Korea Under Japanese Rule
Robert Earle’s short story, “Liars, Whoremongers, Killers, and Worse” appeared in The Puritan’s 26th issue, Summer 2014. The story follows a Korean man, Sung Wei, and charts his journey from a child living in Korea under Japanese rule to prisoner of war to religious leader over the span of several decades. His story explored the contradictions inherent in war, sex, piety, and nationalism.
“Liars, Whoremongers, Killers, and Worse” epitomizes something about my fiction: many of my stories seem to have flowed from different pens. This shows up in varying diction, characters, cultural and historical backdrops, and themes. Some time ago I became fascinated with the two Koreas and their leading figures. That led to a number of stories that are loosely related to “Liars, Whoremongers, Killers, and Worse.” There is a fierceness about the Koreas, trapped as they are between China and Japan, that generates extraordinary contradictions between North and South. My protagonist, Sung Wei, embodies that fierceness, and he’s obviously a man of many contradictions. Since I also find the worldwide spread of Christianity intriguing, I use him to probe its role in the East. The malleability of Christianity is breathtaking. Here is a religion that emanated from a time and place utterly alien to contemporary New York City and certainly alien to the Korean peninsula, and yet it finds spokespeople everywhere—each interpreting the Christ story to suit contemporary needs.
Having lived in and traveled through so-called “Third World” countries, I also like to develop stories in settings where elemental experiences and truths smack my characters in the face. In North America, wealth and geography keep most of us safe from imminent disaster. But try climbing out of a hole like the Koreas after the Korean War (which isn’t over, by the way; there’s an armistice in place, not a peace) or Central America right now or Iraq or Burma, and you will encounter crushing burdens that somehow—miraculously—do not crush everyone. Some people, like Sung Wei, make crisis their strength.
I’ve spent time with men who must gobble food because they were starved as children and men who are ashamed to have been born in prison and men who were tortured so badly by their enemies that they can’t button their shirts or put on their coats by themselves. Yet they carry on; they persist. This indomitable quality is what I was exploring in Sung Wei, along with a dispassion that gives him his sense of humor. Calamity is the human condition—why not enjoy it?
The critical element for me when I’m working on exotic material is surrendering to it and catching its voice. When I’ve got the voice, which is more than diction and rhythm and extends to worldview, I am only partially conscious of what I’m doing as the inherent dynamics of what I’ve written so far dictate what comes next. My objective is to let the story tell itself. The beauty of writing short stories is that they are like a thrilling gust of wind; their innate energy is magical; and it is that energy, when it vanishes, that tells you when they have had their say.
With more than seventy stories and novellas in print and online literary journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary writers of short fiction. He also is the author of two novels, The Way Home and The Man Clothed in Linen, and a book of non-fiction about Iraq, Nights in the Pink Motel. He recently moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and has degrees in literature and writing from Princeton and Johns Hopkins.