May’s Monthly Memo – October

It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

I am
at work, though I am silent.

The bland

misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an alley

lined with trees; we are

companions here, not speaking,
each with his own thoughts;

behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms

somehow deserted, abandoned,

as though it were the artist’s
duty to create
hope, but out of what? what?

the word itself
false, a device to refute
perception— At the intersection,

ornamental lights of the season.

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

the same world:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.

— October (5), Louise Gluck

Louise Gluck received the 2020 Nobel Prize for Literature earlier this month for “her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” There is always hubbub and controversy surrounding the prize, no matter whom it goes to, so I feel like I pay less attention to it every year. Nonetheless, Gluck’s October feels especially resonant this month. The poems (you can read the other parts here) are heavy with grief, violence, and despair, which are unfortunately relevant moods for a month saturated with pandemic and polls–related anxiety. The poem acknowledges both hope and hopelessness, which seem to receive equal weight throughout the sequence—but I particularly like how this section ends by personifying the poem as a companion. This month, I also felt like language, literature, and art illuminated tunnels for me.

It’s easy to assume by default that nothing much happens these days (we’re working from home and staying at home, there’s nothing new), but if I really cast my memory back to the first of October I’m inclined to conclude that it was a comparatively eventful month. Cynthia flew back to Taiwan, a country that just surpassed 200 days without a locally-transmitted COVID-19 case. From what I’ve heard from my sister, mom, and aunt about their experience landing and quarantining in Taiwan, it’s not difficult for me to see why Taiwan has so successfully contained the pandemic. This month the ALTA conference that I’d been preparing for also took place, and I had the opportunity to present some of my translations of Chung Kwok-keung’s work on two free panels. Although in a pandemic-free timeline I could have been in Arizona for the conference, I must say that the virtual format worked surprisingly well! It allowed folks who normally could not have attended the conference to tune in, and from a presenter’s perspective, I also felt less nervous because I could present from the comfort of my own home. Kevin and I have also been busy making crosswords this month, and 10 of our puzzles were recently featured on the Redstone Games’ mobile app, which you can download here (Android / iPhone). As a kid, I never thought that I’d one day be paid for translation and crosswords, and I’m both grateful for these opportunities while hyper-aware of the privilege that affords me these possibilities. Finally, I’m pleased to say that my Korean learning has continued this month! Which brings me to…

🎬 I watched three K-dramas this October! Heads up: I am about to ramble extensively about them so feel free to skip ahead if you aren’t interested… 1) Legend of the Blue Sea is a love story about a con-artist (Lee Min-ho) and mermaid (Jun Ji-hyun) who meet in present-day South Korea, but have actually crossed paths before—in the Joseon era. The mermaid has superhuman strength and can erase people’s memories with a single touch, but must learn how to survive on land. LOTBS was written by the same writer who wrote Crash Landing on You (so I had high expectations), and it was rewarding and amusing to see how similar tropes recur in both dramas. 2) The King: Eternal Monarch is set in two parallel worlds: the Republic of Korea and the fictional Kingdom of Corea. Lee Min-ho plays Lee Gon, the King of Corea, who owns half of a magical flute (his traitorous uncle owns the other half) that allows him to travel between worlds. He accidentally travels to the Republic of Korea and meets Jung Tae-eul (Kim Go-eun), a police officer whose ID card he has had since he was a child. If all that sounds confusing, it’s because the show is actually kind of hard to follow. But overall TKEM rewards viewers who enjoy theorizing, forgive plot holes, tolerate incessant product placement, are good at remembering faces (lots of dopplegangers), and stan Lee min-ho. Finally, I watched 3) Goblin, the show that in part influenced me to watch TKEM in the first place (same writer and same actress, Kim Go-eun). Goblin (also translated as Guardian: The Lonely and Great God), follows the story of a 939-year-old goblin (dokkaebi 도깨비), his fated bride Ji Eun-tak (Kim Go-eun), a grim reaper, and the owner of a BBQ Olive Chicken store named Sunny. The Goblin can only die when the sword that “killed” him, which is still stuck in his chest, is removed by his bride. Of course, things get complicated when he falls in love with Eun-tak and realizes he doesn’t want to die anymore if it means they can’t be together. Another complication is that Eun-tak herself is a “miscellaneously omitted person,” someone who escaped death once (the goblin saved her pregnant mother) and thus will always be followed by it (also, she can see ghosts). And on top of all this, there is a ~reincarnation~ story line that ties the past and present together. Overall, it’s a remarkably beautiful story about love, friendship, fate, and forgiveness. Particularly through the grim reaper’s storyline, the show explores moving questions about mortality and memory. Of all the dramas I’ve watched so far, none of them has made me cry as much as Goblin—I honestly sobbed through the last three episodes. So. Good!!

If there is one theme that is absolutely paramount in all the K-dramas I’ve seen so far, it’s FATE, 운명. The signposting is transparent; in Goblin, Eun-tak even wears a necklace with the French word Destin on it. The idea that those who are fated to meet will always find their way back to each other is particularly pronounced in LOTBS and Goblin, which both have storylines that include reincarnated lovers. And the idea that fate is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem also comes across in TKEM. Are two people fated to meet because of what happens in the past, or what happens in the future that in a roundabout way also affects the past? 🤷

I find it interesting to compare the K-dramas I watched with another show Kevin and I finished this month, The Good Place. The Good Place explores the theme of mortality through a hypothetical afterlife in which you either go to “The Good Place” or “The Bad Place” depending on how many points you “earned” for being a good person in life. The show champions the idea that no matter how many mistakes you’ve made, you can always strive to be a better version of yourself. The characters in The Good Place get “rebooted” over and over again, and while it’s not quite “reincarnation,” the same four friends always end up together again. But interestingly, this is not framed as a result of “fate” or “destiny.” The notion of a “soulmate” is also first introduced, and then later dismissed (although perhaps not entirely). At one point, Eleanor (protagonist played by Kristen Bell) wonders whether free will truly exists in a world where everything is determined by factors outside one’s own control, even in the afterlife. The show is warm, clever, and ferociously funny. It would be nice if a “Good Place” really does exist!

📚 I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation this month; I loved Offill’s Last Things, so was looking forward to reading another book by her. Truthfully, though, while the prose in the book is compact and graceful, I felt like the novel overall was lacking “umph.” It’s a portrait of marriage, motherhood, and balancing the writer-domestic life, but I felt like its speaker was too “invisible.” Maybe this was the point? I might have felt differently if I encountered the book later in life.

I did finally get round to reading Cathy Park Hong’s powerful Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. The book falls into one of my favorite genres, the mishmash of cultural criticism and personal essay. In the book, Hong interrogates the position of Asian Americans in the US by looking at poetry, her own life, and history. In particular, I found the chapters of the book where Hong talks about the legacy of poet Theresa Hak Kyung Cha most moving and haunting. Cha was a poet and artist best known for her 1982 book Dictee. But an aspect of her life that is often silenced, although not in Hong’s book, is her brutal death—just a week after Dictee was published, Cha was raped and murdered.

So much of the book made me feel indignant and sad. But there were also moments that felt so resonant, even comforting. Here’s one example:

English is our ever-expanding neoliberal lingua franca, the consumer language of brand recognition and outsourced labor. The more developing the nation, the more in need that nation is of a copy editor.

The book’s title comes from literary critic Sianne Ngai, who “wrote extensively on the affective qualities of ugly feelings, negative emotions—like envy, irritation, and boredom—symptomatic of today’s late-capitalist gig economy. Like ugly feelings, minor feelings are ‘non-cathartic states of emotion’ with ‘a remarkable capacity for duration.'”

Minor feelings occur when American optimism is forced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think, Things are the same. You are told, ‘Asian Americans are so successful,’ while you feel like a failure.

Hong also frames minor feelings in terms of literary forms; “because minor feelings are ongoing, they lend themselves more readily to forms and genres that are themselves serial, such as the graphic novel or the serial poem”—or, I wonder…the blog post? Lol…

🎶 My playlist this month just has been more Korean songs, with the addition of some Blackpink hits (I just watched their documentary last night)!

💬 My word of the month has to be fate. How are constructs of face thrust upon us, and how do we challenge or embrace those circumstances? Much to think about.

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