The Writing Club
- onJune 20, 2018
- Vol.40 Summer 2018
- byKang Young-sook
- The Writing Club
Tr. Inrae You & Louis Vinciguerra 2010333pp.
“What the fuck? Look at your hair,” R said. Her loud, clear, and sarcastic voice sounded the same as usual. “You look like you’ve just delivered a baby. What’s wrong with your hair? Aren’t there any hair salons where you live?” R continued pouring out biting remarks, ones, though, that gave me a refreshing lift. “Follow me, quickly,” R said on the street.
We walked all the way to Jongno Street and went into a coffeehouse. There, buried in a flower-patterned sofa, R looked rather different, having a more mature and heavier appearance, long wavy hair, and a shiny complexion. “Well, I’ve shacked up,” R announced. I was startled but managed not to react too soon and asked her a rather silly question. “With a guy?” “Of course,” R answered. “Of course, with a guy. I’m not you.” R giggled, and I followed suit.
“How’s the girl doing? The little one who followed you everywhere,” R asked me, while sucking up juice through a straw. “Oh, K? She’s working at her dad’s clinic as an assistant nurse,” I said. “I see. That fits her. She looks so dumb. Don’t you think?” R said, laughing. This made me laugh, too. “Anyway, does your family know what you’re doing? Living with a guy?” I asked. R suddenly made a strange sound, as if she’d swallowed her juice wrong. It sounded like neither laughter nor ridicule and that was the answer to my question. “My family? It broke up long ago. Don’t bother yourself with whether they know or not. Mind your own hair. Do something with it. Being with you and your shitty hair is really embarrassing,” R said.
Later that day R and I went to an underground shopping area near the Express Bus Terminal. R bought some things for her household, things like coffee cups, a wooden toilet-paper holder, red picture frames, rectangular plates for grilled fish, sets of forks and spoons, and flower-patterned cushion covers. It must’ve been because she was from a well-to-do family that her taste in shopping was different from mine. Watching R, a tough girl with a foul mouth, choose household stuff in the crowded shopping area, I felt that she was evolving and making progress even though she wasn’t in college. And I thought that shacking up with a guy was much better than running away from home by sliding down the building’s gas pipe. By the time we were about to part I asked R, “How do you like it? You’re going to invite me over, right?” “Why? Are you thinking of raping me? You see, I’m not your girl,” she said. “How do you like it?” I asked again. “Huh, do I like it? I love it. We do it every day,” R said, giggling. When a taxi came, R threw her big plastic bag bulging with stuff and then herself into the taxi and left.
May was approaching. And flowers, including the cherry blossoms, were blooming. During those days Novelist Kim had a different group of students. It was a writing class for housewives. Thinking of it now, there were two reasons for her to form such a group. The first was income and the second was her desperate attempt to overcome the sense of betrayal she felt from Jean by establishing solidarity with other women. After their children left for school, the womenfolk gathered in the classroom. Novelist Kim named the group “Sorority of Gye-dong Women Who Love Writing,” but I called it the “Sorority of Gye-dong Women Who Love Chatting.”
They gathered three times a week at 10:30 in the morning. And when the public library was closed, I had no other choice but to stay home and listen to their chatter. I liked the coffee smell that filled the classroom but disliked hearing about fights with their husbands, nasty words about their in-laws, and boastful remarks about their children. After twenty or thirty minutes of such talk, Novelist Kim would dexterously introduce a new topic. At those moments, I daydreamed of her someday becoming a more famous writer than J.
She would say things like, “When I studied overseas several years ago, I researched the lives of simple women, women just like you ladies, housewives with children, and how they gathered and discussed their writing.” The women there riveted their eyes on her while nodding their heads, uttering exclamations like, “Hah! So, women overseas are the same as us!” As far as I knew, though, she had never studied overseas. She then said, “From now on I want you to write stories about yourself. Yes, write about you. You know I offered this kind of class in other places. And those women began writing about themselves but ended up writing about their husbands and children. No, no! You guys shouldn’t stray like that, okay?”
When she finished her talk, one of her ardent students said, in a more heated tone than her teacher, “Novelist Kim is very busy and we shouldn’t waste her precious time. We should attend this class with optimum preparedness. To be frank, I never imagined I would have this opportunity in my life. You see, my childhood dream was to become a writer.”
Other women now began talking about themselves: one woman wanted to become a poet, another a novelist, and others teachers and good mothers. Once everyone said what they had to say, their topic returned to daily events. “You know the best tonic for when things get rough? Cussing out others. That’s it. It blows away all the stress. So, this is what I discovered . . .,” one woman said. This made me chuckle. At those times I couldn’t help but want to read what those women had written.
Back then, I had dreams every night. In one dream my hair was tied to something and soon my body began to swirl. “I did nothing wrong,” I shouted. Right then, someone pulled my body down, hard. My pants fell and my lower half was exposed. Just like a stick stuck to a lollipop, I desperately held on to whatever I could while screaming. As my voice became louder, my grasp became tighter. Managing to collect myself, I looked around but failed to see the source of the dreadful power pulling at me. Eventually, my legs were stretched out, my arms became disjointed, and my neck twisted. Even when my limbs finally tore off and unbearable pain overcame me, I murmured, “I should jot this down! I should record this, get something out of this pain!”
I couldn’t let go of my dreams. I wanted them to inspire my writing. But in the morning, I only found illegible lines in my dream journal, lines that appeared to be written by a toddler just learning how to hold a pencil. In the end I always failed to gain even a splendid word out of such pain! The only thing left after such cruel dreams was the trace of pain in my body.
Around that time, I, without any reason and with no one urging me, suffered from an obsession to write something, anything.
And it was also then that I stopped randomly, pointlessly mailing out my resume and waiting for a response. I also didn’t want to work for companies that gave strange interviews or that hired people based on their looks. Instead, I tried to find a job through an organization that helped young people like me, those without any outstanding selling points.
Seoul City’s Job Placement Center was located in Guro-dong. Dreary and bleak, Guro-dong was gray—the streets, the buildings, all of it. One early morning I went to the Placement Center and saw many people already there. Applicants stood in long lines in front of reception desks. It was a depressing sight, one resembling a scene from the Great Depression in the 1930s, with people lined up waiting to be served food. Things looked the same: the cold air, the cold floor, except that the Americans back then wore long coats and fedoras.
As the line in front of me gradually got shorter and only a couple of people were left, I noticed a man in another line. He was reading a book while waiting his turn. After a short time had passed, he and I sat down at the same time in front of the receptionists. He put his book down on the desk and began talking to his receptionist. I submitted my paperwork, and while my receptionist was writing something on my papers, I glanced at his book. The red cover had a roughly etched picture that reminded me of the inside of Jonah’s whale or of people gathered in a plaza. The book’s title was The Iron Heel, a novel published in 1908 by Jack London, the American writer and socialist.
After submitting my application, I saw the guy again on the way back home. He was sitting down at the subway station reading his book. It was a brief moment, but when I saw him, my bold courage from my former days revived and I walked toward him without hesitation. At those moments we don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into. I approached him as if I were the prettiest and smartest woman in the world. “Excuse me. Could I ask you something?” I said to him. Instead of looking up at my face immediately, he looked at my shoes first, then my legs, upper body, and finally, my face. He appeared rather youngish, and this put me at ease. Suddenly, he got to his feet and said, “Sorry. What did you say?” I pointed to his book. He turned his eyes away from mine and looked the other way.
Thinking of it now, I’m not sure whether it was a good or bad thing that he didn’t act as other men would have, like telling me to leave him alone or trying to avoid me. One thing I can’t help but think about now was how smoothly the meeting with him began—too smoothly.
If B hadn’t been reading the book, I wouldn’t have approached him. Many times, books play the role of a protective shield that conceal many things. In fact, because B was reading, I judged everything about him as being good. Later, when B spoke or acted inappropriately, I covered all of it up with the scene of him reading the book. Yes, things were hidden behind that first image of him.
The results of all these first impressions in my life were mostly negative. They were either misunderstandings or illusions. Come to think of it, my life up to now has taken bad turns because of books. And B was a good example.
I was twenty and I wasn’t R, who had chewed on razor blades and had habitually run away from home, but, nevertheless, I too committed an audacious act—I shacked up with B. I must’ve done it because of the feeling the phrase “shacking up” gave me. When I said it to myself, I felt as though my body had fallen down a cliff and then floated back up, a feeling of such freedom, such strong exclusiveness, one in which two people walk hand-in-hand after shutting the door to the world. I made a resolution then that if things went bad, B and I would commit suicide by drowning ourselves in a blue river or ocean, as many literary folks had done. But such a stylish event didn’t happen to me.
I wasn’t afraid of anything. Cohabitation was a good opportunity for me to experience and learn things quickly. And B was the perfect partner for that. But we didn’t announce to each other that we should live together. In fact, I just showed up at his place one day, unannounced. Above all, he had his own place where we could make love, and, fortunately enough, I soon found a job, too.
Most of the work that the Placement Center arranged for me was part-time jobs. The one that attracted me the most was a sales clerk position at a convenience store in the Tax Assessor Office Building. I thought that I’d have some time to read books while working there, and this helped me decide to take the job. But I was so busy delivering coffee that I had no time to even take a break. Having a sales clerk deliver coffee wasn’t exactly an honest thing to do for a convenience store located in a government building, and I couldn’t just accept such a thing even if I was a coffee lover.
I went to the manager, a young woman, and told her, “You should’ve made it clear from the beginning that my job involved delivering coffee. The Placement Center didn’t tell me about this. I never imagined that I would be doing this.” The manager, who had been filing her nails, stopped what she was doing and glared at me. “There you go again. Do you know how ridiculous you are? Look, if you don’t like working here, simply tell me so. There are plenty of people who would. And don’t be naïve. If we told the Placement Center the truth, that we were looking for a coffee delivery person, a common delivery service girl, do you think they’d accept our application?”
It was then that a middle-aged cook came out of the kitchen while wiping her hands on her apron. “What happened?” the cook asked, and then added, “Humph! What manners! Talking back to grown-ups!” The cook bit her lip and glared at me.
“Well,” the manager said, “that girl knows how to talk. She could make a train stop by talking. She’s a real talker alright.”
I detested the manager. I told her, “I got a job at a convenience store but I deliver coffee, something they do at coffeehouses. But you pay less than they do. Now I don’t expect you to pay me the same as a coffeehouse, but you should at least raise my salary.” After listening to me, the manager looked flabbergasted. “Well then, why don’t you get a job at a coffeehouse? And you know what? Sorry, but coffeehouses won’t hire a girl with a face like yours.” It was the first time that someone had directly humiliated me about my looks.
Impersonating the customers, I wrote out many complaints about the store’s service, especially about the manager, and put them into the suggestion boxes in the building. And I did it for days, writing with both my left and right hands to disguise my handwriting. The manager, though, wasn’t fired and was still there when I later quit. I also wrote letters to the superintendent of the Tax Assessor Offices even after quitting my job.
People in the building would call us to request coffee delivery for their customers. When the weather was cold, they ordered warm honey tea and coffee in the morning and ginseng tea in the afternoon. Once the order arrived, I filled up the thermos bottle with boiling water and prepared cups with tea or coffee and placed them on a tray. With the thermos bottle in one hand and the tray with cups in the other, I walked up and down the steps of the building, which didn’t have an elevator, dozens of times a day. Sometimes, though rarely, no delivery order came and I’d take out my book to read, but drowsiness would overcome me. My life drifted away from writing, and my massive thighs became thicker and stronger every day.
I enjoyed the nights I spent with B, though. I had lied to Novelist Kim, telling her that I lived with my girlfriend. But even if she had suspected that I was lying, she wasn’t the kind of person who would interrogate me to root out the truth and come take me back home. I thought it was her indifference but later realized I was wrong. Rather, it was her way to sit back on the riverbank, so to speak, and watch as I crossed over a new river in my life, almost as if she believed that everything would just pass by.
The day I met B, I saw gray smoke belching up from the Guro Industrial Complex through the coffeehouse’s window. The vigorously rising smoke ascended from behind the top of B’s head and contrasted with the lifeless, gloomy streets of Guro-dong, a sight that would remain in my memory. If that were an omen of our future, we would’ve become labor activists, bustling with a vigorous life. That day at the coffeehouse, B and I agreed to become friends and met again after two weeks.
During those two weeks I wrote a love story. He was moderately tall with amiable eyes and beautiful white teeth. While he was talking about the American writer Jack London, I couldn’t focus on what he was saying but only looked at his face, thinking he was my destiny. The protagonist of my novel was me, and I wrote every day what turned out to be both a journal as well as a novel. In other words, it was all garbage. Nevertheless, the act of writing was the very thing that gave me strength to bear my life.
The male protagonist was a more beautified version of B. For example, B’s teeth weren’t white at all. And I, the female protagonist, with all her charms, was also beautified. My imagination was also ahead of my actual life experience, and so all the words needed to convey the beginning, middle, and end of a love affair, and even the words needed after the love affair was over, were all jumbled together. But in my imagination, an ardent love affair had begun, reached a climax, and had already ended tragically.
The novel was indeed terrible. In one scene the protagonist was sitting with his hands between his thighs, looking as if he’d committed some sin, when, suddenly, he dropped his head, saying, “Love isn’t for me.” The beginning of my novel was filled with the joy of love, but soon, without any good reason, it turned into a tragedy. Yes, my problem was that I loved tragedy in literature too much.
Thus, the love story I wrote was a tragedy, but our actual love affair wasn’t.
(Excerpt from pp. 131–142.)
Translated by Inrae You & Louis Vinciguerra
This translation is supported by the Daesan Foundation.