Another poor kid waits to be devoured by rock biters on the island of Jeju-do.
“The Black Sands of Samyang” is one of the first pieces of fiction I wrote about the island of Jeju-do, where I lived for two years, and which has become a particular obsession of mine and a major presence in my work. Jeju is a weird tidbit of South Korea, about 80 kilometres south of the mainland, with its own traditional culture and a subtropical climate. It’s also a haven for tour groups from Korea, China and (increasingly) elsewhere, and home to a greater variety of bizarre tourist theme parks than I have seen anywhere else in the world, save perhaps Niagara Falls or Las Vegas. There are (or were) Mini-Worlds and Goblin Lands and a park called Loveland filled with giant plaster sculptures of whimsically rendered sex acts, not to mention dozens of assorted stone gardens, two replica sailing ships, and a museum built to resemble Timbuktu. On Jeju, you can have profound experiences that resonate with the spirit of the ocean and the wind, or you can watch an alcoholic Russian in a clown suit box a sad kangaroo.
The dichotomy between the traditional and its tourist simulacra fascinated me, and its deep well of local folklore on Jeju provided ample grist for the imagination. I particularly liked the story of Samyang Beach, where the black sands made of volcanic dust are said to have therapeutic properties. I don’t recall exactly what lit the spark in my imagination that cast light on the story of Jae-yeun and his poor mother, but the result, I think, is a way of processing a place that was so rich in myths and stories, yet also rife with the desperate artificiality and unhinged fantasy of the mass amusement trade. On the other hand, it’s also a sort of gift to the island, or a way to honour its beauty and history. Many of the places described in the story are places I spent time in, and grew to love. I wanted, and still want, other people to know they’re there, and that they’re worth seeing, and preserving.
Looking back on it, the piece explores many of the same themes and motifs I’ve revisited in my work again and again: the tension between illusion and reality, the ridiculousness of bureaucracy and politics, the helplessness of the individual, clouds, stories and so on. (It also has many of the same flaws I still fight with in my writing, hello run-on sentence, ahem.) I didn’t realize until long after the fact that the image at the end, of remains displayed in an institutional or constructed setting – tomb as theme park – is echoed in another piece I wrote: “The Last Ham,” which was recently published as an e-book by House of Anansi Digital. (You can get it here.)
I haven’t been back to Jeju in years. They’re building a new U.S. military base on it now, which saddens me, because it will change the character of the place, and some of its more fragile stories are sure to disappear. I hope that the black sands of Samyang endure.