When you’re interviewing someone for a story, preparation can be a double-edged sword. Last month, I travelled to South Korea to visit a bevy of friends and taste as much kimchi and spicy pork wraps as I could. I brought my audio recorder just in case I found time to work on a story for Terra Informa, and in my last few days I found a place that seemed to ripe for narrative.
North of the Han River, I read, downtown Seoul was thinly sliced in two by an ancient stream: Cheonggyecheon. There’s a pretty well-established history that’s told of Cheonggyecheon’s life over the past hundred years: slums grew up around its banks, it became increasingly polluted as a home for laundry and sewage, and eventually the municipal government decided it was easier to cover the whole area over with a freeway than to clean it up. Then around 2000, Seoul’s mayor decided to lead the charge on rehabilitating the stream, and the city transformed it at great expense into a fashionable, healthier tourist attraction. The project bolstered mayor Lee Myung-Bak’s reputation, and helped catapult him into the presidency.
Like any good reporter, I wanted to be more than just a stenographer for this official narrative. I landed on two approaches for getting a fresh angle. First, I’d interview a local historian and ask some hard questions about what happened to the people who lived in those slums. It seemed like an obvious injustice that while they were told to move, billions of dollars were later poured into cleaning up the stream for tourists and nearby financial analysts on their lunch break. Second, I’d ask a scientist who studied water quality in Korea to give me context on how polluted other bodies of water are around Seoul.
I was able to arrange for Seoul’s city government to assign a storyteller/tour guide named Ho Park to walk me down the stream and answer some questions about its history over the past 600 years. I had my questions ready, and as we strolled past symbolic pieces of stone and renovated ancient bridges, I tried to press him on why the poorer residents were moved, rather than being able to benefit from a cleaner waterway themselves. While he gamely told me the name of a neighbourhood they’d been relocated to and tried to answer my questions, I could tell he was getting tired of them.
Finally Park said, “Have you ever been hungry?” I admitted that I hadn’t.
Then he told me a different story about Cheonggyecheon. Look at it from the perspective of the country after the Korean War, he said. Millions of casualties, both countries in ruins, and many of those left were desperately poor. South Korea didn’t have the kind of money to think about environmental health, he said. The whole country, and certainly its iron-fisted dictatorship, were focused on economic growth.
Today, Seoul is a mostly-affluent, sometimes futuristic city. You can swipe your RFID-enabled transit card to get on about a dozen subway lines that snake through the city, have your butt heated the whole way, and be right at home watching soap operas on your smartphone along with all the other passengers enjoying seamless 4G connections through the tunnels. When I first visited Cheonggyecheon, I wandered past a crowd of photographers gathered around a fake backdrop for a North Face photo shoot.
Now, said Park, was the time to think seriously about cleaning up air quality downtown and get carp and marsh snails back in the streams. Ecological health is a luxury for the rich, essentially.
It wasn’t the story I came for, and it wasn’t one I was comfortable with. But it was the honest perspective I found from both Park and the scientist, so it’s going to be the thread of my story. Sometimes, you have to be willing to toss out your well-prepared notes and follow your nose.
You there, with the computer. I want to give you a chance to look swanky and meet some truly wild personalities. Just because I like you. All you have to do is answer a question. Are you in?
I’m on the board of Punctuate! Theatre, right? We’re pretty new, but we’re trying to create heart-palpitating, brainwave-inducing, challenging work. And next Friday, we’re taking over Edmonton’s Rutherford House for our first annual fundraiser to let you have a peek into the process and meet the minds behind the performances. You’ll get to see excerpts from the plays, costumes, the scripts we’ve worked through, and partake in some wining and dining. I want you to come. And lucky you, even if you can’t afford a ticket, I happen to have one to give away. You see, my lovely mother has asked me to purchase one on her behalf and find a good home for it. So in her honour (today is her birthday!), I am giving it away to the first person who can answer this skill-testing question, which will mostly test your skills of research:
Who was in the cast of the first show that Punctuate! produced? No hints which show it was. The first person to name at least two of the cast members in the comments below wins!
Edit: We have a winner! Congrats to Steve Andersen.
For a community with so much to celebrate, queer folks sure don’t spend enough time talking about what makes our identity and sexuality great. I have story in The Wanderer this week about a documentary that tries to cover some of the joy of the fluid gender roles and “the doin’ it.”
You can read my story on Vivek Shraya’s What I LOVE About Being QUEER here, or meet him in person at the film screening tonight. It’s at 6:30 at Edmonton’s Idylwylde Library.
Last night, my friend Evan and I had the pleasure of seeing Nobel Peace Prize winners Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman speak at the University of Alberta’s Festival of Ideas. Gbowee is famous for her work leading a women’s movement that helped end the civil war in Liberia, but she’s based in Ghana these days. The first thing she said on stage was that she was thankful to the organizers for coordinating a trip that was as long and complicated “as going to space.”
Karman is renowned now for her work rallying Yemenis out on the streets to fight for their right to free expression, free speech, and to eventually to end the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. As a journalist, activist, and mother of three she’s taken extraordinary risks to fight for civil rights in Yemen. She said even after the lives of her children were threatened, she took courage knowing that millions more youths would take to the streets if they were harmed. Incredible change is possible, she said, if you are willing to take on a cause and pursue it to the very end. Have a goal in mind, and make a path towards it.
Moreover, she said women need to take on the responsibility for finding a just place for themselves in Yemeni society.
“Women must be the leaders, not ask for leadership from anyone,” she said. “We don’t want gifts from anyone. We want what we deserve.”
Similarly, Gbowee’s life seems to be a story of recognizing a responsibility to step up to the plate when no one else can. After 2000, ten years after the Liberian civil war began, a movement of Christian and Muslim women was building around the country to call for peace. She had convinced many of them that this was their fight, and they wanted her to lead them. Gbowee said she must have quit fifty times, and each time she’d find 200 hundred women waiting outside her house, telling her it was time to go back to work.
It makes me wonder — how seriously do most of us take the idea that we’re the ones who need to step up to the plate to solve our big crises, and we must follow our work to the very end? That, as the Hopi poem (or maybe prophecy) goes, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”?
I have an uncomfortable sense that many of us engaged in environmental and social justice work find our milestones more in our efforts than our accomplishments.
In the Elmina slave castle in Ghana, where men and women were held in hellish prison cells waiting to be shipped to the New World, there is a room my friends and I were taught to call the Room of No Return. There is a door out of this room where people were herded out to the boats, a one-way door. I have been thinking a lot about death lately, and I have been thinking about the one-way door.
Isaak Kornelsen’s death, and the cycling town hall it inspired, got me thinking about how a death resonates with the people left behind. Does it change the way they see themselves, the world around them, I wondered? Or does it just make them pay attention for a moment?
And after that, I kept coming back. I interviewed a forensic entomologist in Vancouver who explained how insects can tell stories for the dead: the age of flies in a body can date the time of death, the species mix can tell you the location a body was moved from, and the blood in an insect’s crop can tell you who… well, who they were eating. After that, my friend Alison and I organized a Shareable Neighbourhood walk to explore nature’s cycles of life and death (it hasn’t happened yet — that’s this Saturday). How do the trees and animals around us cope with the long, cold, winter in this climate? Which ones die, and which ones hang on, and how?
I’ve been trying to piece together why I’ve been drawn to these ideas lately, and the best I can come back to is the door. As JK Rowling showed so painfully in Harry Potter, death is at least a one-way passage for knowledge. We can never know what lies on the other side: a long drop and a short stop, or an ocean of possibility.
What does it mean to pass through a door with no hope of return? With no knowledge of what comes next? We know, of course, the grim life that lay on the other side of that particular door in the slave castle. But what if we were presented with such a door today, with no knowledge of what lay on the other side, and had the choice to take a one-way journey through it? Would we take it?
I watched the movie Solaris tonight, and it certainly asks this question. I think many great science fiction movies do, actually. Characters are presented with the choice to step onto an unknown, possibly transcendent, and possibly fatal path. There is no turning back.
I always get a tingle when they do.
Many of us live our lives with some certainty about the one-way door. It brings many people comfort to think that heaven lies on the other side, that all of our pain and wrongs will be erased and we can join the people we love again there. Others are just as certain that all that’s ahead of us is a future as a meal for insects. I don’t think it’s possible for us to know, no matter how many ghost stories I hear. But I think the answer we hold in our hearts matters.
If you were certain there a chance of eternal happiness on the other side, what matters more than getting there? Live your life without sin, do some good deeds where you can, and make right with your Creator, and everything will turn out alright. But what if all that’s on the other side is darkness? For some, that might mean there’s no point to living well. For me, I think it realigns life’s purpose.
If this is the only life we have, personal salvation doesn’t matter, but making this world better might. We may not have immortal life after this body expires, but we can certainly have an immortal impact on our community. If we are brave, we might embolden a whole generation after us. If we pay attention to our actions, we might make the water cleaner for our grandchildren. If we make space, new life might flourish in our footsteps.