The moderator was late, misdirected by a faulty map app. The interpreter’s pen ran out of ink, as did a replacement pen supplied by a member of the audience. A warning message popped up on screen warning those present that the KCC’s laptop battery was getting low. The PA system didn’t seem to be working. And to cap it all, as we got on to talking about sexual harassment at work and the #MeToo movement, someone’s phone went off. The ringtone was the theme tune of that most un-PC of 1970-80s TV comedians, Benny Hill.
But Yun Ko-eun was enjoying herself. The series of micro-mishaps seemed in tune with the theme of the evening’s discussion, Disaster Tourist, and even before we got into the discussion proper the author was regaling us with stories of other mishaps she had encountered in the past.
The novel’s story revolves around a travel company that arranges package tours to scenes of natural disasters. It has been branded as an “eco-thriller”, and won the UK Crime Writers Association’s 2021 Dagger Award for Crime Fiction in Translation. Inevitably, with a novel as bursting with ideas as Disaster Tourist the topic of genre was among the first to be discussed. Yun is getting used to the topic – which also arose when she gave an online talk for the KCC during lockdown. “I always used to think my genre was just ‘Yun Ko-eun’,” she said. And as for whether the book can adequately be classified as “crime fiction”, well, “I didn’t write a crime story, but a lot of people do die”…
She elaborated further on the subject of her ambivalence about the relevance of genre classifications: “In Korea, there’s currently a craze for Myers-Briggs personality type indicators,” with dating couples sharing and comparing their personality types in much the same way as they used to share blood types. “I can see a bit of myself in all of the personality types.”
Humour, though, is more central to Yun’s stories than crime. Esther Kim, in reviewing Disaster Tourist for The White Review, rightly calls it a dark comedy, calling it a “clever, unpredictable story that walks the razor edge of horror-comedy”, and the catalogue of mishaps that befall the central character Yona perhaps calls to mind the way that the hapless Mister Bean is a victim of events beyond his control. Unlike Bean, though, Yona is not herself a comic character. Indeed, moderator Sharlene Teo noted that Yona was an “engmatic” character who “doesn’t give much away.” Yun’s comment in reply was that the main character in the story is meant to be not Yona but Jungle, the travel company with the sexist corporate culture that organises the disaster tours. Yun is more interested in the construction of elaborate, absurd or even horrific scenarios than in the individual characters. Thus we get little information about Yona’s friends and family; instead, Yun prefers to focus on Yona’s choices and the options available to her within the confines of the situations in which she finds herself.
But there are some things which you can’t choose, one of them being whether to fall in love or not, and this is a choice the author has to make on the central character’s behalf. In one possible ending of the novel Yona came to an unfortunate end, but as the novelist discussed the plotline with others during the writing process a friend encouraged her to let Yona find love, in compensation for the hard time the country was going through at the time. While having some of the key plot points worked out in advanced, Yun likes to have the flexibility to change things if that’s the way her writing takes her.
Since the novel’s publication in 2013 it has been performed in an adaptation for radio, and there have been ongoing discussions about a movie version. Initially, the production budget was likely to be prohibitively expensive given the scale of the disaster that Jungle was proposing to manufacture, and so the talks cooled off. But with the advancements in CGI technology the budget is potentially getting more manageable. Whether or not a movie is ever made, we can look forward to a Disaster Tourist sequel, which will be published soon in Korea.
Yun confesses that Disaster Tourist is her “least funny work”, which makes me want to explore her other stories. Currently only two short stories are available in translation: The Chef’s Nail (available for free in Words without Borders) and Table for One (available to buy for Kindle). However, coming soon from Columbia University Press is the complete collection from 2010 of which Table for One is the title story. Although some have seen the story as foretelling the increasing trend of honbap – people eating alone – for Yun again the interest is in the absurdity of the scenario: a hagwon that runs group classes intended to give a solo diner the confidence to sit alone at a table in a restaurant.
Yun came across as refreshingly honest throughout the evening and seemed genuinely to be enjoying the conversation. She spent time with the audience afterwards autographing copies of her book. Thanks to the KCC for organising the evening, and to Diya Mitra for the photos.