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For queer Seoulites in 'Love in the Big City,' pride and shame intertwine

Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park
Grove Atlantic

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 rain-soaked street with his lover, luxuriating in the sensation of being at once exposed and protected by the inclement weather.

Translated by Anton Hur with startling immediacy, Park's English language debut — as framed by this unforgettable scene — captures the ambiguous landscape inhabited by South Korean gays, of being both visible and unacknowledged.

Originally titled A Manual for Love in the Big City, Park's novel can be read as an anthropological approach to Seoulite queer lives in the 21st century.

The four linked stories — "Jaehee," "A Bite of Rockfish, Taste the Universe," "Love in the Big City," and "Late Rainy Season Vacation" — illustrate how the queer community has, since the early 2000s, lived under a dual system of being "privately out of and publicly in the closet," as South Korean society has not fully recognized LGBTQ rights. As the social backdrop for Love in the Big City, this framework reflects the characters' constant pull between pride and shame.

Many gay characters in Park's universe, while proudly "out" among their trusted circle, would opt for discretion or invisibility as a defense mechanism: by taking long walks with their lovers in the early dawn before the streets are thronged with people, or by frequenting dimly lit gay nightclubs in Seoul's international district Itaewon, where they can fully be themselves. To evade scrutiny while serving in the military, Young — Park's alter-ego and also a writer — would ask his lover to write him coded letters as Jaehee, his female best friend and roommate ("Jaehee").

Given South Korea's complex sociopolitical situation and conservative moral climate, discrimination is often insidious, and even self-imposed. A pro-democracy activist can't reconcile his homosexuality with his nationalist politics and instead spurns his younger lover for being a slave to American pop culture ("A Bite of Rockfish, Taste the Universe"). A corporation's seemingly neutral policy of requiring comprehensive bloodwork as a condition of employment can substantially impact the livelihood of an HIV-positive man, assuming he would withdraw his job application or resign before disclosing his medical condition ("Love in the Big City").

While reading Love in the Big City, I would use Google Maps to follow Young and Guy-ho's meandering walks through Seoul — their favorite city — where the names of various neighborhoods take on the quality of hypnotic prayer.

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

Young's HIV-positive status, interestingly, is at once permanent and open-ended: Its ambiguous nature — like his fiction — expands the narrative scope, transcending pride and shame, even becoming a redemptive attribute.

For instance, while Young's medical condition arguably limits his romantic and career opportunities, it also teaches him to be selfless in his love for Gyu-ho — his live-in boyfriend of two years. Not wishing to restrict Gyu-ho's prospects, Young, like the tuberculous Camille in Alexandre Dumas fils' novel — bravely 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 Gyu-ho's meandering walks through Seoul — their favorite city — where the names of various neighborhoods take on the quality of hypnotic prayer:

"The course of our dates followed the flow of Seoul's gentrification. The galleries of Samcheong-dong and Bukchon, Serosugil ... past Bogwang-dong, Mangwon-dong, Haebangchon, and Seongsu-dong ...."

By invoking these specific locations, Park — who calls himself a "citizen-writer" — has poetically mapped out a normalizing zone for his gay protagonists so they can overcome the dichotomy between safety and exposure, public and private.

Sadly, Park's endeavor still exists largely in the fictional realm.

Due to South Korea's persistent delay in enacting anti-discrimination law, currently there is no legal protection of gender identity and sexual orientation against discrimination in housing or employment. (One can file a petition for an investigation by the National Human Rights Commission, but the Commission's recommendations are not legally binding). In addition, neither gay marriage nor gay rights in the military has been granted recognition. 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. Her work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: December 24, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier version of this book review misspelled two characters' names: They are Gyu-ho and Jaehee, not Guy-ho and Jahee.
Thúy Đinh
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