Communicating the Space Between the Lines

  • onNovember 15, 2014
  • Vol.24 Summer 2014
  • byKim Insuk

Thanks to my complex, or perhaps riveting personal life, I’ve lived abroad in different countries for a few years, and sometimes even a few months. But I’ve never been able to speak any local language fluently, no matter where I was. In some places, I was able to manage by speaking slowly; in other places, I could not speak a lick. This is not a big problem if you’re a tourist, but living there is another matter. Language was a matter of communication that stirred up loneliness, pain, and all kinds of disillusionment. It was also an issue in dating and love. Living in a country that’s not mine, I became lonely because of the language that was not my own, but the endless cycle of irony was that I had no choice but to write the things inspired by this loneliness in the language of my country. I often wondered: Wouldn’t Sydney, one of the places I’ve lived, be best represented in Australian English? Wouldn’t Beijing be most “Beijing” when represented in Mandarin, particularly the Beijing dialect?

Looking at it from the other side of things, wouldn’t Seoul, the place I was born, be most faithfully Seoul when represented in Korean, especially the Seoul dialect? If so, if my works were to be translated, and when the translations reached the readers, would my stories be able to reach them fully?

I once wrote in my novel, Ocean and Butterfly: “It’s not just a problem of language, but in the end, language will become the source of all problems.” This was a Korean female narrator commenting on a joseonjok (descendants of Koreans in China) woman who married a Korean man. Language is not just a means of communication, but communication itself. That’s why language becomes lonely, and so do people. Writers fill the shortcomings of language with the space between the lines. The spaces between the lines are things that cannot be expressed through words, but nevertheless must be expressed, like wounds, loneliness, and love.

At the London Book Fair, I participated in a session with a Chinese writer. She’d been born and raised in China, but lived in the UK and wrote in English. She said that she had to get a visa to go to China and that the visa allowed her to stay for no more than two weeks. She spoke of her situation, where she could no longer “return home” and was reduced to a visitor in her own country. The gist of her story was that to the Chinese, where one lives is not a matter of choice but a question of a fundamental identity shift. Even among people whose home countries are not as strict about allowing dual citizenship as China is, there must be people in similar situations.

We live in an age overflowing with people who cannot return home or choose not to return home. These are the modern nomads. This means we also live in an age where it is necessary to find another language and a space between the lines that can represent them or them, me, and us. This applies to those who read as well as those who write. The term, “transnationalism” gets tossed around a lot these days, and the boundaries that have been taken down cannot only refer to physical ones. Expressions, readings, and receptions of pain and loneliness are all crossing borders. Are my novels doing that as well? Even if I don’t refer to them directly, there must be the breath of nomads past and present who have passed me by pulsing between the lines of my stories. Perhaps I am the nomad. Perhaps we all are. 


by Kim Insuk