I, again, like most of my recent posts feel the necessity to premise this one with an excuse that I haven’t been able to write as much as I would have liked to. When I think about giving the most convenient excuse of ‘not having much time to sit myself down and properly connect the arbitrary jumble of words in my head to a coherent string’, I get reminded of what my friend had earlier told me — you make time for writing. You don’t just have time for it. Hence the lingering sense of guilt that is always in the back of my thoughts like the background noise of your surroundings that you simply tune out. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Time again passes. This time in jet-speed chunks of weeks, that stretches to months and now here we are. I am now in a different city, a different school, and a different phase of life. Some say this would be like a new season if life was something of a Netflix show, in which ‘you are a character, introduced into a new plotline and new characters.
A little overdue update of my life for some who may or may not drop by my blog in the blank, unspeaking space of my writing — I have started my MSt Comparative Literature and Critical Translation course at University of Oxford. It’s actually been about two months since I’ve scrambled to find my place in this city, and now I feel comfortable enough to say I have located myself safely in a tangible configuration of friends and people whose name I’m not particularly sure of, but still remember to exchange hi and how are yous, a favorite spot in the college study room, a go-to drink at a bar I’ve grown particularly fond of, unrelenting amount of course readings and discussions, watered-down ice lattes at both, familiar and unfamiliar brands of cafés, and my study spot at my current accommodation (which is a whole conversation of its own, but I will save this for another time).
The adjustment has been surprisingly smooth, one like a perfectly edited film where one scene segues into the next. I haven’t had the time to mull back on the exact nature of the transition that I’ve made. It’s a big one at that. I’ve completely relocated the stem of my living, starting from a new bed, a new environment, a new set of friends, and an unfamiliar but not an unrecognizable version of self. I used to think that my life in London was a dead end and that Oxford was a second chance. But of what? I got a clean slate, an openly inviting window to scrap the part of myself and my life that I wasn’t too kind to. A chance to do-over. Of the sleepless nights and empty mornings. Of the unforgivables. Of the unthinkables, the unforgettables.
So I’ve essentially moved on.
But what does that even mean? Do you physically depart the place you’ve once inhabited in? Do you simply forget the entirety of its existence that was so neither short-lived nor shallow that if you rooted out the whole thing, it leaves you with a hole so jarring that it leaves you in shambles? Does the state of having “moved on” mean you desperately gathering pieces of yourself and stitching them back so that it remotely looks like what you’ve been prior to everything that has happened? When is complete? When is enough? I think I’ve fully accepted the fact that I have departed my cosy attic room in Bloomsbury (which I talk about way too much and probably annoys my friends) and will probably, most likely, never be able to reside that little space again. I no longer think about the time I’ve rejoiced, cried, been disappointed, passed out, etc etc in that flat. My friends/neighbors have scattered to different ends of London and are living on separate schedules and routines, and share no commonalities in our days anymore. I’m not too bothered by that now. Maybe I’ve moved on.
In The Reasons for Travelling 여행의 이유 by Kim Young-ha, he mentions that we feel the urge to depart our living quarters because they bear the sadness, the cruelty, the frustration of our everyday. We seek places that we’ve never been to distract ourselves from the pain. Is that what I’ve been doing? Have I fully pulled myself apart from the snapshots of myself and my everyday that I couldn’t bear to face again? Truth be told, I have absolutely no clue. And there’s just no way of knowing. I’ve hoped so desperately for a do-over at certain points of my life, but I find myself clutching onto the things and places I’ve deviated from. Because I’ve only realized now that those are the things that construct me to what I would define myself as — in addition to the new discovery I’ve made of myself in my new habitat.
here’s a litany of thoughts and moments I’ve brought with me from the previous years:
- sitting in the small Starbucks tucked behind a Mexican grill in Paddington station, trying to re-read my manuscript for the xth time, tearing each word apart for typos from the nicely constructed prose that I’ve written in the past year. it was mid-January and the venue was not heated well, so there was me, clutching onto my jacket, re-living the sentiments that I’ve poured into my writing.
2. the ‘wholesome drinking nights’ with my friends who’ve gone back to New York.
3. reading an email from my old teacher about the talk I gave on my book during my launch party. i talked about Aristophanes’ story of the origin of love he gave at Plato’s Symposium, how the ancient humans had two sets of heads, two sets of limbs, and genitals. When they got too powerful, Zeus, threatened by their might, split them into two beings — each of one head, one set of legs and arms, becoming the humans as we are. The beings, now ruptured in halves comb the land in search for their other half, longing to be reunited and once again, become whole. like phantom pain. like love. I’d first read this in my Greek Mythology class in my first year of university. I don’t quite remember in which context I’ve recounted this tale, but after my talk, he had emailed me, that he thought maybe the real curse Zeus plagued us, humans, with was making us think that we are fragmented and that we needed another being to become whole when we are just as whole on our own. i think about that a lot.
4. the train ride back from Pompei to Naples, the frozen lemonade that was way too sour, the sunset we saw
5. the snow fight on our way down from Primrose Hill
6. hourlong bus rides from the Incheon airport to my Seoul home, listening to Young Mister on my janky (fake) AirPods, my leg resting on the big suitcases that often rocked from side to side
7. phone calls with friends — in Singapore, in London, in Korea, in the United States, in Switzerland — over summer
8. letters from mom
9. iced lattes from The Observatory, and more specifically, my last visit. I’d gone there to get breakfast (avocado toast with smoked salmon) and my two friends also living in the area came to visit me. it was only then i felt the chapter of my life in Bloomsbury has finally concluded itself.
10. lying in my bed in irrationally debilitating loneliness at dusk after submitting my dissertation
11. ever-expanding list of: haruki murakami, kim young-ha, kafka, han kang, cigarettes after sex, liszt, ennio morricone, jannabi, hozier, phoebe bridgers, boy pablo
12. different people’s love language. mine is writing letters & offering food
13. our ‘selves’ as languages. how do we read & write ourselves? how do they translate?
14. thinking about the people i’ve met in oxford, and telling about them to my friends in london & singapore and beyond, how wonderfully brilliant their minds are and how terribly lucky I am to have met them. to be here. to share their time. to be (vaguely) a part of their scene.
15. also thinking about the people i’ve lost along the way. the ones i try in vain to forget. the ones who don’t live by the aligning trajectory of my life anymore, but lurk every now and then in the hollow of my mind. sometimes i think about our last shared moments, the one they would remember me by. i wonder if they will think of me forever as an image that I’ve outgrown, and I, of them, in another irrelevant, outdated portrait. sometimes I feel the need to protest that stagnancy. sometimes I feel a sense of relief.
i’ve become more appreciative in this sense.
At Oxford I recently re-read a letter from a penpal while digging through my boxes of belongings. He wrote: i always have moments of silences where i will remember to read your website. you have written such beautiful words. i envy the characters and people you write about. my first thought, aside from the infinite gratitude for the generous commentary (thank you, Edward!), was the distinct demarcation between the characters and people that he had mentioned. People and characters? I wondered if I write about the people I know with the specific separation in mind. Are the people I write about characters? Are my characters people? During my English literature class this term (which oddly fits perfectly into this theme), I learned that it is considered immoral to think of real-life people as characters because their existence is not measured to fall into a certain temporal structure. They live beyond the narrative. To think of them as characters is to deny the existence that sprouts vigorously and splendidly into multitudes of directions — one that is too volatile and dimensional to be called a narrative. But I think of the people I write, the real interactions and conversations that retell themselves into the perfect narrative. The way I edit and splice them into a digestible, unharming story. Because the reality is often insufferable. Fiction is more easily understood.
Do I have moral obligations to the people I write about? As a person, yes. As yet another character, a narrative device with yet another set of semantic responsibilities to perform, no. But who’s to tell which is which? I am living in an ambiguous middle ground between a story and life, dream and reality, a written word and a performed gesture. In the long run, the functionality of each person/character in the stretched narrativity that I call my life would be too fleeting and insignificant to define. Would it even matter then? Isabel Archer (from The Portrait of the Lady — a book that is absolutely boggling my mind as I attempt to squeeze a 6000 word essay out of it)’s life started going downhill as soon as she made the fallacy of regarding people around her as mere art objects and not individuals. She revers and admires — but never fully knows. But how are we meant to acknowledge the multidimensionality of someone’s mind when we are not that person? Our own minds are the only ones that we can intimately experience. Sometimes when I write about people I know I think about the possible injustice I am doing to their existence. Sometimes I think about how that injustice will change the ways that I see them in reality. How the authorial vision is sometimes so cruel yet majestic.
Two nights ago we had a casual open mic event at one of our coursemates’ flat. I didn’t have anything to share — as you might assume I haven’t written anything intelligent in a while. But we talked about so many stuff: first dates, translations, bad dating app opening lines, translanguaging, literary jokes about Freud, compulsive urges to snack, where and what to do when travelling in the States, homes, languages, childhood memories, prayers. I wrapped my arms around my legs, pulling them closer to my legs and leaned forward, as if that would help me hear better. Retain the words — of poems, prelude to the book they are writing, translations, short stories, essays — longer. When I stepped out of the flat and the cold wind hit my face I realized how at ease I felt in their presences. How, when you bring up the fact that you’ve written a book, the conversation doesn’t simply end at: wow, that’s so cool! And leads to other questions and discussions. How your lives can diverge so much but rest at a common point so finely, especially when you share similar creative and academic drives.
On my way back home I recounted each of their writings in my head, like chanting a prayer that won’t go away, fully aware that in due time I would only vaguely remember what they are about. I’d forgotten what writing did for me, why I had felt the need to document my thoughts and at times, disguise my reality into fiction, how I interpret and lay out jumbles of creative images in my head. Frankly a part of me has been lazy as I always am, but another part of me has also been scared of it being seen as a lot of them come from a very personal place. (Which is perhaps the biggest irony of all — wanting to create something to be read yet fearing its visibility — it will forever be my dilemma as a writer.) But I’ve seen what happens when the product of your private vault of thoughts and memories is taken out and shown to others. It connects. It consoles. Only then you’re understood to your core. And that it’s not at all scary to be seen after all. I lied on my bed with an oddly comforting frustration — finally decoding the mixed feelings that I’ve carried back home: I regretted I didn’t share mine.
I admit the transition hasn’t been all that easy; I remember blankly staring into my open lugagge in Korea, wondering taking this leap is the correct decision (though I can never really define what I mean when I say “correct”). I look into the books I collected from Kyobo bookstore over summer, naively thinking I would read them when I get to Oxford, the snacks and food I’ve packed which turned out to be necessities as the nearest Asian supermarket is half an hour away. I think about my dad, with whom I’ve only achieved to properly bond over summer after number of years of being apart — being the aloof and unsharing daughter that I am, who only meekly calls occasionally to let him know I am healthy and making (mediocre) progress with my academic research. I remember looking back on London as my ideal habitat, while refusing to remember the vicious sadness that came and went at times. I think about what it is like to leave a place where you have a reliable tessellation of people and places to hold you when you are crashing. I remember thinking if I will create that in a completely new city, despite having felt refractory urges to leave.
But the days don’t feel too foreign here. I appreciate that. When they do, sometimes the foreignness even feels comforting.
So these days I am trying to catch my breath. Like someone who thrusts their way up from underwater, their arms pushing down the ocean surface and catapulting their body weight into the air. I am still doing the things I enjoy, spending my time with the people I love. Reading ardently, writing sparsely. Taking pictures of my friends & my space. Watching classic films for the first time, making Spotify playlists that I will never touch again. Harboring slivers of people who will also retain only slivers of me. Thinking about the possibly outdated, or possibly never-to-be-completed mental portraits I draw of people, sometimes with an effervescent certitude, sometimes with flickering indecision. Writing love letters I don’t send. Writing ones I do end up sending. Not being too sad about it.
It really is a relief to know that I haven’t lost myself along the way. I’ve become maybe a little fearless, more oblivious.
So dear reader, I will again apologize for my on-and-off presence in this unenergetic place. And possibly for its indefinite continuation. But I promise I will be back soon enough, maybe with yet another haphazard update of my trivial everydays.