White bird,

White dog,

White butterfly,

White gulls,

White fur,

White hair,

White pebble,

White bone,

White cabbage,

White grains,

White flakes,

White things,

We have all experimented like this. We have all thought this way about ourselves. Jotting down scribbles of pain and emotion and inner-life — paragraphs, sentences, phrases, single words that feel just too good to throw away. Little fragments of supposed genius. If you don’t grow out of it through your teenage years like most people, the appropriate thing to do, still, is to wait. …

Groggy and bruised, you wake up somewhere in the depths of a dark swamp. You have no memory, no sense of who you are or how you got there, and no indication or clues for how to get out. To make matters worse, as you are pulling yourself together you discover that you are also, now, blind.

Through the darkness and the fear, you wait, scared to move and hoping for some elegant form of rescue. And as you wait, things begin to get worse. …

It is loud, confusing, and everywhere. Ball bearings rattle and ricochet across bumpers, barriers and neon lights; bells, music, alarms and sirens explode with significance; the lever pressure-fires, the metal pellets launch into the maze, everything moves and everything is alive in noisy and unpredictable ways.

Each pull of the lever is a different bet and each ball a monetary value. Manage to run one across certain hoops, lights or buttons and you win bonus options; steer one into the impossibly hard to reach central pocket and you win a jackpot: more ball bearings. …

It’s late in the evening, and you are outside enjoying an early autumn walk. Suddenly you hear a sharp scream from the small lake beside you. In the shallow, waist-high water of Singer Pond you see a young child slowly drowning. You can easily wade-in to rescue the boy, but the water is thick with a horrible dark mud. Your new shoes will be ruined — there is no time to undo the laces and take them off. …

Soft, oblivious and selfish is how I remember him. Each week I would bump into him in the same bar, within the same group of friends. No one particularly disliked him — he was all too hopeless, too clueless, for such strong emotions. Unable to properly take an interest in other people or their lives, he pushed conversations toward himself, and when that failed he searched for people that could be separated from the crowd, people whose kindness made them easy prey. …

By unlucky chance I was living in Seoul when that fat old man started dancing. Soon anyone still young enough to enjoy such a thing was in on it. Street corners, train stations and shopping centres fast became improvised dance studios — drop a head of broccoli in your shopping cart and groove your way down the aisle toward the next thing on your list. Everybody was trying it and no one seemed much ashamed… nor proud. Gangnam Style was just another catchy song, with low-hanging choreography; and Psy just another middle-of-the-road singer.

Then suddenly the energy began to shift…

It was a new and changing country. The heroes of old novels and propaganda — toiling with brute force against weather, invasion, and internal enemies — wouldn’t work anymore. The gears of revolution were slowly shifting into a new, more subtle age that valued “technology”, “education” and “brainpower”. This was 1988… in Pyongyang!

And what an ominous moment to be alive in that corner of the world. In the right light, at the right angle, and with the wrong eyes, it was still possible to get the sense that the North was winning.

Below the Imjin River, down the banks…

It was early May, 2001, and a paunchy man with a delicate manicure was struggling off a flight at Japan’s Narita Airport. His wife and children — less fleshy, less plump — followed impatiently behind him. All four were travelling under Chinese aliases on forged Dominican Republic passports. Sweating in the early summer heat, and wearing pink-tinted sunglasses, the man sat, exhausted, waiting for his designer luggage to hit the carousel.

None of them made it through immigration, and all were deported back to China after three days of arrest. Pleading for the Japanese authorities to change their minds, the…

…Chairman Kim has a great and beautiful vision for his country, and only the United States, with me as President, can make that vision come true. He will do the right thing because he is far too smart not to, and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump!

That was our North Korea policy.”

It’s easy to hate John Bolton! He just has that type of manner about him, that type of un-connectable personality and reputation… that type of face! …

People live here, just like anywhere else” — hearing this spoken aloud, especially from a mother showing her son their new home, does something strangely familiar. With so little written, so much is said! It burns the mind in uncomfortable ways, without knowing why, or what, is happening exactly.

Small, instinctive turns like this fill the prose of Hwang Sok-yong, most of which slip-by unseen and detached from the impact that they are having. Hwang writes almost in the negative spaces of description — the less he lays out on the page, the closer and more emotional the reader feels…

Jed Lea-Henry

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store