Black Flower by Kim Young-ha

What sort of land is Mexico?” This was at the Seoul Young Men’s Christian Associa­tion. An American missionary spoke, his black beard covering his neck. “Mexico is far. Very far.” The boy narrowed his eyes. “Then where is it close to?” The missionary laughed. “It’s right below America. And it’s very hot. But why are you asking about Mexico?” The boy showed him the advertisement in the Capi­tal Gazette. But the missionary, who did not know Chinese characters, could not read the advertise­ment. Instead, another young Korean explained the contents of the advertisement in English. Only then did the missionary nod. The boy asked him, “If I were your son, would you tell me to go?” The mis­sionary did not understand right away, so the boy asked again. The missionary’s face grew grave and he slowly shook his head. “Then, if you were me, would you go?” The missionary was lost in deep thought. The boy hadn’t been long at the school, but he was bright and unusually quick to understand. He had been raised as an orphan, but had not grown timid, and he stood out from the other students with simi­lar stories.

     The bearded missionary gave him some coffee and a muffin. The boy’s mouth began to water. The peddler who had taken him around the country had taught him: “If someone gives you something to eat, count to one hundred before eating. And if someone wants to buy something of yours, double the price that comes to mind. That way no one will look down on you.” The boy rarely had the opportunity to fol­low these instrucions. No one gave him anything to eat, and no one wanted to buy anything he owned. The missionary opened his eyes wide. “Aren’t you hungry?” The boy’s lips moved slightly. Eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four. He couldn’t bear it any longer. He took the sweet-smelling raisin muffin and began to stuff it into his mouth. When he had fin­ished the muffin and coffee, the missionary brought him to a room with a lot of books and showed him a map of the world. On it was a country that looked like a sunken, empty belly. Mexico. The missionary asked him, “Do you really want to go? You’ve only been attending school for three months... how about studying more before you go?” The boy shook his head. “They say that chances like this do not come of­ten. I heard that boys with no parents are welcome.” The missionary could see that his heart was set. He gave the boy an English Bible. “Someday you will be able to read it. If you earn some money in Mexico, go to America. The Lord will guide you.” Then he hugged the boy. The boy held the missionary tightly. His beard brushed the nape of the boy’s neck.

     The boy went to Jemulpo and stood at the end of the long line. In that line he met the strapping man who tousled the boy’s hair. “A person must have a name. Forget childhood names like Jang-soe. Take Kim as your family name and Ijeong as your given name. It’s easy to write—just the character i (), meaning two, and the ch...

The English editions of Kim Young-ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, Your Republic Is Calling You, and Black Flower were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who will also publish his latest book in 2017. Kim was a resident writer at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2003, and a contributing op-ed writer for The New York Times from 2013 to 2014. His books have appeared in more than twelve languages.