Sorabol’s Opening Lines

Nothing was normal about the death of the monk named Ichadon. At his own insistence the execution was a public event paid for by the royal purse. Treasurer Jee of the Sixth Bone Rank wrote that the signs erected and the criers employed for advertising in the weeks leading up to the beheading cost in excess of two thousand knives, and that urgent repairs to the walls of Acha Fortress were halted for several weeks as a result. Though it cannot be said that the attendees did not get their moneys’ worth, further spending was incurred after tiered seats were constructed at the execution square, before the Great Dolmen in the center of the capital city of Sorabol. Minister Pan, also of the Sixth Bone Rank, estimates that ten thousand citizens were gathered in attendance. Ambassadors from Northern Wei, Southern Liang, Hundred Vassals, Kaolee, and the Dwarf Kingdom, were present, and greatly impressed by the remarkable events which occurred on the Eighth Sun of the Fourth Moon of the Thirteenth Harvest in the Reign of Great King Fa, who ruled during The Era of First Establishment [527 CE].

Get the Kindle ebook on amazon for $2.99.

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George Orwell Sounds A Lot Like A North Korean (In Korean)

그러면 우리는 무엇을 해야 되겠읍니까? 그것은 밤낮 없이 몸과 마음을 다하여 인류의 타도에 힘쓰는 것입니다!

Romanization:

Guh-lu-myon oo-lee-nun moo-oh-sul hay-ya day-ges-soom-nee-ka? Guh-gos-oon bam-nat opshee mome-gwa ma-oom-ul da-ha-yaw il-yoo-ai ta-do-ai heem-suh-nun goshe-im-nee-da!

My literal translation:

So we-the what-the do should? Thing-the nightdayless body-and mind-the all-for humanity-of overthrow-at strength-using thing is!

George Orwell:

What then must we do? Why, work night and day, body and soul, for the overthrow of the human race!

I can’t find who translated the text into Korean, but this comes from a bilingual edition of Animal Farm published by YBM. I also can’t really justify the claim that he sounds like a North Korean with any direct quotes, since my Korean, sadly, is still far too poor; though the only word I had to look up was “ta-do”, overthrow, it was still somewhat difficult to make sense out of the second sentence without looking at the English original. My impression, however, is that North Koreanese has a lot of 것입니다, goshe-imneeda, though that may just be literary Korean, and a lot of rhetoric about overthrowing people. And since this comes directly from the throathole (목구멍) of Marx / Lenin / Old Major himself, I thought it an appropriate comparison to the propaganda of the North Koreans, who, despite removing the word “communism” from their constitution, and despite being the most extreme example of capitalism in the world—a small rich elite controlling a vast permanent class of powerless slaves—still seem to throw a lot of the old Manifesto-esque language around.

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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.

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Who Is The Best Stylist?

Shakespeare writes as if the English language itself is writing: His tears run down his beard like winter’s drops from eaves of reeds. Tolstoy writes with the voice of the earth. I was first really hooked by the beginning of Sevastopol Stories, actually. Borges, in Spanish or English, is like bathing in a sunset.

Bruma de oro, el Occidente alumbra
la ventana. El asiduo manuscrito
aguarda, ya cargado de infinito.
Alguien construye a Dios en la penumbra.

And when Flaubert describes the color of Emma Bovary’s eyes, I don’t just see them, I am them. Madame Bovary c’est moi! Borges said that Joyce had written lines that were not unworthy of Shakespeare—

He watched her pour into the measure and thence into the jug rich white milk, not hers. Old shrunken paps. She poured again a measureful and a tilly. Old and secret she had entered from a morning world, maybe a messenger. She praised the goodness of the milk, pouring it out. Crouching by a patient cow at daybreak in the lush field, a witch on her toadstool, her wrinkled fingers quick at the squirting dugs. They lowed about her whom they knew, dewsilky cattle. Silk of the kine and poor old woman, names given her in old times. A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer, their common cuckquean, a messenger from the secret morning. To serve or to upbraid, whether he could not tell: but scorned to beg her favour.

Nabokov, too, can enchant even the staunchest philistines with the opening lines of Lolita, while Melville was quoted by Captain Picard!

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Joseph Conrad cannot not be mentioned—

In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

While you should also have a look at Homer in the original Greek, and read it aloud, because his poetry is actually music, and rhymes not just at the ends of lines, but within the lines themselves:

tis t’ ar sphōe theōn eridi xuneēke makhesthai;
Lētous kai Dios huios

(http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0133 (display the text in Latin transliteration, every word is clickable!, I can read Greek but I don’t understand it)).

While Ovid is more playful and classical than Charles Boer’s amazing Imagist translation—

: old woods, never cut, cave in middle,
low rock-sided arch, lots of sedge
& willow, spring streaming forth: hideout
of the Snake of Mars! gold-scaled & fire-eyed,
body bloats poison: three tongues buzz
through three tooth-rows

a bad day, Cadmians, to set foot there!

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The Ecstasy of Reading (Flaubert)

Pieter_Bruegel_(Temptation_of_St_Antony)

If you have ever felt, upon reading some comment or review that complains about too much description in a given book, or too many difficult words, a feeling of disgust—if you have ever suppressed an urge to roll your eyes when someone you know wonders about the point of fiction, or dismisses entire genres out of hand—then you must stop reading this blog post right now and go devour The Temptation of St. Anthony.

Don’t let the book’s religious veneer fool you. This is a story that Gustave Flaubert (an ardent and lifelong atheist, skeptic, and misanthrope) conceived as a child, worked on his entire life, and finally published as an old man, a book that is itself about the struggle to read books and to write them—a book that brings to life all of the distractions that tempt us from the divine act of consuming the written word, and turns them into the most beautiful and eloquent monsters, embodiments of what Steven Pressfield calls “resistance“, which Flaubert himself conquered and destroyed by holing himself up in the country for almost his entire life to write pages, cross them out, rewrite them, and then read them aloud by shouting them at the top of his lungs while pacing his study (his bearskin rug) endlessly back and forth. Though he wrote for his entire life, his oeuvre is relatively small, and The Temptation is a slim volume, clocking in at under two hundred pages, with few paragraphs exceeding three sentences.

It is a grotesque fantasy. It is gorgeous science fiction. At one point the devil grabs St. Anthony, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, and lifts him up above the solar system, and then the galaxy itself, in an attempt to convince him that his religion is false, and that his obsession with words is pointless. (The attempt fails). There is a bizarre cinematic acid trip quality to the text as well, as monsters transform themselves into beautiful women, as the shadowed arms of a cross grow horns, and then, as the darkness deepens—

…suddenly in the air above there appear and disappear successively—first, a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple; a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing.

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes—outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

This is a novel written as an impossible play, but it’s really a film script, a proto-Borgesian distillation of all of western science, art, and philosophy, into a single very intense shot glass. Flaubert said he read something like a hundred and fifty books in preparation for writing this one; what’s more likely is that this man simply read and then reread everything worth reading, and that, when combined with his remarkable imagination, perhaps the most powerful (certainly the most chimerical) of any writer, the book leaped from his brain fully-armored in its front and back covers.

In a way it’s unfortunate that Flaubert is mostly remembered for Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, two books he wrote with the purpose of reigning in and controlling his imagination. In St. Anthony (and also in Salammbo) that imagination is completely unbounded, though not out of control; the book has a definite structure, and moves toward the best ending imaginable, a cyclical finale which is almost the same as in Bouvard and Pecuchet as well as Joyce’s unreadable Finnegans Wake. Just as the devil is defeated, just as the greatest speech in defense of art for its own sake is delivered—

O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life. I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting. I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl. Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell,—that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk,—make my body writhe,—divide myself everywhere,—be in everything,—emanate with all the odours,—develop myself like the plants,—flow like water,—vibrate like sound,—shine like light,—assume all forms—penetrate each atom—descend to the very bottom of matter,—be matter itself!

—Anthony resumes his devotions, and, one may imagine, opens his book just as at the beginning of the story, all while Temptation gathers its strength and prepares to assault him again.

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When The Storm Lay Gyeongju Low

My son and I were wandering the Bronze Age petroglyphs on the far side of the Hyeongsan River and the feeling in the air was already bizarre, as he had just pointed at one of the sheer cliffs and exclaimed “Buddha!”, despite having no apparent knowledge that the area was some kind of sacred fertility precinct thousands of years ago (in Korean it’s called “애기 청소 / Aegee Chungso / Baby-Washing”). The carvings on the rocks are visible if you look closely—I only discovered them after taking a picture, draining the colors, and then fiddling with the contrast—but I find it somewhat eerie that the boy found his own arcane way of sensing their spiritual significance. A nearby sign warns people, only in Korean, not to engage in shamanistic rituals, there are heaped-up graves watched over by broken tombstones carved with Chinese letters crowding the surrounding forests, and another nearby sign claims that all kinds of strange things have been seen here; that it was a retreat for poets as well as anti-Japanese guerrillas.

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We made our way up to Geumjangdae, a reconstructed Joseon-style pavilion overlooking the river, and discovered at once that ominous stormclouds were looming over the mountains. They looked like something out of Ghostbusters or Independence Day; the special effects that God chose to employ on that Sunday afternoon were indeed somewhat cheesy and not quite up to the new standard set by Pacific Rim, which I had seen only a few hours before (and which was so awesome I may go to see it again tomorrow (with earplugs))…

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The storm moved fast, with the billowing wind, and I had only a few moments to snap some pictures with my iPhone (while my son had only a few moments to run around screaming and playing with the other children) before we had to rush in under the safety of the pavilion’s jade roof. The darkness covered the city, and rain burst out of the gales.

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There were about two dozen Koreans inside the pavilion, both children and adults, and most of them were flustered by the rain. For whatever reason the people here generally despise getting even slightly wet, and will carry umbrellas around en masse even in the mistiest drizzles, or when there are just lots of harmless clouds in the sky; I hear they do the same thing in Japan to conform to the divine pronouncements of that country’s trustworthy meteorologists; inside the pavilion the adults were yelling at their kids to get away from the rain, yelling into their phones that it was raining, yelling at each other that the rain was coming, yelling as if their voices could drown out the downpour itself, while the children laughed and ran and screamed—my son among them.

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The thunder boomed and cracked, the rain rushed down into the leaves in waterfalls, and my smiling son jumped into my arms and shouted: “Helicopter!” As I rested against one of the red pillars (after snapping about a thousand pictures) to wait out the storm, sensing that it would be over quickly—since that which comes quickly, goes quickly—texting my wife, who was relaxing at home after six straight grueling days of caring for seniors with dementia, to reassure her that we had not been swept away by any tornados, an older Korean man approached me and asked me what I was doing there. I told him I worked as an English teacher at — University, and that I could speak Korean because I was married to a Korean woman; his twenty- or thirty-something son then approached me and declared rather quickly, with his hands on his hips, that he was a math professor at Toronto University, while his wife held down the same occupation at Northeastern.

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When the old man asked me where I had graduated, I tried to say that it was no use, since in four years of living here not one Korean I’ve spoken to has ever heard of Hampshire College—which, with its written evaluations, student-directed creative projects, and gradeless testless radical ideas, all set in a wide patch of idyllic farmland, is the absolute antithesis of the multiple-choice exams that plague the cement high-rises of Korea—and then when I finally did tell him, he, of course, didn’t know what I was talking about. His pretty daughter (in-law?), who was like the Asian version of Jim Carrey’s lost love in The Truman Show, then asked me what my major was, and after wondering if I should say history, creative writing, or Greek / Roman / 19th Century European Literature, I settled on “English Literature”, and she nodded, and that was the end of that.

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The rain seemed to be letting up, and I said it was nice meeting them, and then went on my way with my son, walking down the steps past the soaking foliage, to meet my wife, who was walking up toward us in flip-flops with a pair of umbrellas, having driven out in her noble chariot to rescue us from the tempest. My son seized one of these umbrellas, and then on the walk back down to the car my wife slipped and fell in the mud, coating her rear with what looked like fecal matter. This might have amused my son, who has spent every day of the last two years doing the same thing to his own nethers with real fecal matter, but he was too transfixed with the power of the brella, as he calls it, to notice.

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We got back home, and all the swelter and tension in the air had been exploded, torn up, and carried away, by the storm, which was then pouring over the mountains and far away. Cool breezes flowed into the windows from the blue night, and my son fell asleep at 7PM, overcome with excitement, sleeping twelve hours into the next morning, and giving me a chance to finish Salammbo and get started on The Temptation of St. Anthony, in which I soon read—

Immediately he is cloyed with orgiastic excesses, sated with fury of extermination; and a great desire comes upon him to wallow in vileness. For the degradation of that which terrifies men is an outrage inflicted upon their minds—it affords yet one more way to stupefy them; and as nothing is viler than a brute, Anthony goes up upon the table on all fours, and bellows like a bull.

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Book Report

Sorabol’s free promotion has ended, but it can be considered quite a success. It was at the top of two of amazon’s lists (Historical Fiction and Asian Myths I think…) and it was also around number 1,100 in the entire Kindle store, which isn’t bad at all considering the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of books available. A lot of people downloaded the book, far more than I ever expected, in fact; my writing has never really been read by more than a handful of readers, and I think that this ploy has increased my exposure. I may be experimenting with more giveaways in the future—since, at this point in my life, if I had to choose between being read and making money, I would definitely choose the first option over the second.

Thanks to everyone who decided to take a look at this book. I hope you enjoy it.

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Sorabol Free For The Weekend

My novel about medieval Korea, Sorabol, is free for the weekend. Please download and enjoy.

Don’t forget to check out the trailer, or learn more about my books here.

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That Horrible U

I’ve been submitting my book to agents and publishers over the last few weeks, and today I received my first rejection. The turnaround was so fast I’m not sure they even looked at my submission; their reply was sent just seventeen hours after my email, and, thinking I had nothing to lose (beyond the slight chance of being blacklisted by a publisher which doesn’t seem to be interested in me to begin with), I decided to ask them what had turned them off about my book—concerned that there was some glaring error in my query letter or some issue on the first page that I’ve missed—though I doubt they’ll respond.

Before I even opened the email I could tell that it was a rejection, because the first sentence was followed by a U, for Unfortunately. Oh what a painful U that was! I felt a physical stab in my gut thanks to that unfortunate U! It’s been years since I’ve been rejected by anyone: here was proof that someone somewhere disapproved of my work—beyond, of course, the vast, silent, cosmic indifference of the internet.

At first I found some solace in the fact that numerous successful writers have been rejected dozens of times before finally breaking through. Then, of course, there are the authors who do give up and move on to other things—perhaps millions for each one who succeeds—and on top of that there are countless published books that are never read by anyone. In short, by submitting my book, I am more or less asking for pain, suffering, humiliation, and defeat.

These are bad odds. These are sperm-level odds.

But the sperm can’t help but swim. The alternative—to ignore the urge to create, or to live as a coward, terrified of defeat—is so unbearable it is actually unthinkable. It goes inconceivably beyond that stab in the gut I felt when I saw that horrible U.

Those who do not try cannot win. Bring those rejections on. Give me another hundred. Another thousand. Let me print them out and stuff them under my bed in vast santa sacks. Let me grind them up and drink them for breakfast. They are my nectar and my ambrosia. I can’t live without them. Nor can I hope to succeed.

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How To Fight The Hellos

It’s always confused me, this occasional predilection Asia has for greeting non-Asians with an English hello—I was once helloed as faraway as the Balinese countryside, while riding on the back of a speeding motorbike, by a uniformed schoolchild—and though I can’t speak for the tone used in China, Japan, or other countries, my impression is that in Korea the speaker is generally attempting to alienate you from his culture, to establish that you are a member of a different tribe, to amuse his friends, or to sate a Pavlovian reflex implanted within his consciousness by his television or his elders: when you see a person who looks slightly different, you must say hello in English.

While living in Australia my Korean wife complained that people addressed her in Chinese or Japanese—never Korean—and though I know that Asians are subject to all sorts of racism back in America (do you know kung-fu? do you eat a lot of rice? / being passed over for promotion / getting good grades because of your tiger mom / rarely appearing in films that take place outside of ancient China / no, where are you from?), the least you can say is that they can usually walk the streets without being concerned about people regularly greeting them in languages other than English, though now that I think about it I bet that happens all the time.

In Korea I can remember the first time a stranger said hello to me. I was getting off a bus in Busan when a young man did it, and I, not knowing that he was trying to throw an insult my way, said hello back in a friendly tone. I even smiled and waved a little, like a perfect bumpkin used to the country life back in Maine, where people say hello to one another even if they’re strangers just to be nice, but here the man didn’t respond—he just laughed as his girlfriend yelped and hit him with her bag. Then they walked away.

This first hello fit into a general pattern. Young male, always in the company of friends, never alone, says hello, and then laughs snidely regardless of your response. If you are with a Korean, however, they will probably hold back from attacking you.

There are plenty of exceptions. Children sometimes say hello out of genuine curiosity, and will shift into Korean if you speak with them—“Are you a foreigner?” “I’m a human, like you.”—and a man once came up out of nowhere and shook my hand with genuine warmth; young women occasionally get in on the action for reasons beyond my comprehension.

For four years I endured the hellos without any retaliation. They always bothered me. I’m so sensitive that they would ruin my mood for hours. A hello would remind me that I am not welcome here, that I am not a part of this culture, that I am not expected to understand anything the people do here in the slightest, that I can never hope to be fully comfortable in this place.

My Korean wife finally demanded that I fight back. The first phrase she suggested was 한국말로 해라, hangook mal-lo hela, say it in Korean. In the case of laughing packs of high school boys, she said I should say: 임마, 왜 웃어? eem-ma, way u-saw, hey asshole, why are you laughing?, with the caveat that in their company one should probably just let it go, as there have been a number of crimes associated with high school kids beating the shit out of old people for perceived slights. So far as I know, foreigners have escaped their wroth, though I usually have to hold back from tearing off my clothes and charging into their ranks, kicking, screaming, spitting, and biting, whenever I see them prowling around the sidewalkless roads.

Another whining complaint is related to the egregious use of the term waygookin or waygook salam, foreigner, which drives me out of my mind. If you happen to feel the urge to comment on this post to remind me that other people don’t care about this shit, don’t bother, because I’m already way ahead of you—I don’t care. But, on the other hand, if you happen to be bothered by this somewhat inappropriate word used virtually whenever a non-Korean person appears on television or really anywhere at all, my indomitable wife, whose skeleton, Wolverine-like, was cast from liquid titanium (or whatever), has a few suggestions for you: when people start talking about you as if you can’t understand them, using the Korean word for foreigner, simply say: 외국인 왜요? 외국인 좋아요? 외국인 나빠요? Way-gook-een way-yo? Way-gook-een jo-ah-yo? Way-gook-een na-pa-yo? Why foreigners? Foreigners are good? Foreigners are bad? That should shut them up, and hopefully get them to think twice about using the term so shamelessly again.

I do think I discovered the source of the hellos. Although daycare is free, ubiquitous, and seemingly relatively decent in Korea—a friend’s awlineecheep even comes with a video camera he can access on the internet any time, to make sure no one is soiling his son’s virtue—most Korean families still insist on having their older and, usually, uneducated relatives take care of their young children every day. I’ve seen multiple old women shouting, swearing, and beating kids in public here, while a couple of weeks ago I had a remarkable encounter with an elderly halmoni who was walking around with a four-year old in a nearby apartment complex, where I was waiting for a special-session-that-must-not-be-named to start.

This crazy woman pointed at me and shouted, to her grandchild, in Korean: “Foreigner! Foreigner! Look! It’s a foreigner! Foreignerrrrrrr!” “Ajumma,” I said, after looking up, looking down, getting angry, and deciding to fight, “That’s rude. How would you feel if you went to a different country, and people started shouting that you were an Asian?”

Although my Korean is shaky at best, I think I got the point across, as she simply nodded and walked away with a frozen smile that said she utterly despised me—how dare you express the fact that you have a soul?!? I had a similar encounter at a nearby Starbucks, said something more or less the same, and actually got an apology from the inane mother who was mouthing off this bullshit in an attempt to entertain her infant spawn.

A lot of the time people aren’t aware that they’re acting like barbarians, or objectifying you; they do so with the warmest smiles, thinking that you enjoy playing the role of the bumbling idiot who stepped off the airplane five minutes ago—even after living here for four years. An ajumma at a decent restaurant I frequent asked me if it was okay for her daughter to say hello to me in English—asked me in Korean—and I told her that Korean was better. She said something like how that was ridiculous, her daughter (young, terrified, cowering behind her legs) was great at English, and then I tried and failed to add that Korean was more welcoming. I still don’t know exactly how to say that, but I think it may be close to 더 환영것같다. This woman has always been nice to me, but I could have added, if this were not the case, that I am not her daughter’s toy—just as my son is not the toy of the legions of young women who ask to get his picture taken almost whenever we venture outside.

A lot of you are going to say that I’m whining about nothing, but I don’t care. This is a big deal to me. When you say hello in Korean, that’s great, I love it, I’m happy to talk with you, regardless of who you are. When you say hello in English, you make me into an Other, you associate me with things that in reality I am only very loosely associated with, you objectify me, you exclude me, you turn me into a tool of your amusement, and in all likelihood you really need to shut the hell up.

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