English degree & reading fiction

I went down (what I think of as) the typical path of an “avid” reader starting a university degree in English/American literature.
I read a lot before starting the degree, three or four times the amount of books I am probably going to read this year (=hopefully 50). Once I started studying English (and a bunch of other things), I still read a lot, but 80% of the books were comfort reads: books I have read before, books without complicated narrative structure, fast-paced books, and ultimately books which allowed me to shut out the reality for a couple of hours.
A few semesters into the degree, throw in some massive anxiety show-downs about the future career (now that I had run away from the “secure” law degree), linguistic melt-down due to my omnivorous appetite for learning languages, and a major identity crisis on cultural/linguistic basis, and you have a former reader who doesn’t read much.

In the past 15 months, I’ve read 35 books that were not assigned reading.
In the past three years, I’ve read 23 full-length novels and plays, dozens of short stories, a handful of poems, and countless academic articles for classes (which really isn’t a lot, for three literature degrees combined). Among them, there were famous books, best-selling books, thought-books and problematic ones, but none of them allowed me to sink into their world and just absorb, which was how I used to read.

I suppose my reasons for reading have changed after three years of analytic approach to narratives. I used to read for the immersive experience that let me become somebody else, for the surge of emotions hitherto unknown to me, for the fictitiousness of it all. I used to decide on my favorite books mostly based on feelings: the ones evoking the strongest emotions in me were my favorites. In hindsight, what a romantic approach to reading it was!
Strangely, however, the books from past few years that are lingering the most on my mind are books I had a lukewarm attitude toward while reading, books that were confusing and not exciting, books whose fictitious reality faded away the moment I put them down. Among them I count Come to Me by Amy Bloom, Our Town by Thornton Wilder, Dance of the Happy Shade by Alice Munro, The Love Object by Edna O’Brien, I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou and Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones.

Why do we read?

I think it’s an important question a reader should ask themself more often. I’ve been thinking lately that I want to read and re-read good books. Now, “good” is a totally anti-academic description that has no place in a term paper, but my personal requirements for “good” books are that they are written beautifully or extraordinarily (in literal sense), that they do not have a simple message of “this is good, that is bad”, that they teach me new things, and that they linger.

After three years of reading while looking out for narrative techniques, metaphors, character inconsistencies and so on, I have become unable to “simply read”. My reading pace has slowed down considerably and I have stopped accepting the finished book as the god/dess beyond reproach.
I used to resist every step of this change in my reading behavior, and – ironically enough – almost at the end of my university career, I have finally arrived at a place where I can live with this new version of reader and can even think of some perks this might bring into my life.

To be honest, though, this is rather an inevitable legacy of a literature degree and not the most profound discovery I have made in the last three years.
I still believe that I have run away from law degree three years ago. But at the same time, studying Humanities has allowed me the time, room and tools to deal with my anxiety, to get to know my bad habits better, to be wary of everything, to realize how intolerant, stubborn and hypocritical I am, and, most preciously, to recover my Korean roots and to stop running away from the task of digging up past memories and acquiring new knowledge about my and my family’s country.
Since I am such a scaredy cat, I didn’t make full use of everything my university has to offer, but in the past few semesters I was fortunate enough to (re)discover my interest in acting and theater, in translation, in creative writing, in editing texts, in anime, in Japanese, Dutch and Russian.

One more week of the summer semester to push through! (Followed by an intense semester break in which I have to write numerous term papers, again.) I suppose I’ll go read some good books now.


Languages are dangerous

We can’t live without them.

They are so incomplete, so imperfect, but they are the only tool we have to express even a fraction of what we desire to share with others.

Word vomit.

It’s funny, that. We cough, hack up and spew mountains of sounds that are somehow supposed to make sense.

Think about it. I dare you to suppress your howl of frustration.

Language games, Lyotard said. Yes, with our sanity on stake.

You forget, you slip, whooshing toward the unknown, and if there is no net of words to catch you, you continue to fall until you don’t even notice it anymore.

I am greedy. I could cling on to the sturdiest rope, building on it and repairing it, but I am greedy. I hop and panic between several strands, unwilling to let go of any.

There is no answer. It’s a slow walk to madness, anyway. There is only one thing that does not belong in this journey, and that’s fear. Fear, Angst, 두려움, 恐れ, страх, vrees, peur.

Decide to leave them behind.
버려라. 그딴 거 필요 없어.

We are brittle, ashamed, and human

When you live in solitude long enough, there comes a time when you recognize who you truly are. “True”, in the sense “unobscured by others”.

I am not used to taking care of myself. I have more to do since I have to do everything. I am lonely.

In the beginning you could use the solitude as an excuse. But one day you will realize… this is who you are when you are on your own. When everyone has been hidden away from you. When you don’t have anyone to rely on to give you a role, a script, a mask. When you are left alone, vulnerable.

This is who you truly are.

Without any imput from the outside, you become both numb and overly sensitized. With the hard shell holding everything together stripped away, inside the crumbling mess you find pieces of yourself you had hidden away so that no one can see it. Weaknesses. Embarrassment. Shame. Disgust. Surrender and hopelessness.

Fall apart.
So easily… fallen apart.

No one can know. Because if they knew, and they rejected you, you couldn’t live with the pain. Because if they knew, and they embraced you, you will fall apart into pieces. Even now, you are waiting for someone to pick you up and tell you that they love you the way you are. Even now, when you have hidden yourself away from everyone.

Hide. Don’t hide.
Give up. Don’t give up.

Empty. A corpse is so empty and so cold. A lifeless thing. No pain, no pleasure. Give the knife in your pocket a reassuring pat and gather up. Go on living… because life is whatever you think it is. Find comfort in life, in death – wherever you can, however you can. According to your own compass that you build and take apart, build and take apart…

Alone… Together.

November 2016 – Part II

Friday, November 18th
… Everything is falling apart. The great deconstruction has begun, and I don’t even know why I am doing anything anymore. To forget that, I’ve been medicating myself with The L Word, and now I have to be back in the real world, and I don’t know how to act. Everything feels unreal, and all I can think about is me, me, me. So self-centered…

Sunday, November 20th
… I hate the dark. I can’t believe I forgot how much I hate the dark. … Maybe it’s my winter blues again, but I’m fed up with obsessing about sex & relationship. … I look around & no one in my circle of acquaintances has a functioning relationship. The majority of the people I know lose themselves in the relationship or stay with people who makes them feel insecure & anxious. So far I can see that relationships are not only pain in the ass but also a huge energy-sucking distraction. …

Monday, November 21st
… Along with the will to push forward with my plan despite all the uncertainty is the desire to hide & run away for another degree. The desperation shouting, I’ll stay in Germany! The instinct for immediate security warring against the intuition for risks. Risks I can even consider taking because of my privileges.
I realized that I don’t know humans. I don’t understand them, what is going through their minds, what makes them do certain things.
All these years, I’ve looked at them through the lens of all the narratives I’d gobbled down. But the people in the books are simpler. Less conflicted. They change, or adapt to change, easily. They have two or three big traits that define them – bold, funny, soft-hearted, nice, aloof, insecure, etc. – and none of them has a dusty collection of tiny characteristics that are clumped & dumped together like abandoned toys. They are single-minded in their pursuit, so sure of who they are. They get over traumas easily without having a relapse. They never have socially awkward conversations (unless being awkward is one of their traits) with strangers/acquaintances/friends. Other people trust & like them so easily that I am green with envy. They are rarely lazy. Sometimes there are genuinely nice characters whose niceness doesn’t vanish no matter what is done to them.
They are not humans. They are created by humans as some sort of idols, similar enough to humans but ultimately too good to be real. None of them are messy, disgusting, abhorrent, conflicted about the smallest and the biggest thing.
It’s not easy to be loyal and vulnerable. It’s difficult as fuck to stay true to yourself or even to find yourself. It’s hard to escape the feeling of being an outsider, warranted or not. It’s probably normal to hate the world & everyone in it, because they all sicken you without any reason. We think about, like, and do certain disgusting things. We run away or medicate our pains a lot. We blame other people, we victimize ourselves (although watching Jenny Schecter has shown me how fucking selfish & revolting that be), we become irrational on regular basis.
Goddess, what fucking messes we all are.

Tuesday, November 22nd
The people in my head are translucent paper-people, and I don’t know how to turn them into solid, flesh-and-blood people.
… I tend to be pretty unforgiving towards people – esp. those whom I want to like. Once they are inside my heart, I don’t care as much, but until then…

Thursday, November 24th
My head is a cluttered place; a bleeding wound. I vomit other people’s words out of my ears.
… Being vulnerable – being authentic – is hard. Being self-compassionate is uncomfortable. Engaging with my fears feels like I’m going mad.
… I crave certainty like a drug addict, and yet at the same time, I harbor a disdain for the society’s rules. I want chaos. I already am chaos, but then I lose my head, certain that I will never find my way back to reality.
… I look at the reading log for this year, and 80% of the books I’ve read this year were escapist reads. And I spent a lot of time in front of my laptop, watching movies and TV series. I have been emotionally numbing myself the whole year.
And maybe I haven’t been honest with myself, either. I am happy alone, but at the same time I feel like no one is going to love me. I do want to write, but I am terrified I suck at it. I do like reading, but I am constantly ashamed of my choice of reading materials. I do practise the mindset of enough, but scarcity creeps up on me again and again. I still measure my proud moments against what other people would be impressed by. I am still loathe to disappoint my teachers and professors.
… It’s difficult to see myself as I am, because there are a slew of things I want to become, but can’t do until I accept my current self. Humans are messy and ugly and always, always struggling. I want to create art that captures that struggle. I want to be honest. I want to stop playing a saint and just be my selfish, quirky, lazy, intent, struggling self.

Saturday, November 26th
… [I was at a poetry evening with a friend.] It was held in a studio place with a bit of run-down, starving-artist minimalist look. The people who came – there were many, and we were one of the early ones, so we had an ample time to observe them all – were very diverse in background & looks, but they all knew each other & we didn’t know these people, plus the music was too loud anyway, so we just sat there and looked around a lot. After an hour or so of socializing, some people read aloud their poems, and I liked having this read-and-share movement (also because it gave us a legitimate reason to sit around & not talk), but the poems… and the poets… they didn’t resonate with me at all. It’s definitely a matter of taste, but I couldn’t understand even the vaguest outline of their poems and it sounded like a string of words that conjured up all sorts of weird jumble of images – sexual, guttural, human waste. The theme or the form themselves weren’t disturbing, but what bothered & shook me the most was that I couldn’t feel the writer’s authenticity in their writings (except for one piece). The words felt empty, the whole presentation a cliché, and the art dishonest.
It is true that I am not into this twentysometing’s retro, hip & broke(n), artsy scene. The kind where the past seems to have been appropriated and the past authenticity turned into a grotesque cliché. Scenes where the said twentysomethings smoke pot, talk about having beautiful souls, and sprout Hemingway-esque poems (in the sense that they are vaguely misogynist and so male). … A year ago or less, I would have been intimidated into believing that an artist has to be like that way to be a “true” writer/poet. Maybe I’m being too hasty in my judgment/condemnation, but that’s the impression I had when we left the party. …

Tuesday, November 29th
… Does no one feel like this? Does no adult remember the emptiness? Does no on-the-cusp-of-adult experience this hollow space we call “self”?
… I am very rigid in my ideas of what I want when it comes to work. … Am I being too picky, so drenched in the privilege that I have my sight trained on too high? Or am I so afraid of working that I reject everything, thus deluding myself that I am “looking”, but at the same time still leaving the status quo untouched? …
I act and act and act out whatever I can get my hands on, because if I were to let myself be authentic, I’d probably sprout off some incoherent sentences at random, grin toothily, and scurry away.
… I just hate, hate, hate, HATE dealing with my emotions – there’s a reason why I’ve been numbing them for so long. I am not good at anything; this knowledge hits me like a brick on the back of my head, because my fragile ego had constructed this reassurance precisely to keep myself from this black-out. … And worst of all, I am disinterested in so many things that I can almost hear my neuron pathways dying off. It’s not that I find everything uninspiring or boring; I just don’t have any subject that I would dig into its depth to the center of the earth. …

Wednesday, November 30th
… Winter is the time of the year which I recoil from in the beginning and whose darkness I embrace eventually. Instead of brightening the room as much as possible, I am content with a flickering candlelight limiting my view to only what is right in front of me. Instead of feeling grateful for the technological advancement that allows us comfort (hello – radiators??!), I am annoyed that the city never truly sleeps, that it never lets its occupants recuperate.
I think that always being in search of my identity might be my identity. Perhaps because I had to learn the lesson about the instability of identity earlier than usual, and with more force than usual. Playing the various personas that are probably a part of me, all the while frantically searching for the core of my self, even though I know in the back if my mind that there is no such thing. But the emptiness – or the fragmentation – how to bear if without going mad?
… When we talked about “identity” in my Cultural Studies lecture, I encountered ideas/theories that opposed the Enlightenment notion of a core self. Certainly, how we perceive ourselves change a lot over the years, and I daresay it is influenced by external circumstances… but maybe it is a choice, you know? The characteristics that you choose to let go, and the ones you choose to hold on to. There are of course going to be parts of yourself that you are unaware of.
I feel so conflicted. … I do want to change, because I think change can lead to growth… but a part of me mourns the pieces I will inevitably have to leave behind, pieces that I have to let go in order to embrace new ones. Perhaps a human’s capacity for contradictions is limited. Another part of me, though, is terrified of both letting go and letting in. That part just wants to bury myself in the ground and talk myself into being content where I am right now.

non-choice and choice

Flower names, fruits, vegetables, colors.
Family members, buildings, holidays.
Computer keyboards, sweets, lullabies.
Clothing items, special dishes, TV stations.
Cartoon characters, children’s books, playground games.
Your childhood’s language.

Chemical formula, triangles, grammar rules.
Darwin’s theories, musical notes, basic economics.
Political parties, 20th century history, paintings.
Pop songs’ lyrics, texting, TV shows, bestsellers.
Your high school’s language.

Abstraktionsprinzip, conditio sine qua non, Subsidiarität.
Cranberry morpheme, tetrameter, typology, hartstikke goed.
Intersectionality,  vulnerability, interconnectedness, nonconcordance.
Your profession’s, your interests’ language.

Love. Friendship. Relationship.
Your emotion’s language.

Letters, poems, confessions, apologies.
Your heart’s language.

When did you choose?

labels and confidence

More than four years ago, when I first started to realize that I was attracted to girls and women, I tried on one label after another to see if one fit me perfectly. Questioning, bi-curious, gay, bisexual, and probably some more. These labels seem to come with neatly typed-up instructions on How to be _______. At that time, I refused to see how complex humans are and that we can’t fit into a fixed number of boxes because there are always going to be people who feel like strangers in those boxes.

I didn’t mind people who refused labels. I didn’t think they were confused or anything. They seemed pretty convinced of who they were, theirs just weren’t one of the “typical” sexual orientations. But I still wanted to fit in one of those boxes as smoothly as possible. For me, having a label ready meant I knew who I was. I firmly believed I had to know who I was. I mean, if I didn’t know myself, who did? If I knew myself, I could confidently present myself to the world. I could deal with whatever crap that was thrown in my way because I knew myself and thus believed in myself. I thought I couldn’t support myself 100 % if I didn’t know myself. And for me, having a label I identified with meant knowing myself.

There are lots of questionable thoughts in the second paragraph. It feels a bit like deconstructing my own thoughts, but what I’m doing now is an important process nonetheless (for me, I mean. I have no idea of knowing whether any of this is relevant to you.).

Anyway, none of the labels sat comfortably with me. The funny thing is, by trying to break out of heteronormativity, I had designed just another rigid box for me to fit into. I had certain preconceptions of what it means to be gay or bisexual or straight. I had a hard-and-fast rule for each of them and didn’t even consider the infinite shades of in-betweens.

It’s not about what the label means, it’s about what you make of the labels. That means that my bisexuality isn’t going to match 100% with your bisexuality. If we had a room full of self-identifying bisexuals, we would probably all define “being bi” a bit differently. Heck, I thought I was straight for the first sixteen or seventeen years of my life. Then I thought I was “just” bi-curious. Then I thought I was gay. Then asexual. Then back to hetero. My sexual orientation fluctuates, and today that feature is my identity. Yep, I’m the person whose sexual orientation changes all the time. For the general public (if anyone asks), I’m bisexual. But it’s my way of bisexuality. In this regard, no one can tell anybody what is a “valid” sexual orientation (or gender identity, or racial identity, or ethnicity, or whatfreakingever) and what isn’t. We are not the ones experiencing what X is going through, so how can we condemn that what X is going through is “not real”? It sure as hell is real for X.

Labels are just that: labels. Whether you put “bisexual” or “gay” or whatever on my forehead, I still remain the same person in essence. Of course, the public perception changes as it reacts to the various labels. But the person underneath the label remains the same person.

I’ve been struggling with labels for years. I thought I didn’t have an identity if I couldn’t showcase a certain amount of labels. Somehow it seemed incredibly lame to just offer, Well, I’m me. But who is “me”? We offer labels as “facts”, as if they are supposed to give an insight to who we are. “I’m an American. I’m an accountant. I’m a man. I’m a fan of Manchester United. I speak Amharic. I’m divorced. I’m a sax-player.” Is this what we boil down to?

I don’t have a national or cultural label for myself. I can tell you I’m legally Korean. But I don’t feel Korean.
I don’t have a label for my sexual orientation.
I don’t always have a label for my gender.
For years, I called myself a “reader” but sometimes I don’t read at all for weeks and months.
Daughter, sister, grand-daughter – they are all tied to the gender. And I don’t always feel like a daughter.
And the most common feature: I keep changing all the time.

So I can’t define myself. Until a few weeks ago, however, I always felt the need to define myself. Because if I couldn’t define me, I couldn’t be me. Right?
But that’s not true.
I’m still me. Even if I don’t have a fixed contour, I’m still me. I still breathe, laugh, sleep and cry. I’m just one shiny box among seven billion other shiny boxes. And I’m not going to force my shiny box on anyone else. So why should you force yours on me?

Inspired by Jen’s video.

Happy, calm Lughnasadh, everyone

It’s Lughnasadh. It’s Lughnasadh and I am at an airport, waiting to board on a plane that will whisk me away from the safe cocoon I have built around myself for the last three years.

I wish I were in my room in a rocking chair, reading without abandon, staying awake until I wanted to, not feeling pressured from every freaking side.
Instead, my energy is zapped, my nerves are hanging on by the threads, and I’m so nervous that my stomach is churning. I have to keep reminding myself to breathe, and breathe slowly. Whatever happened is too late now. I have tp concentrate on the presence so that I can keep down the meager lunch I had. I won’t see German people for the next month, and it’s a relief and disturbance of my routine.

Times like these, I am not at all sure who I am. Isn’t that supposed to be easy to know? Instead I have the feeling of chasing my own tail around and around, desperate to see a part of me while missing the big picture.

The summer is coming to an end, even if the temperature is trying to convince us otherwise.
My personal state of mental health is, well, in frenzy. And because my brain is full of worries, my body refuses to eat.

I should probably eat something. I haven’t had a proper meal in two, no three days. Or four? Does it matter?

Happy, calming Lughnasadh, everyone. I hope you are faring better than me.