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Lagos, Nigeria

Yi Sang’s House – by Don Mee Choi

In December of 2016, I was able to spend a month in Seoul on a translation residency funded by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. I stayed in downtown Seoul, next to the Gwanghwamun Square and the beautiful Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces I used to run around in with my siblings when I was a child. I was also within walking distance of Yi Sang’s House. Yi Sang (1910-1937), trained as an architect, was an influential avant-garde poet and writer. He lived here from age one to twenty-three, raised by his well-off uncle and aunt. The building itself is not the original structure, but this site was where his uncle’s house used to stand. I thought the design of the house beautifully mirrored the interiority of Yi Sang’s and his protagonists’ psyche—his protagonists are often idle, penniless, tuberculosis-ridden artists, holed up in dark rooms. Yi Sang himself died from TB at the young age of 27, in Tokyo.

As you walk through the front glass door, you see a dark, metal door that opens up to an almost pitch-dark chamber. Poet Kim Hyesoon, who accompanied me to Yi Sang’s House, pointed out that this dark space used to be an attic. In traditional Korean houses, in the main room of the house where guests are also received, there is a sliding paper door that opens up to an attic. Traditionally, the main room was where men sat and performed their scholarly duties, but who knows what they really did while women toiled away, cleaning up after their mess. It could be thought of as a living room, but, for my family, it turned into a bedroom at night. The attic is an ideal space for any child. I spent many hours gazing down at our tiny courtyard from the attic window because everyone and everything looked so different from that vantage point. During summers, I pressed my tummy against the cool, bare floor of the attic and read for hours, trying to forget about the heat.

Inside the attic chamber, slides of Yi Sang’s work, including his drawings, were projected onto a wall. Experimentalist Yi Sang and his contemporaries were strongly influenced by European Modernism, particularly Dadaism and Surrealism, which came to be introduced in Korea mostly through Japanese translation during the occupation (1910-1945). One of his protagonists, who is Yi Sang himself, mentions Cocteau and says that he used to order postcards from the International Modern Art Exhibitions held in Tokyo.

In both of the short stories, “Spider&SpiderMeetPigs” and “True Story-Lost Flower,” Yi Sang utilizes Korean transliteration of English and French words, which was thought to be a radical thing to do at the time. But writing and publishing in Korean was even more of a radical thing. Writing and publishing in Korean signaled a political opposition, a literary resistance to the Japanese colonial rule. I was initially introduced to Yi Sang’s stories through my father’s love of his stories. He told me several times that he read Yi Sang late into the night in order to forget about his hunger, that Yi Sang’s stories helped him through his bleak childhood. Yi Sang’s stories are bleak too, yet there is also much humor and satire in them through self-mockery. My father must have identified with Yi Sang’s helpless, emaciated, hungry, male artist figures who somehow managed to get through another drab day. 

As the resented child of a second marriage, my father was shunned, ill fed, and made to sleep in the maid’s room. A fairy tale, indeed. While the maid darned a sock placed over a light bulb, my father read books in Japanese. To keep reading late into the night, he had to translate to her what he was reading. And to avoid the nuisance and difficulty of translating, he offered her just brief synopses and told her that he could tell her more only if he kept on reading. For me, translation began with translating for my mother in Hong Kong. I dreaded it. I dreaded exposing my inadequacies, my failures in language. Translation for me then was, and it still is to some degree, a painfully repetitive journey of farewell and return, between home and elsewhere, between Korean and my frayed English. Only much later, I learned that cultural imperialism uses language to produce failure, inferiority. As a child from a neocolony of the U.S., I had already failed even before I set foot onto the British colony. Unlike my father, I didn’t know how to cheat my way out of translation. I could only mumble and sulk.

For Yi Sang and my father, Japanese was their colonial language as English is a colonial language for me. We did not choose it; it chose us, historically, and that’s the nature of a colonial language. It finds you. It can even track you down via the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system and make a foreigner out of you in your own country, which is to say, your home is no longer your home. How else could you explain a golf course instantly turning into a military installation site for THAAD? (A fairy tale, indeed.) And you remain as a colonial subject within or without. Hence, the most poignant thing I noticed while translating Yi Sang was how his protagonists were coping with their homesickness in Tokyo as well as at home in Seoul. Yi Sang’s use of foreign words signals homesickness, a state of perpetual colonial exile. I am self-trained, but well trained, nevertheless, in detecting homesickness. I rely on my attic vantage point when translating. And translation is a coping mechanism for homesickness, my wings of return.

I also know how to detect dread, fairy-tale dread. Yi Sang’s stories are essentially colonial fairy tales. In “Spider&SpiderMeetPigs,” a husband and wife are spiders, living in a room “as tiny as a satsuma orange box” filled with spider stench and garbage. We know that they are fairy-tale spiders by the fact that spider husband despises household goods. Any average spider would revel in spinning its cobwebs amidst household clutter. And his wife is also a fairy-tale spider in her own right—her socks change seasonally and she jumps at any chance of buying new clothes despite getting tossed out and bruised by humanity. “Spider and spider, spider and spider? Sucking on each other?” Spider husband, hopelessly weak from TB, lives off his spider wife, a barmaid who entertains and lends her scrawny body to pigs, colonial capitalist investors. Spider husband dreads leaving his room. He dreads the outside world. When he goes out, he suffocates from “wall after wall stuck to the buildings” and “all the shut windows”—the new modern space that has emerged under the occupation. By rule, colonial space is a confined, compressed space. That’s how human, natural, financial resources are extracted and exploited. “AsifconversingwithsomeonehegesturedwithhisarmsandcircledaroundthepaperthinwallsofAIn-vesmentswonderingwhat’sinside.” Hence, Yi Sang’s sentences are also compressed, deprived of air, barely leaving any gaps between words, syllabically speaking. And if there is any hint of air, it’s “noordinaryair.” These syllabic silks are spun within the spider couple’s claustrophobic fruit-box-like room, and the silks extend all the way out to investment offices. The office walls are covered in graph paper like cobwebs, “paintedupanddownwithredandbluelines.” How would a pair of scrawny husband and wife spiders survive and resist under the colonial rule if not for silk language? Yi Sang’s silk language is essentially a fairy-tale language under a particular fairy-tale condition, which still persists today, more or less, under a different imperial domination that overpowers even the former colonial occupier. A fairy-tale, indeed. Translating Yi Sang involves unraveling and respinning his syllabic silks. Translators can and should change socks seasonally. We can even darn “browncoloredfurrysocks.”    

One of the stories that my father still remembers from his childhood is a tale about someone living utterly alone in such destitution that the walls of his room had no wallpaper—they were covered in newspaper instead. In Nagisa Oshima’s Death by Hanging (film, 1968)—a great work of satire that confronts Japan’s imperial legacy and its discrimination against Zainichi Koreans—an execution chamber turns into a living room. (An incredible fairy-tale scene.) A Korean family is living in such abject poverty that their living-room walls are covered in newspaper. A while back, when I first attempted reading Yi Sang’s poems, I sent my father photocopies of the poems from Crows-Eye View and asked him to decipher for me the Chinese characters Yi Sang utilized. My father sent back the photocopied pages with his meticulous notes, each character numbered and explained. For his daughter, he didn’t try to cheat his way out of translation. I used the pages my father returned to me as wallpaper for Yi Sang’s dark attic. Inside, there is a narrow staircase that takes you up to a tiny balcony, just big enough for a child or a bird.   

***This essay is included in the forthcoming Yi Sang: Selected Works (Wave Books, Sep 2020).


This piece of poetry appear first in Poetry Foundation before I shared it here.

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