Wednesday 13 July 2022

Being upbeat about being downbeat: Nicky Harman reviews "I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokpokki"

I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokpokki
, by Baek Sehee, translated from Korean by Anton Hur. (Bloomsbury, 2022)


Baek Sehee is a successful young social media director at a publishing house but feels persistently anxious and self-doubting, and is also highly judgemental of others. She hides her feelings well at work and with friends, and has learnt to be adept at performing calmly and easily, as her lifestyle demands. But the effort is exhausting, keeps her from forming deep relationships, and threatens to overwhelm her. She is aware that this is not normal, and seeks help. During a series of therapy sessions, a psychiatrist diagnoses Baek Sehee with dysthymia – a sort of chronic, low-grade depression. The book consists of a record of their discussions, apparently verbatim, and includes her inner thoughts on how she wants to love and accept herself better. Each session is summed up in a chapter heading: 1. Slightly Depressed 2. Am I a Pathological Liar? 3. I’m Under Constant Surveillance 4. My Desire to Become Special Isn’t Special at All 5. That Goddamn Self-esteem… and so on.


I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokpokki is an intriguing title for starters: it nicely expresses her ambivalence about life and her favourite snack, and is something of a tease. Even at her lowest points, she can always summon a yen for her favourite street food, the hot, spicy rice cake, tteokbokki – she has not lost all her appetite for life. Her moods are not black and white, they shift between many shades of grey – something many readers will empathise with.  The tone of the book is introspective and its pace is slow-moving. However, it avoids being as depressing as its author feels, because ultimately, she comes to terms with her state of mind and leaves us with an uplifting message. A paragraph from the beginning of the book gives a flavour of this: 


I’ve always thought that art is about moving hearts and minds. Art has given me faith: faith that today may not have been perfect but was still a pretty good day, or faith that even after a long day of being depressed, I can still burst into laughter over something very small. I’ve also realised that revealing my darkness is just as natural a thing to do as revealing my light. Through my very personal practice of this art, I hope I can find my way into the hearts of others, just as this book has found its way into your hands….

[And later on] …Things will get better with time. Or no, everything is dynamic, which means life will have jump-for-joy moments as well as bad ones, going back and forth like the tide. If I’m sad today I’ll be happy tomorrow, and if I’m happy today I’ll be sad tomorrow – that’s fine. As long as I keep loving myself. I am someone who is completely unique in this world, someone I need to take care of for the rest of my life, and therefore someone I need to help take each step forward, warmly and patiently, to allow to rest on some days and to encourage on others – I believe that the more I look into this strange being, myself, the more routes I will find to happiness.


On the down side (mine, that is), I admit that I was perplexed that so much of the book consisted of a verbatim record of her therapy sessions. I was almost tempted to think she had put that part in as padding. The sessions began to drag a bit, and that is a pity, because I found her original thoughts, the mini-essays, with which she intersperses the sessions, quite moving and would have welcomed more of them.  


This book struck me as an unusual choice for a western publisher and I did a little digging. I already knew that self-help books, from the motivational to the meditative, are hugely popular in China. I remember a visit to a Shu Cheng (‘bookopolis’) in Beijing where you could hardly get near the self-help shelves, there were so many young people practically camped out and reading through the books on offer. Many of them, I noticed, were translations from English; of those that originated in Chinese, hardly any have been translated into English. I expected that the same would be true of this kind of book in Korean. But to my surprise I discovered that I Want to Die has a forerunner. A similar book, I Decided to Live as Me, by Soo Hyun Kim, was published in translation by Apop Books in 2020.

Although apparently aimed at younger readers, the online reviews echo those for I Want to Die – readers are genuinely happy to find that someone thinks and feels like them and is unafraid to be honest about their feelings.