Seoul is quite notorious, although I didn’t know it at the time. As I learnt over the mostly-horrific 12 months I lived there, it is considered a bit of a ghetto, and has been referred to as ‘a mountainside slum’ and a shantytown.
This would make sense, considering that it has a red light district full of tacky love motels (once when I was standing outside a cafe near the area, an old man asked me if I was Russian). I had the pleasure of spending my first night in the country in one of these mirrored ceilinged, neon-lit wonders. There were also all those sleepless nights because of domestic violence coming from nearby apartments – shrill screaming and items being smashed against walls. And the early hours activity of the very unfortunate elderly who pushed carts around collecting recyclables and taking them to the recycling center opposite my shoebox dwelling to be crushed by some kind of cacophonous machine at 7am on Saturday mornings. On the way to my job (another horror story) I would often have to dodge dead rats. Then there were the old-school butcheries with unidentifiable animal carcasses hanging in the windows, decorated by pink neon lights. I was amused by the local hairdresser who liked to die her hair in the brightest purples and oranges. There were some good things too – my hood was near the closest subway station to Korea’s most prestigious university which meant there wwas some smart, vibrant, youthful energy around. There were pockets of traditional food and medicine markets and very friendly shop staff who gave me free stuff because I was foreign. And it was close to a rather lovely mountain perfect for hiking and which transformed into a white winter wonderland when it snowed. There are worse ways to spend a year of your life than being depressed in a slum in a foreign country, but I’m so glad that is over now.
And back to the present: my friend who is the founder of the event I attended invited me to attend the post-event dinner with the writers, translators and other literary types. I got to bask in the presence of Brother Anthony, a very renowned translator and expert on all things Korean. I met people who used to study and work at the university I work at. It was an honor and a privilege. It also left me thinking about many things, perhaps the most profound of all was the image of Jo and the way she spoke about her life. Words like disconnect, jarring, juxtaposition, paradox come to mind. She is strikingly beautiful in her mid-40s, and was dressed chicly in black from head to toe. She was eloquent and articulate. And conversant in English and German. She had studied in the United States, and been invited to literary events in Berlin and around the world. Yet, she talked about her life growing up poor in Bongcheon-dong, where she still lives, in a little rooftop room made by her father, a lowly carpenter. She said that she used to hide her upbringing but now it informs and inspires her work. This is particularly interesting in the Korean context where status, wealth, background are so important. It is refreshing for someone so talented to be honest and outspoken about their humble origins, and indeed, having found a degree of fame, their current humble current reality.