We had a pretty amazing sundown last night.
And incredible skies this morning.
As Korean culture has grown more popular all over the world, there’s also been a rise in non-Koreans who want to join in the fun. No surprise there, I guess, but it has been pretty cool to watch — and it’s been doubly fun to have been a part of it, in my small way.
First came the rise of the Korean film scene, and foreigners flocked to the big film festivals. Then TV dramas and K-pop grew and spread all over the place, and so did bloggers and people who wanted to participate — K-pop even started having auditions all over the world. And while few non-Koreans made the cut (and almost no one who didn’t look Asian), still you find more and more people of all colors and countries looking to get in on the fun.
And now, I’m seeing more people from around the world writing stories set in Korea. My own novel, Young-Hee & the Pullocho, has been in the works for years, in one form or another, and when I started it, I never would have expected to have so much “competition” (although in writing, it’s not really competition, because one person’s popularity really does help everyone else and the overall scene). Still, it’s cool to see.
Christina Farley has written a Young Adult fantasy series called Gilded that is doing very well. She lived in Korea for a eight years, teaching English at the Seoul Foreign School in Yeonhui-dong, where teaching about mythology led her to growing interested in Korean traditional stories.
Gilded is the story of an American-raised teenager name Jae Hwa who moves back to Korea and soon finds herself struggling with an ancient family curse, pursued by a demi-god and, of course, trying to sort out her love life (this is YA, after all). Jae Hwa is a strong character, and the series has a real Buffy the Vampire feel.
Her first book, Gilded, came out in 2014, followed by Silvern later that year and the final book Brazen is due in September. If you check them out on Amazon or Goodreads, you’ll notice she’s gotten hundreds of votes and comments, so she’s really connected with a lot of readers.
I especially find Christina’s story fascinating because of all the similarities with my own. In both of our books, we have such creatures as Dokkaebi, Haechi, Samjogo and Blue Dragon (although our interpretations are pretty different for all of them).
There’s personal overlap, too. Christina lived in Yeonhui-dong, where I lived for a couple of years (a long, long time ago). Even today I live close to that neighborhood and often go walking through it.
Katie Stout’s Hello, I Love You takes a different approach than Christina or I did. Rather than looking at fantasy and folklore, Katie went to K-pop, imagining an American girl coming to Korea and signing up to become a star. But it’s still firmly YA (YA romance, I guess) … and to be honest, K-pop is probably more unreal than dokkaebi and blue dragons.
For recent “grown up” SFF fiction, you have Naomi Foyle (Seoul Survivors), Fiona Maazel (Woke Up Lonely) and my friend Gord Sellar (who has mostly written short stories thus far, but to no small acclaim, and with his wife has started translating Korean science fiction). And then there’s stuff like Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (a Pulitzer winner).
Exciting times. It’s hard to believe this is the same Korea I encountered nearly 20 years ago. But it’s great to see so many other people now beginning to “get it”.
So, Young-hee and the Pullocho has been out for a couple of weeks now. Still a bit early, I guess, but we have a few reviews out there. The nicest probably came from the children’s book site Kidsreads:
“Author Mark James Russell does an incredible job with descriptive language; readers will want to reread the descriptions of the landscape, characters and events simply so they can enjoy the sentences a second time.”
Booklist had some nice things to say, too (the Booklist website is paywalled, but the quote can be found on Amazon):
“A likable, modern heroine, Young-hee deals with challenges that, while sometimes dreamlike, bring about definite changes in her viewpoint. This quick-paced adventure story is one of the few middle-grade novels available here that reflect Korean culture and lore.”
Finally, Amanda Boyarshinov, one of the founders of The Educators’ Spin on It, also had some nice things to say about my book. Her inital comment was on Instagram, where she called The Pullocho “a challenging, but good girl adventure read.” That led to some emails between us where she also called the story “a delightful girl adventure story that encourages strong brother-sister relationships.”
All very much appreciated. And hopefully there will be some more before too long.
I just noticed over on Goodreads that my publisher has set up a little giveaway for Young-Hee & the Pullocho. If you head over to The Pullocho‘s page on Goodreads, you can enter the contest for a chance to win one of two copies. You have until June 5 to sign up.
And a bit thanks to everyone who took the time to enter the contest so far!
Ppi Ppi Band was one of the biggest indie acts of Korea in the 1990s, with a very weird sound and Lee Yoonjung’s weirder vocals. The band broke up and went in a bunch of different directions — Park Hyun-joon was in Wonderbirds and other bands (and spent time abroad) and is now in Honey Moss, Dalparan got more into film scores and producing, and Lee Yoonjung is half of the group EE.
But these days, everything ’90s is big again, plenty of older groups are having comebacks, including Ppi Ppi Band. Here’s their first single and video, “ㅈㄱ ㅈㄱ” (or “J G J G”), as strange as always:
Big Bang just released a couple of songs and music videos, “Loser” and “Bae Bae”, which instantly showed the group is still miles ahead of the rest of K-pop. Just wow.
“Loser” is okay, but the real gem to me is “Bae Bae,” with its organic, trippy vibe. Fascinating stuff, totally unlike the rest of pop music in Korea.
Actually, this is almost too interesting. It makes it way too clear how “meh” the rest of K-pop has been for the past year or two.
Here’s the video for “Loser,” too. It’s actually doing better on the Melon song chart, but I don’t think it is as interesting as “Bae Bae”:
Young-Hee & the Pullocho is a “portal fantasy” — meaning a story in which the fantasy element is accessed from our boring world via a doorway, like the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. That meant I needed to come up with a portal. So how to get Young-hee into my magical world?
Fortunately, Korea is a country with no shortage of strange doors. Like this one I passed while on a walk today, on the right of the photo, just sitting there on the side of the hill. No steps. No signs (unless you count the graffiti underneath it).
Why is it there? Who uses it? Could there be a magical world lurking behind it? I have no answers. But I love wondering about it.
Hard to believe it’s been a year already since K-Pop Now came out (thanks once again to all to bought it and/or read it). On one hand, it’s amazing how much has changed already in the world of K-pop — new groups, people leaving old groups, etc. But at the same time, I think the last year has been a bit static, without anything transformative really going on.
K-Pop Now wasn’t the most academic book ever, nor was it the most in-depth (it was fairly short with a lot of images). But I tried to give a sense of what K-pop is, why fans love it, and the spirit of the K-pop age.
One line from the book, though, I wish I had been clearer about:
“K-pop is overwhelmingly genuine. When a singer loves, he loves completely. When he misses his love, it is a deep, soul-crushing ache”
Now, clearly the industrial nature of the K-pop business doesn’t really nurture singer-songwriters, people who spill their souls and reveal their deepest truths. But I wasn’t talking about the industry that makes the music; I was talking about the sentiments expressed by K-pop singers. The industry and the structure of the industry might be cynical and full of artifice, however the emotions and ideas of the songs are not.
Does that make sense? I might compare it to professional wrestling. Professional wrestling isn’t “real”, but the reason people like it is because of the force of the emotions expressed by the wrestlers. It seems genuine.
It’s kind of an adolescent way of viewing the world and emotion. A grown-up, disillusioned view of love might be more like Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” or Radiohead’s “Creep” (okay, not really “grown-up”, but certainly more jaded). K-pop is more like an opera aria, and the feelings expressed by most K-pop songs are more straightforward and pure. Personally, I find the artifice of honesty a fascinating subject in all creative areas.