Summer Reads: Emily Wolahan on Kim Kyung Ju and Xu Zechen

Seoul Nightlife shot

We’re having a July Summer Sale, with up to 50% off all Two Lines Press titles and back issues of our journal for as low as $2.

Here, Two Lines Press’s Emily Wolahan discusses one of her favorite TLP titles, plus one of her best summer reads.

Since only part of any summer is spent on vacation, it’s great to read books that transport me when I’m still at home. Kim Kyung Ju’s book of poems, I Am a Season that Does Not Exist in the World (Black Ocean 2015) is a different cosmic trip on each page. Translated from the Korean by Jake Levine, Kim’s poems pile surrealist imagery and linguistic turns one on the other. There’s a quickness to Kim’s writing; his energy circles in one lyrical, strange place. In “My Sorrow Suddenly Began Like a Love for Mom that Never Existed,” he writes:

Mom sitting on a flower bed blowing a soap bubble. Dad riding my wooden horse. Not returning home. Playing with a bottle cap. We have black shit in our stomach and sleep. Sprinkle a little ramen powder on our palm. Let’s eat. Older brother, the floor inside my outer world, that is the thing that I want to be. Sisters at night secretly draw Korean Barbies with big eyes on the white backs of calendars.

Each poem in I Am a Season immersed me in Kim’s world. It was easy to linger over Kim’s book. I could put it down and know that when I opened up to my spot (or any point of the book), I’d walk straight back into a totally unique vision of reality.

The other book of transformation and transportation that consumed me was Xu Zechen’s Running through Beijing. Where Kim Kung Ju creates an architecture of strange imagination, Xu Zechen speeds us through an other worldly Beijing of hustlers and wishful young people. Running through Beijing was one of the books I couldn’t stop until I finished it. Xu manages to convey in his writing the pace that his main character, Dunhuang, must maintain to get by in Beijing. Dunhuang is a hustler of the first order, a young man briefly in prison for selling fake IDs. Upon his release, he gets into selling pirated DVDs and making terrible, romantic choices. Every encounter he has is on the fly, every relationship casual.

The plot is great in Running and Dunhuang’s voice comes through as sharp and real as I remember Raskolnikov’s did—you either were that kid or you knew that kid. Despite the specificity of his surroundings and choices, Dunhuang himself is universal. And Xu’s descriptions of Dunhuang and Beijing are crucial to that feeling of “being there”:

Another trip to Changhong Bridge, another stack of DVDs. He’d have to go restock that afternoon. Kuang Shan was shocked at how often he was coming back to Cosmic, and how well he was doing selling on his own. Dunhuang said, “I’ve just got one rule: it’s life or death. Or if you want to be pretentious about it: professionalism.”

Translated by Eric Abrahamsen from the Chinese, Xu’s prose creates an incredible landscape of a dusty, fast-paced Beijing without much to offer anyone on the margin.

You can get Running Through Beijing, plus 9 other Two Lines Press titles, for up to 50% off in our July Summer Sale. See all the details here.

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