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Then What Shall We Sing?

by Bak Solmay December 09, 2021

Bak Solmay

Bak Solmay embarked on her literary career in 2009 with her debut novel Eul, which won Jaeum & Moeum’s inaugural New Writer’s Award. She has since authored the novels I Want to Write a Hundred Lines, Time in the City, Slowly Head First, and the short story collections Then What Shall We Sing?, Winter’s Gaze, Beloved Dog, and International Night. Her latest novel is Future Walking Rehearsals. She has received the Moonji Literary Award, Kim Seungok Literary Award, and Kim Hyeon Prize.

It was 8 p.m. on a Thursday, at a café with wide tables near UC-Berkley. I remember the night air feeling crisp and dry. The language exchange meeting was going more or less according to schedule. The format was for the day’s speaker to present on her choice of topic and explain Korean terms in English and English terms in Korean. It was Haena’s turn. Haena had a Korean mother and American father. Her mother had died ten years ago, and her father was now married to woman from Seattle. 

“So, are you living with your parents now?” 

“No. My dad and his wife are in LA. I’m here in Berkley on my own.”

She began telling me this and that even though she hadn’t met me before. “My grandparents came to America, and my mother . . .,” she continued. I didn’t know what to say. I just listened to her talk and nodded and expressed interest. After she was done, she turned to the others smiling, and said last week’s presentation was on such-and-such, and this happened. It was to fill me in. The others agreed. Yes, that’s right. That was funny.

Haena had stapled some handouts together which she brought out of her bag and passed around. She said they were about “May 18,” and I was surprised by the obvious. In Korean, we said “5.18.” I said, “Oh? I’m from where that happened.” Haena said, “Really?” and looked at me. I wondered why it was so surprising, why her eyes had grown big in astonishment. “Yes, I was born there,” I added. Come to think of it, it was May when I was vacationing in San Francisco that year. I hadn’t expected the subject to come up in a Berkley area café. For that to be where I’d hear about an event that had happened about thirty years earlier, in the place where I was born. I’d expected other, lighter conversation. Do Koreans really believe in fan death? Like, that you’ll die from a lack of oxygen if you sleep with a fan on? That kind of thing. But here I was, listening to people talking about the events of May 18 as if they were indisputable facts, like the suppression of the people on Bloody Sunday in Ireland, or Pinochet terrorizing Chile. It was as if the English language itself lent objectivity to the incident. Haena’s handout included English information from the May 18 Memorial Foundation and an article printed in the New York Times. 

©Yeji Yun

After the copies were passed out, we were ready to read. We took turns reading aloud, one paragraph each. We covered three or four large pages of closely spaced print in what seemed like no time. The barista called to say our drinks were ready, and some of us rose to collect them. The long-haired girl sitting across from me had ordered a milkshake, and I a cappuccino. My squat cup stood across from her tall glass. We all took a sip of our drinks and looked at Haena. When everyone was reseated, Haena started her talk by giving some background information about Korea at that time. There was nothing incorrect about what she said, but there were some differences hearing the information in Korean and in English. The differences weren’t there for Haena, just for me. I took a sip of my coffee and glanced at the handout again. The pages dense with print included a few photos—one of a man whose face was mangled, another of young men with bandanas around their foreheads or necks riding on a truck, and another of soldiers looking down at people kneeling. I took another drink. Then someone asked where Gwangju was and so Haena drew a map of Korea. Actually, it was more of an outline. She pointed to Gwangju’s position on it. She knew exactly where it was. “Here, south of Seoul and west of Busan.” Some of the group members nodded, Oh. 

A Korean exchange student studying in San Francisco asked what “massacre” meant. “What does this mean? It keeps coming up and I don’t know it.” 

Someone broke it down in simple terms: killing a lot of people by brutal means. 

“What is it in Korean?”

Haksalhada.” The student underlined the word and wrote the definition below, as if inserting a footnote. Haksalhada. 

Haena and I exchanged email addresses. And that was the end of the meeting. We must have talked some more, too, but I can’t remember anything from our conversation. Maybe we said:

Whose turn is it next? 

Oh, I’ve something going on that day.

Oh, really?

I’ll go, then. Where are we meeting?

You choose the venue and send me an email to let me know. 


Our conversation would have gone something like that. 

When we left to go home, Haena gave me a few more sheets of paper. “I wanted to share this, but I couldn’t.”

I took the papers back to my accommodations. I had to pass through Chinatown to get to my room. The sky was blue that night, and the slender road stretched below it. The traffic signal changed, and as I was slowly crossing the street, I met eyes with a middle-aged white man. He asked if I was Chinese or Taiwanese or Japanese and suggested going for a drink. I was ready to nod, thinking I should acknowledge the right nationality if it came up. An inner voice was urging me to follow this man and drink with him and do as he asked, whatever it was. But even as I waited with this mindset, the chance to nod never came. I missed my moment to respond. Nothing happened, and I crossed without answering. I passed the man, who just stood there on the street, and returned to my room. I lay down on my bed and unfolded the papers. The poem was “Massacre, Part II” by Kim Nam-ju. Typed out in Korean and English, it was like something written by a foreigner. Someone who’d been watching with bated breath as military troops stormed Mexican or Chilean universities in the late 1960s. Someone who’d been there to see people disappearing from the streets. Like a text about Guernica, or Taipei in 1947. A poem in which someone is beaten in an alley at night. A poem in which someone is beating someone. Someone is beating someone and someone is being beaten; someone is killing, and someone is dying. And many people are crying. That kind of a poem.

Next there was a copy of something written forcefully by hand which turned out to be a manifesto. I noticed some words: “Guardians of Democracy.” Above it, Haena had written an explanatory note. Year XXXX on the Dangun calendar had been changed to 19XX on the Gregorian calendar. 

I met Haena three years later, and in that time, I’d been to Kyoto on vacation. I am mentioning this for two reasons. First, because it was the only travelling I did in this time, and second, because someone there brought up the subject of Gwangju as well. I met him at a bar in the Shijo Kawaramachi neighborhood. So, where was it more unexpected to suddenly hear about an incident that took place in the city where I was born—in a café near Berkley or in a bar near Shijo Station? Of course, I don’t remember the name of the man at the bar, but he had a sturdy build and looked to be in his early sixties. He wore glasses and a dark blue shirt. I remember some of his facial expressions, together with the lines around his eyes. Perhaps he didn’t tell me his name, or even if he did, I can’t remember it because I never called him by it. He owned the bar, and I was the only patron, the only patron for some time. I had draft beer and he drank sake warmed in a large pot. I kept looking back and forth from the simmering pot to the man’s reddening face. After a while, I felt as if the alcohol was boiling down to its essence. My beer was cold, but the warmed sake was blazing hot, and the face of the person drinking it looked hot somehow as well. 

“Where are you from?”


“Where in Korea?”

“You won’t know it even if I tell you.”


“Gwangju. It’s south of Seoul and west of Busan.”


He took a sip of water and picked up a piece of radish that was boiling by the sake. It had been boiling in sauce with an egg. It was dark brown because it had been boiled in the sauce with the egg for a long time. In fact, it was so brown that I should have described it another way. “It was left so long to boil in the sauce,” or “it must have been boiled for a long time” or “only by being boiled so long could it be so brown.” This would better convey the dark color. The man put the radish on a saucer and gave it to me and placed one before himself as well. 

“I know that place.”


“My friend wrote the song ‘Koshu City.’ Isn’t this it?”

He took a pen and wrote “光州 City” on a thin napkin sitting on the table. I nodded. I asked about the song, and he said it was about soldiers entering the city and killing many people at the time. Oh. I acknowledged what he said and went back to drinking my beer. “Didn’t many people die in Koshu City? And on Jeju Island as well?” He said it like you would say something in passing. While drinking his beverage. He swallowed a sip of beer and talked about many people dying. He came from behind the counter and rummaged through some books that were stacked under a back table. He brought out a photo book that had been stuck in a corner. There was a street café in Kyoto. A young man wearing sunglasses was sitting in a chair reading a newspaper. On the page he was reading, there was a large photo of a man bleeding, being dragged away by a soldier. The man being dragged away was wearing a suit; he looked like an office worker. I stared at the page for a long time and then someone opened the door to the bar and came in. 

I met Haena again the following spring. After our first meeting in San Francisco, I sometimes exchanged emails with her. We wrote occasionally in English, but mostly in Korean. 안녕, 잘 지내니? [Hi. How are you doing?] Even these words sometimes felt awkward. It wasn’t that Haena’s Korean was that unnatural, but as I was reading along, chunks of Korean got clumped together, and the screen came to look as if it were covered in splotches. This was quite the effect, and it made me think of the email sender as an unusual child. Of course, it was a little petty of me. 

Haena said she was taking Korean at a university language institute in Seoul. I’m going to Gwangju next week. If you’re there, let’s get together. I wrote back to tell her I was in Seoul, but that I had a reason to go down the following week. 

Then shall we meet?

Call me.

안녕. [Bye.]

My reply also looked like trembling clumps of Korean characters somehow. Like compounds made by tearing letters from somewhere and pasting them on the computer screen. It had little clumps in it that didn’t come together. 

Haena and I were going to hear the Gwangju Orchestra perform Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, Symphony no. 2, Fifth Movement in front of the South Jeolla Province government building. That year marked thirty years since May 1980. The outdoor concert would commemorate this important anniversary. Haena said she’d come to Gwangju a day early to visit the May 18 National Cemetery. We arranged to meet at the Post Office in Chungjang-ro. People all met there before going to other places. I hadn’t seen her in some time. Her hair was shorter, and she looked calm, maybe because she was dressed in black. We greeted each other and hugged briefly. Haena said the concert we were going to see was cancelled on account of rain. I was disappointed. Now I had the question of what I’d do with Haena, whom I’d only met once some years before. What should we do? When I asked, the answer came back, “Well, how about let’s eat?” Although it was threatening to rain, the night air was fresh and not too humid. We went to a local Chinese restaurant, had japchaebap and came out and walked for a while. 

It was quiet in Gwangju, and not notably different from other days. In particular, no one was saying anything out loud. It was unusual, but no one around there spoke much. Some days, they talked loudly about things, and other days, they kept their mouths shut and said nothing. Usually they said nothing. We walked towards the provincial building and little by little we started to feel the raindrops falling. “Oh, rain. It’s raining,” we said softly, and stretched our hands up into the empty air. The rain landed on our palms. I shook mine dry as I walked along. The rain soon quit. We walked around the old provincial building that was specially opened to the public only for this period. On the first floor there was a showing of video footage taken that May. Two men in their twenties were standing side by side watching the video. Two men watching it calmly, their hands at their sides. Two men in two white shirts standing side by side. Behind them was a Japanese man who looked to be in his fifties speaking in Japanese with a twenty-something man. The younger one seemed to be a Korean who was interpreting. We left them behind and walked up to the second floor. Nobody was there except Haena and me. We were in an empty hallway. A dark hallway. A gray, heavy gray hallway, and around us were only the smells of the cement building and the peeling paint. Few people can talk about what really happened in that gray hallway. And those who really know what happened there might tell you a different story. I mean, a different story than what you’ve heard so far. Then that will become yet another story. We looked outside. It might rain again. With that thought, we left the building.

Translated by Kari Schenk

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