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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

… a Seoul-based essayist, broadcaster, and public speaker on cities, language, and culture.

On my new Substack newsletter Books on Cities, I write long-form essay-reviews on exactly that.

You’ll find my essays here. I write for outlets including Guardian CitiesOpen Culture, the Times Literary Supplementthe Los Angeles Review of Books (including its Korea Blog), KCET, Boom: A Journal of California (and guest-edited its issue on architecture, infrastructure, and the built environment), Bookforum, Boing Boing, Put This On, The Japan Foundation, The Millions3QuarksdailyThe Quarterly Conversation, and Maximum Fun.

I’ve previously appeared on a Seoul urbanism radio feature on TBS eFM’s Koreascape as well as hosted and produced the world-traveling podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture [RSS] [iTunes], which evolved from the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas. 

My video essay series The City in Cinema examines cities (especially Los Angeles) as they appear on film.

My public speaking, which I’ve done in places like Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, the San Francisco Urban Film Festival, Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Chapman University, California State University Long Beach, and the Seoul Book and Culture Club, usually covers this same suite of cities-and-culture-related topics.

You can also keep up with me on Twitter and Facebook as well.

콜린 마샬은 도시와 문화를 포함해서 여러 주제들에 대하여 에세이를 쓰는 수필가이다. 그 에세이들은 <뉴요커>와 <가디언> 그리고 <로스 앤젤레스 리뷰 오브 북스> 같은 주로 영미권 매체에 실리고 또한 그는 한국 문학 잡지 <Axt>에도 기고한 적이 있다. 모국인 미국에서 30년 넘게 살며 8년 동안 라디오 방송과 팟캐스트에서 인터뷰을 진행했다. 그 후에 로스앤젤레스의 한인타운을 거쳐 세계에서 제일 큰 한인타운인 서울로 이사왔다. 서울에 사는 동안 <콜린의 한국> 팟캐스트를 운영하며 작가와 교수을 비롯하여 건축가와 방송인 같은 다양한 사람들을 여전히 인터뷰한다.

Books on Cities: Jonathan Raban, Soft City

Luchino Visconti’s White Nights (Le notti bianche) loosely adapts the eponymous Dostoevsky short story, transposing it from Saint Petersburg into the Tuscan port town of Livorno. Though set there, the film wasn’t actually shot there: Visconti famously had sections of central Livorno replicated within studios at Cinecittà, and rolls of tulle hung to achieve the look of enveloping fog. The uncannily daylight-like brilliance of streetlights on the copious mist resonates faintly with the title — as, more heavily, does the sudden snowfall that arrives toward the end — but in my view the opacity of the weather also has thematic value. In White Nights the city and the fog become one; or rather, the city becomes a kind of fog, exposing and concealing figures according to an inscrutable pattern of its own.

This notion immediately occurred to me while watching the film a few weeks ago; what didn’t immediately occur me was that it had quite likely been influenced by Jonathan Raban. “For the Victorian writer, the industrial fog which hung over London for so much of the year was very much more than a chemical inconvenience, or even a romantic visual effect,” he writes in Soft City. “It was the supreme symbol of the city’s capacity to make people disappear inside it.” For Dickens specifically, in whose work “the prolific creation of characters is a by-product of the city itself, it requires a great deal of conscious effort merely to keep the people connected; the fog is omnivorous, and in every novel Dickens is persistently losing his characters then finding them again.”

Whatever liberties Dickens might have taken with the persistence and thickness of the fog itself, he didn’t take quite so many liberties with the lost-and-found (and more often lost) nature of metropolitan life. “In small places, people have to go on living with their social failures; in London there is an uneasy ease of separation. One is so likely to be left only with a phone number in an old address book, and that answered by a strange voice, curt and suspicious. We continually drop each other back into the fog.” This is (or before our current state of perpetual connectedness was) easily done in big cities — all of them as metaphorically foggy as London, even if less literally so — “where size and anonymity and the absence of clear communal sanctions license the kind of behavior that any village would stamp out at birth.”

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: Hwang Sok-yong’s memoir The Prisoner

The reunification of Germany has long been a topic of interest among South Koreans invested in relations with the North. When the Berlin Wall fell, Hwang Sok-yong was one of the few such South Koreans actually there to witness it. Though known primarily as a novelist, Hwang split his energies between writing and political agitation in the early decades of his now more than half-century-long literary career. He often failed to strike an ideal balance between the two, as he admits in his memoir The Prisoner (수인), recently published by Verso in Anton Hur and Sora Kim-Russell’s English translation. This German sojourn comes early in the book, whose 624 pages (condensed from the two-volume original) ultimately constitute a full autobiography, albeit a chronologically shuffled one. Through these episodes of his life he interweaves the titular narrative, that of his half-decade’s political imprisonment by the South Korean government.

It bears repeating that this is a memoir not of captivity in North Korea, a genre in which the US publishing industry has shown an insatiable interest, but of captivity in the South. Nevertheless, it is also in part a travelogue of North Korea, Hwang’s trip to which brought down his prison sentence in the first place. He took it in 1989, the year international travel opened up to ordinary South Koreans, though by that time he already possessed the rare distinction of experience abroad. The then-West Germany had invited him in 1985, and his time there plunged him into uncertainty about his very identity. “Who was I? I was forty-two. I had written four novellas and a volume of plays and had just published the tenth volume of my popular novel Jang Gil-san, which I had serialized since 1974. My work, however, did not exist outside of Korea.”

“A country bumpkin on his first overseas trip,” Hwang decided that in Germany he “wouldn’t even bother mentioning literature: I would only talk to as many people as possible about the plight of the citizens of Gwangju and our democracy movement.” The nine-day long violent conflict between protestors and the military in that South Korean city — now called the Gwangju Uprising, or by some the Gwangju Massacre — had occurred just five years earlier. That Hwang had been living there at the time would align with his uncanny knack for finding himself in the way of historic events, but other organizing commitments called him up to Seoul before the fighting broke out. “It always weighed on me that I was not there to stand with the people of Gwangju in their hour of need,” he admits, a guilt he first sought to alleviate through writing.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: Before There Were Korean TV Dramas, There Was Lee Hyeong-pyo’s Under the Sky of Seoul

More literally translated, the original Korean title of Under the Sky of Seoul (서울의 지붕밑) would be “Under the Roof of Seoul.” Whatever it lacks in mellifluousness, that version hardly seems inapt during the film’s opening sequence, which offers a series of views of the South Korean capital as it looked in the early 1960s. A near-total absence of high-rise buildings makes the first of them almost unrecognizable to those who’ve only known the city in the 21st century. But subsequent shots focus on more familiar sites: Tapgol Park with its Buddhist pagoda, the United States Embassy designed by Kim Swoo-geun (an architect to whose work I’ve paid more than a little attention here on the Korea Blog). What most catches the eye, however, are the roofs, and specifically those with the curved tiles and lines of the traditional hanok courtyard house.

There were more hanok in Seoul 60 years ago than there are now. As Under the Sky of Seoul depicts it there were many more indeed, but the film needs them for their symbolic value as built representations of the old order. For almost every episode of this highly episodic narrative deals with one theme above all: the coming of industrial modernity and the socioeconomic changes brought with it. To do so requires not just un-modern homes but un-modern men: hence protagonist Kim Hak-kyu, a traditional doctor who has prescribed herbs and performed acupuncture (scoffing at the very idea of disinfectant) in the same hanok for 30 years. In only a few scenes does he actually practice medicine; the rest of his time he seems to pass eating, drinking, and playing baduk with his similarly middle-aged buddies, one a destitute real-estate agent and the other a fortune-telling reader of physiognomy.

The blustery, out-of-touch patriarch is a standard figure of fun in Korean film and television today, but even in 1961 he was getting his supposed comeuppance onscreen. Despite his own struggles, or indeed due to them, such a character must be fiercely defensive of his family’s social position. So it is with Hak-kyu: early in the movie he examines the daughter of a local tavern owner attempting to conceal an obvious pregnancy, only to find out later that — much to his chagrin — his son is the father. He’s already been keeping a wary eye on his own daughter, a war widow fancied by the young doctor who recently opened up a practice across the street from her hair salon. Outfitted in Western suits and possessed of advanced medical equipment, this suitor is, irritatingly, not just a Johnny-come-lately to the neighborhood but a personification of the new, modern Korea.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Archinect: Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles at 50

If you have an interest in Los Angeles, you also have a copy of Reyner Banham‘s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. My own is a mid-1980s Pelican paperback, which I chose because it had the dumbest cover of all the editions. Though it shares with previous printings the image of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, an unimpeachable representation of a certain midcentury vision of the city’s hauntingly good life, its title replaces their elegant Helvetica with letterforms better suited to a post-apocalyptic action movie gone straight to video. “Angeles” is spelled out in forward-slanting, shadow-casting, bright yellow capitals but for the red initial “A,” rendered as if hastily spray-painted and set inside a circle to form the 1970s anarchy symbol. Right, Los Angeles — that’s the zone of semi-controlled urban chaos obedient to no conventional rules or order, architectural or otherwise, isn’t it?

How did Banham, who died in 1988, regard this dubious piece of graphic design? Each of his many enthusiasts and exegetes active today would speculate differently, according to which facet of his oeuvre they know best. Having first trained as an aeronautical engineer before undertaking an architectural-history education, Banham first became widely known in his native England through magazine columns in the 1950s and 60s. There he practiced criticism: sometimes of architecture, to be sure, but more often of practically everything else then found at the intersection of culture and technology. In the study Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future, Nigel Whiteley sums up the range of these public-facing writings: “Car styling; the design of radios and cameras; graphics on magazines, cigarette packs and potato chip bags; the decoration of restaurants, surfboards and ice cream vans; cult films and TV programs — all were grist for his mill.”

Half a century of technological developments and cultural-studies lectures on, these subjects will strike most of us as obviously (or at least potentially) worthy of serious consideration. That wasn’t the case for Banham’s generation, whose members came of age with a painfully keen awareness of the line dividing “high” from “low.” Born in 1922 to a not particularly well-off family in the provincial town of Norwich, Banham the self-described “scholarship boy” bristled all his life at received notions of absolute cultural hierarchy. He criticized the denigration of popular taste as “old, standardized and unquestioned, public-school-pink.” From these prevailing attitudes, as well as England’s lingering wartime austerities, an escape route appeared in the form of American commercial culture, its artifacts having been imported in unprecedented abundance in the late 1940s and early 50s as Banham was working toward his PhD at the University of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art.

Read the whole thing at Archinect.

Korea Blog: the Korean literary crime wave, part three

Watching a lecture from Sebashi, the Korean equivalent of TED Talks, I heard the speaker mention a previous speaking engagement he’d had in an unusual venue: a women’s prison. Most all of the inmates, he said, had been locked up for financial malfeasance of one kind or another. This mildly surprised me, despite the well-documented lack of propensity on the part of womankind toward more violent varieties of crime. Then I considered the disproportionately numerous stories of financial ruin that I’ve heard in Korea. In the United States, one can still only get so many degrees of separation away from lingering effects of the Great Financial Crisis (to say nothing of coronavirus-related economic hardship), but here it seems that everyone knows at least a few people who’ve lost everything in a failed business, got swindled in a bad deal, or emigrated in flight from crushing debt.

Given that, it seems implausible that the first four Korean crime novels I’ve covered in this series — Jeong You-jeong’s The Good Son, Kim Un-su’s The PlottersKim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer and Seo Mi-ae’s The Only Child — have so little do do with money. This contrasts with American crime fiction (or at least what I’ve read of it), many if not most of whose plots are set in motion by the desire to ill-get some gains. In this sense Pyun Hye-young’s The Law of Lines, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, and Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, translated by Lizzie Buehler, go the American way. Two of the most recent works of Korean crime fiction successful in English, they both tell stories intimately concerned with money and what people will do get it, but without the heists, drug deals, and gangland machinations familiar to Western readers.

Like The Only ChildThe Law of Lines opens with a deadly house fire — or rather, an explosion — the accidental or deliberate ignition of which comes under investigation. It destroys the home and eventually kills the single father of a 27-year-old woman named Se-oh, who already had it bad enough: having struggled to extract herself from a multi-level marketing scam, she lives in fear of being recognized by one of the many acquaintances she attempted to recruit. Figuring that her dad set off the explosion on purpose, committing difficult-to-detect suicide as an escape from his own financial woes, she makes it her life’s mission to hunt down and murder the debt collector who had been badgering him day and night. But that debt collector, a fellow late-twenty-something soon to be priced out of the dank apartment he shares with his disabled mother, is hardly doing better himself.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: the Korean literary crime wave, part two

Whatever its country of origin, crime fiction prizes murderers. Even more suited to the demands of the genre are serial killers, murderers who — according to most of the definitions available — kill three or more people on two or more separate occasions. Though the protagonists of both Jeong You-jeong’s The Good Son and Kim Un-su’s The Plotters do meet these requirements, neither quite fit the cultural image of the serial killer, at least as understood in the West. In the former book, the young ex-athlete Yu-jin performs three separate murders, though all within a short span of time and for the most part impulsively. In the latter, the more mature Reseng is a professional assassin, raised from orphanhood to carry out contract hits for the government. Much truer to the serial-killer stereotype is Kim Byeongsu, the 70-year-old narrator of Kim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer.

Living with Eunhui in the foothills of a remote village below the North Korean border, Kim Byeongsu has put more than one pursuit behind him by the time the story opens. “It’s been twenty-five years since I last murdered someone,” he writes in its opening lines, “or has it been twenty-six?” He’s also closed the veterinary practice that constituted his public-facing career. (“It’s a good job for a murderer. You can use all kinds of powerful anesthetics.”) And no longer does he write poetry, a literary avocation — and in Korea, not an uncommon one — taken up through classes at the local community center. Writing what he knew, he composed visceral poems that drew praise from his instructor, but audience reaction was beside the point: “The way you feel about writing poems that no one reads and committing murders that no one knows about is not that different.”

Living with Eunhui in the foothills of a remote village below the North Korean border,  Kim Byeongsu has put more than one pursuit behind him by the time the story opens. “It’s been twenty-five years since I last murdered someone,” he writes in its opening lines, “or has it been twenty-six?” He’s also closed the veterinary practice that constituted his public-facing career. (“It’s a good job for a murderer. You can use all kinds of powerful anesthetics.”) And no longer does he write poetry, a literary avocation — and in Korea, not an uncommon one — taken up through classes at the local community center. Writing what he knew, he composed visceral poems that drew praise from his instructor, but audience reaction was beside the point: “The way you feel about writing poems that no one reads and committing murders that no one knows about is not that different.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: the Korean literary crime wave, part one

Americans in general don’t emigrate at particularly high rates, but some Americans in particular are given to declaring, in moments of frustration, their imminent move to another country. Often that country is Canada, possibly because of the vague impressions it inspires of a more humane and orderly civilization (and more probably due to linguistic and geographic convenience). Sometimes that country is Sweden, which to certain observers represents the fullest possible realization of political and economic idyll in this world. But as enthusiasts of crime fiction know, not quite all can be well in the land that produces such great quantities of what has been labeled “Scandi noir.” In the United States — a nation whose readers’ appetite for crime fiction seems downright insatiable — that bleak, society-indicting genre is most popularly represented by Swedish journalist-novelist Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels.

With the final book of that trilogy having been published in English translation more than a decade ago, and Larsson having died years before that, the publishing industry has cast around for other societies capable of producing counterintuitively stark and savage crime fiction. Certain well-established Japanese mystery novelists, like Hideo Yokoyama and Natsuo Kirino, have ridden the waves of this boom. But over the past decade here in South Korea, a number of younger writers have been working so productively and so squarely in the realm of crime fiction that they’ve made their country almost too likely a candidate to run with Scandi noir’s torch through the English-reading world. Earlier this month, Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, won the UK Crime Writers’ Association Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger award, which over the previous decade had gone three times to Scandinavian novels, all of them Swedish.

If an international Korean literary crime wave is indeed afoot, an examination has to proceed from an earlier point in time. We must go back at the very least to 2019, when more than one high-profile, critically acclaimed Korean crime novel began appearing in English per year. 2019 saw the publication of both Jeong You-jeong’s The Good Son, translated by Kim Chi-young, and Kim Un-su’s The Plotters, translated by Sora Kim-Russell. In each book the protagonist is a killer, hardly an out-of-line choice for the genre, but the style of the killings themselves could hardly be more different. The Plotters tells the story of a professional hitman who has hardly known any other form of existence; The Good Son, of a 25-year-old layabout (a “NEET”) who wakes up to find his mother slain in the next room, with all signs pointing to him as the culprit.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

New Yorker: D.J. Waldie’s Becoming Los Angeles

In 1993, five years after Joan Didion left California for New York, an assignment for The New Yorker brought her back to her home state. Her subject was the Spur Posse, a group of young men in the Los Angeles suburb of Lakewood, who had received national attention after being accused of sexually assaulting underage girls. The resulting story, published in July of that year, assesses the widespread “sense that something in town had gone wrong”—and unspools into a grim diagnosis for Lakewood and other downwardly mobile blue-collar American communities like it.

“Lakewood exists because at a given time in a different economy it seemed an efficient idea to provide population density for the mall and a labor pool for the Douglas plant,” Didion writes, referring to McDonnell Douglas, one of the aerospace companies that had powered the expansion of Southern California’s “industrial underbelly.” The impending closure of a department store at the mall, Lakewood Center, and of the Douglas plant prompt her to question not only the town’s economic prospects but its raison d’être. “What had it cost to create and maintain an artificial ownership class?” Didion asks. “Who paid? Who benefitted? What happens when that class stops being useful?”

Among the locals Didion interviews is Donald Waldie, the City of Lakewood’s public-information officer, who was also a published author in his own right. The Kenyon Review had run “Suburban Stories,” a short work of Waldie’s autobiographical fiction, the previous fall, and Didion includes a few lines from it in her report. “He knew his city’s first 17,000 houses had been built within three years,” Waldie’s narrator observes of the protagonist, who lives in a California suburb much like Lakewood. “He was aware of what this must have cost, but he did not care.”

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.

Books on Cities: Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) (2008)

Malcolm Gladwell once described his typical reader as “a 45-year-old guy with three kids who’s an engineer at some company outside of Atlanta.” That same guy, I would wager, is the typical reader of Traffic, which was published between Gladwell’s Blinkand Outliers and adheres to the same mid-2000s publishing trends exemplified by those books. It has the minimalist design, the descriptive one-word title, and the explanatory subtitle — Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) — that holds out the promise of practical insight into real-life phenomena. And that’s just the cover: the content offers a Gladwellian abundance of expert testimony on its subject, both judiciously quoted and snappily (but not over-simplistically) recapitulated in digestible chunks of conversational prose. It could only have have failed to win over our middle-aged suburban engineer for one reason: not actually having been written by Malcolm Gladwell.

Traffic did win him over, in the event, and other reading demographics besides. Its attainment of bestseller status put a bright feather in the cap of its author Tom Vanderbilt, who’d previously written books on the sneaker industry and “the ruins of atomic America” (missile silos, fallout shelters). In the dozen years since he’s put out two more volumes, one on the internet-driven superabundance of choice and another, just this year, about learning new things past a certain age. (45, say.) As it stands now, Vanderbilt’s bibliography evidences a broad curiosity that I can’t help but admire. But it was Traffic that first brought his name to my attention, as it did for many others, and it’s been floating around the lower middle of my reading list for some time. Only in the 2020s, writing about books on cities, did I realize I finally had a reason to prioritize it.

A journalistic exploration of driving makes for an unlikely “city book,” granted, but approaching it as one does satisfy my contrarian impulses. In recent years, I’ve noticed that when I say I write about cities, people increasingly tend to assume that I must “hate” cars. Though some urbanists do indeed base their identities in large part on opposition to the automobile, I can’t quite get it up to do the same. Admittedly, I’ve never bought a car, nor even driven regularly since high school. Years now go by between instances of my laying eyes on a vehicle capable of inspiring any semblance of desire. Yet part of me will always remain the teenager longing for a T-topped Trans Am, or maybe an MR2 — and if things went right, a Delorean DMC-12. Even now, living in Seoul in my mid-thirties, I fantasize about American road trips on a near-daily basis.

Read the whole thing at Substack.

Korea Blog: Stroll through the Real Cities of Korea with YouTube’s Seoul Walker

In recent weeks, Seoul looked about to get back to how it used to be. Or at least it looked about to resemble how it used to be, with an impending relaxation of certain restrictions — on the size of gatherings, on the hours of bars and restaurants — implemented at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Alas, a new “surge” in the number of COVID cases has pushed back even this small step toward normality. Despite having once been the second-most-threatened country in the world by the pandemic, South Korea hasn’t had life disrupted anywhere near as severely as many other countries. The streets of Seoul never really emptied out — at least not before 10:00, by which hour most businesses are now ordered to close. In response, no few Seoulites simply begin their evenings earlier, some of them now managing to get smashed while it’s practically light out.

Still, it’s not quite the same. I feel the difference even in my own neighborhood of Sinchon, especially when I compare it to a video from two years ago. Shot from a first-person perspective, its unbroken 15-minute shot captures a walk along streets that look both familiar (I’ve never spent as much of my adult life in any other neighborhood) and strange. Some of that strangeness comes from the absence of masks and some from the presence of Westerners — not in great numbers, but certainly greater than one sees today. Whatever their origins, nearly everyone who passes through the frame is young. With no fewer than three major universities in the vicinity, Sinchon has long been a youth-oriented part of town. That manifests even amid its now somewhat diminished liveliness, but it did so much more vividly, so I’m reminded, in the summer of 2019.

This video’s YouTube channel, Seoul Walker, launched just a few months earlier. Its creator, who calls himself Nathan and seems to be Korean, describes it as “a channel where you can experience as if you’re walking in the cities, including Seoul.” Of course, when it comes to Korean cities, the capital — with its metropolitan area home to half the population of the entire country — is dominant, never just included. The bulk of Seoul Walker’s most-viewed videos depict Seoul, and most of those focus on one part in particular: Gangnam, the only neighborhood someone who doesn’t know the city, or indeed Korea, is guaranteed have heard of. Of course, as those familiar with Seoul understand, Gangnam isn’t actually a neighborhood but rather a variously defined area south of the Han River, one home to new buildings, new cars, and — as virally satirized by PSY — new money.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.