Travel is a Disaster

An interview with ‘Disaster Tourist’ author Yun Ko-eun (and her translator)

About halfway through Yun Ko-eun’s novel The Disaster Tourist everything changes. The ground, nearly, comes out from under the main character Yona’s feet as the train she’s riding literally splits in half, leaving Yona trapped without her luggage, passport, travel guide or way home.

“Ms. Ko, I told you on your first day,” her guide impatiently and nonchalantly chides. “The train splits in two during the ride, and sometimes the two halves end up going in different directions. That’s why I told you only to use the bathroom in your car.”

It’s an absurd moment—in a novel chock of them—that Ko-eun treats so mundanely. Yona feels like this is her fault. And that absurd splitting train takes Yona from an already pretty weird adventure—a trip to the island of Mui, famous for its sinkhole, run by Yona’s employer, the disaster tourism company Jungle—to a much more complicated and dangerous scenario. She returns to Mui and involves herself in a plot to make its disaster tourist attraction much more exciting.

Disaster Tourist

Ko-eun’s novel, translated by Lizzie Buehler, is an alarming, but incredibly delightful, book that examines travel and tourism in its most dehumanizing forms, and uses them to discuss power and complicity. I loved every moment of it. It’s capped off by a moving afterword by Ko-eun, writing since the novel’s first publishing in Korean in 2013, that reads in part:

“If Lizzie and The Disaster Tourist hadn’t exchanged cosmic winks with one another, I wouldn’t be writing these words, and you wouldn’t be reading them…I’m a speck of dust, you’re a speck of dust; we float around in space until we meet by chance and pull each other closer. And then we swirl together, growing hotter and hotter, until we combine into a single sun.”

It is gorgeous and reminiscent of all the incredible prose the novel has to offer, and it’s a reminder of the power of publishing, whose stories are told and to whom.

I talked about The Disaster Tourist with author Yun Ko-eun. Buehler provided translation.

Yun Ko-eun, photographed by Lee Sang-min.

How would the disaster tourism company you created for the novel, Jungle, plan a COVID-19 disaster trip to Wuhan?

Jungle can’t just prematurely plan a COVID-19 trip—especially since the crisis is not yet over yet. Participants of such a trip would have to be confident that they’re free from the disease, and for the time being we have no idea who’s safe from COVID. Jungle’s specialty is providing customers with moderately refined, pre-packaged disaster. Their customers believe that they are looking on from a “safe distance.” The sense of distance between disaster and oneself is an essential insurance policy for the disaster tourism industry. People are able to feel grim and frightened, but all from that safe distance. Now, however, the coronavirus has erased that concept. It would be difficult to plan a trip program for this ongoing disaster, as we don’t yet have a real reference point to gauge safety.

Has writing the novel changed how you perceive your own travel?

When I travel, I become a collector. I collect the scenery I encounter, sentence by sentence. Some of these sentences have already made their way into my books, and others are currently in the process of being transformed. Many of my travel experiences become parts of my novels. These experiences don’t just come from the trip itself, but also the time before embarking and after returning home. Because I don’t know the backstory of everything I encounter while traveling, I make a lot of use of my imagination, naturally turning personal anecdotes into longer stories.

For example, I once made an Airbnb reservation in Hawaii when the owner asked me via messenger, “South Korea or North Korea?” Of course, I said “South Korea,” but for some unfortunate reason, the owner of the house then decided to end our conversation. A few days later, he canceled my reservation. When I later wrote a story based on this experience, it wasn’t entirely reflective of reality, but these moments seem to me like very fascinating pieces of puzzle. That’s why I incorporate them into my writing. In the fictional version of my Hawaii trip, a local homeowner decides to create a business intentionally catering to North Korean guests. My novels tend to be born out of the debris from my travels. It gives me a lot of room for imagination.

The Disaster Tourist highlights myriad social problems—workplace harassment and #MeToo, voluntourism, climate change, extreme poverty, and work—ideas around power and one’s complicity in it unite them. I was interested in the main character Yona’s shift once on the island of Mui. At Jungle, she works a thankless job where other employees take credit for her work and her boss harasses her. But once she enters the sinkhole plot, it’s a pretty easy jump for her to begin toying with the lives of the island’s residents. How should the reader—or how do you—feel about Yona by the end of the novel? Has she redeemed herself? Or is she just another cog in the machine?

Yona is a cog moving faithfully in orbit. But despite this, she finds that spending time in warm, tropical travel destinations—rather than inside Seoul’s crowded subway—allows her a rare sense of excess. And once on Mui, she becomes close with someone as different from her as Luck. But the center of this book isn’t that Yona and Luck have this beautiful romance, and Yona sacrifices herself for him.

Yona’s change of heart and its consequences. is the important thing. She believes that she has the right not to act according to the script put in front of her, the right to pull Luck away from this manmade disaster. She’s finally a pilot rather than a passenger. But Yona doesn’t realize that this new sense of self could be seen as hubris. To the enormous corporation Paul [which controls the island of Mui and, by extension, all of our characters], Yona is still a cog. In the capitalist world that Paul symbolizes, Yona is nothing but a bit player.

Yona’s attempt to stop cooperating with Paul is also an attempt to bring back the feeling of everyday life that she left behind in Seoul. The unintended result is that she goes off script and ends up saving the crocodiles. Sometimes cogs bring the entire machine to its knees.

The novel pretty much skewers any value of voluntourism, and on the individual level, it paints a bleak portrait of what change is possible under late capitalism. What do you think is possible at the individual level to help ameliorate some of the extreme poverty you describe on Mui?

Not long ago, I was shocked to learn that plastic can be found even in remote caves hours from human civilization. We can’t rid the world of plastic. We may think that using plastic bags at, for example, the grocery store is a given—but then when we see a city covered with waste we created, we want to turn our faces away. That’s the irony of the human spirit. You may want to do something at the individual level, but it’s only possible to decide which products to buy when customers have the option to know more about, and criticize, the companies and countries that bring them their purchases. Of course, if you want to reduce your environmental impact, you have to bear the resulting inconvenience, but valuing something greater than ease—sustainability—makes the discomfort more bearable.

It’s easy for travelers to unwittingly become accomplices in crimes of exploitation and abuse simply because of their own ignorance. Unknowingly, the traveler places the disaster in his suitcase, wreaking havoc on the local environment with his luggage’s wheel marks. Attention and knowledge are essential. For now, COVID-19 has put many areas of our lives on pause, but when long-distance voyages resume, I’m hopeful that we can create a new standard for travel.

I found your afterword particularly moving. Thinking about the global power you so adeptly bring up in your novel, I’m wondering what is the impact of having your novel translated and placed into an English market?

My favorite Martin Page novel features a character who buys 3,334 copies of Emily Dickinson’s poetry collections every month and parachutes them into sparsely populated locales. The man is not rich, but he is determined to drop this poetic gift into the hands of the world’s readers. If anyone wants to buy 3,334 copies of my novels every month and distribute them around the world, I’ll let you know how to avoid being suspected of trying to manipulate the bestseller list: translation.

In order for a book to reach the world, publishers must translate it  into languages with a large base of speakers. Now that the English translation of The Disaster Tourist has come out in the UK and the US, the number of readers who can access the book has increased exponentially. Maybe this is sharing literature by drone rather than by parachute, but we are in the era of drones, after all…For some reason, sharing my writing with the world with the “drone” that is translation makes me feel like a best-selling author.

Most authors probably owe the biggest debt to their native language, but we hope for people to translate our works into other languages and publish them again. Translation is like the beginning of a new air route that can bring other languages to the world I’ve created. Translation also functions as an independent creation. Since the translator’s voice is bound to be overlaid atop the original novel, translation for me isn’t just a delivery or transportation of the Korean, but a new adventure for me to embark upon.

Readers today might hesitate just seeing the word “faraway.” Nowadays, people are fearful of simply breathing near others.

It’s a bit strange to think that we published The Disaster Tourist in Korea in 2013, but it came out in English in 2020, in entirely different circumstances. In 2013, I put my main character on a plane and sent her to a “faraway disaster.” But readers today might hesitate just seeing the word “faraway.” Nowadays, people are fearful of simply breathing near others.

I haven’t been able to travel this year, so rereading The Disaster Tourist at home, and following the story anew in the language of my translator, Lizzie Buehler, has been my primary adventure. With the current epidemic surrounding us, the injustice faced by Mui in the novel feels closer than before. Look at how people are making it through the era of COVID-19: most of us are spatially constrained, but [the] super-rich haven’t had to stop traveling; they’ve just changed the way in which they do so. They can rent out the Sistine Chapel for a private viewing or the entire first-class cabin of a plane.

But others have less choice: they are unable to quarantine as recommended by their governments, they have to shut down their businesses and find themselves out of work, or they have to take care of children who are no longer in school. One of the bitter truths I didn’t realize when I was younger is that even in a dystopia, there are the haves and the have-nots. Some people enjoy the option of taking in only the amount of dystopia that they desire. Others don’t have such a choice. This is what I saw while rereading The Disaster Tourist—only now it’s reality as well as fiction. It was an amazing experience for me to read the book again in English in 2020.

Lizzie Buehler, photographed by Benjamin Lundquist.

I have a question for Lizzie as well. I love reading translated fiction that’s more on the sci-fi/speculative end, but I wonder what on earth it must have been like to translate. What were some of the challenges or joys in translating some of the more absurd bits of the novel?

I think the most challenging aspect of translating texts that aren’t entirely ground in reality is being sure of myself as a translator. After finishing a first draft of certain scenes, I sometimes find myself wondering, “Is this really what’s happening in the book? Did I translate this right?” This is a common worry amongst translators, but here it’s compounded by the fact that some of Ko-eun’s ideas are so zany that you have to read sentences twice to be sure that you understood them correctly.

The way I alleviate this internal self-doubt is by making my translation of Ko-eun’s work into a broader community project. I am the English translator of The Disaster Tourist, but I can’t count the number of other people who helped me along the way: Ko-eun herself, who was already eager to answer clarifying questions; Korean friends who could give me a native speaker perspective on ambiguous passages; and professors who provided me with some of the historical knowledge I needed to understand specific cultural references. Translation is never done alone!

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

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