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In The New York Review’s October 21, 2021 issue, Ed Park reviews a new selection of works by the Korean modernist writer Yi Sang. An avant-garde poet, story writer, visual artist, and architect, Yi Sang was born in 1910, just after Korea became a Japanese colony, and died at the age of twenty-six. In his essay, Park writes about Yi Sang’s short life, his legacy, and how the writing of this “enigmatic outlaw and culture hero…crystallizes the anxiety of Korea under Japanese rule in the first half of the twentieth century.”
The author of the 2008 novel Personal Days, Park is also a journalist, a former executive editor at Penguin Press, and a founding editor of The Believer. As a writer and editor, Park defines both vocations as being about “discovery and enthusiasm,” working to entice readers into a new world. “As an editor, I liked it when writers opened my eyes to their passions, however obscure they might seem,” he told us via e-mail this week. “As a writer, I think I want to do the same thing.” Park, therefore, attempts to recreate the same feeling of “surprise and delight” in his editors and readers, consistently aiming to “tell a good story.”
It is with this mantra that Park links his fiction and nonfiction writing. Telling a good story may be “obvious when it comes to fiction,” he says. “But I try to do the same in articles and reviews—locate a plot and follow through.” When we asked him about his recent reviews of Yi Sang’s books for the Review and the Netflix drama Squid Game for The New Yorker, and the challenges that come with reviewing different types of art, Park explained:
The basic approaches are the same. You definitely have to know the history and context of a given medium or genre. In addition to fiction and (in the case of Yi Sang) poetry, I’ve been doing a regular column for The New York Times Book Review on graphic novels, which have their own rich tradition, their own movements and mavericks.
Really, I am a fan of so many different art forms and would love to write about them all. At this point, it’s an issue of not having enough time to take everything in.
Although Park has been working in publishing and journalism for years, he admits to occasionally having difficulty knowing where he stands. When discussing the attention in his recent work to a uniquely Korean-American experience, as opposed to the generic immigrant narratives American literature has just begun to depart from, Park says he has not yet resolved where he belongs within this cultural evolution.
“I’ve been writing for a long time now, fiction and nonfiction, and it can be hard to sense what changes have taken place in literary culture, and where exactly I fit in,” he said. “I should add that most of my stories over the years haven’t been about Asians or Koreans, though lately I seem to be writing more things along those lines.” Park explains that while he does not want ethnic identity to limit his scope, the opportunity to explore these topics does have a “deeper resonance” for him. Despite there being more high-profile Asian-American writers today, he is still often “the only visibly Asian name in a magazine’s table of contents,” he noted. “I suppose as a writer and an editor, it’s been meaningful having my name out there for such a long time. It’s not a very long name—maybe I should have gone with “Edward” from the start—but perhaps it means something to somebody.”
Park’s interest in Korean history and culture was largely inspired by his parents: “Having been born in America, I’ve always been curious about my parents’ lives before they came here in the late 1960s. This fascination has only increased as I’ve gotten older.” Park’s father, a retired psychiatrist in Buffalo, often acts as a cultural bridge for him. Occasionally his father will look for Korean articles online to help him with his research. “I like to joke that he’s my research assistant,” he said. His father’s knowledge also came in handy for Park’s review of Yi Sang in the Review. “I was reading the new Selected Works and other translations, but I’d occasionally bounce a couple versions off of him.”
Here, Park’s father made an intriguing discovery in the translation:
My dad looked at one of Yi Sang’s infamous “Crow’s Eye View” poems for me—the one with a backward grid of numbers. According to my father, the Chinese characters that Yi Sang used to write “that’s all”—right before his signature at the end of the poem—would have been pronounced, in Korean, as “yi sang.” These aren’t the same characters he used to write his pen name, to be clear, but they sound the same—a further doubling or mirroring at the end of a poem that’s a grid of backward (mirrored) numbers. My admiration for Yi Sang itself doubled upon learning this.
Park’s admiration began twenty years ago, when he discovered Yi Sang’s work in Myong Hee Kim’s translations. “I found it so puzzling and strange,” he said. “I liked the total weirdness of it, and was fascinated by the wild, brief life that he lived.” For Park, each of Yi Sang’s works demonstrates a different side of him: “For someone who lived such a short life, he seemed positively oceanic, limitless. How to make sense of such an artist?” The Selected Works, especially, helped Park understand Yi Sang’s career as an architect: “The more I read, the more fleshed out he became,” he said, and his fascination goes beyond literary appreciation alone. The poignancy of Yi Sang’s early death from tuberculosis, he realizes, had also exerted “a pull on me over the years.” As he recalls in a footnote to his review, Park’s paternal grandmother had also died of TB, just a year after Yi Sang did.
Park now has a second novel in the works, Same Bed, Different Dreams (a title taken from an old Korean saying), but we wondered how he now viewed the central concern of his 2008 fiction debut—the intimate details of officer-workers’ anxious lives—in light of today’s pandemic-related remote-working environment. “Despite the inevitable time-capsule vibe [of Personal Days],” said Park, “the basic human story of people brought together by the happenstance of employment still rings true, even in today’s more WFH-friendly world.”