“The Partition” is a short story from acclaimed Korean American author Don Lee, recipient of the American Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction.
Mainly, she wanted to be left alone. She didn’t want a husband or a wife or a partner or a lover, she didn’t want a companion or a pet or friends, she didn’t want to be closer to her parents or siblings or relatives. She enjoyed her solitude, relished it. She had plenty to occupy herself—her work, her house and garden, her hobbies. She was not at all lonely. She was thoroughly happy, being alone.
This perplexed people. It seemed, even, to offend some people. They thought she had to be lying, dissembling some sort of psychological problem or prior trauma. They couldn’t abide that anyone would actually choose to be alone.
There were many things about her that threw people off. First was her ethnicity, which people frequently believed was synonymous with race. Was she Chinese? Japanese? (She was Korean.) Subsequent was her nationality. Was she a North Korean or South Korean citizen, then? Or an immigrant? Did she have a Green Card? (She was a naturalized US citizen.) Then there was the question of her name, Ingrid Kissler. Was this an Americanization of her Korean name, something she had made up? Or had she once been married? (She’d been adopted by a white couple from Chanhassen, Minnesota, at the age of two, from an orphanage in Seoul.)
Most confounding to people was her sexual orientation and gender identity. They rarely asked Ingrid about such things directly, but everyone wondered: Was she gay? Bi? Trans? Non-binary? Her appearance baffled them. She could have been pretty in a conventional way if she wanted, but it was obviously something she did not want. She wore no makeup or nail polish or jewelry, and she kept her hair short, styled—or anti-styled—in a nondescript shaggy bowl cut that looked self-inflicted. She donned the same outfit every day: Dickies industrial shirts and pants and Vans skateboarding shoes, varying only the colors of the matching sets of workwear: navy blue, charcoal gray, or black. She was small, five-four, and slight, only a hundred and five pounds. She didn’t have any real curves, just the slightest widening of the hips when viewed from certain angles, and she was so flat-chested, people sometimes assumed she was chest-binding. Her features were delicate, her skin pearly. She looked very much like a prepubescent twelve-year-old boy.
Five years ago, in 2010, when Ingrid began teaching at Libbey College in Ojai, California, she had been the subject of much curiosity, speculation, and gossip. For a change, however, the attention hadn’t been ferried by an undercurrent of intolerance. Quite the opposite. Everyone at Libbey was extravagantly politically correct, and they would have welcomed whatever designation she might have elected. The last thing anyone wanted to do was intrude upon her privacy, yet her colleagues, students, and administrators really needed to know how to refer to Ingrid: they, them, theirs? ze, hir/zir, hirs/zirs? Everyone was petrified they might make a mistake and insult her. The hesitations and stuttering got to such an awkward point, she started amending her email signature with “Pronouns: she/her/hers”—at the time, not a common practice.
For years, Ingrid had found people’s continual need to classify her—label her with a clear, fixable identity—frustrating and exasperating. Indeed, it had often enraged her, epitomizing the racism and heteropatriarchy she had faced her entire life. The irony was that she wasn’t trying to make a political statement with her androgynous appearance. Nor was she trying to be hip, though that was how she began to be regarded. Sometime in her mid-twenties, she had simply stopped caring what she looked like. The workwear was practical and inexpensive—she didn’t have to think about how to costume herself every morning. Her skin was good enough to go without makeup. Barbershops were five times cheaper than salons, and took a fifth of the time. She supposed that, technically, she was gender nonconforming or gender expansive, but she didn’t utilize any of those terms for herself.
Her sexual orientation was a fuzzier matter. She had dated both men and women, but had been celibate for quite a while now. Yet she didn’t think of herself as ace, asexual. She still had lots of sex—by herself. She just preferred not being in a relationship, not having to negotiate and compromise when it came to every decision, not having to placate and apologize and cajole when feelings were the slightest bit grazed, not having to bear with anyone else’s mess or occupation of her space when all she wanted to do was unwind in roomy, solitary silence.
In Ojai, with her job at Libbey College, she had found a place and means to do just that. The town was in Ventura County, in a lush valley surrounded by mountains and rolling hills. Everything about it bespoke rustic charm, the pace unhurried, tranquil, the vibe artsy and eco-conscious. It had a quaint main street lined with galleries, boutiques, and restaurants, without a single chain store in sight (prohibited within city limits). The valley was studded with organic farms, citrus and olive groves, and vineyards. Flowers were omnipresent, and the faint scent of sage and lavender wafted around every corner. Occasionally, the conditions at sunset were just right to produce the Pink Moment—the sky and walls of the Topatopa Mountains flaming up in a dusky-rose hue for a few glorious minutes.
There were only eight thousand residents in Ojai, a mixture of hippies, boho-chic designers, entrepreneurs, retirees, and, recently, a handful of celebrities. For decades, the town had also been a destination for spiritual seekers and wellness devotees looking to get blissed out on the supposed electromagnetic vortex in the area, a force field generated by plate tectonics, which had positioned the valley to run east-to-west rather than north-to-south. A number of high-end spas had sprouted up to accommodate tourists, offering amenities such as detox body wraps, chakra cleanses, and energy readings for dogs.
There was something magical about this place, everyone said. A sacred spot with amazing healing powers.
When Ingrid first arrived in Ojai, she had thought all this talk was hooey. Almost immediately, though, she fell in love with the valley, with its beauty and temperate Mediterranean climate. The town was on the doorstep to Los Padres National Forest and a mere twenty-five minutes from the Pacific Ocean. She could indulge in all manner of solo sports: hiking, biking, running, kayaking, standup paddleboarding. Maybe the place was a bit too New Agey for her taste, and maybe it was getting a bit too trendy, but after all the backwaters and hicksvilles and shit towns she’d had to live in, Ojai felt like a little utopia to her—idyllic, calming, luminous in its own secluded world.
Libbey College was just as inviting. Ingrid had found her niche teaching at the liberal arts school, which was tiny, barely fourteen hundred students. Her appointment was in the Department of Asian Studies, but she also taught courses in Comparative Literature, Cultural Criticism, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She felt grateful to be there, particularly after several torpid years as an itinerant visiting assistant professor, or VAP, at a succession of crap universities in rural Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, teaching required general education courses to redneck dunderheads. Once, a student who had been sitting in the back of Ingrid’s class told her that when she’d asked everyone to look at their assigned handouts, nearly all the students had propped up random sheets of paper, pretending to study them. The students at Libbey could not have been more different. They were fully occupied by their studies, into them. They did all their assignments and then some, looking up secondary and tertiary sources without prompting. They actually went to see their professors during office hours. They wrote beautiful papers that were—rather than a chore—a delight to grade. Ingrid loved the students at Libbey, loved everything about teaching there.
Most everyone was happy at the college, in no small part because it had money. An oil baron had begun making large donations to the school in the 1920s, and its endowment had grown to over a billion dollars, making it one of the richest small colleges in the country. Consequently, Ingrid was being paid ridiculously well as an assistant professor. She had, in addition, a research fund, a travel fund, and a conference fund. Furthermore, there was a unique home purchase assistance program for tenure-track faculty: After three years of service, they could get a loan of up to $75,000 to help them buy a house in Ojai—where the prices, like everywhere else in California, were astronomical—and, upon receiving tenure, the loan would be forgiven in its entirety.
Such largesse was a lifesaver for Ingrid, who had been buried in credit-card debt and student loans. Her credit score had been abominable, but slowly she’d become more solvent, until finally last year she had been able to purchase a house in Ojai for $423,000—previously an unimaginable amount. Even at that price, the two-bedroom bungalow was a fixer-upper, in sore need of updating, yet it had vaulted ceilings, a wood-burning fireplace, and a wall of glass windows that faced a profusion of trees: coast live oaks, black walnut, and Western sycamores. On the side of the house was a yard with enough room and sun for an organic vegetable garden.
She had at last found somewhere she could call home. She wanted to stay in this house in this town teaching at this college forever, and it was now all within reach. Three months ago, at the start of the fall semester, she had submitted her tenure application, and it had won the enthusiastic approval of her department chairs, her colleagues, and the Reappointment, Promotions, and Tenure Committee. All that was left was the provost’s endorsement, and Ingrid had been told it was a sure thing. Already, she was thinking about what she might do once her tenure became official: buy a new stove, get her bathtub reglazed, perhaps order a Pinarello road bike.
But then, in mid-December, just after finals week, Darlene Li, the chair of the Department of Asian Studies, called Ingrid and said, “Can you come in? There’s a problem.”
The provost, Rich Parnell, was all of a sudden uncertain he could recommend Ingrid for tenure.
“I don’t understand,” she said to Darlene and Rich in his office.
She had done everything right. Her students adored her. Each year she’d been at Libbey, she had received a certificate of teaching excellence for having among the highest ratings, college-wide, in her class evaluations. She had gone to every meeting for her department and every session of the faculty senate and every reception, party, convocation, and graduation, and had served on the Affirmative Action, Policy and Governance, and Resources and Planning committees. She had had two essays published in journals, and presented papers at three Asian Studies conferences. For her major research project, she had translated a novel, The Partition, by a South Korean writer named Yoo Sun-mi, into English, and it had been released by a university press this past August. It’d received little notice from the media or in academia, just one (very positive) review in World Literature Today, and had sold only about a hundred and fifty copies thus far, almost all to libraries, but none of this was uncommon or shameful for an academic book. The point was, The Partition had been peer-reviewed and published by a reputable press. Perhaps at a top university, a translation might not have had as much cachet as a scholarly monograph, but at Libbey, where the demands for research were less rigorous, teaching taking precedence, it more than sufficed. And all the external reviewers who had evaluated Ingrid’s dossier, she’d heard, had been effusive in their praise.
Except for one, Darlene and Rich now told her.
“He just sent his letter in—two months past the deadline,” Darlene said. “It was a complete surprise. We’d assumed he wasn’t going to respond. He hadn’t answered any of our emails since initially saying he’d do it.”
They were sitting around a conference table beside a window with a view of the main quad. Rich was wearing, per usual, a pressed button-down blue shirt and blue jeans. He was physically very imposing—tall, muscular, a former Ivy League crew member—and the jeans were an attempt to appear more approachable, less of a snob.
“Who is this reviewer?” Ingrid asked. “What’d he say in his letter?”
Per procedural rules, his name had to remain confidential, Rich said, but he was a professor of literature and linguistics at a major university in Seoul, and a translator himself. The professor had done a quantitative analysis of Ingrid’s translation of The Partition, and had discovered gross errors in the book. It was clear, he said in his letter, that Ingrid’s Korean was inadequate to the task. She had mixed up simple words, confusing, for example, “arm” for “foot.” She had misinterpreted idioms and colloquialisms, substituting, for example, the phrase for “the kid who works part-time” with “the babysitter.” She had misidentified the subjects of sentences, attributing, for example, actions or dialogue to the wrong characters.
Only about 37% of her translation of the original was accurate, the professor said. There were 18.3% of straightforward mistranslations, and 6.1% had been omitted. Egregious as these blunders were, far more troubling was the remaining 38.6%, which included infidelities so extreme, they were tantamount to wholesale fabrications. This wasn’t, he said, simply a matter of embellishing lines with adjectives and adverbs, slipping in rogue clauses, or changing the syntax, all of which Ingrid had done. Taken together, these distortions had altered the style of the novel. Whereas the original lines were understated and deliberately plain, Ingrid’s sentences were baroque in comparison, bloated with lyrical flourishes and metaphors, which was particularly outrageous because the novel was in first-person. As a result, the voice of the narrator was entirely different. It was akin to transforming Hemingway into Proust. Evidently Ingrid had been so challenged by the Korean in The Partition, she had resorted to blindly making things up and throwing them into the book. Her translation, the professor concluded, was flagrantly and staggeringly incompetent. In all his years in the field, he had never seen such a horrific miscarriage of translation.
Rich and Darlene waited for a response from Ingrid, who was, of course, mortified by the accusations. She knew that a single lukewarm review letter, never mind such a harshly negative one, could sink her tenure application.
“Well,” she said after a moment, “this sort of quantitative approach to analyzing a translation—to be frank, it’s a little preposterous. It’s impossible to translate a text literally from one language to another, especially a novel, a creative work of art. Pure transliteration would make it gibberish, unreadable. These numbers and percentiles, they’re not relevant metrics.”
“The mistakes he cites, though,” Rich said, “the confusion over simple words and phrases—could he be right? 18.3% of those kinds of mistakes? That seems like a remarkably high number of obvious errors.”
“I doubt very much I committed that many.”
“You’re not a native speaker?” Rich said. “I thought you were.”
“No, I only started learning Korean when I was twenty-two,” she admitted. After graduating from Purdue with her bachelor’s degree, she had taken an intensive summer class in Korean, then had gone to Seoul through the Fulbright’s English Teaching Assistantship program, working as a teacher’s aide at Daebang Elementary School and staying with a Korean family for a year. Thereafter, throughout her studies for her master’s at Johns Hopkins and her PhD at the University of Minnesota, she’d enrolled in Korean classes.
“The peer-review process at the press—did the reviewers know Korean?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“But they gushed over the translation,” Darlene said. “So did all the other external reviewers.” She read from notes on a legal pad. “ ‘Mesmerizing and darkly funny,’ ‘astonishing,’ ‘daring,’ ‘a work of sheer artistry.’ That review in World Literature Today: ‘This is an enthralling novel, nihilistic yet spellbinding, hypnotically strange yet thoroughly compelling.’ ”
“Yes,” Rich said, “but none of those evaluators were able to read the novel in the original Korean and compare it to the English version, were they? That’s the central issue here—the fidelity of the translation.”
“Actually,” Ingrid said, “many translators believe that in order to recreate the experience or essence of the source text, technical fidelity needs to be sacrificed, that it’s often the infidelities, rather than the fidelities, that contribute most to a successful translation.”
Rich looked at her blankly.
“There are so many subtle things that go into translating a novel,” she continued. “The implicit meanings between the lines, the socioeconomic implication of certain kinds of diction, the need to relate cultural contexts to a foreign audience. Translation has always been, by necessity, a creative art. Ultimately there can be no such thing as a definitive translation of any work. It’s not something that can be done, or measured, empirically.”
Judging by his dour expression, Rich didn’t seem the least bit swayed, perhaps now was more ill-disposed toward her. He was an economist by training, Ingrid recalled—a bean counter. He only understood numbers and percentiles.
“Did the Korean publisher vet your translation?”
“I don’t think they even asked to see it. Apparently they don’t speak English very well.” The original edition of The Partition had been issued in 2004, eleven years ago, by a small indie press in Paju, a husband-and-wife team. The novel had flopped in Korea, getting horrible reviews, which had called the book (and author) bleak, perverse, morbid, and amoral. The Partition was about a woman in her mid-thirties who works in a convenience store and lives with her husband and in-laws. One night, she kills her husband, mother-in-law, and father-in-law by lacing their dinners with arsenic. She then buys a circular saw and chops up their bodies and keeps the parts in a freezer that she conceals behind an embroidered silk screen partition. Thereafter, she begins inviting homeless men and women to the house and cooks them lavish meals made with her husband and in-laws’ body parts before having group BDSM with her guests.
Ingrid had happened upon a copy of The Partition in a used bookstore while in Korea and had kept the book for years, move after move—one of the few good things to come out of her time in Seoul. It hadn’t been a great novel, but it’d fascinated Ingrid because it was surreal, anarchic, and from the point of view of woman—so different from most of the Korean literature she’d read, which had been very traditional and male-oriented. Once at Libbey, Ingrid had translated twenty-five pages of the novel and had sent a proposal to Aquinas University Press in Colorado. An editor there, Deborah Smythe, had responded positively and contacted the husband-and-wife publisher, who gave the English translation rights for the book to the press for a pittance, not thinking they were worth anything.
“Didn’t the author or her agent have to approve the translation?” Rich asked.
“The agent didn’t seem to care. Too small fry, I guess.”
“What about the author? Did she read it?” Rich said. “It’d be helpful if someone over there could affirm this translation.”
“She’s a recluse,” Ingrid told him. “The agent said she doesn’t know English and she wouldn’t want to be bothered with it, regardless. She has a reputation for being very eccentric and difficult to work with.”
Since The Partition, which had been Yoo Sun-mi’s second novel (and the only book of hers to be translated abroad), she had gone on to publish three more books with three more indie presses in Korea. None of them did very well. She’d never risen to any sort of stardom. She had, at best, an underground cult following, yet her fans seemed to be more interested in her hermitic lifestyle than her writing. She never did any interviews or appearances. Her background—where she grew up, what her parents did—was a mystery. No one knew where she currently lived in Korea or, really, what she looked like. The only photograph of her was a blurry silhouette on her first novel. There were rumors that Yoo Sun-mi was a pseudonym, and that she might in fact be a man.
“I’m sorry,” Rich said to Ingrid. “I don’t see how I can support your application, then.”
“Because of one letter from a random professor in Korea?”
“He’s translated Hemingway into Korean. Bellow and Roth as well.”
All misogynists, Ingrid fumed, as was, apparently, this Korean professor. The provost as well.
Being denied tenure at a college or university was equivalent to being fired. They’d give her a contract for one more terminal year of teaching, and then she’d have to leave Libbey. Since her home assistance loan wouldn’t be forgiven, she’d have to forfeit her house. She’d have to move somewhere else and begin anew, only it would be extremely difficult to begin anew since anyone looking at her CV would see that she’d been passed over for tenure at Libbey, which would likely preclude her from getting another tenure-track job.
“You’ll have until the end of March if you wish to appeal,” Rich told her. “Whatever the case, Ingrid, I think it’d be prudent to start making contingency plans.”
She would have to go back to being a VAP, or maybe worse—work as an adjunct instructor teaching ESL or comp at a community college, on a semester-to-semester contract, with no benefits. She couldn’t imagine anything more humiliating. For all intents and purposes, her academic career was over.
Three months later, in early March, she woke up in the wee hours of the morning and drove from Ojai to Santa Barbara to catch a six a.m. flight to Phoenix, then took another flight to El Paso, where she rented a car and drove two hours east on I-10 and then another hour southeast down an empty two-lane highway past vast ranchlands mixed with creosote flats, yucca, and cholla, before finally—after twelve total hours—arriving in Colima, Texas, a godforsaken hicksville town with just eighteen hundred residents in the middle of nowhere in the high desert, where she was supposed to meet, of all people, Yoo Sun-mi.
All winter, Ingrid had assumed everything was lost for her at Libbey. She hadn’t even planned to file an appeal at first, thinking it pointless, and only agreed to do so at the urging of her colleagues and students, who were outraged that the provost had blocked her tenure application. He’d ambushed her, they said. He had been plotting all along to undermine her, because he was uncomfortable with her gender expression and sexual orientation—maybe her race and national origin, too. To them, it was a clear case of discrimination. They told her if her appeal failed, she should file a complaint with the EEOC.
Her students created a change.org petition addressed to Libbey’s board of trustees, and her colleagues composed a letter to the president, demanding a fair and equitable appeals process for Ingrid. Darlene solicited additional evaluations from two Asian American professors in Translation Studies for her, and Ingrid began to draft a disquisition on translation theory. Citing scholars such as Even-Zohar, Toury, Bassnett, Snell-Hornby, Lefevere, et al., she discussed the issues of equivalence, fidelity, domestication and foreignization, and functionality, and tried to present the argument that translations of literature should not be slavish reproductions of the source text; rather, that shifts could and should be imposed based on the translated text’s cultural specifications.
Still, she felt that none of these efforts would ultimately have any effect. The provost had not violated any procedures or infringed on her academic freedom, and he had plenary authority to award or deny tenure for whatever reason he saw fit. And—although she shared this with no one—deep down Ingrid knew that her translation of The Partition was flawed.
She had wanted to be a writer in her youth. She’d majored in Creative Writing at Purdue and was accepted into the graduate writing program at Hopkins. Yet her gap year in Seoul changed her. Once in Baltimore, she couldn’t produce any new fiction. For workshops, she simply rehashed old short stories, some of which she’d written in high school. She realized she was a fraud. She had talent at the sentence level, but was bereft of an imagination. She quit, waitressed for a while, then transferred to the PhD program in Comparative Literature in Minnesota.
Years later, she began thinking about doing a literary translation, mainly because she was running across so many bad translations in her scholarship, especially of novels by Asian authors. The problem with translation, she thought, was that, in general, translators were not trained as creative writers. The majority were academics, and their translations were filled with clichés, wooden dialogue, and clunky syntax, the prose absent of any music. She thought she had the literary chops to become a superior translator, and embarked on The Partition as her first project. She discovered that translating the novel allowed her to tap into a part of herself she had been heretofore unable to access—a connection to Korea, to inspiration, to those ontological questions she’d always been asking: Who am I? Why am I here? But all along, she knew her aptitude in Korean was probably insufficient to convey the book properly. Thus, she wasn’t feeling particularly passionate about her appeal.
Then she received a call from Deborah Smythe, her editor at Aquinas University Press. Word about the tenure debacle must have somehow gotten to Aquinas, and Ingrid assumed Deborah was now going to tell her that they would be pulling The Partition from distribution and disavowing its publication. But no. Deborah said Yoo Sun-mi’s literary agent, Kim Gu-yong, urgently needed to talk to her.
Why? Ingrid wondered. They’d gotten wind of her translation’s so-called infidelities all the way over in Korea?
She calculated the time difference between Ojai and Seoul and called the literary agent at 9 p.m. California time, 2 p.m. Seoul time.
“Please call me Joseph,” the agent said in Korean. “I gave myself the nickname after my favorite author, Joseph Conrad. Do you enjoy Conrad’s work?”
“Not particularly,” she said.
“Oh!” He chuckled awkwardly. “I see. Yes, anyway, are you free next week? Yes? I hope so? Yoo Sun-mi wishes to see you.”
“Where? In Korea?” Ingrid asked.
“She’s temporarily in Texas. She received news about The Partition and wants to speak to you about it. Not on the phone. In person.”
So they had heard of the controversy, after all.
“Your college calendar states that next week is your spring vacation,” Joseph said. “Will you meet with Yoo Sun-mi?”
She could have refused, but for some reason she felt she had to go. She looked up how to get to Colima. The literary agent had suggested she arrange for a two-night stay. When she’d asked why—she thought she’d only need to be there for an hour at most, just enough time for Yoo Sun-mi to give her an earful—he had said, “Perhaps you would like to do a bit of sightseeing while you are there?” She ignored him. She found a cheap casita on Airbnb, reserved it for one night, and booked her flights accordingly.
Now, as she entered Colima, she saw that the casita was on an isolated street next to a defunct ice factory. No one was there to greet her. The key was in a lockbox. Casita was Spanish for little house, and it was indeed little, a single square space that contained a bed, a couch, a café table with two chairs, and a kitchenette. The only other room was a bathroom the size of a closet. Everything was old and musty and depressingly dark.
Exhausted, she tried to take a nap on the double bed, which concaved underneath her weight, but she couldn’t sleep, so she took a quick shower and got back in her rental car to tour the town. It didn’t take long. Colima appeared to occupy less than two square miles, with hardly any trees or grass, just dirt and sand, and its main street was dotted with rundown or vacant storefronts. Nothing seemed open for business. No one was on the sidewalks, and there were only a few cars (mostly pickups) trundling through the central intersection, which had a four-way blinking light—the closest thing to a stoplight in the entire town. Spread out on the bisecting highway was a Dairy Queen, a supermarket called Pueblo, a gas station called Stripes, and a Dollar General, the parking lot for each virtually empty. The town’s vacancy was made eerier by the weather—cloudy, with a strange fog walling off the outskirts. What in the world was Yoo Sun-mi doing in Colima, Texas?
The literary agent hadn’t relayed Sun-mi’s contact information (“She is extremely private,” he’d told her), had only said Ingrid should meet her at the restaurant in the Hotel El Viejo for dinner at eight p.m. When Ingrid got there, she found the restaurant was closed. “Pretty much everything in town’s closed on Mondays,” the woman at the front desk of the hotel said. “Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, too, actually.”
Ingrid waited for Sun-mi in the courtyard that led to the restaurant entrance, sitting at a wrought-iron patio table beside a flowing tiered fountain, but the temperature dropped precipitously and she became cold. She moved inside to the hotel lobby, which was decorated with leather chairs, a terracotta tile floor, and horned bison and bull heads mounted on the walls. She waited, and kept waiting, until nine. She phoned the literary agent in Seoul again.
“Oh! I will call Yoo Sun-mi right away and remind her,” he said.
She never appeared. Ingrid finally left the hotel at ten. What was that all about? she thought as she got in her car. Did Sun-mi summon her all the way to Colima just to stand her up, as a way of humiliating her? Had this been a bizarre prank? Was she even in the country—much less in this town—at all?
Starving, Ingrid looked for someplace open where she could get something to eat. She had to settle for Stripes, the gas station, which had some hot food—almost all of it non-vegetarian, however. Fried chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, pizzas, tacos, and enchiladas. She got an order of potato-and-egg tacos—two for $2—and some chips and a gallon jug of water and took it back to the casita. She ate the food at the café table and then went to bed and promptly fell into a deep sleep.
She was awoken by rapping on the door.
“Aigoo chamna, mianhamnida!” the woman in the doorway—could this really be Yoo Sun-mi, this pretty, chic woman?—said, apologizing, and launched into a story in rapid-fire Korean that Ingrid could barely follow about losing track of time and the spotty cellphone service in town and not getting her literary agent’s voicemail about the missed dinner appointment until after the fact and a pool tournament in which she could not miss a shot and the deceptive influence of Mexican candy.
“Gwenchana yo, gwenchana yo. Mannaseo bangapseumnida,” Ingrid told her groggily, bowing, saying it was all right, it was an honor to meet her.
Sun-mi walked past her into the casita and chattered on in Korean about how hungry Ingrid must be after such a long trip and she wished she could take her out for these delicious cheeseburgers she’d discovered and she was sorry Ingrid had to stay in such sad accommodations; and Ingrid, realizing Sun-mi had been drinking, said not to worry, she had eaten some tacos and anyway she was a vegetarian and the casita was perfectly adequate and what time was it, by the way; and Sun-mi said only a little past midnight, why didn’t Ingrid get dressed and they could at least go out for a nightcap; and Ingrid asked if anything was still open, especially since it was a Monday, and said in any event she didn’t mean to be rude, but she was very, very tired, couldn’t they meet for breakfast instead, her flight wouldn’t be leaving from El Paso until three-forty-five tomorrow afternoon so she would have most of the morning free; and Sun-mi asked why she was leaving then, hadn’t her literary agency specified two nights; and Ingrid said she was very busy with school and her research and couldn’t stay any longer; then Sun-mi said, in very good English with just a slight accent, “But I want to talk to you. I think it is important we talk. Don’t you?”
“You know English,” Ingrid said.
“Yes, I do,” Sun-mi said. “Better than you know Korean, I hear.”
Ingrid changed clothes in the bathroom, and they got into Sun-mi’s car, a new Prius. Given Sun-mi’s intoxicated state, Ingrid was nervous about her driving, but she proved to be quite capable on the road, smoothly swinging away from the casita onto the highway and heading west out of town.
“Where are we going?” Ingrid asked.
“I know a place that’s still open. Are you lesbian?”
“Are you married? How old are you?”
“I’m thirty-seven. I’ve never been married.”
“Why not? Don’t you want children?”
Ingrid was used to such bluntness from her year living in Seoul. Koreans were notorious for their forthright questions. “No, I don’t.”
“Why do you wear those clothes? You look like a janitor. You should wear makeup, do something for your hair. You cut it yourself, I think? Not a good idea.”
Ingrid chose to stop answering.
“You’re too skinny. You need to eat more. You should wear padded bra.”
Ingrid was ruminating about Yoo Sun-mi’s own appearance—so different from what she had expected. She was slender and a couple of inches taller than Ingrid, with medium-sized breasts. She was dressed in a vest, snap shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, but it was obvious she hadn’t obtained the outfit at a local saddlery or feed and supply store. The western wear was fitted, fashionably cut with good material. She had had everything custom-tailored for her in Korea prior to coming to Texas, it appeared. Just as carefully fabricated were her hair, which was long and wavy and colored auburn, and her face, which was perfectly proportioned, her skin radiant with layers of meticulously applied makeup, even at this hour. She was very attractive, her age indeterminate—anywhere between thirty-five and forty-five. It was clear to Ingrid that Sun-mi had had multiple cosmetic surgeries. This wasn’t unusual in South Korea, which had the highest rate of procedures per capita in the world, the most popular being double-eyelid surgery, nose jobs, glutathione injections, which slowed pigmentation in the skin to make it whiter, and bone contouring to create a smaller oval-shaped face, like Sun-mi’s. She looked like a well-heeled housewife who was trying to pass as a K-drama actress—polished and wholly synthetic. Ingrid had imagined that the author of The Partition would be drab, maybe a little ugly and awkward, and full of anger and self-loathing. She had never imagined that Yoo Sun-mi would be, instead, so bourgeois.
“What are you doing in Colima?”
“There’s a foundation that gives residencies to international writers to go here—a writing retreat. They provide a house, car, stipend, airplane ticket. They have two houses. Another writer was supposed to come at the same time, but the person cancel at last minute. I am here four weeks now. It is a special place. I cannot explain. We are up very high, nearly 1,600 meters. It is like an island, desert all around, mountains on horizon, everything so far away. It’s beautiful, so empty. And the sky—endless blue. The light is so bright. I am writing like never before. I am almost finished with a new book. I am born again. It is because of your translation. Without it, the foundation never hears of me.”
“You read my translation?” Ingrid asked. The more Sun-mi spoke, the more mistakes she was making—small inconsistencies and errors that Ingrid’s students in Seoul used to make, dropping articles, mixing tenses, not getting subjects and verbs to agree—but her English was certainly fluent enough to judge Ingrid’s translation.
“This, we have to discuss,” Sun-mi told her, and then said no more.
They drove farther down the highway, which was black-dark with no streetlights, no other cars coming or going. After about fifteen minutes, Sun-mi suddenly braked to a stop. “Sorry. Very hard to see the marker,” she said.
She backed up, and Ingrid saw a small cairn on the side of the highway, the rocks painted white. Sun-mi turned toward a steel gate and rolled down the driver’s-side window. A keypad was mounted on a post, and after she punched in six digits, the gate swung open automatically. She drove across a cattle guard onto a road of packed dirt.
“Where are you taking me?” Ingrid asked.
“Somewhere fun,” Sun-mi said.
Ingrid didn’t know why Sun-mi was dragging this out and being so mysterious. She fully expected now to be lambasted by Sun-mi for her sloppy translation. This was the reason, she realized, that she had agreed to come to Colima—she felt she deserved to be punished.
“Wait, how did you know where I was staying?” Ingrid asked. “How’d you get the address to the casita?”
“You gave it to Gu-yong.”
Joseph, the literary agent? She didn’t recall giving him any details. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Yes, I think so.”
Nothing was in view, just the dirt road before them in the headlights, scrub and cacti in the periphery. They drove for at least half a mile, bouncing through ruts, and then there was another cairn painted white, and Sun-mi made a right. Soon, they came upon three vehicles—a jeep, a beat-up pickup truck, and a shiny, bright orange Corvette—parked at the base of a small hill, on top of which was a lone building.
“Come,” Sun-mi said, using the flashlight on her enormous mobile phone to illuminate the path. “Watch for rattlesnakes.”
“What?” Ingrid asked.
The building was a shotgun structure made of crumbling adobe, the windows boarded up with plywood. There was not a leak of light anywhere. Another keypad was affixed beside the front door, and Sun-mi tapped in another set of six digits. She shoved open the door and said, “You first.”
Ingrid couldn’t see anything beyond the door. The place looked abandoned. What were they doing there? For a second, she had the crazy thought that Sun-mi intended to reenact the crimes in The Partition—knock Ingrid unconscious from behind, kill her, chop her up with a saw, then store her body parts in a freezer for later consumption.
Sun-mi closed the front door, which seemed to trigger some sort of electronic mechanism. A red bulb overhead began to glow, unveiling a bare foyer, and then an inner door softly popped ajar. Sun-mi pushed it open, revealing the most sumptuous bar Ingrid had ever seen.
“Hey, Sunny,” a young, hip-looking couple said. “How you doing, Sunny?” the bartender said. A middle-aged couple sitting at a table nodded toward them.
The room was long, windowless, dimly lit, and cozy, with a tin pressed ceiling, black flocked-velvet wallpaper, a dark hardwood floor, and brass chandeliers. There was a small bar with a gleaming copper top, and a row of button-tufted leather booths.
“Your usual, Sunny?” the bartender asked as Sun-mi and Ingrid settled onto two stools at the bar.
“Yes, Adam. For my friend, too.”
The bartender had a handlebar mustache, bowtie, suspenders, and pinstriped slacks—an appropriate ensemble for what Ingrid gathered to be a replica of a Prohibition-era speakeasy.
As Adam prepared their drinks, Sun-mi said to Ingrid, “This is a members-only club, very secret. I paid a $1,000 initial fee. Colima looks like a nothing-cowboy town, but many lawyers from Houston are buying ranches now, young artist people from New York are moving here. Very interesting. Maybe I will buy a house here. Maybe I will move to Colima.”
“Not to live all the time. Some of the time. But maybe so. Many things are changing for me.”
Adam served them their cocktails—Sazeracs, they turned out to be, made with cognac, rye, absinthe, sugar, and bitters. Ingrid took a tentative sip of hers. She’d never had one before. Usually, she limited herself to half a glass of Cabernet twice a week. The Sazerac was sweet, spicy, and medicinal all at the same time. “How’d you learn English?” she asked Sun-mi.
“Oh, many years ago I go to prep school in New England.”
“Did you go to college in the US as well?”
“No, I go to Busan Women’s College.”
“To study literature?”
She thought Sun-mi was kidding at first. “That was your major?” How in the world did this frivolous woman produce The Partition? Flaubert had once said that writers should be regular and orderly in their lives so they can be violent and original in their work, but trying to apply this to Sun-mi was, to say the least, a stretch. Ingrid couldn’t envision the woman next to her writing anything remotely subversive.
“After I graduate,” she said, “sometimes I took literature classes at Sogang University. One professor I had is named Oh Hyung-jun. He became my friend. Recently a college asked Professor Oh to look into an American professor’s file. Your file.”
The external reviewer in Korea who’d given Ingrid such a damning evaluation? He was Sun-mi’s mentor and friend? “He told you about my translation,” Ingrid said, appalled by the professor’s conflict of interest, his breach of confidentiality.
“Yes. When the publisher in Paju sold the translation permission, Gu-yong asked me if I wanted to see the book before publication. I said to him I don’t care, it doesn’t matter to me. But then Professor Oh told me about the translation, and I read it.”
“I wrote the novel so long ago, I couldn’t truly remember it, so first I had to read it again, then I read your translation. In some ways it is wrong, in some ways it is good, in many ways it is different. Surprising, how much different. Why did you want to translate my book? Did you love it?”
“It was very vivid and visceral,” Ingrid said, equivocating. “It was unlike anything I’d ever read.”
“Professor Oh tells me you are in trouble,” Sun-mi said. “You will lose your job, maybe, because of him?”
“It looks like I might.”
“Professor Oh is sometimes a hard man, an unfair man,” Sun-mi said to Ingrid. “If I say to your college I accept your translation, I approve it, then things will be better for you?”
“You would do that for me?” Ingrid asked.
“I don’t know,” Sun-mi told her. “First I wish to know more of you, learn of you. I wish to see if I admire you. One meeting is not enough for me to tell. Will you stay an extra day in Colima so I can decide?”
She couldn’t say no, of course, even though she wasn’t sure if Sun-mi’s endorsement of the translation, assuming she would eventually grant it, would be material enough to secure tenure for her from the provost.
The next morning, she paid a $200 fee to change her airline ticket and made a reservation to stay at the casita an extra night.
At around one-thirty in the afternoon (it was supposed to have been noon), Sun-mi picked her up from the casita and drove her into what passed for downtown Colima. Next to the post office was a gigantic shade pavilion, and underneath it was a food truck called The Fat Whale.
Unlike yesterday, there were people out today—an odd mix of ranchers, municipal workers, cowboys, and hipsters—all gathered under the pavilion, sitting at an array of picnic tables and eating their lunches from brown paper bags, Tupperware containers, Igloo coolers, and The Fat Whale’s biodegradable takeout boxes.
Sun-mi ordered a sardine sandwich and a Scotch egg from the food truck, and Ingrid got a falafel hummus wrap. They sat down at a table with their meals, splitting a plate of crispy fried Brussels sprouts and drinking bottles of Topo Chico mineral water.
“My brain is in a little cloud from writing this morning,” Sun-mi said. She was wearing a straw cowboy hat and a cream-colored linen jumpsuit today, her makeup as impeccable as it had been the previous night.
“What’s your new novel about?”
“It is wild—even for me. That is all I will say. I have superstition about discussing a book before finishing.”
“How about a couple of general questions, then?”
“What got you started writing fiction in the first place?” Ingrid asked. “What drives you to do it?”
“These are very difficult questions.” Sun-mi chewed her food and pondered for a minute. “I began in high school, but never thought it was something serious for me or for anyone to do. But I kept doing it. I could not stop. For me, to write is ask what is life, what is love, what is death. It is to study the mystery of being human, to try to understand what makes us desire, obsess, hate, lie, kill, sacrifice, dream, hope, sing. It is to know the many dilemmas of our human heart.”
“Is it easy for you? Writing?” Ingrid asked.
She laughed. “Easy? It is impossible! Every day I want to quit! Every day I think I am a failure! It is exhausting. It is harder than anything. But I like it because it is hard. It is a challenge, and it is satisfying when I struggle but then find the way to tell the story.”
This was the difference between them, Ingrid reflected. As an aspiring writer, she had never been able to persevere through the struggle. She’d lacked the courage and the will.
Sun-mi got up from the table and fetched dessert from the food truck—sweet potato bread pudding with dates and pecans. “Will you have a bite?” Sun-mi asked. “No? Not surprising you’re so skinny.”
Sun-mi, despite her prodigious appetite, was even thinner than Ingrid had thought last night. In Korea, designer clothes often came in only one size—small—and diet pills were popular among women.
“Now I ask some questions,” Sun-mi said. “Do you have a boyfriend? Or girlfriend? You said yesterday you’re not lesbian, but maybe you’re bisexual?”
“I’m not seeing anyone right now, boy or girl or other,” Ingrid said, irked by the resumption of this line of questioning.
“I like being alone.”
“Why? Were you raped one time? Or maybe you have mental problems?”
“That’s ridiculously presumptuous,” Ingrid told her.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Your last name is Kissler. Were you adopted?”
“Have you been to Korea?”
She told Sun-mi about her year in Seoul as a Fulbright ETA.
“In Korea,” Sun-mi said, “did you feel Korean or American?”
“Neither, to tell you the truth.”
The trip had been a disappointment. She had hoped it’d be a homecoming of some kind, but she came away from it more confused than ever. She’d had a miserable time growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, where, in order to be popular, it seemed girls were supposed to be perky, pretty, and Caucasian. On occasion her adoptive parents took her to Korean Culture Days to meet other Korean adoptees and their families, but at the time, Ingrid had wanted to be white, not Korean. She got into grunge, dyed her hair pink, dressed in thrift-store clothes, and inked her arms with tattoos of a mandala, a waveform vector, and the words going nowhere. At Purdue, she was the bass player for a punk band, although she didn’t know how to play bass, and began dabbling in ecstasy and coke until she had a breakdown of sorts. She cleaned up and made the decision to go to Korea after graduation, propelled by an amorphous idea that she might repatriate to her country of origin. But once there, she found herself being shunned as a gyopo, an ethnic Korean who, after residing overseas, had lost touch with her roots. Ingrid’s mere presence—her body language, the way she walked—seemed to offend people. Before changing her hair color back to black and wearing more conservative clothes that covered her arms, she was routinely accosted by strangers and called a chang-nyeo, a whore. She was chastised for not being able to speak Korean well enough, for not being a real Korean, for being too American. She felt denigrated as an adoptee, someone who had been unwanted, illegitimate, abandoned, who had no lineage or family history she could claim as her own.
“Did you try to find your parents in Korea?” Sun-mi asked her.
“I guess that was entirely predictable, wasn’t it?” she said. In recent years, there were so many Korean adoptees returning to the country in search of their birth parents, it had become a trope. “I tried, but I didn’t have any luck.”
“I am sorry for you,” Sun-mi told her. “It is very sad to be an adoptee.”
They finished eating, and Sun-mi asked Ingrid to accompany her on a drive. Instead of taking the highway again, Sun-mi turned south down a side street, which within a minute opened up as a country road that unfurled across a rolling terrain of grassland. Opposed to yesterday, it was clear out today, the sun angled high above them. Sun-mi sped up, and soon they were flying down the narrow two-lane blacktop. “I love this road,” she said. “So much space. Nowhere in the world is like this except in America. The vibrations are very positive here.”
She sounded like an Ojai spiritual acolyte, yet Ingrid began to appreciate the vista—the wide open blue sky, the flat expanse of desert sprawling out from Colima, the mountains far away in the distance. The starkness of the land was both forbidding and seductive. There was indeed something special about the quality of light here, its sharp vivacity.
“Are you close to your adoption family?” Sun-mi asked her.
“No, not really.” They had been kind to her, they had tried hard. But she’d never felt much in common with them. Her adoptive father had worked for Dupont, developing GMO corn for the ethanol industry. Her adoptive mother had been a VP in human resources for Target. Her older adoptive brother was a chemist now for Syngenta, and her younger adoptive sister was a logistics manager for Delta Air Lines. They all still lived in the Twin Cities area. She saw them every year at Christmas for four days, and that was it.
“Family is important,” Sun-mi said. “Real family. Heritage. I think these white people, they were wrong to adopt you. I think the adoption of babies from a foreign country is kidnapping. It is a crime. You had no choice. They stole you away from where you belong. You should never have been taken from Korea. No wonder you cannot decide if you are a boy or a girl. No wonder you are alone. You are divided. It is like han. You know han and jeong?”
Han was purportedly a state of mind central to the Korean psyche, a collective sense of sorrow and incompleteness, largely in the wake of historical injustices, i.e., Japanese colonialism, the Korean War that divided the country in two, the democracy movements. It supposedly manifested itself as sadness, yearning, angst, bitterness, hatred, regret, and grief, and provoked a determination to endure in order to mete out revenge. Jeong was both han’s opposite and its complement, a deep fondness and kinship among Koreans, a loyalty and attachment born out of shared hardships. In Korea, however, these concepts—especially of han—had come to be regarded as imperial-era gaslighting, and Ingrid was surprised that Sun-mi was bringing them up.
“You are between,” Sun-mi said. “You have han but not jeong. You are blocked.”
She slowed down abruptly. Ahead of them, a white Border Patrol truck was parked off the road near a culvert. Colima was just sixty miles from the Mexican border. On Ingrid’s way to the town, there had been an immigration checkpoint on I-10 outside of El Paso, and when she’d gotten off the interstate, she had spotted a tethered surveillance blimp from the highway.
“Here is also divided,” Sun-mi said. “Here is also han. Colima has seventy percent Mexican people, but white people keep very separate. We are the only two Asian people in the area, maybe for many, many kilometers.”
Staring out at the desert, Ingrid thought about Ojai, which, for all its liberal pretensions, was overwhelmingly Anglo—just sixteen percent Latino, a remarkably low number for California, less than two percent Asian American, hardly any African Americans. She questioned why she felt so comfortable there.
They fell into silence, Ingrid lulled into a theta-daydream by the drive. After a while—she wasn’t sure how long—the pavement on the country road ended, changing to dirt and rocks, and Sun-mi turned the car around to go back to town. When they reached the spot where the Border Patrol truck had been parked, it was no longer there.
“Watch for snake,” Sun-mi said.
There was a huge snake on the blacktop in front of them, at least six feet long and bright pink. Sun-mi drifted toward the middle of the road—whether to kill the snake or avoid it by slotting it between the wheels, Ingrid didn’t know. When they passed over the snake, she swiveled around and peered through the back window. Sun-mi had crushed it, the snake’s head and tail obliterated by the tires in equal measure.
“Oops,” Sun-mi said.
At around eight that night (it was supposed to have been seven), Sun-mi took Ingrid to a bar called Difuntos. Embedded in the dirt of the parking lot beside the bar were hundreds of squashed bottle caps, and an old, desiccated, bullet-riddled Pontiac station wagon sat on cinder blocks next to a fence. Difuntos had once been a funeral parlor, Sun-mi told her—hence, its name, “deceased” in Spanish. Like everywhere else in Colima, most everyone knew her here, greeting her as “Sunny” as they entered.
The interior space was large, with high ceilings, a long bar, and a stage for music, all of it a bit ramshackle and kitschy, the walls adorned with photos of Vincent Price as Dracula, Kinky Friedman for Governor posters, and painted sugar skulls for Día de los Muertos. Spread about were taxidermy of owls and bats.
“This bar is so funny,” Sun-mi said Ingrid. “Let’s do a shot.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Yes, I think so.”
It was called a Paleta shot, named after the Mexican candy, a watermelon lollipop dusted with chili powder that was popular in Juarez, the female bartender told them. She blended tequila, mango and strawberry juice, lime, and hot sauce, and lined the rims of the shot glasses with Tajin, a Mexican spice.
They did the shots. “You like it?” Sun-mi asked Ingrid.
“This might be the worse drink I’ve ever had.”
“Two more,” Sun-mi said to the bartender.
The dinner menu was limited, other than the cheeseburger so beloved by Sun-mi. She ordered one rare with everything, along with a Frito pie (chili served in a bag of Fritos, topped with cheddar cheese and onions) and a plate of fried pickle chips with queso.
“You have a very good appetite,” Ingrid said.
“I just throw up later,” Sun-mi told her.
Ingrid stared at her, nonplussed.
“Joking,” Sun-mi said.
Ingrid opted for a plate of vegan red beans and rice.
After putting in their orders, Sun-mi bought two $2 cans of Lone Star beer for them and took Ingrid to the back of the bar, which led to an open-air arcade of pool tables, a shuffleboard, a couple of vintage video games, darts, and foosball. Beyond the arcade was a patio of crushed gravel with metal tables and mismatched metal chairs. There was a firepit and Christmas lights. Gram Parsons was playing from a jukebox. About half a dozen people were out there, the same number as inside the bar, all of them Anglos.
“Cigarette?” Sun-mi asked, pulling out a pack of Marlboro Reds.
Ingrid was surprised smoking was allowed, even on the patio. Smoking was prohibited pretty much everywhere in public in Ojai. “Okay.” She hadn’t had a cigarette since graduate school, and she quickly got buzzed.
“Maybe you’re starting to relax,” Sun-mi said.
They smoked and drank until they were called over the PA system to pick up their orders, then they brought the food outside and ate. “So delicious,” Sun-mi said. “I eat this cheeseburger four nights in a row after I write.”
In spite of herself, Ingrid was beginning to like Sun-mi, although she still didn’t know why she had asked Ingrid to extend her stay, what she wanted from her, who she really was.
“Is Yoo Sun-mi a pseudonym?” she asked.
“My real name is Baek Yoo-jin. You know the Baek name, the Baek family?”
“Not really. Isn’t it a common name?”
“The Baek family is the Tendu Group.”
Tendu was a chaebol, a family-controlled conglomerate in South Korea. It’d begun as a manufacturer of chewing gum, then had expanded to operate the largest chain of convenience stores in the country, as well as a dozen hotels worldwide.
“My husband, Dong-joo, is an executive for Tendu. He thinks my books are sick. He says if people knew I am the author of these books, it would be very bad for business, what would his family say, so we must keep it secret.”
It was obvious now why Yoo Sun-mi was such a recluse, why she never did any publicity or let herself be photographed, why she hadn’t initially cared about reading Ingrid’s translation.
“Korean society still is very conforming, very strict,” she said. “Dong-joo, first he feels shame I cannot have children. Then he hates my books, tells me to stop writing.”
“But you wouldn’t.”
“No,” Sun-mi said. “He said I cannot come to Colima, but I come anyway. I am so happy here. Everything becomes clear to me here, in this beautiful place, in the beautiful house the foundation gives to me. You must see the house.”
When they finished their dinners, she drove Ingrid a few blocks north of town, up a hill into a residential neighborhood with well-tended houses. The foundation home was a boxy ell with an exterior of burnished stucco and vertical windows. Inside, it was a showcase of modern minimalist design: polished concrete floors, birch plywood built-ins, bright white walls, recessed lighting, and shelter-porn designer furniture and appliances.
“I asked the foundation if I can buy this house, but they said no,” Sun-mi told Ingrid. “Come outside—this is the best thing.”
She led Ingrid through a sliding-glass door to a pebble garden pocked with plumes of feathergrass, lit up with accent lights and enclosed by a tall corrugated-metal fence. To one side was a barrel-shaped cedar hot tub. “Let’s take a bath,” she said, beginning to slide off the cover to the hot tub.
“I don’t have a bathing suit,” Ingrid said.
“Be naked. Be free,” Sun-mi told her. She stripped off her clothes and dropped them to the ground. She raised her arms, twisted her hair into a bun, and walked up the steps to the tub. Her body was quite lovely.
Ingrid turned her back to Sun-mi. She disrobed, then climbed into the tub, covering her breasts and genitals with her hands. Sun-mi watched her openly, amused, examining the tattoos on Ingrid’s arms. The water was scalding at first, especially in contrast to the chilly air, but slowly she became adjusted to the heat and felt her body slackening.
“Watch for this,” Sun-mi said. She pressed a button on a remote, and all the lights inside and outside the house dimmed until it was completely dark. “Now look up.”
Ingrid did, and saw more stars in the night sky than she’d ever had in her life, no moon, no city lights, the constellations sparking across the firmament.
“So relaxing, right?”
It was, and the two of them sat silently in the hot tub, Ingrid sliding down and leaning her head back and staring up at the stars.
“You know I am lesbian,” Sun-mi said.
“This is why I keep asking if you are lesbian. I have a small attraction for you. You know your look—haircut, clothes, like a tomboy—is very popular in Korea. Many K-pop singers look like you. Maybe you have a small attraction for me?”
Unsettled, Ingrid wondered if Sun-mi was going to try to extort her into having a sexual relationship to earn her favor. “I’m afraid I don’t,” she said.
“Min-yeong, my character in The Partition, is lesbian. You did not realize this, did you?”
Ingrid was startled, and aghast with herself for missing such a major character attribute. “No, I didn’t.”
“Why did you make so many things in my book different in your translation?”
The entire time Ingrid had been in Colima—really, ever since she’d gotten the summons from the literary agent until now—she had been waiting for this, for Sun-mi to chastise her, yell at her, condemn her for her negligence, and the moment had finally arrived. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Translation is important. It is a great responsibility. It is about a country, a culture, how you represent an entire people to the world. If you are not careful, if you make everyone into stereotypes or portray all the feelings with a Western perspective, it is like imperialism. It is like ethnic cleansing.”
“I’m sorry,” Ingrid said again. “My Korean wasn’t good enough. My translation was incompetent.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“What do you mean, you don’t think so?”
“You wanted to be a writer one time,” Sun-mi said. “Professor Oh says in your file you studied at Johns Hopkins University to be a fiction writer.”
“I dropped out. It was just a phase. It wasn’t for me.”
“Maybe translation is easy for you, attractive for you, because you don’t have to create story or characters. You don’t have to be original. You never have writer’s block with translation.”
“I’ll admit that’s one of the appeals.”
“But with my book, you wanted to be more than translator,” Sun-mi said. “You wanted to be co-author.”
“Yes. You didn’t make just mistakes. You didn’t make just errors. You intentionally changed my book because in your opinion you thought it was not good. You thought you could make it better.”
“Yes. Maybe other people cannot tell, because they are not writers, but I can tell. Give me the truth.”
In the dark, Ingrid couldn’t see Sun-mi’s expression or even her face very well—only able to make out an outline of it, not any of its features.
Ironically, one of the reasons she had been drawn to The Partition in the first place was because she’d believed it was a book she might have written. But she had decided she would have written it differently.
“The tone of the novel felt off to me,” she said. “It was too inconsistent, unclear. It was largely morbid, but sometimes wandered into farce. I thought it needed to be a dark satire all the way through. So I rewrote parts of the book.”
“You were wrong to do this,” Sun-mi said.
“Yes.” Sun-mi had never planned to endorse her translation, Ingrid realized. She had brought Ingrid to Colima to force her to confess, and repent.
“You were—what did you say to me before?—ridiculously presumptuous.”
“Yes, I was. I see that now. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
In her mind she had justified the changes as being part of the translation process. But all along, she knew she wasn’t being faithful to the spirit of the original. She wasn’t translating. She was transposing—privileging her own ideas of what the book should be over Sun-mi’s—and that was another big problem with translation. It was impossible for a translator to remove his or her or their or hirs/zirs subjectivity, and therefore it was impossible to resist subjugating a work.
“But you were also right,” Sun-mi told her. “The tone was off. You made the book better.”
“I will send your college a letter and say I accept your translation.” She pushed a button on the remote to turn back on the exterior lights in the garden. “But I want something from you.”
“What do you want?”
“I am going to divorce Dong-joo. I am going to expose my real name and be known as an author in Korea. I will get revenge against Dong-joo and his family.”
Han, Ingrid thought. Han.
“Gu-yong says a publisher in New York is interested in reading my new novel when it is finished. I think the foundation did something. I think they gave The Partition to the publisher. So this is what I wish to ask you: When I am finished with my new novel, will you translate it for me?”
She leaned forward, lifted her hand out of the water, and brushed Ingrid’s bangs aside with her fingers. Ingrid felt a few drops of water trickle down her temple.
“Maybe they will be interested in my old novels also,” Sun-mi said. “Maybe we will work together for many, many years.”
Ingrid stared at Sun-mi, at her large, rounded eyes and narrow nose and flawlessly contoured jawline, and thought perhaps it wasn’t that synthetic of a look after all. In this light, it appeared almost natural—as natural as the idea of forming a partnership with her, and attaining a semblance of jeong.
“What do you say?” Sun-mi asked. “You think maybe you will want to do this?”
“Yes,” Ingrid told her. “Yes, I think maybe so.”
“The Partition” is the title story in The Partition, a collection of short stories by Don Lee to be released on May 10, 2022. Copyright 2022 by Don Lee, used with permission of the author and Akashic Books (akashicbooks.com).
DON LEE is the author of the story collection “Yellow” and the novels “Country of Origin”, “Wrack and Ruin”, “The Collective”, and “Lonesome Lies Before Us”. He has received an American Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction. He lives in Baltimore with his wife, the writer Jane Delury, and teaches in the MFA program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia.