Saturday, March 31, 2012


Apparently, there was, perhaps still is, a sign in downtown Pyongyang that reads, “We are all happy here.” I picture people on the street—rushing home from work, going to school, thinking about making dinner, a sick child, and that fight with a husband, etc.

Ordinary life makes for horrible propaganda.

It just can’t meet the 5-year plan. Take Henry Stimson, FDR’s Secretary of War who controlled the Manhattan Project. He goes to work, makes plans to obliterate Hiroshima and goes home for a nap.

War is supposed to be about good and evil. But, at the end of the day, it’s millions of ordinary people who each decide to kill millions of other ordinary humans.

This is from Philip Allott’s, radical Eunomia (I wonder what the other profs at Cambridge and his British foreign service chums thought of him after this):

“And they (the nation-state) have ordered the consciousness of their societies in such a way as to cause their citizen’s to accept value-forming theories to the effect that the ultimate identity of other human beings is not their sense of humanity, but their national identity—ultimate, in the sense that, as members of one nation-state, we may be required to act, preferably of our own willing (and, if not, under the compulsion of the willing of others), to kill or maim human beings who are members of other nation-states.”

Little Drops, my next novel, looks at the history of U.S. involvement in Korea as a way to explore mythologies of national identity, particularly my own.

The idea began with a newspaper article I’d read in the NYT about a Japanese tourist kidnapped off a beach by North Korean frogmen and taken back to Pyongyang. The complete absurdity of the story tickled me. I immediately envisioned a slapstick scene of some poor housewife being wrestled into a Zodiac by men in wet suits and Bozo-the-clown size flippers. Humor is subversive by nature. Laughter is difficult to control. In fact, it works by defying reason. It points out our own ridiculousness and forces us not to take ourselves so damn seriously.

Seriously. 3.5 million Koreans died in the Korean war. 2.5 million were in the North. One quarter of the total population there.

When I started doing background research. I realized all I knew about Korea was that we’d gone to war to protect the democratic South when the communist dictatorship of the North invaded.


It’s the Cold War doctrine and I got it pushed into my head probably in eighth grade and stuck.

First of all, the South became democratic only in the 1990’s. Second, the 38th parallel was put into place by two colonels who went into a room and came out a few hours later with a map. Third, no one ever asked what the Koreans wanted. In fact, the U.S. military had the appalling idea that they would just keep the same people in power to ease transition. Of course, the Koreans had just a bit of a problem accepting that they’d continue to be ruled by the occupying Japanese and their Korean collaborators. The North did, in fact, invade, contrary to what the NK textbooks spit out about Yank imperialists, but Syngman Rhee, the President of South Korea wanted to do it first and was only held back by his U.S. handlers. Of course, this was all played out against the Cold War which had started almost immediately after Japan surrendered in World War II.

Let’s play the blame game. How many of those three million Koreans were guilty? Let’s make it easy—we won’t even define the crime. 5000? 100,000? A million?

And the others?

And me?

Of all the tragedies of this peninsula’s history, I think the one that makes me, an American, the saddest, is the March First movement of 1919. After President Wilson issued his Fourteen Points, which included the right for countries to have self determination, a group of Koreans (living under Japanese occupation) issued this declaration of independence:

“We herewith proclaim the independence of Korea and the liberty of the Korean people. We tell it to the world in witness of the equality of all nations and we pass it on to our posterity as their inherent right.
We make this proclamation, having 5,000 years of history, and 20,000,000 united loyal people. We take this step to insure to our children for all time to come, personal liberty in accord with the awakening consciousness of this new era. This is the clear leading of God, the moving principle of the present age, the whole human race's just claim. It is something that cannot be stamped out, stifled, gagged, or suppressed by any means.”

I read this, and that naïve part of me thinks, yes! America, of all nations, would certainly recognize this yearning for freedom.


This from Wikipedia:

A delegation of overseas Koreans, from Japan, China, and Hawaii, sought to gain international support for independence at the ongoing Paris Peace Conference. The United States and Imperial Japan blocked the delegation's attempt to address the conference.[5]

In April 1919, the State Department told the ambassador to Japan that "the consulate [in Seoul] should be extremely careful not to encourage any belief that the United States will assist the Korean nationalists in carrying out their plans and that it should not do anything which may cause Japanese authorities to suspect [the] American Government sympathizes with the Korean nationalist movement."[6]

This novel is my way of looking at my own national identity and my country’s mythology. The Cold War background of U.S. Korean relations and the stuck-in-a-time-capsule politics of North Korea itself provide a ready-made historical backdrop for this exploration. Afterall, it was during this time, that the United States begin to sell the image of itself abroad as an alternative to Communism, even as, at home, it pursued Joseph McCarthy’s decidedly un-American agenda of persecution. Moreover, I want to explore power dynamics on the domestic front in the form of traditional and non-traditional gender roles in the U.S., Korea, and Japan, as well as Japanese genderbending in manga and Kabuki.

It seems to me that the current political scene can be read as a desperate attempt to revive a vision of small-town, middle class America that hasn’t existed since 1950, if ever. The lives of everyday Americans (a majority of whom use some form of birth control and have pre-marital sex and have never fought in a war and have no problem buying cheap Chinese air conditioners at Walmart) as well as the world will be altered, perhaps irrevocably, by our misplaced nostalgia for a past that never was and a future that never will be.

My work changes as I go but right now I see the novel as a road-trip game. Using Google maps, you begin with planet earth, then hone in on marked cities in the U.S., Japan, Korea, (and probably Moscow and Beijing) and there discover objects and structures which have been superimposed onto the landscapes. Sound will be very important, and possibly different types of gesture or other direct user interface such as camera function. In this way, I hope to capture concomitant intimacy and distance of individuals to historical events. Also, important to consider would be the concept of group play influencing individual trajectories and outcomes. Maybe you have to pool your tiny drops or ask for help or work together on a project.

Google maps on street level possesses a vaguely apocalyptic emptiness. It's time standing still. It reminds me of the oddly normal yet eerie city scenes in Neon Genesis Evangelion (que to 2:00)
I want the process of history to become one of discovering it from multiple sources both fictional and historical. The novel itself will be in an organic architectural structure either a tree (like Miyazaki) or underwater which is a really nice idea conceptually because it’s adding your tiny drops to an ocean that is “grown” when you collect enough tiny drops. I’ll also consider shooting out the novel in “chapters” as text plus ephemeral data (photos, vids, soundfiles etc.)

I have a few ideas for “games” within the game. One would be to add neon propaganda signs to “Vegas” –I would love to see “We are all guilty here” in flickering neon. Also, I would like the 38th parallel to consist of a thicket of words—people can post political tweets regarding Korea, and players have to maneuver over and around the collective morass to get to the other side. Also, have an idea for a dress-shop, where you could dress yourself in new look designs. I have always wanted to make my JFK’s White house dinner party seating chart (Arthur Miller and Robert Rauschenberg and Saul Bellow!) ballgown a reality.

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