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[Cover Feature] Letting Go and Living with Mold

by Kyung Hee Youn Translated by Yewon Jung March 6, 2024

Living through COVID-19, a global pandemic, we all came to have a unique story of our own, one that could be shared with others. In 2020, the year marking the sweeping spread of the pandemic that upended the conventional human way of life, my own daily life didn’t change much. I read and write for a living, which I can do well enough without leaving the house or meeting people face to face. I continued to work from home as before, corresponding with my editors through email. The swimming pool I used to frequent daily closed down, though, so I spent more time walking instead, going out to the neighborhood park when it wasn’t crowded. The class I taught was switched to online at the start of the spring semester, but since the class was small, I invited the students to my place from time to time to have class and lunch together.

    The most notable change in my life during that time was that I won access to a community garden patch overseen by the district office, and became a city farmer for the first time in my life. Around the end of March I plowed the soil; in April I planted seedlings of lettuce, tomato, eggplant, crown daisy, cilantro, and peppermint; I also sowed seeds of rucola, canola, carrot, dill, and radish, and waited for them to sprout. With the coming of May, the crops grew taller by the day, drinking in the sunlight and the warm air. In June, flowers blossomed, dazzling my eyes. I dug out the flowers by the roots and shared them with some fellow gardeners, then brought the rest home and put them in water. I placed a row of transparent bottles along the white wall and filled them with dill, tall with an abundance of yellow blossoms. I learned through the garden patch that flowers of edible plants are just as beautiful as decorative flowers. I had brought nature—the work of my own hands—not only into the kitchen but into the entire house as well, which quite pleased me.

    So passed spring, and summer arrived. The rainy season that year was uncommonly long. In the central region of the Korean Peninsula, where Seoul is located, it lasted for fifty-four days, from 24 June to 16 August—the longest on record since 1973. Day after day, I would alternately close the windows when it rained, and open them when it cleared to let fresh air in.

Mid-August, toward the end of the rainy season, I noticed a suspicious stain on the wall next to the study window. I went up for a closer look and saw three round spots of mold. Appalled, I immediately searched for how to remove mold, then wiped them away using a rag and diluted bleach solution. I was to leave on a three-day trip the next day, so it would be disastrous for the mold to spread with all the windows of the house closed and no one home.

    When I came home I found that the spots of mold, to my horror, had returned in exactly the same color and size as before. I was utterly dismayed, but I mustered my strength and once again got rid of them. Then I went into the kitchen to cook and have my first meal back home. Feeling refreshed after getting rid of the mold, I wanted to set a nice table; I opened a cabinet drawer and took out a wooden spoon, which I don’t use very often. But something felt off; I took a good look at the spoon and found green mold along the edge of the oval head. A disheartening thought froze my mind: was it possible that everything in the house made of organic matter was covered in mold? I never used an electric fan or air conditioner, as the cold, artificial air didn’t agree with me; during the unprecedentedly long rainy season, the stagnant humidity in the house might have given rise to mold in unchecked corners.

    I promptly threw open the kitchen cabinet doors and inspected the inside of each cabinet. My gut feeling had been right—a thin layer of mold had formed not only on the wooden spoons, but also in the grooves of all the wooden articles such as a bamboo wicker tray and a plate carved from a log. Even so, up to that point, I was ready to tackle the mold. At once, I pulled out all the household articles in the cabinets and sterilized the cabinets with alcohol. I washed the dishes, let them sit in diluted bleach solution for a time, then rinsed them again with water. Tiresome as it was, three days should be plenty to complete the task, I thought. I felt lucky that only the wooden items had been affected, and was relieved that the books remained untainted. Talking to a friend on the phone, I joked around and laughed, saying the books must be unscathed because I didn’t read much.

    After cleaning the kitchen, I started on the study. As I dusted off the bookshelves, my eyes fell on the hardcover volumes in the original languages. To my astonishment, molds of different colors—white, green, yellow—lined the angular edges of the fabric covers. The molds were markedly different in color and shape from the ordinary kind that arise in the bathroom or kitchen when it’s not regularly cleaned, and the sight of them sickened me. I had never seen a life form of their kind before. Rubbing my arms to ease the goose bumps, I tried to cool my head, and making an effort not to shut my eyes, I went through each and every book on the shelves. Mold had taken over a good number of them, not only the fabric-covered ones but the paperbacks as well. A volume of Walter Benjamin’s work in English revealed, when I lifted its dust cover, white mold inside the hard covers and on the spine. Without hesitation, I shoved it into a paper bag. Avital Ronell’s Stupidity in its original English was ruined as well. Quarantining Benjamin and Ronell in the paper bag and throwing them out the door, I wept for the first time because of the mold. Not because the beautiful thoughts and words had been corroded by something so trivial as mold; my feelings of loss and grief were for the words underlined in inks of various colors and the notes in the margins. The traces of those days in which I had so struggled to make sense of the abstruse texts had been stolen by the mold. What had been taken from and become lost to me were not certain volumes by certain scholars, but those days of stupidity.

    Calming myself, I walked past the shelves of books in English and looked through the books in German and French. My heart raced, as I didn’t know how badly the paperback books had been damaged; then I realized that funnily enough, the damage differed in degree depending on the publisher. The pages of the dark blue Suhrkamp editions of philosophical works being fungi-resistant, were clean though faded yellow. Thus the entire collection of Benjamin’s works in German, as well as Kant’s Critique of Judgment and Hegel’s Aesthetics, survived. So did the peach-colored Gallimard paperbacks and Folio editions. As for the French PUF editions, however, pretty green mold had developed along the spines; so the works by Foucault, Laplanche, and Kant were expelled. Scrutinizing the shelves, I grew increasingly cold and desensitized, feeling no regret at tying the books up in bundles and dumping them. Distancing myself from mold was the most critical issue at hand, and I no longer had any qualms about mechanically eliminating, expelling, and isolating what had been tainted with mold.

     Now came the time to examine the shelf of Korean books. I noted that a shimmering green-gray mold had accumulated on all of the Workroom Press “Proposals” series. I’d never seen mold of such beautiful color before. It resembled rust on ancient bronze artifacts. In admiration, I yearned to contemplate it in silence. These books, I never wanted to dispose of. With each publication of the series, the editor had arranged a gathering with the translator, which I’d attended every time and took notes, in the book, of the translator’s words. Discarding the books was like discarding the vividness of those moments and the words, which I wouldn’t be able to hear anywhere ever again. I searched online to see how to restore books contaminated by mold and learned that librarians in Japan use gauze fabric dampened with 75 percent ethanol solution to wipe books with. I tried the same method to bring the “Proposals” series back to life. But the mold on the covers, made of imported paper, and on the inside of the spines was so persistent that I couldn’t let the books stay in the room with the other articles. In the end, I gave up on restoring them, and shed a flood of tears as I relinquished them. Hearing the news, the editor shared my pain. I sent her the dozens of peach-colored Gallimard editions of Maurice Blanchot as a sign of our days of friendship. So I sent away without hesitation even the ones that had survived—hoping that they’d live long in a safer environment.

    In the end, though, I couldn’t be wholly indifferent or cold-hearted. As I tied up the severely damaged books, I felt as if my heart were slashed with a knife.

It kept raining, even when the rainy season had supposedly ended. September came and the fall semester began, but I wasn’t done cleaning mold. Typhoons raged one after another. Rain fell without ceasing, and the disinfection took forever, with the mold ever multiplying. It was no longer a matter of picking out contaminated books to discard. I had to give the shelves some breathing space. I began to throw away unmarred books at random as well. Otherwise, the infested books would spread mold onto the books that were yet untainted. I scrapped all of Lacan’s Seminar series. A whole shelf was emptied, along with a period of my life. I got rid of all the German books on philosophy, too; I wouldn’t read them anyway. Hegel’s Aesthetics, I sent to an artist friend of mine. I asked my acquaintances if they wanted any of my Penguin paperbacks, and sent the books out in the mail. I threw out the signed copies of books that authors had sent me. I had no choice. The authors knew what I was going through and said they would give me another copy when things returned to normal.

    I threw away so many things. I had to let them go, without condition. I had to create empty, quarantined space in order to salvage what still had life in them. I had to, to let myself live.

Neighbors I hadn’t interacted with before learned about my situation, as I was constantly going in and out of the house to chuck loads of stuff, clutching an umbrella to protect myself from the typhoon. One of them, who lived a floor below, invited me over when I was all scruffy and offered me a meal. When I was absorbed in sterilizing the books, she would knock on my door and hand me something to eat. She sympathized with me, saying it must be heartbreaking for someone who studied books to have to throw them away. 

    Where had the mold come from? From the natural produce of the organic garden patch which I had so greedily brought home? Probably not; no trace of mold was detected at the front door, where I would leave the bag, straw hat, and rubber boots I used in gardening. On the other hand, the study, which had suffered the most serious damage, faced a mountain through the window. The mountain was thick with trees, but just outside the window there was no tree, only weeds in an empty lot. According to the neighbor who lived downstairs, there had been several acacia trees there up until a year ago, but the green space management at the district office had them felled. After the trees had been cut down, rainwater seeped through an embankment into her house during the rainy season one year. My guess is that with the trees gone from the forest, whose thriving trunks and weeds had made for a healthy, self-regulating ecosystem in which growth, development, and decomposition occurred in a cycle, the fungi in the humid air carried by the wind infiltrated my window; the mold spores that would have been kept at bay by the trees settled in my room and extended their power with the long rain.

    Three years have passed since, but the mold hasn’t been completely eliminated. The mold has done no wrong. All it did was fly when the wind blew and grow when it was humid, according to the order of nature inherent in itself. No matter how much I wiped at it with ethanol, the spores, invisible to the naked eye, stayed hidden in unseen corners, ready to run rampant when the air began to stagnate and grow moist. When I spot such corners, I once again feel the need to empty my space and allow the air to flow. When the air begins to circulate again, of course, so do the spores.

    In 2020, I experienced something irreversible that manifested itself in a powerful way through human factors—such as a climate catastrophe that included a long rainy season, frequent typhoons, and forest logging—that tangled with nature in the form of mold on the books in my room. Since that summer, as is the case with all inflection points in life, my idea and substance of life have never been the same. 


Translated by Yewon Jung 

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