Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park: NPR


In “Late Rainy Season Vacation”, a story in Sang Young Park’s Love in the big city, a gay character decides to lie down in the middle of a soggy street with his lover, reveling in the feeling of being both exposed and protected from the elements.

Translated by Anton Hur with surprising immediacy, Park’s first English film – as framed by this unforgettable scene – captures the ambiguous landscape inhabited by South Korean gays, both visible and unrecognized.

Originally titled A manual for love in the big city, Park’s novel can be read as an anthropological approach to seoulite queer life in the 21st century.

The four linked stories – “Jahee”, “A Bite of Rockfish, Taste the Universe”, “Love in the Big City” and “Late Rainy Season Vacation” – illustrate how the queer community has lived since the early 2000s. under a dual system of being “privately and publicly in the closet” because South Korean society has not fully recognized LGBTQ rights. As a social backdrop for Love in the big city, this setting reflects the characters’ constant pull between pride and shame.

Many homosexual characters in Park’s universe, although proud to “step out” of their circle of trust, would opt for stealth or invisibility as a defense mechanism: by taking long walks with their lovers in the early hours of the morning before the streets aren’t crowded with people, or frequenting dimly-lit gay nightclubs in Seoul’s Itaewon International District, where they can be fully themselves. To escape the exam while serving in the military, Young – Park’s alter-ego and also a writer – would have his lover write him coded letters as Jahee, his best friend and roommate (” Jahee “).

Given South Korea’s complex socio-political situation and conservative moral climate, discrimination is often insidious and even self-imposed. A pro-democracy activist cannot reconcile his homosexuality with his nationalist politics and instead despises his young lover for being a slave to American pop culture (“A Bite of Rockfish, Taste the Universe”). A company’s seemingly neutral policy of requiring full blood work as a condition of employment can have a dramatic impact on the livelihoods of an HIV-positive man, assuming he would withdraw his candidacy or resign before revealing his state of health (“Love in the big city”).

Fiction can be both an instrument of public resistance and a private sanctuary for a queer writer, its power vaccinating him against perceptions of taboo and failure. On the other hand, many of the characters in the novel are afflicted with self-delusion by trying to deny their various mental and physical conditions. Young’s mother, who disapproves of Young’s homosexuality, is ashamed of having uterine cancer. One of his lovers hides the fact that he has a partner with a terminal illness.

Interestingly, Young’s HIV status is both permanent and open: his ambiguous nature – like his fiction – expands narrative reach, transcending pride and shame, even becoming a redemptive attribute.

For example, while Young’s condition arguably limits her romantic and professional opportunities, it also teaches her to be selfless in her love for Guy-ho – her boyfriend who has been alive for two years. Not wanting to restrict Guy-ho’s prospects, Young, like the tuberculous Camille in Alexandre Dumas son’ novel – courageously decides to sacrifice his own happiness (“Late Rainy Season Vacation”).

While reading Love in the big city, I would use Google Maps to follow Young and Guy-ho’s winding walks through Seoul – their favorite city – where the names of various neighborhoods take on the quality of a hypnotic prayer:

“The course of our meetings followed the flow of gentrification from Seoul. The Samcheong-dong and Bukchon galleries, Serosugil … past Bogwang-dong, Mangwon-dong, Haebangchon and Seongsu-dong ….”

By invoking these specific places, Park – who defines himself as a “citizen writer” – has poetically mapped out an area of ​​normalization for his homosexual protagonists so that they can overcome the dichotomy between security and exposure, public and private.

Unfortunately, much of Park’s effort still exists in the fictional realm.

Due to South Korea’s persistent delay in passing an anti-discrimination law, there is currently no legal protection of gender identity and sexual orientation against discrimination in housing or employment. (A request can be made for an investigation by the National Human Rights Commission, but the recommendations of the Commission are not legally binding). In addition, neither gay marriage nor gay rights in the military have been recognized. Thus the city, and by extension the state, has remained a place of exile for queer lovers.

Thúy Đinh is a freelance critic and literary translator. His work is available on she tweets @ThuyTBDinh.


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