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WRITERS' NOTES

Dreaming the Language of Literature and Womanhood

  • onNovember 14, 2014
  • Vol.12 Summer 2011
  • byKim Min-jeong

Where?

The Arab Emirates, they said. If it wasn’t the UAE, I would not have said yes and agreed to go so readily. Didn’t they tell me I would be going to Abu Dhabi? And to Dubai? The country where I had long dreamed of visiting on my own but had all but given up, as I thought I would never be able to go by myself. Whistling in excitement, I went through a couple of summer outfits but ended up putting them back in the closet. What I am trying to say is that I could not fathom how different. I mean, before I could confirm the cultural differences, I realized that I was so ignorant of this country and its Arabic culture. I read a few books that seemed to specialize in the subject and called a few people whom I believed to be experts. I was told, Let’s talk after you get back, so I said fine. I boarded a flight on Etihad Airways, the second national airline of the UAE.

The first official function took place at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. Because South Korea participated this year as the Market Focus country, we had a booth at the entrance of the fair. It was modest in size; not just our booth but those of all the other countries in attendance as well. I wonder if this was the reason the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair was not well known worldwide. The other authors Kim Joo-young and Yi Mun-yol, and KLTI folks including the president Kim Joo-youn, who had been on my flight, were slowly becoming my family, as we looked around the booths, chatted, and took pictures together. Our shared communal fate as this odd family unit proved itself to be useful with our flexible teamwork during the “conversations with authors” segment of the fair. For instance, if my poems brought to mind the image of a trouble-making daughter, the novels of the two senior authors on the panel could be likened to that of the father straightening out the situation.

It was through the audience’s responses that I realized the sincere concerns expressed by my friends and acquaintances—urging me to bring only my least provocative work—had been unfounded. When I laughed, they also laughed, and when I became serious, they also wore grave expressions. Why would it matter whether I wore a tank top and a mini skirt, while they wore black burkas from head to toe? I was able to reaffirm that we were all aboard the same ship under the common language of literature, poetry, and womanhood.

After traveling to Dubai, which is also in the UAE but quite different from Abu Dhabi, we attended another set of functions at Zayed University. A group of young Arab women ranging from their late teens to early twenties—who, like Korean university students their age, enjoyed getting dressed up and chatting with their friends, often bursting into laughter over nothing—were gathered before us. As I stood in front of them, I tried to imagine how we looked to them. When we asked what they knew about Korea, they immediately responded with names of Korean boy bands like TVXQ (Dong Bang Sin Gi), 2PM, and Beast. Wow, this must be the Korean Wave! But they did not have the slightest knowledge of Korean literature. This was not at all surprising. In fact, Korean literature nowadays is widely neglected by even Korean students, who hardly know anything about it and don’t even try to learn more. Although the discussion involved expressing difficult views that link the Korean War and national division, the history and the present including politics and literature, the local students stayed until the very end and paid close attention. The reason they seemed so beautiful was not just their youth.

Middle East meets Far East. During the cultural festivities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I was fortunate enough to make a new friend: an art history major at Zayed University named Bakha. Memorable for her black plastic frames and braces, she handed me a picture of a tiger from a Korean folk tale which she proudly told me she had drawn herself. Thus began our friendship, which has continued to blossom through emails; regardless of our respective origins, what’s certain is that we both love bulgogi, that we might find ourselves at a Korean barbecue joint in Apgujeong grilling meat together come next year, and that literature can bring people together. Perhaps this has always been the reason I participate in literature.

 

 

by Kim Min-jeong

Author's Profile

Kim Min-jeong is a poet. She made her debut winning the Munye Joongang New Writer’s Award in 1999. She has published such collections of poetry as Flying Miss Hedgehog and For the First Time, She Felt It.