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Books & more


Books & More

‘The Disaster Tourist’

By Yun Ko-eun Translated by Lizzie Buehler 186 pages, £8.99, London: Serpent’s Tail [2020]

An Eco-Thriller Leaves Disturbing Questions

Having been tied down by a pandemic for the past year and a half, many of us are dreaming of the trips we will take when we finally emerge into the new normal. But what if, instead of a tropical beach or an old city, your next destination were an area destroyed by a recent earthquake, a city swept away by a tsunami, or even a community sucked into the earth by a sinkhole? This is the premise of Yun Ko-eun’s novel, “The Disaster Tourist,” in which the protagonist, Yona, works for Jungle, a company that organizes just such package trips.

Why on earth might one want to visit a disaster zone? Jungle’s customers aren’t necessarily lovers of the macabre or those who revel in the misfortune of others. Some, like a college student, see an opportunity for “ethical tourism” to help devastated communities. Others, like an elementary school teacher who brings along her five-year-old daughter, hope the experience will be an educational one. Sometimes it can be as simple as the desire for something different from one’s dayto-day life. But there are deeper forces at work as well, Yona knws; being in such a shattered place reinforces the ever-present threat of disaster and also reaffirms that the traveler is indeed still alive. It’s the joy of not having been chosen in the lottery of natural disasters. This hits rather close to home for this group of travelers, whose trip comes shortly after a tsunami crashes into the coastal Korean town of Jinhae, a disaster never witnessed by the reader through the eyes of any of the characters but whose horrible aftermath is felt throughout the book.

Turning their backs on the calamity at home, the travelers embark on a trip to the island of Mui, off the coast of Vietnam. Yona is unique among the group in that she isn’t there of her own accord. Having been sexually assaulted by her boss and realizing she’s been marked as undesirable at her workplace, she submits her resignation. To her surprise, though, she is given a month off and sent on one of the company’s holiday packages – not as a customer, but to evaluate whether the package should be discontinued. So she travels to Mui with the others, where she encounters an old sinkhole, a rather unimpressive volcano and a reenactment of a massacre perpetrated by one tribe on another, and stays in the home of a member of the victim tribe.

Yona’s story would have been relatively unremarkable had she returned to Korea as planned to submit her report. But a moment of carelessness separates her from her group on the way to the airport, and she finds herself stranded in rural Vietnam. Another such moment leaves her without her wallet and passport, stolen by a pickpocket. Berating herself for being the incompetent traveler she has always so despised, she makes her way back to Mui – where she uncovers a chilling reality beneath the surface of life on the resort island.

The novel combines an unsettling tale of twisted plots with cutting social commentary that will leave you haunted and contemplative, especially if you’ve ever traveled abroad on holiday. What exactly do we want when we look for a “genuine” experience, and what lies behind the facade that has been carefully constructed to satisfy our desires? What happens when a community finds itself wholly dependent on an industry that threatens to swallow it whole, like a gaping sinkhole? As the story barrels toward its conclusion, still shrouded in its own gravity, you will find yourself simply trying to hold on. Even after the last page is turned, the book and the questions it raises will stay with you.

‘Homo Maskus’

By Kim Soo-yeol Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé 73 pages, $10.00, Seoul: Asia Publishers [2020]

Human Prism on Jeju and Beyond

This is a short collection of new poems by Kim Soo-yeol, who hails from Jeju Island, off the south coast of Korea. This fact may not seem immediately important, but Jeju has always occupied an unusual place in Korea: part of the nation, but on the periphery and often pushed to the margins. Jeju pulses through Kim’s poetry here, exemplified by “Offerings for the Dead,” “Decalcomania” and “Farther than the Moon,” which give us glimpses into life, death and history on the island.

Yet, Kim’s poetry goes beyond History with a capital “H.” Tragic events such as the April 3 Massacre on Jeju in 1948 and the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 are viewed through the tightly focused lens of history on a much smaller, more individual and more human scale. Kim also reaches beyond Jeju, writing of a “Berlin Morning” or “A Day in Copenhagen,” or telling the story of an old man “In Gaoan Village,” China.

Indeed, while the poems feel very Korean – and more specifically, very Jeju – they also seem to touch every corner of the earth. This is in part because the other themes the poet explores, such as old age and death, are so universal. The collection ends with two poems, including the eponymous “Homo Maskus,” that will no doubt strike a chord with readers struggling through the pandemic.

The Halfie Project

By Becky White and her Halfie Project team www.thehalfieproject.com

Sharing and Exploring Hybrid Cultural Identity

The halfie project, in the words of its creator Becky White, is part art and part research. On the one hand, it’s an exercise in telling people’s stories, and on the other, an inquiry into questions of identity – specifically what it means to be half-Korean. Half-Koreans are often in an awkward position, as they (to borrow White’s words) “belong to both worlds, but don’t belong to anywhere at all.” That is, when in the culture of their other half, they are considered Korean or Asian, whereas when they come to Korea, they are seen as foreign.

The project focuses on those common experiences and questions, seeking to create a space where those of mixed cultural backgrounds can come together to share their stories and talk about issues of identity and belonging. The team has a website, which is home to “The Halfie Project Podcast,” as well as a YouTube channel and Instagram. Interviews with other half-Koreans form the backbone of the content, but they also tackle questions of Korean identity, such as trying to define slippery concepts like nunchi or han, and offer insightful cultural commentary on important issues including mental health. If you are half-Korean – or half-anything, as the team welcomes all – or are simply interested in issues of mixed cultural identity, this project is for you.

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University


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