The Gift of a Question That Remains Unasked

  • onDecember 3, 2019
  • Vol.46 Winter 2019
  • byKim Soom


A Ferris Wheel Called Sorrow

From my hotel room window in Göteborg, I could see a giant Ferris wheel. For the first few days of my five-day trip, I never saw it move. In fact, the wheel had an air of permanent immobility, as if it would remain stationary forever. It was honestly much too big, looming against a sky that reminded me of the face of Rilke. I found myself wishing that the wheel would stay motionless for as long as I was there. If it did start to circle, I was afraid that the city and the entire world along with it would start to tumble and turn, leading to all manner of confusion and chaos.

Suspended as it was against the sky, the Ferris wheel looked like an image out of a calendar, and I felt a strange sensation of lagging time. The wheel was visible from each of the rooms the Korean poets and writers, including myself, had been assigned (I don’t know if it was visible from the rooms of everyone staying at the hotel).

I had received a list of questions from the organizers of the Göteborg Book Fair in advance. On my first night in Göteborg I tried to write down an answer to the final question on the list, and found some form of consolation in doing so. The question was actually two separate questions, and I found myself answering only partially to just the one question that spoke to me.


Q: What emotion do you want your readers to feel when they read your work? What is it that you as an author hope to accomplish through literature?


A: If I had to choose just one, I would like that emotion to be sorrow. This is because I personally find sorrow to be a beautiful emotion.


I realized that I value sorrow, that sadness is an emotion I hold dear. Could it be that we read poetry and stories, watch films, travel, listen to music, and love in order to arrive at sadness? That this is what impels us to carry on walking towards the end of our lives?

But why did I limit my answer with my own self-imposed condition to “choose just one”?

What is it I want to accomplish through literature? The reason I passed on answering this question was because I forgot it as soon as my eyes flitted over it. I have never thought to accomplish something through literature. That is not why I started writing, nor is it why I continue to write.


A Name I Couldn’t Learn by Heart                                  

Astrid Trotzig. This is the name of a writer I met during the book fair. She has a Swedish name and writes in Swedish. When she was five months old she was adopted by Swedish parents. (At Göteborg, I learned for the first time that Sweden has the largest number of Korean adoptees out of all European countries.) She spoke of a visit to South Korea several years ago, and how she had been asked a question related to her identity by a newspaper reporter during that visit. She answered by saying, “Although I think a lot about who I am, it would be hard for me to say I am Korean since I live in Sweden and think and write in Swedish.”

If she had grown up in South Korea and hadn’t struggled with questions regarding her identity, would she have become a writer?

And then I realized that one does not “become” a writer.

I may soon forget her exact name, but her face is etched in my mind. I have thought of her from time to time after my return to Seoul, but not for the sole reason that she happens to be a Swedish novelist who was adopted from South Korea.

In one of my stories there is a scene where a Korean asks a jaeil gyopo, a Japanese national of Korean ethnicity, about their identity. Here is a slightly adapted version of that exchange:


Samako, what’s your identity? Japanese or Korean?”

Ah, my identity? Well, my identity is that I am me.”

Surely you know what the word identity means, Samako?”

Aaah, I don’t care to know about identity. It’s too political and serious. I’m me, you’re you . . . what do we need identities for?”


Political, Apolitical

Would you say your writing is political?

This question was posed to me during a reading at the Literature House. That morning I had gone for a walk along the stream that flows past the book fair venue. I saw ducks living there—I love ducks. As someone who had never placed the words “political” and “writing” together in a sentence, I had to try hard to grasp this somewhat aggressive question. As I struggled to understand I felt a rising desire to hide. And just as I had asked myself every other time this same desire had shaken me, I found myself repeating the question What is it I’m here for?

I think back to the questions that I and all the other Korean poets and novelists who were attending the book fair with me were asked. To mark sixty years of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Sweden, the Göteborg Book Fair had chosen South Korea as the Guest of Honor and theme country for 2019. Various events were organized to promote Korean literature and its writers. Seminars and talks revolved around two main topics: Gender Equality and Human & Humanity. The questions the Swedish moderators posed to us Korean writers were connected to social and global issues. (The Göteborg Book Fair, which started in 1985, is the largest literature festival in Northern Europe. Authors and readers met and mingled in various venues, and earnest and respectful audiences filled the seats. Many of the Korean writers were impressed by the attentive “listening manner” of the Swedish readers.)

At the reading I came to realize that my writing is in fact political. That even the seemingly intimate and extremely personal writing one might associate with diaries or personal chronicles cannot but be, even if to varying degrees, somewhat political.

That night I saw the Ferris wheel aglow and turning, drawing big bright circles outside my hotel window.


The Question That Remains Unasked

In the end, the question that touched me most out of all the questions given to me or to any one of us Korean poets and writers during the fair was: What emotion do you want your readers to feel when they read your work? The Göteborg Book Fair has ended, but this remains as a question for all of us.

by Kim Soom
Translated by Emily Yae Won