Once-homeless writer’s dispatch from the street honored

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Once-homeless writer’s dispatch from the street honored


Choi Gwang-ri

“The poet Byron said, ‘I awoke one morning and found myself famous,’ but I awoke one morning and found myself homeless.”

This is an excerpt from “When Winter Comes, It Won’t Be Long Before Spring Comes,” by Choi Gwang-ri, which recently won the 18th Chun Tae-il Literature Prize in short nonfiction. Choi Gwang-ri now lives in a small room in Huam-dong, central Seoul, but it wasn’t always so.

For about 20 years, Choi provided for his wife and two daughters working as a reporter at a small magazine publisher. Then, during a hike in 1999, Choi injured his head in a fall, and he was never the same again. He plunged into alcoholism, his employer fired him and his wife left. He suffered from malnutrition. In 2004, he sent his two daughters, then in middle school, to live with their mother in the United States, and returned to his hometown of Jeongseon, Gangwon, to recuperate.

When he came back to Seoul, there was no one left to help him. He got another magazine job, but the cash-strapped company didn’t pay him for months. His monthly rent fell into arrears. Then the publisher went bankrupt, and not much later he came home to find his belongings in the street. His landlord said, “Don’t bother paying the overdue rent, just vacate the room.” Some of his possessions were even stolen while Choi was finding a taxi to move them. Because he had cut all ties with his parents and relatives, he had no choice but to live on the street.

“Anyone can be a homeless person, regardless of birth,” he wrote.

He finished his short piece about his two years of homelessness in Seoul in a single day. It relates the time Choi met an old colleague at a religious event he’d come to for the free meal, and many other experiences.

“I submitted it to the Chun Tae-il Literature Prize because of the cash prize,” said Choi. When his unemployment benefits run out, he will again have to worry about monthly rent. Though Choi has written magazine pieces and once won a prize for a poem, nonfiction was an unfamiliar medium. To test the waters, Choi sent an essay to a literature quarterly to surprise and acclaim.

Choi read his piece about homelessness again after hearing he’d won, but said he could now only see its embarrassing weaknesses.

He said writing let him challenge himself, though he started doing it to make a living.

Writing about the homeless life was very sensitive, Choi said, because of the danger he might insult someone. “There’s not a single bad person among the people on the street. Wicked people [live somewhere else]. We talked about our hopes and thought about the future while drinking.”

At the end of the piece, Choi tells of a trip to Haenam, South Jeolla. He wrote that he saw a path of dreams over the sea. “Though I was limping, my sadness like a corn on the sole of my foot, it seemed as though I had to walk that road. And that’s why I keep writing.”

By Kim Hyo-eun, Ahn Seong-sik [estyle@joongang.co.kr]
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“시인 바이런은 ‘어느 날 아침 깨어나 보니 유명해졌다’고 했지만 나는 어느 날 아침 깨어나보니 노숙인이 되어 있었다. 내가 서울역으로 향한 이유는 24시간 불빛이 있는 공간이 거기밖에 없겠다는 생각에서였다.”

이달 발표한 제18회 전태일 문학상 기록문 단편 수상작의 일부다. ‘겨울이 오면 봄은 멀지 않으리’란 제목의 이 글은 노숙생활을 구체적으로 묘사해 좋은 평가를 받았다. 글의 저자 최광리(50)씨는 지금 서울 후암동 쪽방촌에서 산다. 월세 20만원의 6.6㎡(2평) 남짓한 작은 공간이다. 그는 “나는 노숙인이고, 잡놈이며 글쟁이”라고 말했다. 밥벌이를 위해 펜을 들었지만, 내일을 예측할 수 없는 불안정한 삶에서 자신을 지탱해 주는 것도 ‘글쓰기’라고 했다.

최씨는 자신의 글처럼 갑자기 노숙인이 됐다. 20여 년간 작은 잡지에서 기자생활을 했던 그였다. 가장이자 두 딸의 아빠이기도 했다. 1999년 등산 도중 바위에서 떨어져 머리를 크게 다치면서 불행은 시작됐다. 실업과 부인과의 별거, 알코올 중독 등이 이어졌고, 먹는 것이 변변치 않아 영양실조까지 걸렸다. 2004년 중학생이었던 두 딸을 엄마가 있는 미국으로 보냈다. 서울 생활을 모두 정리하고 3년 동안 고향인 강원도 정선에서 요양을 했다. 다시 서울로 돌아왔을 때 주변엔 아무도 없었다. 잡지사에서 일을 시작했지만 몇 달 월급이 밀리더니 부도가 났다. 혼자 사는 원룸의 월세는 밀려 있었다. 어느 날 집에 들어와보니 모든 세간이 문 밖에 나와 있었다. 집주인은 “월세는 됐으니 방을 비워 달라”고 했다. 짐을 옮기려 택시를 부르러 나간 사이 그나마 있던 세간도 도둑 맞았다. 부모·친척과도 인연을 끊은 지 오래였다. 그의 거리 생활은 그렇게 시작됐다. 그는 “노숙인은 태어날 때 정해지는 게 아니라 누구든 될 수 있다”고 했다.
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