Meeting You Face to Face

  • onApril 21, 2015
  • Vol.27 Spring 2015
  • byKim Ae-ran

I was in the computer lab at my school when I got the news that I had won the new writer’s competition. I asked the caller, “Fiction or poetry?” and the answer was fiction. My poetry submission hadn’t even made it to the first round. I had a simple reason for asking this embarrassing question when I would have gotten the answer soon enough. I wanted to know if I was a novelist or a poet.

I hung up and had to stop myself from turning somersaults, mindful of the “Silence” sign hanging in the lab. After all these years that suppressed joy is still caught in my throat, pressing against it uncomfortably. Another writer, hearing my problem, advised me to dig a hole in the ground and laugh into it three times every night until I was cured. I hid the fact that I had won all day long. It felt sacrilegious, somehow, to share my news, yet I also wanted to shout it from the top of my lungs. The shame and pride, the nerves and anxiety of carrying around a secret began to take its toll on me, however, and I decided I had to tell someone.

My mother answered the phone in a karaoke. My hardworking, tone-deaf, country woman Mother had closed up shop and made a beeline for the karaoke, although it was still early in the evening. I did not find this strange. At the time the only news that crossed the threshold of my parents’ house in a rural village near the West Sea was of the “bad,” “very bad,” and “even worse” variety. Mother sounded a bit tipsy. But she was very happy to hear what I had to tell her. I could hear the sound of the other women singing at the top of their lungs as Mother struggled to speak over the din.

I felt quite emotional about my win, not just because it was good news, but because it was the first good news to come after the bad, very bad, and worse news that had preceded it. Mother must have felt the same way. The fortunes of our family were not reversed overnight, however, and Mother had many more nights of karaoke ahead of her. Perhaps that is why even now, whenever I hear the word “new writer’s contest” I think of all those karaoke establishments tucked into every possible nook and cranny across the country. I think of the lyrics to the songs that my tone-deaf mother must have belted out, her nod to the inherent corniness of life. What we call literature must have also started out as songs.

I celebrated quietly with some friends that night. A longhaired friend of mine from the same year bought an ice cream cake for me. Imun-dong hardly being the neighborhood for glittering franchise bakeries, the only ice cream cake he had been able to find was a luridly colored affair that tasted like a rancid dishcloth. The teddy bear-shaped cake was nonetheless placed in the middle of the table and we all dug in. We tried our best, but there was still some left over. As people chatted idly over their drinks, the friend who brought the cake kept muttering dejectedly, “I should have gone to Baskin-Robbins.” I may have been cocky enough to ask, “Fiction or poetry?” on the phone that day, but I still did not believe that I would be able to make a living writing.

Walking past a bakery near my university a few years later, my thoughts returned to that night. The face of the teddy bear slowly caving in over his missing eye and nose, and the words that my friend kept muttering to himself. It was only then that it hit me, the kindness of those words: “I should have gone to Baskin-Robbins.” Somewhere, in some obscure bakery, someone was trying their best to imitate a real ice cream cake or something equivalent to a real ice cream cake. The clumsy thoughtfulness of it all enveloped me like a warm blanket, cherishing and nurturing me.

My outfit on the day of the awards ceremony was nothing special. A grey woolen sweater, faded jeans, khaki loafers. It looked casually put together, but it was actually all brand new. Looking back at that day, I remember: Mother sitting very straight as I stammered out my acceptance speech, tossing in a few homilies in an effort to look like a “real” author, the pork rib place near City Hall where we went to celebrate, the chapped skin on the back of Father’s hands as he placed pieces of meat on top of my rice, and everyone struggling to open the bottle of wine someone had brought, and Mother filling her beer glass with wine and criticizing the food in Seoul. She had nothing but praise, however, for the cultured people she had met at the awards ceremony.

What was it about literature, or arts and letters that impressed my parents so much? To my parents, people involved in those things were somehow different, better, than them. Their worship was a vague one, but the respect was there nonetheless. To them, the world of letters meant taking phone calls from their daughter’s teacher on their knees, even though there was no one to see them. Learning was to be venerated. Their awe aside, however, I found the awards ceremony to be more like an overrated, miniature circus. The feeling only grew stronger the more I tried to be the sort of person who fit in there. Giving my acceptance speech, I spouted off some pretentious nonsense with the rest of them. But with my friends and family, struggling to get the cork out of the bottle, gulping down the meat my father placed in my bowl, it occurred to me that literature was not here, at this party, but inside all of the people that had so graciously agreed to come. Theirs was not the kind of literature that takes sides, but embraces even the vanity of a beginning writer who had made her first foray in front of the public, acknowledging that she might have something to say about life. I am still inside that embrace, still making mistakes and learning from them. Except that I have a horrible memory and keep making the same mistakes over and over again. It still amazes me when my words take on meaning in a different language, like this, making ripples in a completely different way than I could have ever imagined.

I remember the day that I was first called a writer. And I remember the place where my mother was when she told me, “Well done.” The karaoke, where she wiped away her tears. Where she went for survival, not diversion, when life sent too much bad news to be able to brush it away with a laugh, or even attempt to crack a joke. Although there were still days that she did go for diversion. And so if ever, at some point in my life, if I ever come face to face with you in some piece of writing that I built, and if you seem a bit hungry, the pseudo-ice cream cake is on me. 




by Kim Ae-ran

Author's Profile

Kim Ae-ran has authored four short story collections, most recently Summer Outside (2017), and one essay collection, A Good Name to Forget (2019). Her first novel, My Palpitating Life (2011), was adapted into the movie My Brilliant Life (2014). Kim received the 2014 Prix de Linapercu award for the story “I Go to the Convenience Store.” Her debut work “No Knocking in This House,” excerpted here, won the 2003 Daesan Literary Award.