Watching Korean Literature Go International at the Seoul Book and Culture Club

By Colin Marshall

I intend, in the fullness of time, to give Korean literature at least its fair share of coverage here on the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ Korea Blog. But where best to begin? Readerly types newly arrived in Seoul might well ask the same question about how to take a first step into the realm of letters here, and in response I would direct them to the Seoul Book and Culture Club, keep-uppable with online through either Facebook or Meetup.

Hosted by Scottish expatriate cultural impresario Barry Welsh (whom I interviewed last year on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture), the Book and Culture Club has put on live events with such literary luminaries as poet (and prime Korean Nobel Prize candidate) Ko Un, Please Look After Mom author Shin Kyung-sook, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself author Kim Young-ha (whom I profiled here in the LARB), The Vegetarian author Han Kang, Native Speaker author Lee Chang-rae, and Drifting House author (as well as another interviewee of mine) Krys Lee, all of which they conduct bilingually, in both Korean and English.

KB - Seoul Book and Culture Club 1

Just last weekend I attended a Book and Culture Club event which gathered onstage four young Korean writers (“young” meaning, given the high barrier to entry of Korea’s literary scene, younger than fifty) for a discussion of the direction of Korean fiction today, all of whom now have a novella out in a dual-language edition from ASIA Publishers. Lee Jangwook, a poet, critic, and Russian literature specialist in addition to his work as a novelist, wrote Old Man River (올드 맨 리버); Lee Kiho, who specializes in telling stories of societally marginal characters in unusual forms, wrote Kwon Sun-chan and Nice People (권순찬과 착한 사람들); the Korean-Chinese Geum Hee, whose work focuses on the lives of North Korean refugees, wrote Ok-hwa (옥화); and Baik Sou-linne, who grew up in Paris from junior high on, wrote Time Difference (시차).

It might seem an odd choice to introduce writers to the Anglosphere with novellas (and short novellas at that), a form that English and American readers never seem quite sure what to do with. But if you want to understand Korean literature, you have to understand the place of the short form. Lee Kiho, the most famous author of the bunch, explained that short novels have the importance they do here not despite the fact that they don’t sell well, but “because they don’t sell well,” creating the perception that, unlike longer novels, “they’re not under the influence of capitalism.” (Plus, he added, “they’re more convenient for the writers” — no small matter.)

KB - Seoul Book and Culture Club 2

In the interviewer’s chair sat Charles Montgomery, teacher in the English Interpretation and Translation division of Seoul’s Dongguk University, editor of KTLit.com, and just about the most enthusiastic American (or otherwise) advocate for Korean literature in translation I know. (I also happen to have interviewed him myself on Notebook on Cities and Culture.) He lead the writers into a conversation that ranged widely, especially in the geographic sense, given that most of them had written stories set in or involving (or came with the personal experience of living in) lands outside Korea. An underlying question: has Korean literature truly begun to internationalize?

Lee Jangwook suggested that it might simply have begun to reflect the age of global capitalism in which we find ourselves. Baik Sou-Linne pointed to the current rise of “traveling novels” in Korean literature, mentioning the increasing proportions of Koreans who, like her, lived abroad at an early age. It all made me think of Douglas Coupland’s definition of the relatively new genre of “Translit,” composed of novels that “cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.”

KB - Seoul Book and Culture Club 3

Yes, I would very much like to read Korean Translit, especially of a kind this latest generation of writers could well master. But would Koreans themselves like to read it? Montgomery brought up the OECD-collected statistic that, despite Korea’s impressively high literacy rate, it ranks poorly indeed in terms of how much reading its citizens do for pleasure. In this as in other areas of culture, more attention from the wider world — increasingly drawn, I would think, by a more history-spanning, geography-spanning outlook on the part of the writers — might stoke more attention back home. Korea’s promoters have long shown an obsession with the country’s international rankings (especially its sometimes unflattering OECD rankings), and perhaps that will bring those lagging pleasure-reading numbers up.

Or maybe we just need a better definition of reading. Lee Jangwook described the established notion of “good reading” as, quite possibly, nothing more than a stereotype. Maybe, he argued, it can involve something other than alone time with a paper book; maybe it can happen online too, and maybe the amount of active discussion, criticism, and knowledge that results from it counts as much as the volume of reading done in the first place. The very role of literature, added Geum Hee, has changed: it doesn’t tell you what to think anymore, but gets you to reflect on your life. Nobody argued against the idea that the time of the writer as societally anointed “grand master,” seemingly prolonged in Korea, has ended. In the straightforward words of Lee Jangwook, “It’s about time we burst that bubble.”

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Korean Punk and Indie Rock in a K-Pop World

By Colin Marshall

After years of solo study, I first started taking Korean language classes at Los Angeles’ Korean Cultural Center. While sampling the levels on offer to find one that matched my ability, I noticed a trend. The classes started out huge at the beginner level, thinned out at the intermediate level, and got quite small indeed at the advanced level. That, you’d expect, but the type of people enrolled also changed on the way up: the ranks of the beginner class heaved with students brought there by their love of Korean pop music, or “K-pop” (perhaps you’ve heard of it), while, by the advanced class, they’d almost all fallen away, leaving, for the most part, me and a bunch of Korean-Americans finally interested in communicating with their grandparents.

Global interest in K-pop rose alongside my own interest in Korea — a pure coincidence, I can assure you, unless you buy this business about the pan-pop-cultural “Korean wave” supposedly crashing against shore after shore over the past decade or two. But there’s no arguing with all those Big Bang, Super Junior, Girls’ Generation, and 2NE1 enthusiasts packing the Beginner A classrooms: more so than the movies or the television dramas, the country’s disproportionately huge number of subtly different idol singers, girl groups, and boy bands have, for better or for worse, defined for the world what the world has begun to call “Korean cool.”

“Japanese cool is quirky, the sum of the nation’s eccentricities,” writes Jeff Yang at CNN. “Hong Kong cool is frenetic, representative of the society’s freewheeling striving spirit. American cool is casual: It’s cool that’s anchored in doing without trying, it’s about being quintessentially effortless. By contrast, Korean cool could not be more effort-ful,” with its “candy-colored, otherworldly aesthetic,” its performers “invariably dancing in perfect sync,” having been “recruited as adolescents and trained for years in groups that are required to live, take classes, eat, sleep and rehearse together until they’ve achieved a transcendent level of harmony.”

Growing up in America, I had plenty of time to grow weary of American cool, with its unceasing pressure to go your own iconoclastic way — as long as you do so as visibly as possible, and in such a way as to make it seem as if you not only don’t notice the eyes on you, but that you didn’t want to turn them toward you in the first place. The defining memory of the cultural landscape of my adolescence: “alternative rock” wasn’t just a commercial radio format, it was the most popular commercial radio format. There, as in many areas of mainstream culture, the substance didn’t quite match the image.

KB - us and them 1

My last memorable disappointment with this sort of thing came the first time I heard the actual music of Lady Gaga. Had the compositions of her songs sounded half as bold as the her outfits looked, we’d have had a revolution in pop, but as it stands, her outlandish appearance only casts into relief the blandest elements of her only faintly-adventurous-by-mainstream-standards hits. By the same token, if the compositional wing of the K-pop industry spent half as much energy pushing their music into new territories (rather than tweaking and refining whatever the last big group did) as the video and stage-show producers do with those candy colors and perfect synchronicity, I’d have started studying Korean out of a love of K-pop myself.

“K-pop looks good,” says Bernie Cho, the Korean-American president of Korean music distribution and marketing agency DFSB Kollective. “Some would say it sounds good,” he adds, making the biggest laugh line of Us and Them: Korean Indie Rock in a K-Pop World, a new documentary by academics Stephen Epstein and Tim Tangherlini. It follows up on Our Nation: A Korean Punk Documentary, which they put out in 2002. I caught a screening last week of both films, back to back, at Seoul’s Club Ruailrock (롸일락), followed by live sets from a few of the bands featured therein — some closer to punk, some closer to rockabilly, some other brands of rock entirely, all of them united in the cause of not being K-pop.

Taken together, the documentaries constitute a fascinating portrait of not just the evolution of Korean punk and indie rock, which has had to develop on the thin margins of Korean life, but of Korean life itself. One friend remarked that the screaming girls at the foot of the stage in the early 2000s seen in Our Nation looked, even just by comparison to the screaming girls at the foot of the stage in the early 2010s seen in Us and Them, almost North Korean — that is to say, they looked less affected by the sort of cosmetic surgery-crafted standard look that, in the years between the two movies, has influenced the image of everyday South Koreans and positively defined the image of the South Korean pop star.

That counts as only one of the many things a young Korean rocker might have to rebel against. As I grew up and watched some of my friends get into punk, I have to admit I wondered what they saw in it, or rather heard in it; as a score, it might well have suited the crumbling New York or London of the 1970s, but the suburbs of Seattle in the 1990s? (Not that the theatrical booze- and pill-fueled angst of that era’s “alternative” rock struck me as relatable either.) But now I wonder how any Korean high-school student, subject to the all-consuming morning-noon-and-night pressure of Korean social and academic expectations, could do without the catharsis punk provides.

When Westerners imagine East Asian interpretations of Western music, they often imagine a sort of rigidly imitative formalism, the kind out of which Dave Barry got a few miles when he went to Tokyo and observed the street rockers and dancers of Harajuku, a scene that, he writes, “served as heartwarming proof that rock music is indeed the universal language of the young, and the Japanese young cannot speak it worth squat.” He perceives “a Hipness Gap, a gap between us so vast that their cutting-edge young rockin’ rebels look like silly posturing out-of-it weenies even to a middle-aged dweeb like myself. They buy our music, they listen to our music, they play our music, but they don’t get our music.”

But Dave Barry Does Japan came out in 1992, and this is the 21st century; we’ve long since transcended ideas of “getting it” and “not getting it,” right? Don’t we we now have a zeitgeist that renders Japanese reinterpretations of vintage Americana a worthier object of fascination than the genuine articles? And besides, this is Korea, a culture characterized less (in the view of its own people) by constant self-possession than spontaneous emotional outburst, and less by the disciplined replication of things foreign than by their indiscriminate mixture. This sensibility gave the first wave of Korean indie rock, reflected upon in Our Nation, its particular appeal.

kb - us and them 2

Epstein, in an article on both documentaries for The Asia-Pacific Journal, writes about 1989, his first year in Korea, a time when, “long before the term K-Pop was coined, Korean popular music was rife with anodyne but often overwrought concoctions and Western soft rock was ubiquitous,” a mixture he experienced as “a mild form of aural torture.” But when he returned in 1997, things had changed. “How did punk rock get to Korea when eight years ago I couldn’t even imagine that there would be anything like this?” he asked himself. And as for the new sounds themselves, “Imagine listening to pop music for your whole life, and then suddenly over the course of a year, somebody introduces you to Nirvana, the Sex Pistols, Green Day, Led Zeppelin, all at once. What kind of music are you going to make?”

That question lies at the heart of Our Nation and Us and Them‘s project, as it will presumably lie at the heart of whatever documentary on Korean punk and indie rock Epstein and Tangherlini make next. They chart a kind of internationalization of the music: first, Koreans adapted the threads of Western rock for their own expressive purposes (an early compilation carried the title Joseon Punk (조선펑크); a later band  branded themselves as playing “kimchibilly”); then, as the foreign population of Korea grew, the Westerners themselves joined in, forming mixed-nationality bands with the Koreans; now, Korean bands have begun to play in the West, and Western bands come to play in Korea — the sort of ongoing transoceanic musical exchange that must warm the heart of any cultural globalist.

But will there come a point, I wonder, when we stop calling it Korean music? For all their close scrutiny and impeccable assumption, even improvement, of the form of the postwar American greaser, those Harajuku kids Barry ridiculed, “all dressed identically in tight black T-shirts, tight black pants, black socks, and pointy black shoes,” each one with a “lovingly constructed, carefully maintained, major-league caliber 1950s-style duck’s-ass haircut,” come off no less Japanese — and, in a way, more Japanese — for it. He witnessed a mastery of varying surfaces, even foreign surfaces, but a mastery itself rooted in a deeper place. In the words of Pico Iyer, “Japan is ready to change its clothes so often in part because it changes its soul so rarely.”

How often does Korea change its soul? An ultimately unanswerable question, but one that any watcher of Korean popular culture can’t avoid. Our Nation and Us and Them reveal a subculture more porous, more subject to permanent influence, than any of my acquaintance in Japan, and perhaps, so far, a more fruitful one for it. I get the sense of K-pop, which by nature seeks an ever bigger market, moving toward a kind of linguistic dilution and geographical nowhere-ness that might one day, for all the soft-power value of the brand at the moment, let it cast off what Epstein calls its “Special K” and become a kind of (alas, even blander) global pop music. Will Korea’s punk and indie rockers, in their oppositional manner, show the way down a more interesting path of musical internationalization?

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

When Old Blue Eyes Was Red: The Poignant Story of Frank Sinatra’s Politics


By Jon Wiener

I remember Sinatra who didn’t pal around with rich Republicans. During the early 1950s, at my Sunday school in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of the highlights of the year was the annual screening of The House I Live In, a short film starring a young and skinny Sinatra. In it, he told a gang of kids that racial and religious differences “make no difference except to a Nazi or somebody who’s stupid.” He sang about “The people that I work with / The workers that I meet. . . . The right to speak my mind out / That’s America to me.” The House I Live In, made at the peak of Sinatra’s popularity, won him a special Academy Award in 1945. Four years later his career was in ruins, in the wake of charges that he was tied to both the Mafia and the Communists. Forty years later his career was legend, his politics solidly conservative.

At first glance Sinatra’s political Odyssey from left to right seems to have followed a well-trod path. “Maturity” has been defined by figures as different as John dos Passos and Jerry Rubin as the abandonment of youthful ideals. But Sinatra’s case is different. Beaten down as an activist leftist, his career destroyed by the right-wing press, he made a stunning comeback, then found himself snubbed and abused by the liberals whose views he shared. Only then did he sign up with his old right-wing enemies.

The House I Live In was a turning point. The Cumulative Index to Publications of the Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), a handy list of everyone named as a communist in 20 years of committee hearings, indicates that in the eight years following The House I Live In Sinatra was named 12 times. The New York Times Index for 1949 contains a single stunning cross-reference: “Sinatra, Frank: See US—Espionage.” Sinatra reportedly denied the reports that he “followed or appeased some of the CP [Communist Party] line program over a long period of time.”

But once the allegations had been made, Sinatra’s image in the press changed dramatically. He was first linked to the Mafia in a February 1947 gossip column that reported he had been seen in Havana with mobster Lucky Luciano and other “scum” and “goons” who “find the south salubrious in the winter, or grand-jury time.” The columnist’s source, and the source of many subsequent Mafia-Sinatra stories, turns out to have been Harry Anslinger, a crony of J. Edgar Hoover. Anslinger served as head of the federal narcotics bureau and was out to get Sinatra because he was a “pink.”

“Frank’s big nosedive,” as the pundits called it, began on April 8, 1947. That was the night he punched Hearst gossip columnist Lee Mortimer at Ciro’s celebrated Hollywood night spot. The Hearst papers went wild, running whole pages on the incident, repeating the Mafia story and HUAC charges. “Sinatra Faces Probe on Red Ties,” a headline read. Soon gossip titans Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and Dorothy Kilgallen were heaping abuse on him. Overnight Sinatra was transformed by the right-wing press from the crooning idol of bobby-soxers into a violent, left-wing Mafioso.

Overnight Sinatra was transformed by the right-wing press from the crooning idol of bobby-soxers into a violent, left-wing Mafioso.

Sinatra said he punched Mortimer because the columnist called him a “dago.” In fact Mortimer had been calling him some other things in print. He wrote about what he called “the crooner’s penchant for veering to portside” and reminded readers that Sinatra had been named in HUAC testimony as “one of Hollywood’s leading travelers on the road of Red Fascism.” Mortimer, nephew of the editor of the Hearst-owned New York Mirror, pledged that “this column will continue to fight the promotion of class struggle or foreign isms posing as entertainment”–like The House I Live In.

How pink had Sinatra been? HUAC’s sources were pretty disreputable. The first to name him was Gerald L. K. Smith, a raucous native fascist. In 1946 he told the committee that Sinatra “has been doing some pretty clever stuff for the Reds.” Sinatra was named again in HUAC testimony in 1947 by Walter S. Steele, a private Red-hunter who had once accused Campfire Girls of being “Communistic.” Jack B. Tenney, a California state senator who headed a state version of HUAC, reported in 1947 that Sinatra had taken part in a dinner sponsored by American Youth for Democracy, which J. Edgar Hoover had declared a communist front.

Between The House I Live In in 1945 and the big 1947 HUAC hearings, Sinatra had in fact moved much closer to organized left-wing political activity. In 1943, when riots broke out in Harlem, he went uptown to speak at two integrated high school assemblies, urging the kids to “act as neighborhood emissaries of racial goodwill toward younger pupils and among friends.” Shortly after, when white students in Gary, Indiana, boycotted classes at their newly integrated high school, Sinatra spoke in the school auditorium and sang “The House I Live In” What other star at the top of the charts has thrown himself into the civil rights struggle so directly?

In May 1946 Sinatra issued what Billboard called “an anti-Franco blast.” The statement was remarkable for two reasons. First, the only people who still remembered the support that Spain’s dictator received from Hitler and Mussolini were real leftists. And second, there was Sinatra’s Catholic background. The comment caused the Catholic Standard and Times of Philadelphia to label him a “pawn of fellow-travellers.”

Sinatra moved closer to the Communist Party in July 1946, when he served as vice president of the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts, Sciences and Professions. Known by its asthmatic acronym, HICCASP had been a broad coalition of pro-Roosevelt liberals and leftists, ranging from Thomas Mann to Rita Hayworth. Sinatra became an officer during a faction fight in which Communists pushed liberals out of the organization and steered it toward Henry Wallace’s leff-wing challenge to Truman in 1948. Sinatra wrote an open letter in the New Republic to Wallace at the beginning of 1947, calling on him to “take up the fight we like to think of as ours—the fight for tolerance, which is the basis of any fight for peace.” Within three months headlines appeared linking him to the Communists.

A month later he was fired from his radio show; six months after that his New York concerts flopped. Soon his personal life was falling apart as fast as his career. By December 1949 his affair with Ava Gardner had become an open scandal. Columbia Records was trying to get back the advance they had given him. In 1950 he was released from his MGM film contract, and his own agent, MCA, dropped him. He was a has-been at 34.

After Sinatra’s stunning 1953 comeback in From Here to Eternity, he remained a Democrat. He sang “The House I Live In” at the Hollywood Palladium at a 1956 campaign salute to Adlai Stevenson. He returned to the political wars with new energy during the spring of 1960. He had two projects that season: working for the Kennedy campaign (Sinatra’s version of “High Hopes” was the official Kennedy campaign song) and breaking the Hollywood blacklist that had barred left-wingers from working in the movies ever since the 1947 HUAC investigations.

The second project was announced shortly after Kennedy won the New Hampshire primary. The New York Times headline read, “Sinatra Defies Writer Blacklist / Hires Albert Maltz for his job filming of ‘The Execution O’ Private Slovik.’” Maltz had written The House I Live In. In Execution of Private Slovik, a recently published novel, told the story of the World War II G.I. who became the only American since the Civil War to be executed for desertion. “This marks the first time that a top movie star has defied the rule laid down by the major movies studios” 13 years earlier, the Times explained. Sinatra would produce, Robert Parish was to direct. Slovik would be played by a TV tough guy named Steve McQueen.

Sinatra, asked if he was fearful of the reaction to hiring a blacklisted writer, had a defiant, I-told-you-so response. He quoted his own 1947 statement criticizing HUAC’s witch-hunt: “Once they get the movies throttled, how long will it be before the committee gets to work on freedom of the air? . . . If you make a pitch on a nationwide radio network for a square deal for the underdog, will they call you a commie?”

A square deal for the underdog seemed to be exactly what Sinatra was after—for underdog Maltz, who served time in a federal penitentiary for refusing to name names, and also for Slovik. According to director Parish, Sinatra regarded Slovik not just as a victim of an unjust system of military justice, but as “the champ underdog of all time.”

“They’re calling you a fucking Communist!” Harry Cohn, king of Paramount Pictures, shouted at Sinatra. The attack had come, predictably, from Sinatra’s old enemies in the Hearst press. Editorial writers for the New York Mirror reminded readers that the guy who just hired a Red had once had a “‘romance’ with a dame to whom he was not then married.” (Sinatra must have murmured, “Hey, that was no dame, that was Ava Gardner!”)

John Wayne found Sinatra’s Achilles’ heel. Asked for his opinion on Sinatra’s hiring of Maltz, Duke said, “I don’t think my opinion is too important. Why don’t you ask Sinatra’s crony, who’s going to run our country for the next few years, what he thinks of it?” Sinatra responded with “A Statement of Fact,” for which he bought space in the New York Times. In it, he declared that connecting candidate Kennedy to his decision to hire Maltz was “hitting below the belt. I make movies. I do not ask the advice of Sen. Kennedy on whom I should hire. . . . I have, in my opinion, hired the best man for the job.”

Just as the controversy seemed to be dying down, the Hearst papers ran the banner headline: “Sinatra Fires Maltz.” The Times and the trades contained a new ad signed by Sinatra, headlined simply “Statement”: “Mr. Maltz had … an affirmative, pro-American approach to the story. But the American public has indicated it feels the morality of hiring Albert Maltz is the more crucial matter, and I will accept this majority opinion.”

In an interview shortly before his death in 1985, Maltz recalled the incident. “Sinatra threw down the gauntlet against the blacklist,” he said. “He was prepared to fight. His eyes were open. The ad firing me was ridiculous. The American people had not spoken; only the Hearst press and the American Legion had. Something had come from behind that caused him to change his position.”

Maltz brought out his scrapbooks. Among hundreds of faded clippings was one from Dorothy Kilgallen’s gossip column. “The real credit belongs to former Ambassador Joseph P Kennedy,” she wrote. “Unquestionably anti-communist, Dad Kennedy would have invited Frank to jump off the Jack Kennedy presidential bandwagon if he hadn’t unloaded Mr. Maltz.” Kennedy’s campaign advisers worried also about Sinatra’s Mafia aura and expressed the hope that the singer would keep his distance from the senator. But, the advisers said, they hoped Sinatra would help with a voter drive in Harlem, “where he is recognized as a hero of the cause of the Negro.”

After the election, JFK asked Sinatra to organize and star in his inaugural gala. The singer proudly escorted Jackie, but Jack was the one he cared about. In a gesture of classic macho deference, Sinatra offered to share a prize girlfriend, Judith Campbell Exner, with the president. Kennedy liked the idea and began an affair with Exner. (Sinatra’s hit that year, appropriately enough, was All the Way.) Then Sinatra Went too far; he introduced Exner to Chicago Mob leader Sam Giancana.

J. Edgar Hoover’s ever-present eyes and ears quickly discovered the liaisons. Bobby Kennedy, in the middle of a campaign to crush the Mafia, put a stop to his brother’s involvement with Exner. The Kennedys had been planning to stay with Sinatra in Palm Springs. He’d remodeled his house in anticipation of the presidential visit. At the last minute, JFK announced they’d stay instead with Bing Crosby—who wasn’t even a Democrat. To the public, it was an inexplicable snub.

Sinatra always was, as Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins puts it, “a virtuoso at storing wounds.” He got even with Bobby in the 1968 California primary by supporting Humphrey. Then he discovered the Humphrey campaign had the same reservations that the Kennedy campaign had had, and he quietly left.

As youth culture flowered in 1966, Sinatra married Mia Farrow; he’d just finished an album he called September of My Years. He was 51, she was 21, five years younger than his daughter Nancy. A sixties rebel, Mia cut her hair short and wore pants, and opposed the Vietnam War. Sinatra’s friends explained the attraction: “He digs her brain.” Soon, however, she was denouncing him and his pals: “All they know how to do is tell dirty stories, break furniture, pinch waitresses’ asses and bet on the horses,” she said. She left him to join the Beatles in India, meditating with the Maharishi.

Sinatra announced his retirement in 1971. “The principle activity of his retirement years,” New York Times music critic John Rockwell writes, “was his political shift from left to right.” The key moment seems to have come when the House crime committee held a new investigation of Sinatra’s Mob ties in 1972. The committee was headed by Democrats including California senator John Tunney, an old Kennedy friend for whom Sinatra had raised $160,000 with a special show. The main evidence against him was the testimony of a confessed hit man who said that a New England Mafia boss had boasted that Sinatra was “fronting” for him as part owner to two resort hotels. The committee called Sinatra. “That’s all hearsay evidence, isn’t it?” Sinatra asked. “Yes, it is,” the committee counsel admitted.

Always a public man, Sinatra explained the shift in his political thinking in a New York Times Op-Ed piece he wrote just after he appeared before the committee. His old politics of standing up for the little guy had been altered. Now he embraced the right-wing populism that defined the principal oppressor of the little guy as big government. And he saw his subpoena as a prime example of government oppressing a little guy. Sinatra became a Reagan Republican. “It didn’t gall him as much as he had thought it would,” reported columnist Earl Wilson.

His turn to the right coincided with a deepened contempt for women and his most offensive public behavior ever. At a pre-inaugural party in 1973, he shouted at Washington Post columnist Maxine Cheshire, “Get away from me, you scum. Go home and take a bath. . . . You’re nothing but a two-dollar cunt. You know what that means, don’t you? You’ve been laying down for two dollars all your life.” He then stuffed two dollar bills in her drink, saying, “Here’s two dollars, baby, that’s what you’re used to.” He made that kind of language part of his concert routine for several months, to the evident enjoyment of his new right-wing following.

President Nixon invited him to perform in the White House in 1973—something the Democrats had never done. He sand “The House I Live In.” Twenty-eight years earlier, he had sung it for students at newly integrated high schools. Now he was singing for the man who began his career as a member of HUAC from 1946 to 1950, when the committee smeared Sinatra. The president beamed with satisfaction, and Pat Nixon kept time by nodding her head. At the end of the program, for the first time in his public career, Sinatra was in tears.

© The New Republic, March 31, 1986.  Reprinted with permission.

12 Things That Are Banned on the Chinese Internet

This is the fourth in a series of “Provocations,” a LARB series produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016). All contributors are also participants in the conference.

By Louisa Lim

1. The Golden Toad

A 72-foot tall golden inflatable toad was supposed to bring “good luck and fortune” to Yuyuantan park in Beijing, which was no doubt hoping to attract crowds with the “biggest aerated toad in Asia.” Instead, it brought mirth to millions of Chinese internet users, who immediately seized upon the toad’s uncanny resemblance to former Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin. The term “toad” has long been used as a proxy to talk about Jiang, and has been banned for Weibo searches since 2011. “Golden toad” was a later addition to the blocked list, which already featured “Chairman Toad,” “Toad + death” and “Toad + critically ill” after rumors spread that Jiang had either died or was on his deathbed (point of fact: he still hasn’t croaked). Other blocked terms include ‘elder’ and ‘prolonging life’. The internet has even spawned self-described “toad fans,” a term used to imply nostalgia for the relatively relaxed era when Jiang Zemin was in power. Continue reading

THE LARB END-OF-YEAR EDITOR INTERVIEWS: David Higgins

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth interview of several we’ll be publishing this month, all with our section editors. Like the rest of the LARB ecosystem, their work depends on the generous support of everyday readers who keep LARB going;  we hope you’ll consider giving this month for our winter fund drive. 

Meet David Higgins, Speculative Fiction Editor.

What do you do and why?

I teach in the English department at Inver Hills College in St. Paul, Minnesota — a tiny, picturesque little college buried under snow for at least five months of the year.  I also write academic non-fiction — mostly scholarly articles related to science fiction and imperialism.  This year, I was also a judge for both the Philip K. Dick award (for the best new science fiction novel published in paperback) and the Science Fiction Research Association Pioneer Award (for the best article-length work of SF scholarship).  Why do I do these things?  I love reading, and I’m fascinated by how science fiction reflects the best and worst aspects of imaginative literature.  On one hand, this is a genre which has always been about conquest and empire; it’s filled with fantasies related to colonial expansion and imperial exploitation.  On the other hand, it’s also (sometimes simultaneously) a genre which deeply questions what we take for granted about “reality” in fascinating, thoughtful, and and insightful ways.  What’s not to love?

What is your favorite place to write/edit outside of your home?

My office on campus, where I’m surrounded by books (and a number of vintage Star Wars and Doctor Who toys).

What is your favorite thing to drink while writing/editing?

Coffee.

What piece did you submit to the LARB Anthology and why?

I submitted Gerry Canavan’s The Warm Equations, which is a double review of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. These were two of the most fascinating books of the year, and Canavan considers how they offer alternative visions of humankind’s future in space after the inevitable end of the Earth as we know it.  I also submitted Siobhan Carroll’s The Ecological Uncanny, which reviews Jeff VanderMeer’sSouthern Reach Trilogy, which is probably the weirdest and coolest work of speculative fiction I’ve encountered in recent memory — everyone should read all of these books right away!

NASA asks you to select one piece of art/literature/music/film to send into space that will explain our civilization to aliens. What do you chose and why?

If I was in an optimistic mood, I might send the first season of Sense8, which is all about how people from vastly alien social worlds can build meaningful bonds of love and support with one another.  If I was feeling more pessimistic, I might send the film Primer, which is a time-travel flick about the fathomless depths of human mistrust.  If I just didn’t want the aliens to invade Earth, I might send The Avengers in the hope of scaring them away…

Share a cultural moment/experience you had in 2015 that you really enjoyed.

Mad Max: Fury Road.

Share a cultural moment/experience you had in 2015 that you really didn’t enjoy.

Eric Harris. Walter Scott. Sandra Bland. Samuel DuBose. Freddie Gray. Jamar Clark — It’s hard to keep track of the names.  People adopting the stance that “all lives matter” refuse to face the violence inherent to systemic inequality for blacks in America right now.

What is the one question you always wish people would ask in interviews? Now answer it!

Q:  What’s your favorite quote?

A:  “The best thing for being sad . . . is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder in your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.” — Merlyn (to young King Arthur), The Once and Future King by T.H. White (183).

Two Provocations by Ann Telnaes

This is the third of a series of “Provocations,” produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016), scheduled to coincide with the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. All contributors are also participants in the conference. As the notion of “provocations” suggests, these contributions, like the cartoons below by Ann Telnaes, are not the opinions of the editors of LARB; if you feel provoked, please leave a comment.

 

Ann Telnaes creates animated editorial cartoons and a blog of print cartoons, animated gifs, and sketches for the Washington Post. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for her print cartoons. She is one of five cartoonists on a panel at the conference. Continue reading

The Poetry of, or Rather in, the Seoul Subway

By Colin Marshall

When I want to learn about a city, whether researching it on the internet or stepping out into it in reality, I first look to its subway. It might surprise you how much you can infer about the overall personality of any given metropolis just from riding its trains, be that metropolis Los Angeles (incomplete and inconsistent, but still new and promising) or San Francisco (charming and infuriating in equal measure), New York (often old and dirty, but nevertheless an attraction for all walks of life) or London (highly serviceable, as long as you can enjoy grumbling about it), Mexico City (lively, brightly colored, enjoyably strange, and subject to sudden dysfunction) or Copenhagen (expensive).

I’ve ridden a good deal of urban transit in my time, none superior, thus far, to Seoul’s. Angelenos, who can count themselves as having a good day if their train shows up within fifteen minutes — assuming they need to go someplace a train actually goes, and assuming they know their city’s rail network exists in the first place — can only marvel at not just the system’s range, frequency, and cleanliness, but a host of features they’d never dared imagine: unbroken cell and wi-fi signals, displays that map the next few trains on the way in accurate real time, heated seats, and a variety of shops and cafés, or at least decently stocked stalls and vending machines (as well as non-horrifying bathrooms, the one true marker of civilization) in every station.

Once they adjust to all that, they might then notice, especially if they study the Korean language, how often they see poetry during their short waits for trains. And I don’t mean that metaphorically, as in the “poetry” of bustling, well-orchestrated urban life or what have you — I mean it literally, as in actual poems put up for everyone to read. The program that did it began in 2008, ostensibly to provide the harried citizens of Seoul with opportunities to pause and reflect amid all their underground to-ing and fro-ing. Today, theses poems have made their way up in nearly 5,000 locations in about 300 different stations.

KB - subway poetry 2

The selection committee assembled by this subway poetry program have tweaked it over the years, introducing such refinements as tailoring the selection of poems thematically, in each station, to the surrounding neighborhood: poems to do with to youth at the Children’s Grand Park station, China at the Daerim station (center of Seoul’s Chinese population), Japan at the Ichon station (center of its Japanese population), America, England, and Nigeria at the Itaewon station (next to the American army base, and thus a kind of English-speaking enclave), and France at the Express Bus Terminal Station (near the Seoul headquarters of various French companies and the city’s biggest French school, and thus a place where, surreally, you hear French daily spoken on the street).

In Hong Sangsoo‘s Hahaha (하하하), a floundering film director attempts to win over a girl by writing her a few lines of verse about the moment he first saw her. “Everyone writes poems,” she responds, unimpressed. “I do,” she adds, “and so does he” — the boyfriend she already has, a poet by profession. Hahaha came out at just about the same time as Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry (시), the story of a small-town grandmother who decides to start writing poems in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, now one of the most acclaimed works of modern Korean cinema. People I ask for suggestions of Korean-language reading material often bring up books of poetry first.

So it seems that Koreans, in the main, don’t find poetry as marginal or even off-putting as the reputations of Americans suggest we do. In fact, I’ve heard many who know argue that the true heart of Korean literature lies less in novels, still a relatively new form here that in some ways hasn’t fully “taken,” than in short stories, and less in short stories than in poems. So it makes sense that, if Seoul wants to introduce literary moments into the long days of its commuters, it would use subway-station poetry as the tool with which to do it. (Although I could see Grenoble-style story vending machines potentially making inroads here too.)

All this nevertheless has its discontents. Some cultural critics have voiced the opinion that the poems selected, whether from poets living or dead, famous members of the canon or contest-winning everyday citizens, tend a bit too far toward the simplistic to represent the form at its best. That may be, though I have to admit that, while my command of the Korean language allows me to read them, the point where I can confidently evaluate them remains far in the future. (I can’t help but notice, however, a certain prevalence of blowing wind, blooming flowers, and things happening under moonlight.)

KB - subway poetry 3

Whatever their literary merits, these poems always appear on one kind of surface in the stations: their “screen doors,” glass walls between platform and track with portals that automatically open when the doors of an arriving train align with them. This at first looks like just one more technological feature that puts the safety and comfort of Seoul’s subway so far ahead of the others, but then you realize why the biggest city in South Korea, whose suicide rate floats around number one in the world (vying with the likes of Guyana and Lithuania), needed them: if they didn’t block the way, you’d see a lot more people jumping in front of the trains.

But none of this will sink too deeply in with a first-time visitor who doesn’t yet know much about Korea, whose experience will probably have more to do with absorbing the richly incomprehensible social, technological, linguistic, and graphical world around them. In that perceptual environment, the poetry and the dozens of ever-changing advertisements surrounding it — for coffee, for cellphone games, for a popular matchmaking service called Duo — merge into one intense and essentially undifferentiated visual substance. I get a little bit of that experience myself whenever I go to Japan, where my tendency to forget the Chinese characters they use there renders me a borderline illiterate.

Still, I haven’t grown so adept at Korean that I can ignore either the poetry or the advertisements around me as I wait for the train; if I don’t read them, I might lose out on the valuable opportunity to learn a new word or expression (even for something other than moonlight). When you read ad copy and poetry in the same way, you soon start to see the former as a species of the latter. This, for me, holds especially true with the latest round of industrial-sized illuminated posters for that matchmaking company, which, though I doubt I have any future as a translator of verse, have offered me plenty of chances to try my hand:

Someone who put work before love
Someone who wasn’t ready
Someone who believed they were fine alone
Someone who just liked their freedom
Get me married, Duo 

You can follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

Why Aren’t You Banned Yet?

This is the second in a series of “Provocations,” produced in conjunction with “What Cannot Be Said: Freedom of Expression in a Changing World” a conference cosponsored by UCI, USC, and UCLA (January 22 -24, 2016), scheduled to coincide with the first anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. All contributors are also participants in the conference. If you feel provoked, please add a comment.

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

My provocation will take the form of a self-criticism. I want to come clean about an incident that haunts me, which found me altering my plans for publishing a commentary due to concern over possible repercussions. Aware that I am a China specialist, you might think you know where this is heading, especially given the intentionally misleading title I’ve chosen for this piece. I’m not, though, going to confess to an act self-censorship carried out due to wanting to maximize my odds of continuing to get visas to go to the Chinese mainland. Instead, I’ll describe a time that I worried about how people living on this side of the Pacific would respond to a U.S.-China comparison that I was convinced some Americans would not appreciate. Continue reading

THE LARB END-OF-YEAR EDITOR INTERVIEWS: Stephanie Cha

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth interview of several we’ll be publishing this month, all with our section editors. Like the rest of the LARB ecosystem, their work depends on the generous support of everyday readers who keep LARB going;  we hope you’ll consider giving this month for our winter fund drive. 

Meet Stephanie Cha, Noir Editor.

What do you do and why? 

I’m the new noir editor for LARB, but mostly, I’m a novelist. I write about L.A., particularly Korean-American L.A., and so far I’ve found it useful to do that through noir.

What is your favorite place to write/edit outside of your home?

I’m a homebody.

What is your favorite thing to drink while writing/editing?

Diet Cokes. I’m a fiend for them.

NASA asks you to select one piece of art/literature/music/film to send into space that will explain our civilization to aliens. What do you chose and why? 

This is a hard question! But for some reason The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty comes to mind.

Share a cultural moment/experience you had in 2015 that you really enjoyed. 

So many! I go to a lot of readings and other book-related events, and I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite. I guess outside of the literary sphere, I did love attending the finale taping for season 7 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Share a cultural moment/experience you had in 2015 that you really didn’t enjoy. 

I went to the Integratron in Joshua Tree and a white dude in toe shoes and a coolie hat ruined it for everyone.

What is the one question you always wish people would ask in interviews? Now answer it!

What did you eat for lunch and why? I had some Thai food because I wanted some Thai food.