Once-homeless writer’s dispatch from the street honored
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 [email@example.com]