From Zola to Korea

Gisaeng Dancing on Gwanwhamun Plaza Seoul 2012A letter to my sixteen year-old self

My dear Josée,

What I remember most clearly about being sixteen is wondering who I was and who I would become. The answer seems quite simple now, plain to see in the books you read, the music you listen to, what you write and even what you draw.

At twelve you devoured the collected works of Jules Verne. At sixteen you’re into Emile Zola: thick tomes, complex stories, vivid descriptions and thought-provoking scenes. Passion. Social commentary on class differences and most of all, heroines who will settle for nothing but what is real and what is just. The novels are not what your friends read and they are not, God forbid, required reading at school. The nuns frown on Monsieur Zola. His books are branded as immoral by the Church. Immoral? Well, yes, Nana, the man-eater will be immoral when you get around to reading her story, but not Angélique in The Dream with her religious zeal, not Catherine who toils in the coal mines of Germinal, and certainly not Denise who works at the The Ladies’ Paradise department store to feed her two brothers.

Just as books are an integral part of your life, so is music. Switch on the radio and before the afternoon is over, I’m sure you will turn up the volume for Color My World by Chicago, with its dreamy romanticism, and Lay Lady Lay by Dylan, with its troubling invitation and just as troubling tenderness. You will get up from your chair and waltz to What the World Needs Now, but when the DJ plays Ball of Confusion you will hold your breath to try and follow the rapid-fire lyrics.

You are the sum of these books and songs, by turns idealistic, optimistic, individualistic, passionate, confused and, most of all, romantic. You are in love with the idea of love and yet as uncompromising as Zola’s heroines. Your brothers say that no one will ever be interested in you. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Well, never mind that silly saying. Do you remember a drawing you made in grade four? You still have it somewhere, I am sure. Look for a young man with a foreign slant to his eyes, The Jade Prince, named for the shade of Prismacolor you used for his jacket. Figment of your imagination or premonition? All I can say is that your brothers will eat their words.

People say many things about words, that they have the power to destroy and heal, and the power to change the world. You wrote: Les mots vous livrent et vous délivrent. Words betray you; they set you free. In French, livre also means book: Words “book” you and “un-book” you, or something to that effect.

You have tinkered with the idea of writing a book but it is such a monumental task that you have abandoned each attempt after only a few chapters. How do real writers do it? My sense is that they are, or were, geniuses. In 2014—such is progress—we have personal computers and we use them for computing, yes, but also for writing. I have written this letter not on a typewriter, as might appear to you, but on a computer and I can tell you this: it may look nice and polished but I have re-written at least one word out of every three. I have moved text around. I have deleted whole sentences and brought them back after realizing that they were needed after all.

That said, a computer does not a writer make and you are fated to walk a different path … for a time. What that path is, I will let you discover, but one day, many years from now, something unexpected will happen. It will start innocently enough with a television series that would never have come to your attention but for your best friend, your lover, your husband, your Jade Prince who, incidentally comes from Hong Kong. The year is 2005 and a portion of the world is captivated by the trials and tribulations of a semi-fictitious woman named Jang Geum who lived in sixteenth century Korea. She is everything Zola’s heroines were, and more.

Jang Geum will be just the beginning. By the time you write this letter you will have logged over 4,000 hours absorbing what makes the people of South Korea sweat, swear and shed tears, through books, magazines, film and television. You will have learned some basic Korean and visited the country twice. And for the past seven years, you will have been writing a novel set in Korea. It is a monumental task, no questions about it, a journey fraught with contrary winds, course changes and bodies thrown overboard, otherwise known as killing your darlings.

How does it end? I don’t know. I’m not there yet. All I can say is that it’s worth every second spent navigating the rocky shoals of mixed metaphors, telling rather than showing, tired clichés and the dreaded adverbs that others kindly point out are “not needed.” At times it is worse than rolling a boulder up a hill but at other times the story seems to write itself. You are merely a conduit. Your characters—your creations!—take you in directions that you had never imagined. Links you had never intended get forged. And they seem so right, so inevitable.

See how I get carried away! Writer’s high.

But now it is time to say Goodbye. I wanted to tell you what I thought you longed to know—who you were, whether you’d find love, what you would become. I see now that it’s the other way around. You are the one who told me, reminded me, what I longed to know. Les mots vous livrent et vous délivrent. Words have betrayed me by telling the world who I am and freed me to be myself: idealistic, optimistic, individualistic, romantic, confused, and most of all, passionate.

Thank you.



WRL Season 3-4 Thumbnail   This letter was read at the Women Writing Letters Series on April 13th, 2014 and appears in Women Writing Letters: Celebrating the Art Seasons 3 and 4, edited by Tara Goldstein and Amanda Greer. Copies are available here.

WRL Season 1 Thumbnail  For Season 1, click here.

WRL Season 2 Thumbnail  For Season 2, click here.


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