Words from a faraway placeLee Jin-woo has been contributing to the JoongAng Ilbo since Feb. 10 under the theme, “Letters from Jeogu Village.” After majoring in philosophy at Korea University, Mr. Lee published his first book in 1989, titled “Contemporary Poetry.”
Mr. Lee later gained wide public recognition for the novels “The Society of Enemies” and “Burying My Daughter in India.” Three years ago, Mr. Lee moved to the village of Jeogu, off the coast of South Gyeongsang province.
There he continues to interact with young literature students and writers, and remains an active writer whose work can be found on www.poetschool.net. He is also the principal of an Internet-based poetry school.
GEOJE ISLAND, South Gyeongsang
“Am I happy? I came here with my family to be happy,” says Lee Jin-woo, a 38-year-old poet.
“Do I feel lonely being here in the most remote part of the tip of the peninsula?” asked Mr. Lee. “I came here to appease the loneliness that I feel, which can’t be healed by mingling with other people.”
It was a long, tiring nine-hour drive from Seoul to Mr. Lee’s house in Jeogu village in the southern part of Geoje island, in the sea off South Gyeongsang province. The area surrounding Mr. Lee’s house was black as burnt toast. The poet offers makgeolli, a murky alcohol, which we drink under the glittering stars while listening to the soothing sounds of waves crashing into the shore.
Mr. Lee’s most recent poem “The Afternoon of My Heart” is solemn and slow moving ― like the people on this hamlet.
Since his debut, Mr. Lee has produced 15 works, including essays and novels, as if he were being chased by a mysterious force.
“I once wrote a long novel in three months because I continued writing the moment I opened my eyes the next day,” he reminisces.
“When I was working with a publishing house I would edit novels that weren’t to my liking; it was all to make a living,” Mr. Lee says. “I once drank alcohol for several nights in a row because I just hated myself.”
Looking back on his life in Seoul, Mr. Lee observes that he spent less and less time with his family, “and I was becoming extremely exhausted.”
So in the summer of 2000, Mr. Lee stepped away from the urban grind and moved south to live off the land. Mr. Lee’s wife, Cho Yeon-soo, cried nonstop as she packed their bags, and it didn’t end when they boarded the bus.
Here on Geoje island the poet’s wife prevented her husband from killing himself with a pen after struggling to write creatively.
Mr. Lee’s wife then proposed taking the burden of family breadwinner by working part-time at the county office. The family also rented out five rooms to fill their pockets a bit.
“After listening to what my wife had to say, I realize I have lived my life with faults,” says Mr. Lee. “For what was I writing and working? And yet wasn’t I negligent about being affectionate toward my own family. Nowadays I only write things that I want to and spend my time planting vegetables in the garden and collecting clams at the beach.”
When a person is between age 30 and 50, it is not easy to give up one’s work. We talk about what makes a person addicted to their work, and soon the first rooster started to crow as the sun rose over the horizon across the sea.
We run out of makgeolli. Mr. Lee proudly displays the celery cabbage that he has grown. “After my ‘Letters From Jeogu Village’ was published in the JoongAng Ilbo many folks have asked me what I thought was happiness. I would tell them that it is washing the farm implements after working in the fields until nightfall, and living together without any barriers with nature and neighbors,” says Mr. Lee.
“Isn’t it happiness when a person empties his mind and lives harmoniously instead of in a competitive life?”
Learning From the Time
When I first moved to this small town, my son was 6 and my daughter was 5. In the city, my children spent all day at nursery school while their father and mother worked. That explains why they wanted to be with their parents day and night, after moving here. They were happy without hamburgers and fried chicken. They had lots of fun without going to amusement parks. It was unbelievable for us parents, like a dream.
The following year, I enrolled my children in kindergarten. My children had such a blast, they didn’t want to leave school. It saddened me that I got to see my dear boy and girl less, but I did not tell them to hurry back home. My children are the last ones to arrive home, running to their parents.
And you know what? That is the happiest time of the day for me. For the last three years, my family has been removed from the conveniences of civilization. But my children got their parents back and the parents got their children back.
Restaurant by the Sea
Cheonghae, or Blue Sea, Chinese Restaurant is true to its name, standing on the seashore. It’s far from plush; rather, it looks a bit rickety, like the married couple in their 60s who run the place. As the husband cooks, the wife delivers the food on her petite yellow motor scooter.
The Blue Sea Chinese Restaurant is one-of-a-kind here in Nambu county. Rain or shine, the yellow scooter putters through the village. Especially during the short-handed farming season, the yellow scooter appears everywhere, even deep in the rice fields hidden in the mountains. In summer, the beach is lined with tourists and empty bowls of Chinese noodles from the yellow scooter. There is virtually no place that the yellow scooter cannot go ― even on the ship out at sea, bowls of Chinese noodles make a perfect meal. The only time the yellow scooter stops is Sundays, for the couple are devoted Christians. Being always hardworking and grateful, the couple themselves are the blue sea.
Around dinnertime, my wife pulled me by the sleeve to gather horseweed in the field. It has not been very long since I came to enjoy horseweed. It does not take a fancy recipe for a decent bowl of horseweed; just boil a handful of horseweed and mix it with soybean paste. I’m a big fan of that crude taste, so there was no reason to hesitate. The embankment around the field’s edge resembled a salad bar, owing to the rich variety of wild greens. We ended up picking sowthistle and tara vine, not to mention horseweed, as children played hide-and-seek with their doggie.
On the way home, I saw housewives hurrying home to prepare dinner. Behind an elderly gentleman’s crooked back, the sky was soaked in the glow of the setting sun. Chimney smoke was a sure sign of dinnertime. I suddenly felt hungry and urged my wife and children to go home. As my children ran, my wife and I eased our pace, going slower than the setting sun. We would have another splendid delicacy tonight.
My Friend, Seong-gwan
My new friend here in this small town, Seong-gwan, serves the role of forest fire lookout. He keeps watch from the peak of Gara Mountain, commanding a bird’s-eye view over Nambu county. Any sign of faint smoke from the woods spurs him to take out his radio and alert the office.
Sometimes piercing winds from sea blow against Gara Mountain, but it does not stop Seong-gwan. He climbs up the mountain early every morning without fail and descends around dusk, his body almost frozen at the bone. There is no holiday for this pro; every day you will find Seong-gwan on the observation post. Seong-gwan is by all means a professional, but there may be other reasons why he’s so into his job. Long ago, Seong-gwan tripped on the roof of a building, leaving him with an incurable wound.
In Seong-gwan, I find some relief in those who try their best in a seemingly small but actually important way in this world.
by Lee Kyeung-chul