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How Grandma Became A Shaman

[Kingdoms in the Sun, a time travel adventure fantasy romance set in modern and pre-modern Korea, has been re-released!, and the chapter that follows concerns my wife Jade’s extraordinarily bizarre ancestry. More chapters will follow in the coming days.]

Throbbing through Jade’s bloodstream were DNA strands belonging to a general from hallowed antiquity—Kim Yoo-shin, whose fiery kites had unified the Korean peninsula for the first time fourteen centuries ago. The man could also move objects with his thoughts alone and see things that had not yet occurred. In the Samgook Yoosa, one of the oldest Korean historical texts, it was written that Kim Yoo-shin dreamed up the future of his land, and told his companions, the Hwarang Flower Warriors, that while he was frightened by his vision of towering gray stone castles filled with more people than he’d ever seen and deafening rivers of screaming metal turtles roaring around them in square moats, and that while he knew it would all come to pass thanks to his efforts to bring the peninsula under the dominion of King Moonmoo, he’d still fight on nonetheless, because he couldn’t bear the thought of allowing this green and pleasant land to fall to the Tang.

But the centuries between his triumphs and the birth of Jade’s mother Yi weren’t so kind to this branch of the clan. They grew thinner and smaller as the equinoxes precessed, and with increasing desperation they worked the earth that sprouted fewer crops each summer, rising and falling in a blurred montage, the crops, the sun, the people.

Like most Koreans of her generation Yi was born into crushing poverty. Her country was one of the poorest on Earth at the time, and as far as anyone knew her ancestors had been scrounging a living from the dry rocky soil since at least the tenth century. A handful of rice, to them, was a luxury. They mostly subsisted on millet, since these were the days when North Korea was a prosperous nation propped up by the industrial wealth of the Soviet Union, while the South was a backwater dictatorship still recovering from years of war, decades of colonization, and millennia of serfdom and despotism. Those people spent their lives aching for food.

At Seoul’s heart there were horses clopping through the streets, while today’s grandmotherly Sea Women of Jeju Island were all young, taut, and tanned—diving into the ocean without oxygen masks, rippling in the blue murk, spearing fish, plucking shells and seaweed, wrestling whitetip sharks, and going home to sleep in stone houses with straw rooftops shaped like loaves of bread. Live pigs were tied up and strapped to the backs of bicycles, water buffaloes ploughed the fields, and people walked dirt roads under towers of firewood. Today’s steel glass cities were wretched shantytowns perched over rivers of filth. Most buildings were as short as the average person.

Life was already hard enough for Yi’s mother (Jade’s grandmother), but a run of bad luck, combined with gongs clashing like lightning in the black mornings and rice bowls shattering against her shack’s walls only to reappear unbroken within the proper cupboard the next day and her naked babies floating and laughing dappled in the sunlight that poked through the roof—all this convinced her to visit Gyeongju’s old medicine woman.

After chanting the incantations a pall of white smoke puffed around Yi’s mother, and the shaman saw two sinuous dragons with porphyry scales slithering through. Their eyes were pale crescents, their moustaches were green zigzags—these were the troublemakers behind the recent poltergeist activity, and they would continue their antics until Yi’s mother bowed down to submit.

The old medicine woman turned to the spirit of death, who sat cross-legged behind Yi’s mother on the cold dirt floor in the corner of her house of piled stones, which had a wooden sign outside that said Philosophy in Chinese letters. He was dressed like a nobleman in black robes, and he wore a black conical broad-brimmed hat, with a string of smooth wooden beads stretching under his goatee.

Yi’s mother turned around, saw nothing, and then looked back at the shaman. “What is it?”

“Your new boss,” the shaman said.

In his black robes the nobleman nodded and rattled his wood-beaded necklace.

He nodded, rattled—appeared!—and Yi’s mother leaped back and yelped.

Death spoke without moving his lips. “You know how this goes, don’t you?”

Yi’s mother threw herself onto the dirt floor and bowed on her hands and knees. “If I don’t become a shaman you’ll take my eldest instead.”

Death turned away. “That’s right.”

“If you already knew the answer,” one of the dragons said, “why did you come here?”

Yi’s mother was sobbing into the floor.

“Did you want me to reassure you with lies?” the shaman said.

“I’d hoped you could convince the gods to leave me alone,” Yi’s mother said.

“They don’t care about you, and they never listen to me,” the shaman said. “They just want your bones. Yours ring the right way when the gods tap them, mine are the same.”

Yi’s mother stood, bowed, wiped the tears from her eyes, and walked out.

Death stared through several broken-down shacks to an old slave who was shivering under his tattered bedcovers, coughing fog and memory into a room without windows.

You won’t go alone, Death said to the slave, and to Yi’s mother.

One dragon attended the old slave, another flew beside Yi’s mother walking Gyeongju’s dirt roads. How would she break the news to her family? Far better not to see them at all, too painful to part like that, a shame to be a shaman.

She stops on the dirt road between all the rotten fruit and vegetable sellers, who stare at her through the rising sunlit dust as if they know everything, and there is a man wearing a straw hat and a frayed frock coat with the brown threads popping out of the hem in the shoulders.

“Get the fuck out of my way,” he says, shoving past.

A bulbous pickup truck coated in rust rumbles by.

Where can I go? she thinks.

“I can take you,” the dragon says in a voice that disappeared a long time ago.

He turns north. “Follow me.”

This website has moved!

I’m gearing up for the release of a new book, which also means a new website.

This Is The Saddest Picture I’ve Ever Seen

Widow of slain civil rights activist Medger Evers

This is a photograph of the son of Medger Evers, a civil rights activist who was assassinated fifty years ago in Mississippi, which I discovered yesterday here.


More Awesome Than You Can Possibly Imagine

My new book was just mentioned on The Marmot’s Hole, the only blog on Korea with its own wikipedia page.

North Korea Will Collapse Tomorrow


Hanging around Goomjang last night, walking through the cold without a coat, pushing my broken bike—the old chain got stuck when I was throwing myself up a hill on two very flat tires—listening to some crazy old Ali Farka Toure, I got to thinking about the impending collapse of North Korea, which I’d just discussed for half an hour with one of my favorite students, a middle school kid who sometimes actually asks me questions. In the middle of this conversation I was suddenly like, seriously, if you’re making a big deal about a visit from Dennis Rodman, if you’re threatening to scrap an armistice you’ve already broken numerous times, you are on your last legs. This topic is the favorite whipping boy of expatriates living in Korea, and all kinds of intelligent people have been predicting that the North would collapse since its first hours of existence, but in a recent interview B.R Myers, author of the best book on the subject, said these guys are finished.

I think sooner or later, a tipping point is going to be reached where the North Korean government suddenly finds itself in some kind of a difficult situation, and there’s only one real way for North Korea to react to that kind of situation, and that is to increase tension with the outside world. And I think that someday North Korea will go a step too far, North Korea will maybe engage in some kind of nuclear provocation, or it will attack South Korea, and it will finally induce South Korea and the United States to fight back, and when that happens, North Korea is going to collapse.

Fascist governments need their people to be whipped up into a war-hungry frenzy on a constant basis to distract them from the starvation, poverty, and corruption that surrounds them; and to crack that whip they’ve got to keep lashing out at other countries, but the only trouble is that South Korea is finished with taking the North’s potshots—the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island—and from what I understand the government here is going to shoot back the next time the North violates their sovereignty.

The war will probably be over within hours. Thousands of people will be killed in Seoul and elsewhere thanks to an artillery barrage, and thousands more may die over the coming months as a result of the North’s stockpile of chemical and biological weapons, which I think are far more dangerous than the few small nukes in the Kim dynasty’s possession, as those currently lack an effective delivery system (aside from driving them around in a truck). China, which seems to be more or less fed up with the North (they endorsed the latest U.N. Resolution against the North), will not intervene this time as the South occupies and administers the former territory of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Statues and paintings of Kim Jong Il and his son will be knocked down and destroyed, but Mr. Myers has elsewhere predicted that the founder of the North Korean state, Kim Il Sung, will undergo a resuscitation by Korean historians, who for various nationalistic reasons will be unable to admit that any powerful Korean leader was more horrible than the colonial Japanese.

My student told me he believes that after reunification the Northerners will try to come down to live in the South, but I think there’s all kinds of problems with that: most notably, the fact that South Korea is already packed to the brim with people, and doesn’t have any more room. My guess it that the reverse will happen: there’s plenty of space in North Korea, lots of cheap land, lots of old buildings that need to get knocked down and replaced, so my suspicion is that when peace finally settles over the smoke and rubble along the DMZ there will be a construction bonanza as the architectural remnants of North Korea are replaced with the dull modern apartment buildings and flashy neon noraebangs of the South. The North Koreans also don’t know how to use computers, so my guess is that they’re going to be working in factories; students will have a lot of trouble adjusting to the South’s notoriously impossible education system, which breaks for nobody, and the South’s impressive suicide rate—the highest in the developed world—will spread northward as old folks find that there isn’t much reason to live if they don’t have to sacrifice anything to defeat the American imperialists anymore.

The ironic thing about North Korea is that while it ranks as among the most belligerent nations on Earth—right up there with The United States of America—the last sixty years have probably been the most peaceful in the history of East Asia, as the American military, with tens of thousands of soldiers deployed in South Korea and Japan to protect against the North, has ensured that if the region’s traditional enemies go to war, everything everywhere will be destroyed. So if you take away North Korea, you take away the reason to keep all those American soldiers stationed in the region, and you increase the possibility of a catastrophic conflict between China, Korea, and Japan. Since Korea is right in the middle, it’s likely that most of the fighting will be done there; and who knows, in the future people may regret that the North disappeared at all. “Ah, those were the good old days,” they’ll say, “back when East Asia wasn’t a smoldering cinder.”

Quick Note On Ads

One of my friends has brought to my attention the fact that this website has ads. This was completely unknown to me beforehand because I use chrome as well as adblocker. If, after a month of no posting, I still have any readers left at all, please do yourself a favor and download these two applications—the internet is so unpleasant without them.

A Delicious Lunch

It was the heaviest snowfall Gyeongju had seen in years, and everyone, including Comrade General Kim Jong-il, lately resurrected from death, was carrying umbrellas. The General stuck to the center of the sidewalks and refused to move to the left or the right at the approach of the miscegenated citizens of the puppet state, a policy which forced some of them to step off into the street (where several were immediately flattened by passing trucks), while most just shoved past the General and rubbed their umbrellas against his own, soaking the necks of all the parties concerned. After a few hours of wandering the city and getting the back of his neck repeatedly soaked in this fashion, the General wondered if it might not be better to have the entire populace executed.

Comrade General Kim Jong-il took in the tomb mounds claimed by the illegitimate Yankee Colony and then discovered that he was hungry for the first time since he had been spontaneously reanimated by the holy soil of the Korean nation. Disdaining to remove his large black goggles upon entering one of the city’s many notable Gimbap Heavens, which would have been empty but for the presence of one patron, one ajumma (or somewhat old woman), and one halmoni (or one fairly old woman), Comrade General Kim Jong-il attempted to order a light lunch for himself. “I’ll have mongoose stuffed with lobster,” he said, flashing his famous rictus of a smile at the ajumma hovering uneasily over the pyramid of gimbap rolls by the door. “With a dozen live sea urchins on the side.”

“But Comrade General,” protested the ignorant collaborator, “How are we to procure such specialties?”

The Dear Leader stopped smiling, and, after a moment of staring at this ajumma, he lifted a pistol from his fashionable jumpsuit (imitated by celebrities like Tom Cruise and Peter MacNicol the world over), and shot her right between the eyes. He was confident that she would not be brought back to life, as she wasn’t nearly as true to her race as he was.

“Is it really so difficult to get some mongoose stuffed with lobster and sprinkled with live sea urchins around here?” the Comrade General shouted into the kitchen at the back of the restaurant. Unlike the ajumma, the halmoni who worked there had been appraised of the General’s Lazarus-like resurrection that morning, as the television she wore around her neck had not been turned off in twenty-eight years. She bowed without making eye contact and said “Yes, I understand, Comrade General,” and got to work, though she wasn’t sure what she was working on.

“I didn’t know the Comrade General was such a good shot,” said the restaurant’s lone patron, a sympathizer who happened to be wolfing down a tone kassuh, or pork cutlet; the sympathizer had a pork cutlet for lunch every day and, as a result, his nickname around town had been “Pork Cutlet” since he had first been able to eat solid food.

“You have no idea,” Comrade General Kim Jong-il replied, sitting down across from the sympathizer, and, without breaking eye-contact (through his black sensuous goggles), aiming his pistol over his left shoulder and firing through the window at a stray mosquito that had been flitting among the snowflakes on the other side of the street.

Pork Cutlet naturally couldn’t see the mosquito and thought that the Comrade General was maybe feeling a little out of sorts after being brought back from the dead (I mean, who wouldn’t just start shooting in random directions?, he thought), but the Comrade General’s eagle eyes were able to discern, without even focusing, that the tip of the mosquito’s proboscis had been shaved off—just as he had planned.

The halmoni walked in and served the Comrade General his lunch, which was a platter of white rice and boiled meat and vegetables topped with hot sauce (also known as Korean Food). “Looks delicious,” he said, just before shoveling the food inside his mouth with his pistol.

Clashes Of The Literary Titans

Disputes between the literary gods would seem to be fairly rare, as these most talented personages are often gracious enough to overlook, at least in print, the perceived shortcomings of their fellow divinities. Literature is not a contest, Borges asserts; prizes, Werner Herzog adds, are for pigs and horses.

But there are two great disputes stretching across time which I wish to root out and address. The first concerns Vladimir Nabokov, who despised—or, according to one of my professors, affected to despise—Fyodor Dostoevsky. “[He] is not a great writer,” lectures Nabokov, “but a rather mediocre one—with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.” In other words, as Witold Gombrowicz wrote of a contemporary winner of the Mann Booker prize, he is an excellent mediocrity. Tolstoy himself added (several decades before) that he could not stick it out to finish The Brothers Karamazov, a book that functions as a doorstop and a chopping block as often as it does as a novel. At the same time there are numerous intelligent people of all stripes who claim the Big D. as their favorite novelist. How are we, then, to judge him?

While I believe such judgment is impossible, I do suspect that we can trace the origin of Nabokov’s negative feelings. He mentions in Lectures on Russian Literature that one of his own noble ancestors had a hand in imprisoning and then nearly executing Dostoevsky, and then adds, quite venomously, that his least-favorite Latin tutor, a certain German immigrant named Scheisseman, would slap young Vladimir across the face with a worn copy of The Brothers Karamazov, which is an exceedingly large and heavy book, every time Nabokov failed to properly decline a Latin noun. This could perhaps be the real explanation for Nabokov’s inveterate dislike of Dostoevsky and his point-blank refusal to even discuss one of Freud’s favorite novels.

The second dispute I wish to explore is that between V.S. Naipaul and Edward Said. Edward Said claimed that V.S. Naipaul was a colonialist stooge, while V.S. Naipaul claimed (in response) that his rival was “a strikingly successful dumbass”. This fight seems to have begun after the publishing of Among The Believers and India: A Wounded Civilization, two texts which (Said says) place the blame for all the malfeasance in Iran and India squarely on the shoulders of the natives, rather than the colonials. But a single secret event in the life of Edward Said, recently uncovered from among the private papers of one of his servants, would seem to shed some additional light on this clash.

After a long day lecturing on his love-hate relationship with Joseph Conrad at Harvard University, Edward Said returned home to his country mansion, tired and looking forward to his favorite dinner, which was tomato soup. Sitting down to table, his wife asked him how his day was, to which Said replied: “Not as good as this tomato soup’s going to be!” at which point one his many servants, a woman named Precious, began to ladle out the esteemed professor’s soup, but just as she was bending over, a book slipped out from her pocket and splashed in Edward Said’s bowl, soaking his face with the hot red liquid. He was furious, screaming and gesticulating as though in a silent movie—“Not because of the soup!” he wailed to his wife, while the servant apologized and wiped his face, “But because of the book!”

Precious had been reading A House For Mr. Biswas. She was fired on the spot by Said’s outstretched pointer finger (still dripping with soup), and henceforth all job applicants to the Said Mansion had to sign a contract with a single clause in large bold capitalized letters reading: I SWEAR I DO NOT LIKE V.S. NAIPAUL.

(nearly all of this is obviously untrue, and half of it is actually a rehash)

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Something Like What I’m Going For

These magnificent volumes are not often, perhaps, read through. Part of their charm consists in the fact that Hakluyt is not so much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together, an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds. One is for ever untying this packet here, sampling that heap over there, wiping the dust off some vast map of the world, and sitting down in semi-darkness to snuff the strange smells of silks and leathers and ambergris, while outside tumble the huge waves of the uncharted Elizabethan sea.

For this jumble of seeds, silks, unicorns’ horns, elephants’ teeth, wool, common stones, turbans, and bars of gold, these odds and ends of priceless value and complete worthlessness, were the fruit of innumerable voyages, traffics, and discoveries to unknown lands in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. The expeditions were manned by “apt young men” from the West country, and financed in part by the great Queen herself. The ships, says Froude, were no bigger than modern yachts. There in the river by Greenwich the fleet lay gathered, close to the Palace. “The Privy council looked out of the windows of the court . . . the ships thereupon discharge their ordnance . . . and the mariners they shouted in such sort that the sky rang again with the noise thereof.” Then, as the ships swung down the tide, one sailor after another walked the hatches, climbed the shrouds, stood upon the mainyards to wave his friends a last farewell. Many would come back no more. For directly England and the coast of France were beneath the horizon, the ships sailed into the unfamiliar; the air had its voices, the sea its lions and serpents, its evaporations of fire and tumultuous whirlpools. But God too was very close; the clouds but sparely hid the divinity Himself; the limbs of Satan were almost visible. Familiarly the English sailors pitted their God against the God of the Turks, who “can speake never a word for dulnes, much lesse can he helpe them in such an extremitie.. .. But howsoever their God behaved himself, our God showed himself a God indeed. . . . ” God was as near by sea as by land, said Sir Humfrey Gilbert, riding through the storm. Suddenly one light disappeared; Sir Humfrey Gilbert had gone beneath the waves; when morning came, they sought his ship in vain. Sir Hugh Willoughby sailed to discover the North-West Passage and made no return. The Earl of Cumberland’s men, hung up by adverse winds off the coast of Cornwall for a fortnight, licked the muddy water off the deck in agony. And sometimes a ragged and worn-out man came knocking at the door of an English country house and claimed to be the boy who had left it years ago to sail the seas. “Sir William his father, and my lady his mother knew him not to be their son, until they found a secret mark, which was a wart upon one of his knees.” But he had with him a black stone, veined with gold, or an ivory tusk, or a silver ingot, and urged on the village youth with talk of gold strewn over the land as stones are strewn in the fields of England. One expedition might fail, but what if the passage to the fabled land of uncounted riches lay only a little farther up the coast? What if the known world was only the prelude to some more splendid panorama? When, after the long voyage, the ships dropped anchor in the great river of the Plate and the men went exploring through the undulating lands, startling grazing herds of deer, seeing the limbs of savages between the trees, they filled their pockets with pebbles that might be emeralds or sand that might be gold; or sometimes, rounding a headland, they saw, far off, a string of savages slowly descending to the beach bearing on their heads and linking their shoulders together with heavy burdens for the Spanish King.

Virginia Woolf, The Elizabethan Lumber Room