“Which path are you going to take,” asked the wolf,
“the path of needles or the path of pins?”
No. 1: Don Mee Choi
Who is your favorite fairy-tale villain? Why?
My favorite is the stepmother who appears in a Korean fairy-tale called K’ong-jwi P’at-jwi (literal translation: Bean Mouse Red-Bean Mouse, referring to the colors), which I like to translate to myself as Broad-Bean Red-Bean. I grew up with mice and rats and their droppings at our house, so it was far more pleasant for me to picture the girls as beans rather than as rats. The first half of the story is like Cinderella, but the second half is quite different. Broad-Bean lost her mother 100 days after her birth, so her father remarried, and her stepmother moved in with a daughter, Red-Bean, from her previous marriage. Naturally, Broad-Bean’s stepmother was affectionate only towards Red-Bean and abusive to Broad-Bean. Whenever they had to work in the rice field, Red-Bean was given a metal hoe and Broad-Bean a wooden hoe. But Broad-Bean’s mother’s spirit came down in the form of a cow and helped her to complete difficult chores. One day the stepmother took Red-Bean to her family’s festive gathering, leaving Broad-Bean alone with the impossible tasks of filling a huge bottomless jar with water, pounding grains, and weaving hemp. A toad appeared to fill the hole in the jar, a flock of birds flew in to winnow the grains, and an angel (Taoist fairy) came down to weave for Broad-Bean. Broad-Bean wore the dress and flower-embroidered shoes the angel gave her, but lost a shoe on her way to the party. A nobleman finds the shoe and marries Broad-Bean. But Broad-Bean soon falls under Red-Bean’s conniving and drowns in a lake. Red-Bean wears the dress and shoes left behind and pretends to be Broad-Bean. So Broad-Bean reincarnates herself as a lotus flower and haunts Red-Bean whenever she is outside. Then Broad-Bean appears in front of the nobleman and tells him what had happened to her. The nobleman drains the lake and finds the corpse of Broad-Bean, which comes back to life. Red-Bean is killed in punishment and her body is sent to her mother. The stepmother thinks that the nobleman has sent her a present, but when she sees that it is Red-Bean’s body, she dies from the shock.
The stepmother is my favorite villain because, when I was a child, I became convinced that I was Broad-Bean and was fascinated by how the stepmother died—from seeing the corpse of her daughter. I wondered if this was why my mother always tried to shield me from any funeral processions we happened to encounter in the streets. She shielded me with her traditional dress, hanbok. One day, when my mother returned from a funeral, I opened a wooden gate door to our house. She shut the gate right away and yelled at me to go away. Then my aunt came out and threw salt on my mother before letting her in. I didn’t know we had to exorcise any evil spirits that might have followed my mother from the funeral. I didn’t know, long ago, my mother’s father had died shortly after attending a funeral. Naturally, I believed that he must have died from the shock of seeing a corpse. To continue my story, one day, I created a huge scene for no apparent reason, making my sister admit that she was Red-Bean. I told her that I was treated unfairly and intensely disliked by our parents. Believe me, this is how I truly felt at that time. Later, the guilt of making my sister miserable led me to concede to the fact that she was a Taoist fairy in a willowy gossamer dress that enabled her to fly to heaven and that I was just a pudgy, naked angel with wings.
What role do birds or wings play in your writing or artistic life?
Sparrows haunted me when I first left Korea. I couldn’t bear the sound of their chirpings because it made me feel intensely homesick. I asked my mother why they kept chirping at dusk. She told me that, like children, they were trying to settle down to sleep. I wished I could also chirp incessantly, then fly back to Korea the next morning. I have sparrows in my poem, “A Journey From Neocolony to Colony.”The sparrows serve as messengers between myself and my other child-self that I left behind: My sparrows fly at night across the ocean and remember your flowers. I am not fallow. I follow. Their wings serve as my distant grammar in another poem, “From Noon – To All Surviving Butterflies”: I could return to my tenses, my distant wings… Master’s language is forever thoughtful about what happened before something.
The path of pins or the path of needles?
What a great story and question! There is an old saying in Korean which goes something like this: “A woman inevitably follows her husband the way a thread follows a needle.” Needless to say, I’ve been down this path before. So I will take the path of pins.
Don Mee Choi’s translation of “39.5 Celsius” appears in the The Yellow Issue of Fairy Tale Review.