To celebrate the release yesterday of Han Yujoo's The Impossible Fairytale, translated by Janet Hong, we're giving you a look inside the first few chapters of this hypnotic and beautiful novel.
See the dog.
See the dog drifting by.
See the dog, swimming, following the current of the river.
Perhaps the dog is doing nothing more than being swept down the river, but it looks as though it’s swimming, as though it’s following the current, heading towards the dam where two rivers meet. No, it looks as though it’s being swept down the river. Since the dog cannot speak, no one knows how it ended up drifting in the current, and even if it were able to speak, bark, or cry, the noise would get swallowed up by the water, and silently, it would be washed away with the dog. The dog is black and large, but because its soaking wet hair is as black as black can be and its large body is mostly submerged, its blackness and largeness aren’t immediately apparent. The dog is submerged in water, the water is moving, the dog is moving, and so the river is moving. The dog’s name, the dog’s age, the dog’s sex, the dog’s breed, and even the dog’s language are unknown. The dog that is far, right now so far away, even if it had a language, even if it were a dog’s language, there is no truth that can be known about the dog. It’s a dog, just a dog. A dog that happens to be swimming.
The dog is swimming wordlessly.
All of a sudden shouts ring out from the riverbank where frost has yet to form. Three or four people are gathered there, shouting at the dog. Video cameras. Microphones. Reeds. Wind. Summer. Four in the afternoon. And a point just past that. No one knows why the cameras are there. A small, run-down boat moored across the river looks as though it’s adrift. Before the dog is carried to the dam, before it’s cast away, before the water meets the barrier, it must be scooped out. If it were winter right now, if there were a cold snap and the harsh days continued until the air froze, until the whole river froze, then the dog could simply slide across the top of the thick ice. No, if it were a dry season instead, if the dry days continued until the sand became dust, until the river dried up, until the bottom of the river creased and cracked like wrinkled lips, then the dog could simply walk across the bottom of the river, on its four legs, without leaving any paw prints behind.
The dog moves on.
The dog isn’t interested in crossing the river, or it looks as though it’s not, since it’s not fighting the current and just continues downriver. On and on it goes, front paws, back paws side by side, paws crisscrossing, on and onward. Someone shouts its name, but it seems unreasonable to the dog to call its name in a language not its own, and so it doesn’t respond, it doesn’t look back, but stares straight ahead — no, somewhere a bit higher than that — and keeps swimming, with its head pointing above the surface of the water at a thirty-degree angle. The dog is swimming calmly, but who can know how calm it really is? The people standing on the riverbank begin to walk in the direction the dog is heading. Quickly or slowly. If only the dog could walk on water, if only it could run on water… While someone shouts again, while someone anxiously calls its name again, while its name is on everyone’s lips, it acts as though it can’t hear anything, or it pretends it can’t, and with the bottom half of its drooping ears submerged in water, it moves on and on, westwards and westwards. The dog that is just a dog will sink before it sinks. It’s a strange way to put it, but there’s no other suitable expression. When its blackness and largeness are no longer in anyone’s sight, it will disappear. The dog and the river, the river and the dog.
The dog must cross the river. There are cameras waiting to record that moment — the moment it crosses from that side of the river to this side — and there are people standing safely among the reeds, not entrusting their bodies to the current, who are hoping, no, who had hoped it would cross the river. The reason someone was able to become the dog’s owner was because he or she had given it a name, and as a result, he or she had told it to cross the river, or perhaps had commanded it to cross the river, and after fastening a metal collar around its neck, had pushed it into the water. Perhaps the weight of the collar will cause the dog to sink to the bottom of the river. Therefore the cameras standing by across the river will also have to sink. Therefore the dog’s name and the dog’s language will also sink. The spot where the dog should have landed has already disappeared from the dog’s sight and is disappearing from everyone’s sight. No one knows why the dog doesn’t cross the river, why it doesn’t cut across or sail across, or how it has come to drift with the current. The dog isn’t crossing the river and the dog isn’t swimming. The dog is drifting by.
See the dog drifting by.
The dog is there.
The dog is not there.
The child is lucky.
Before we talk about her good luck, because several other children will soon be entering the scene, we need to address the matter of her name. The child’s name is Mia. It could be Min-a, Mi-na, or Min-ha, or it could be A-mi, Yu-mi, or Yun-mi, but since she thinks of herself as Mia, let’s just call her Mia.
Mia is lucky. One day, she receives a set of seventy-two German watercolour pencils from one of the two men who consider her to be their daughter. Mia has two fathers. One is not yet aware of the other’s existence, or pretends not to be, and the other is aware of the one’s existence, but chooses to turn a blind eye for some unknown reason. When a person discovers a truth that no one else knows, every surrounding relationship will change drastically. Nevertheless, even though they both function as fathers to Mia, only one of the two had given her a set of seventy-two German watercolour pencils. Because these pencils were manufactured in Germany and were not cheap ones made in China, they satisfied her taste and interest, enabling the father who gave the gift to gain leverage over the other father. Red, fuchsia, crimson, blood red, rose, yellow, orange yellow, citron, tangerine, flesh colour. And light green, emerald, forest green, grass green. With such an overwhelming array of colours spread before her, lucky Mia gains the innocent and childish confidence that she’ll be able to draw every object around her with seventy-two colours. When Mia traces the outline of an object with a grey pencil, when she is colouring the skin of an object with a blue pencil, Mia’s mother realises that her daughter has become larger than her own shadow. Mia’s mother loves Mia, and Mia was sick often, and each time she got sick, five shades of colour would appear on her face — red, yellow, violet, green, and black — and Mia’s mother made herself absent during her husband’s absence. There would be a square of chocolate and a glass of orange juice by Mia’s pillow, but not Mia’s mother. Wet with sweat, in bed with a cold, Mia would rouse herself briefly to drink the orange juice and fall asleep again under the damp blanket. When her mother would return late at night and gaze down at her sleeping daughter, because Mia is lucky, she would stir awake and ask her mother for a glass of cold water. After this sequence was repeated several times, Mia’s face would once again turn white as milk and smooth as a baby’s bottom, but when Mia’s face turned dark as water and red as fire, when she recognised vaguely that the scene she was witnessing was losing some unknowable thing, the colours of objects became unfixed and began to waver. Therefore the early morning would become dark-blue rage, the afternoon would become crimson resignation, the evening would become grey silence, and the colours would, all at once, turn dark as night. These things happen whenever Mia is sleeping, whenever she is opening her journal, whenever she is engrossed in watching television, whenever she is climbing a jungle gym, whenever she is being warned that she is too young to drink coffee, whenever she is passing a note to the student sitting in front of her. And whenever she distractedly looks away, the objects return to their original colour in perfect order.
When I grow up, I’m going to buy a fountain pen, says Mia. Do you know you can kill someone with a fountain pen? she asks. I got that from a book. If you drop the pen from high up at the right angle, the pointy tip will pierce right into the person’s head. It’s because of acceleration. It was in a detective story.
But of course, Mia has no desire to kill anyone; in fact, she doesn’t understand the words death or kill. She is a lucky child, and she lacks the passion, let alone the opportunity, to kill someone; she doesn’t yet know that people kill even in the absence of emotions such as hatred. She doesn’t yet know that rather than trying to aim the tip of a fountain pen at someone’s skull from a tall building, it is far more effective to drive the pointed metal tip into someone’s throat, a fact she would have learned if she had read more books. But she is interested only in detective novels, and because there are more things she doesn’t know than she does know, her world is simple; and for that reason, she is lucky. Anyhow, I’m going to buy a fountain pen when I grow up, she says. I like the way it sounds. Fountain pen.
Mia, who more or less has everything, who was always told she could have anything she wanted, thinks she could construct her world exactly the way it is with seventy-two colours, that she could fill in the shadows of already existing objects, each with its own shade, that she could erase even the shadows, that she could perhaps kill a person. If she has the power to kill, she equally has the power to save. Therefore, nothing is impossible. Mia, who has everything, or could have everything, thinks she is able to do anything. Of the two of Mia’s fathers Mia’s mother alternates between, one father is unaware of the other’s existence while the other father is aware of everyone’s existence. Mia moistens her lips with the tip of her tongue. Because she doesn’t yet have a clear understanding of acceleration, she has no concept of the speed at which an incident breaks down once it takes place, no concept of the velocity at which emotions expand once they begin to swell and, ultimately, explode. She remembers seeing on television a re-enactment of how space came to be; the Big Bang, that beautiful, round thing like a wreath. She tried to draw the scene with seventy-two coloured pencils, but no matter how many lines she drew, there were always two colours missing and she, who had no concept of the colours she lacked, proudly showed her drawing to her fathers, and perhaps even to her mother, and one father thought Mia had drawn a flower bouquet and the other thought she had drawn the entrails of a beast. While she moistens the tip of her forefinger with saliva and erases the light’s outline, the smear of colours and their shadows become submerged in darkness. Naturally.
It’s not yet known if Mia will receive a set of 120 German-made coloured pencils next year, or a pair of leather shoes adorned with exquisite ribbons instead of a pair of running shoes illustrated with a cartoon character. She has two fathers, enough people to give her presents, and so the piano, silver bracelet, doll, fountain pen, wool coat, her bright, sunny room, and the large window with mould growing in its every crevice will remain hidden, overtaken by the shadows of all that she will receive. Not even the speed at which the white-blue-and-black mould is infiltrating the room will be seen, not yet. She can have everything, and because she is merely twelve years old, there is indeed time yet to have everything. She must always prepare for the future. Just like they say, she must become the main character of the next century. Because she is important to everyone, Mia’s mother may take her as a hostage in court, one of the two fathers may use Mia to gain leverage over everyone else, and the other father may want to use her as an excuse to turn an affair into a nonaffair, but, apart from these, Mia is involved in an infinite number of scenarios, and until the number of all these scenarios becomes null, she must not die or disappear.
Soon the emotions that are being launched in Mia’s blood vessels, eyes, mouth, joints, and bones will rise and fall simultaneously, but when? How? A thirteen-year-old Mia may want, as the other girls do, to cut her hair in a bob like that of a middle school student, or to go to school in Adidas running shoes. Bobbed hair, Adidas shoes, and things like this will be given to her easily enough. While her mother pulls back Mia’s long hair in a ponytail, Mia grimaces, despite herself, and doesn’t forget to mention that she wants a new sweater – the one hanging in a store window that had caught her eye the previous afternoon; the one she saw as she passed the shopping arcade on her way home from her after-school academy; the one with five different shades of green and five different shades of blue; the one with a small deer knitted on the chest. White psoriasis blooms around Mia’s mouth while Mia’s mother, who has now pulled Mia’s hair in a tight knot, turns Mia around to place a kiss on her cheek. Mia’s mother tells Mia that it will soon be spring, that there will be no need for sweaters; and because she’s a growing girl, she won’t be able to wear it for long anyway. She pleads with her mother. Her mother says no. Mia writes in her journal: Mother tied my hair too tightly. So my head hurt. Mia says, I’m going to ask Ajeosshi to buy it for me, because it might be gone ten days from now, by the time Dad comes home. The sweater that is still hanging in the window, the sweater that is much too large to be a child’s sweater, the sweater that Mia will get or will not get, will be blacked out from her memory in several weeks in any case, blacked out even if it’s not black or red or yellow. Since there is no lack of substitutes and there is more than enough to substitute for even the substitutes, Mia could have anything, as long as there is time.
Mia pulls her left arm out of her sleeve and hides it under her pyjama top. She sits at the breakfast table with the empty sleeve dangling from her still-flat chest when her mother asks, Now what are you supposed to be? Mia responds by saying, My arm disappeared. It ran away, because there’s no deer sweater.
Toast, milk, and apples are on the table, but Mia’s fathers are not there at the head of the table. My right arm says it’s going to run away tomorrow, too, and my chest might run away the day after that, says Mia, who uses her right hand to spread jam on her toast.
Her mother stares blankly at her daughter. Though no one had ever taught her, Mia always knew how to wheedle and whine in a reasonable manner, to a reasonable extent. While nibbling on her toast Mia says, My friend – and as she begins to plead again, Mia’s mother throws away the empty plastic bread bag and recalls the phrase phantom limb pain, forgotten until now. Her chest sometimes hurts when she thinks of Mia. And yet, there is no lack of substitutes. There are even substitutes for substitutes. Mia’s mother could have another child — it was still possible — and even if she didn’t want another child, she could have a substitute thing instead of a child, but if a substitute weren’t possible, she could have something else, and if she could have something else, she could also lose something; and so Mia must not be allowed to want anything. The more we want, the more we lose. But she is still young, so she is more interested in the things she can have than the things she can lose.
My friend wanted a doll so bad that she didn’t eat for two days, says Mia. You don’t see me doing something like that.
In the end Mia gets the green-and-blue sweater with the deer, but it is unclear who buys it for her. What is certain is that she could not buy it for herself. Dad bought it for me, she says. Dad bought the sweater for me, she writes in her journal. I like it so much that I wore it to bed last night. Tuesday, March 3, 1998, the second day of school. Weather: Clear. On her desk is a neat stack of new textbooks and notebooks. Her mother wraps plastic over the cover of each textbook, still fresh with the smell of ink. Mia has two journals: one she’s been using for a year and one that’s new; one that conceals secrets and one where secrets are revealed. But she can’t conceal, reveal, cover up, or even expose her secrets. Her writing is too immature. Mia, who is wearing an adult sweater, looks even smaller and more childish than usual, and since the sweater has no pockets, she can’t hide anything – not a single hairpin, not a morsel of a secret, not a container of pencil lead. Because she hasn’t yet menstruated, grown-ups say that there is enough time for her to grow taller.
That there is enough, enough time, still. Before the sweater begins to pill.
Mia’s new desk mate at school twirls a mechanical pencil between her thumb and index finger. She draws a big heart in a corner of her notebook and says to Mia, If you can colour the whole heart black with just one lead, the love of your dreams will come true. But your lead can’t break until you’re done and you can’t have any lead left at the end. You can’t run out either. Like her desk mate, Mia draws a pretty, round heart on the last page of her notebook with her new mechanical pencil and new lead. The two girls concentrate on colouring their hearts until the end of lunch, but their lead keeps breaking. Who are you thinking of anyway? The two girls giggle. How about you? And they each lower their gaze. When their lead breaks, they can’t draw hearts on paper they’ve already used, so they must begin anew each time with a new heart on a new page with new lead, but the lead keeps breaking, and their minds get crushed by failure. The boys, who had gobbled their food so that they could play soccer for the rest of their short lunchtime, return from the playing field, emitting a faint smell of sweat. Mia and her desk partner hastily shut their notebooks and put their pencils back in their cases. Mia’s legs fidget below her long sweater, and she clasps her hands, which peek out from her rolled-up sleeves.
After school is out, the children scatter in all four directions from the school gate towards the district 2-1, towards 3-12, towards Suite 303 of Building 109, towards Solar Arcade, towards the Cheongpa Institute, melting their shadows into the afternoon’s. The pencil cases that hold containers of pencil lead rattle inside the backpacks of these twelve-year-old girls, girls who have just been allowed to use mechanical pencils. Mechanical pencils were thought to ruin penmanship, so they were encouraged, perhaps even forced, to use wooden pencils until the fourth grade, and although grown-ups said they could use pens once they were in middle school, it was no use, the children already had poor penmanship; whether they used pencils or pens or mechanical pencils, they would not have neat, fine handwriting until they were no longer children.
If you’re going to write about love, write it in pencil.
The children didn’t write their love and the grown-ups said their love wasn’t right. As the children drew and filled in their hearts with thin pencil lead, they believed this was love, but the lead kept breaking, and at semester’s end, there was not a single child who managed to complete a black heart, not one child who kept the notebook with her failed hearts. Things like notebooks tend to disappear in a moment, even if you don’t purposely throw them away.
Mia’s desk mate had transferred to this school the previous year. Her hair went down to her shoulders. She pinned it back with hairpins. In every class there are several girls with this same hairstyle. In Mia’s class there are many Kims, Lees, Parks, Chois, Songs, Kangs, Shins, Hwangs, Chungs, and Yangs, but these children who sit in rows according to birthday or height, or who are perhaps arranged in alphabetical order, will soon have to rearrange themselves based on their biological classification: species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom. The children are half-plant and half-animal. The high temperature for early March hovers around the freezing point, and wherever new greenery as thin as eyelashes sprouts up, winter dies. Nothing is born a second time. When the previous summer returns like a phantom, today’s spring becomes ill and the seasons die out repeatedly. Wherever children die, other children are born. When this year passes, the next will come, and when next year passes, the year after that will come. When it’s past noon, three or four street vendors selling chicks gather in front of the school gate, and inside the newspaper-lined plastic buckets, yellow chicks grow sick. Sometimes there are chicks whose napes are dyed red or blue. They still look healthy, but the moment they leave their plastic nests and are gripped by clumsy hands, they begin to die. To the vendors, it’s not important whether the chicks are male or female – they simply happen to be one or the other. The chicks inside the buckets of these vendors will die well before they can develop secondary sexual characteristics, before they can assume their general functions, before they can reach puberty, before they can mate, before they can reproduce. This one here, is it a female? asks Mia’s desk mate. In an indifferent tone, the vendor replies that it’s a male. In front of the elementary school gate, the price of every object is relatively the same, and the price of a chick is the same price as an ice-cream cone, and the same number of coins jingle inside the children’s pockets. Some children buy ice-cream and get white and yellow stains down the front of their shirts, and some children buy chicks and drop them one by one from the apartment’s rooftop. Some hope the chicks will fly away, since they have wings after all, and some hope that the chicks will die, since they have life. The boys carrying soccer balls and basketballs under their arms shove Mia and her desk mate aside and peer down at the chicks, but the chicks don’t cry cheep, cheep. No, to be honest, the sound coming from their beaks, beaks the size of a pinky nail, can’t possibly be written cheep, cheep. It can’t be called crying either. Mia doesn’t buy a chick, but this is perhaps a good choice because the moment she gains a chick, she will lose something, something that has the same value as the chick.
The boy who sits in the row next to Mia bought a chick. With her mechanical pencil, Mia writes in her journal: I didn’t buy one because Mum doesn’t like animals. I don’t know the boy’s name. I want a puppy, she adds. She closes her journal and returns her pencil to her flat, metal pencil case, decorated with strawberries and bunnies. Her mother has not come home yet. It is a clear day on Wednesday, March 4, 1998, and laid out on the four-person table is dinner for one: fried rice, kimchi, and water. Mia doesn’t eat carrots, but this doesn’t mean that she eats every kind of food that doesn’t contain carrots. Her mother often forgets that she doesn’t eat carrots and chops them into every dish. Carrots are slow to go bad. Mia isn’t yet hungry, and that’s because she and her desk mate bought a snack after school instead of buying a chick. It’s not yet certain if Mia will lose something because she bought a snack; nevertheless, she has lost a chick, as well as three or four coins. It would be nice if she no longer lost anything, but she is a lucky girl, and the things that she has lost so far amount to less than her own weight.
Once, she had two ten-dollar bills given to her by an uncle who had returned from the United States. At the time, a ten-dollar bill was worth around 8,000 won, but when the economic crisis continued, the value of her two ten-dollar bills shot up to more than 20,000 won. You’re the only person making any money in this house, her mother had said half-jokingly in a voice that was also half-sigh. Her father was away at the time. When the official currency exchange rate was 1,887 won for every US dollar, she went to the bank and exchanged a ten-dollar bill and got 18,680 won back, but the price of buying money with money was different from selling or receiving money. If she had decided to exchange the money one week before, she would have been able to get two 10,000-won bills. Although it is uncertain where she used her 18,680 won, ten-won coins rolled under the bed or disappeared down the drain; and although the speed at which the bills disappeared might have been a little slow, nevertheless, all of it eventually disappeared. At that time, Mia had to listen to the daily nagging about her being a picky eater, and the reason was that if the whole country were to go to ruin, she might have to skip meals regularly like children in Africa. But even then, she refused to eat carrots and in the end her country escaped ruin. As was the case with Mia’s family. While the children in Africa were being used in treacherous, manipulative misery, Mia’s mother didn’t skimp on the cost of carrots, and while carrots were served without end at the four-person table, Mia’s father held firm his position by being resolutely absent. The fried rice is orange, yellow, and white. Carrots are good for your eyesight, her mother liked to say, but Mia thinks, What more am I supposed to see? Mia takes off her green-and-blue sweater and changes into her pyjamas. The sweater is folded carefully and put into the closet. Soon she won’t be able to wear it anymore. Perhaps the day will also come when she will not be able to wear the pyjamas. She might grow twenty centimetres overnight, her mother might permanently forget to pick up the clothes she had left at the dry cleaner’s, Mia might grow tired of her clothes, or another more extreme scenario might come to pass. A trivial mishap could set off a fire in Mia’s home, Mia’s mother could suddenly go missing, Mia could spontaneously decide to run away from home without taking any clothes, or Mia could suddenly die. None of these scenarios, in fact or in theory, is impossible. No one knows what might happen to Mia tomorrow. But the same goes for anyone. So why is it that we are continuing with Mia’s story? Perhaps by chance, perhaps by necessity. Just like how the boy in Mia’s class who had bought the chicks asked whether they were male or female and no one knew, no one knows if it was Father 1 or Father 2 who bought Mia’s sweater, and even if someone knew, these are the kind of questions for which no evidence can be produced. In truth, no one knows the truth.
After Mia falls into a deep sleep her mother comes home, but even when she comes home, Mia’s mother isn’t there. Mia’s name was made by combining a syllable in her father’s name, ah, with a syllable found in her mother’s, mi. Around the time Mia was born, it was popular to name children by this formula, and her parents each explained to their parents that Mia’s name meant “beautiful child.” They didn’t explain that it also meant “lost child.” And, just as her parents had hoped, Mia was considered to be a beautiful child by both sets of grandparents, even though she doesn’t see them anymore. Mia’s maternal grandparents are now dead and Mia’s mother isn’t welcome in the home of Mia’s paternal grandparents. By chance, both of Mia’s fathers’ names contain the syllable ah, but she doesn’t call them by their names, she calls them either “Dad” or “Ajeosshi.” However, whenever she talks about them to her friends or writes about them in her journal, whichever father it is, she calls both “Dad,” and because her sensibility of what is appropriate or inappropriate has grown dull with time, Mia’s mum reveals more and more to Mia, who, because she is still young, doesn’t know anything. Or so her mum wants to believe. Some say that Mia is all grown up, and others say she is still a little girl, the ink of her name barely dry in the family register, but in reality, the entry for Mia’s register must be amended. If you’re going to make an entry in your family register, write it in pencil, because if you make a mistake, you can use an eraser to wipe it clean. Mia’s mother sits at the table, eats the cold fried rice, and feels like laughing and crying at once. She could simplify and amend her own family register if Mia didn’t exist, she could even justify her own absence, but because the only person who could be proved to exist in this home was Mia, and Mia alone must receive love, Mia’s mother must maintain her position. All children must receive love. Mia’s mother puts the empty dish in the sink, turns on the faucet, and rinses her mouth. The leftover words that she couldn’t wash out, they stay and torment her.
Mia’s desk mate borrows a yellow Post-it from the student sitting in front of her and takes out a marker from her pencil case. There is a tiny label on the end of the marker with the name of Mia’s desk mate: Kim Inju, 5-3. Even a single label has a thickness like every other object and so Mia’s desk mate must squeeze the lid onto the end of the marker, but as the label is pushed, the words Kim Inju, 5-3 become slightly wrinkled. With the marker, Inju writes on the Post-it: Phone Mum. She must call her mother at lunch. Why? The reason isn’t important. Kim Inju took out the marker to write something because her name had to be revealed. Inju sticks the Post-it to the corner of her desk and glances around the classroom. Kim Injung sits like an island beside the teacher’s desk, his desk set at a different angle from the others. He is absorbed in colouring. Inju cringes. Diagnosed with a mental disability, Kim Injung, who knows only two phrases, “Stupid” and “I’m not stupid,” will be transferring to a special needs school instead of middle school. During class, instead of sitting at his desk, he plays alone at the back of the room, and because Kim Inju and Kim Injung are such similar-sounding names, belligerent boys bring up Injung every time they make fun of Inju. You’re Injung’s sister, aren’t you? Or are you his wife? Or his girlfriend? More than the words sister or wife, Inju can’t help but feel shamed by the word girlfriend. The teacher is not there, it is rest time, but the children don’t rest. Mia has dozed off with her head on her desk. Inju gazes at the dark brown lock of hair that comes down past Mia’s shoulders and at the small mole on Mia’s neck that is easily missed if one isn’t looking closely, and Inju has the sudden urge to poke that mole with something sharp. It occurs to Inju that it could be done with the tip of a compass, a mechanical pencil, a stationery knife, or the fountain pen that Mia was talking about earlier, but because this thought only flashes briefly before disappearing, there is no chance for it to be revealed to anyone. Not even to Inju – Inju who had the thought and who just as soon forgot it. And there isn’t enough time here to reproach Inju for that original thought because immediately after the thought, the boy sitting in the next row begins to speak in a loud voice. I killed all four chicks I bought yesterday. I dropped one out the window, I put one in boiling water, I flushed one down the toilet, I left one on the bus, and even though I didn’t kill it myself, it probably died anyway. Someone could have kicked it by accident or it could have been mistaken for trash and been swept up. At once, all eyes and ears turn to the triumphant boy. Most of the girls scream and the boys whistle and shout, these children who are half-plant, half-animal. Someone shouts, Hey, stop lying! Someone says, Hey, Park Yeongwu, are you joking? When Yeongwu shrugs and sits back in his seat, the bell rings. The noise gradually dies down. The front door of the classroom opens and the teacher walks in. On top of Yeongwu’s desk is a social studies textbook. Social Studies, 5-3, Park Yeongwung. Yeongwu liked to add an ng to the last syllable of his name, making it Yeongwung. Hero. As though unaware of all the commotion, Mia sits up, rummages through her bag, and takes out her textbook and notebook. She looks as though she didn’t hear what Yeongwu had just said, her gestures and expression don’t contain a hint of surprise. She gazes sleepily at the chalkboard. The dark green board, sometimes called a blackboard, is the same colour as the metal box that holds Mia’s seventy-two coloured pencils. The seventy-two colours inside the dark green box shade Mia’s childhood. Grey, ink black, lead. When the teacher starts writing on the board, chalk dust falls like dandruff, and Kim Injung, in the middle of stretching, stirs the dust adrift in the air with his arms. He doesn’t copy what the teacher is writing on the board into his notebook; perhaps he has never written anything in his notebook. The children had discovered a day into the new school year that Kim Injung was someone they could bully, taunt, or pinch. After gazing up at the teacher with a dumbfounded expression, he stands up and begins to ring the bell on the teacher’s desk. The children’s ears perk up, and the teacher puts down the chalk and stands Kim Injung before him. The sound of the teacher smacking him on the cheek rings louder in the children’s ears than the ringing bell. Mia’s face turns red. The chalk dust turns Kim Injung’s left cheek white. Chalk dust falls, white and perilous, on the teacher’s trouser cuffs, on his indoor shoes. The children are watching.
On Saturday 1st September we will be launching The Impossible Fairytale at Hill of Content Bookstore in Melbourne. Yujoo will also be doing four events at this year's Melbourne Writers' Festival – details of these can be found here.
Han Yujoo was born in Seoul in 1982. Her debut novel The Impossible Fairytale is her first work translated into English, published by Graywolf in the USA and by Tilted Axis Press in the UK. She is also the author of the short-story collections To the Moon, Book of Ice, and My Left Hand the King, My Right Hand the King’s Scribe. She won the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award in 2009. She is also a translator, is an active member of the experimental group Rue, and also runs her own micro-press, Oulipo Press, focusing on publishing experimental fiction.
Janet Hong is a writer and translator based in Vancouver, Canada. Her work has appeared in Brick, Lit Hub, Asia Literary Review, Words Without Borders, Litro, Asymptote Journal, and the Korea Times. Her translation of Han Yujoo's The Impossible Fairy Tale was a finalist for the 2018 PEN Translation Prize. Her other translations include Ancco’s Bad Friends (Drawn & Quarterly) and Ha Seong-nan's The Woman Next Door (Open Letter Books).