This November we virtually travel to South Korea and to a fictional island off the coast of Vietnam as we explore The Disaster Tourist (Serpent’s Tail in the UK / Counterpoint Press in the US, 2020). Thanks so much to author Yun Ko-eun and translator Lizzie Beuhler for their time in this interview, and to Counterpoint Press’s very helpful Megan Fishmann.
About the Book
An endlessly surprising and totally gripping read, The Disaster Tourist is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking. It questions every aspect of life we so often take for granted, smashing apart any easy distinctions between natural and artificial, normal and abnormal, peaceful and violent, personal and political. There could not be a more prescient moment for this too-real fiction about how we create our own disasters on every scale and what resilience might mean in the face of catastrophe.
–Elvia Wilk, author of Oval
When it comes to approaching ecological devastation in the world, fiction authors employ a variety of approaches to tell their stories. Yun Ko-eun’s is unique in that it scrutinizes how the privileged have a choice when observing environmental catastrophes–and can do so, usually, at a safe, curious, and often an almost pathological, happy distance, as if watching an animal in the zoo. Often, observance is a not a choice, and the human experience is more harshly affected–such as by those at ground zero who are likely not the rich getting richer but the poor getting poorer. Disaster satirizes the casual observer and makes us think about who we are and how we are affected by and react to ecological crises happening in the world today. It also looks at the dark underbelly surrounding the capitalization of such events.
Welcome to the desert island of Mui, where a paid vacation to paradise is nothing short of a disaster in this “mordantly witty novel [that] reads like a highly literary, ultra-incisive thriller (Refinery29).
Jungle is a cutting-edge travel agency specializing in tourism to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. And until she found herself at the mercy of a predatory colleague, Yona was one of their top representatives. Now on the verge of losing her job, she’s given a proposition: take a paid “vacation” to the desert island of Mui and pose as a tourist to assess the company’s least profitable holiday.
When she uncovers a plan to fabricate an extravagant catastrophe, she must choose: prioritize the callous company to whom she’s dedicated her life, or embrace a fresh start in a powerful new position? An eco-thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility, The Disaster Tourist introduces a fresh new voice to the United States that engages with the global dialogue around climate activism, dark tourism, and the #MeToo movement.
Chat with the Author
MW: Before you wrote a novel, you wrote a blog that included your travel experiences. Can you tell us about that as well as how those experiences inspired The Disaster Tourist?
YK: I used to write short travel essays for my blog, and now I post photos from my travels on Instagram. They’re just photos and brief musings, but all posted for one reason: I want to capture these memories while they’re still fresh, still alive. When we can’t capture a living moment forever, we make a record of it.
My trips and personal experiences tend to find their way into each of my novels, with modifications of time and place. The trip that influenced The Disaster Tourist was one I took to Vietnam several years before writing the book, but if you look for moments from my travels reflected in the novel, there are a lot of elements beyond Vietnam as well. Thailand, France, Italy, Japan, England, Spain…memories of all those places have been reorganized, and made stateless, throughout the plot.
I do like to start new projects when I come back from a trip, but it’s not my ultimate goal as a writer. To be more specific, all types of “movement” give me inspiration: whether it’s crossing the street to go to the park or walking to the supermarket. What’s different about travel, though, is the psychological preparation for change. Travel makes you feel like you’re going far away to meet something, or someone. You’re ready to react to the unfamiliar—you wait to come across it—and then afterwards, you worry about the return to daily life. This is the mixture of feelings present in my blog and Instagram posts. It’s like putting air in a Ziploc bag: at first the memories seem well contained, and then after you return home, when you finally let them free, they forget about the bag and get all mixed up with the air outside—real life.
MW: The Disaster Tourist is described as an eco-thriller, and it’s a uniquely woven story that engages with various kinds of disasters, including climate change, sexual abuse, and dark tourism. How did these themes come to you when deciding to write your novel?
YK: A little while ago, I wrote a blog post for the Waterstones website, titled “What Makes a Great Eco-thriller.” Writing the post was a really new experience for me, because I’d never thought much about the eco-thriller genre beforehand. In fact, I only came across the word after publishing The Disaster Tourist, so I worried the post might be difficult to write. I realized, however, as I wrote, that I may not have placed the label “eco-thriller” on my novel, but the ideas present in the genre were very familiar to me.
I’m very interested in plastic, and sometimes I begin and end the day with images of the world’s plastic waste flashing across my mind. One of my other novels discusses the horrors of animal experimentation and illegal waste dumping, and my newest project deals with climate change and the planet’s capacity for life. I feel much closer to the “eco-thriller” genre now than when I wrote The Disaster Tourist. Maybe The Disaster Tourist was the seed of this sort of discomfort.
MW: The main character, Yona, is sexually assaulted at work and then sent to Mui, a fictional Vietnamese island. The company that Yona works for, Jungle, specializes in holiday packages that give tourists ring-side seats to ecological disasters–only Mui’s sinkhole is now turning into a lake and is not quite the disaster that visitors want to see. This is a very unique approach to exploring climate/ecological disasters in fiction. But it works–and reminds me of something that author Ilija Trojanow told me once: “We have had an enormous amount of dystopian narratives in recent years, not only in literature but also in the movies, on the TV screen. We lean back, munch popcorn and delight in the apocalypse. That’s pathological.” It seems that your novel exposes, satirically, this weird tendency of ours. What are your thoughts on this, and in your own experience, have you seen disaster packages like the ones offered in Jungle?
YK: When I was young, I didn’t realize that even in dystopias, the rich manage to grow richer, and the poor stay poor. Some people have the option of taking in only the amount of dystopia that they want. But others don’t get that choice. This is true in real life as well, not just fiction—just look at how coronavirus has affected people of different social statuses. In The Disaster Tourist, too, some people can choose, and others can’t. The vacationers in the book think that they can witness disaster from a safe distance, and then they wander between sympathy and voyeurism. They mistakenly believe that they have their seatbelts on, but I wanted to change that. I wanted a story where, instead of the travelers looking down at apocalypse, we’re looking down at the travelers. I wanted to talk about disaster in a superimposed manner.
I’ve never seen disaster tourism packages like Jungle’s in real life, but I’ve thought about the opposite situation a lot: a crisis at a comfortable resort, in a safe place where natural disasters are rare. The safety that everyone trusts crumbling before them. When I consider travel destinations, I look up each location’s potential dangers, even though I know that very few places are truly free from disaster. I don’t only visit places without fires or floods or war or terrorism, but I do try to keep my own travels and disaster as far away from one another as possible. So it’s a bit ironic that I’ve written a novel with both these themes in its title.
MW: At Bookanista, you described your creation of Paul and how it was similar to Big Brother in 1984. Can you explain more to our readers about this Orwellian power figure and Paul, the faceless corporation and how, perhaps, this is not really science fiction anymore but reality?
YK: One way to look at the world is to divide it into big cities, and everything else. Before The Disaster Tourist, my novels had always been set in dense urban areas. But by my criteria, The Disaster Tourist’s rural island setting of Mui is, in fact, like a city. It moves along the financial orbit of a city. Mui’s residents can’t survive without having a product to sell, which is why they end up packing disaster to survive in the world of capitalism. It’s terrible enough to imagine disaster as a consumable commodity, but Mui’s situation is even more serious—its people create a disaster to package and sell. Paul functions as the centripetal point in this process. Other than the ethereal Paul, almost no one knows about the plan to orchestrate a man-made disaster on Mui and then market it to tourists as an attraction. Even the screenwriter who helps plan the disaster only knows part of what is about to happen. Everyone on Mui says that they are simply following Paul’s orders, but no one knows who Paul is. Paul is like Big Brother, but he (it?) is also an excuse for indifference.
Just like on Mui, people in big cities don’t know the origins of the products they consume. But the further they are from factories and fisheries, the more they need to know about the processes that bring their purchases to them. What at first may be a simple lack of information can become the deliberate exclusion of information, and even though the consumer isn’t aware, he or she can become an unwitting accomplice to grievous crimes and abuses of power.
MW: I think we can all relate to this nowadays. Once Yona is at Mui, she continues to run into a cult-like culture–like she experienced when working in Jungle’s office–and corruption that plagues capitalistic tourism. She must make some choices and face her own paradoxes and ethics. Her journey reflects a lot of people’s experiences, yet most of us feel ordinary, like Yona. How do you feel readers can get inspired by such characters?
YK: Starting when Yona suffers sexual harassment at work—and really, even before that—she stands at a crossroads. Readers can count the number of times in the novel where she’s forced to make a choice; each reader will end up with a different number. One might say that Yona is forced to take certain action; another might see this action as an active choice. What, to some, doesn’t seem like a door at all could be a perfect escape hatch for others. It’s not that we choose different paths at each crossroads, it’s that the points where we make choices differ. We’re all different people. Yona’s life contains many moments of choice even before she leaves for Mui: her attitude towards a Jungle customer asking for a refund, or her response to calls for solidarity from other victims of sexual assault at work. To some people, Yona’s actions are typical, but to others she’s fearful or selfish, or naïve or spontaneous. There are as many iterations of Yona as there are readers.
MW: How do you feel that climate change in fiction can impact readers?
YK: Recently I’ve read a lot of books and watched a lot of documentaries that deal with this issue, and I’ve been learning more about the topic. My next novel partially deals with climate change. I’m much more aware than I was when I wrote The Disaster Tourist seven or eight years ago, and because the environmental situation has only gotten worse since then, I feel like I can’t avoid writing about climate change. The coronavirus makes an appearance in my next book, too. There’s no way to avoid these topics in my writing.
MW: Are you working on any other novels or projects right now?
YK: Like I mentioned above, my next novel. I talked about how it deals with climate change, but another theme in novel is the concept of marriage insurance—policies that you can take out when you get married to protect against damages incurred during the relationship. So, climate change and marriage insurance—it’s the overlap of these two worlds, one real and one made-up.
MW: Thanks so much for this insightful chat, and I’ll be watching for your next novel!
About the Author and Translator
Yun Ko-eun is the author of three novels and four short-story collections. In South Korea, her work has received widespread praise, earning awards including the Hankyoreh Literary Award, the Yi Hyo-Seok Literary Award and the Kim Yong-ik Novel Award. She lives in Seoul, where she teaches creative writing at Dongguk University and is host of the EBS Radio show Yun Ko-eun’s Book Cafe. The Disaster Tourist, her English-language debut, is published by Serpent’s Tail in the UK and Counterpoint Press in the US.
Lizzie Buehler is a PhD student in comparative literature at Harvard University and holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa. Her writing and short translations have appeared in Asymptote, Azalea, Litro, the Massachussetts Review and Translation Review. In addition to The Disaster Tourist, she has translated Yun Ko-eun’s story collection Table for One (Columbia University Press, April 2021).