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Fenkl's 'Skull Water' delves into friendship, belonging and displacement


Heinz Insu Fenkl writes of what he knows in his new novel "Skull Water." It's a story of family, friendship and war, with Fenkl telling some of his own story as the son of a Korean mother and a GI father in the U.S. Army. Because his dad wasn't often home, he grew close to his Korean uncle that he calls Big Uncle.

HEINZ INSU FENKL: He was a geomancer. A geomancer is somebody who reads the energy of the earth. In Korean tradition, it's the person you consult for auspicious locations for a home or a grave. He also did exorcisms. Big Uncle was a very charismatic person.

FADEL: And so he's one of the central characters in Fenkl's novel. And he was a big influence on Fenkl's own life.

FENKL: So you could see Big Uncle was sort of serving as a substitute father figure because my father joined the U.S. Army shortly after the Korean War. And so he was out in Korea as a military policeman. Of course, he ended up marrying my mother. He was stationed up in Camp Casey near the Korean DMZ. And so he was basically never home.

FADEL: What was it like being of these two worlds? I mean, in the book, it doesn't feel like you fit in anywhere. You have both scorn and privilege in your position as half Korean and half Western but not just Western soldiers, right?

FENKL: Right. So in the Korean community, we were ostracized for a mixture of reasons. Part of it was racism because we were only half Korean. The other was because our fathers were U.S. military. And although at that time, Korea was very politically pro-American, people who lived in the camp towns, you know, had very mixed feelings about the American presence. Then on the U.S. military bases, where we weren't really supposed to be there. But one of the great ironies was that because we were sort of isolated among ourselves, we formed our own very tight, you know, communities, very family-like, as you notice in the...

FADEL: Yeah.

FENKL: ...Novel. And being on the American Army bases, where we were pretty much left alone, we had no supervision at all unless we got into some major trouble. So the Army bases were like huge parks for us. We could basically, you know, do whatever we wanted. And we got into lots of mischief, taking things out of dumpsters and selling them on the local economy.

FADEL: Yeah, on the black market.

FENKL: Yes. You know, in the novel, I talk about going through the ruins of the burnt down 121st military Evacuation Hospital and, you know, selling the remnants that we found on the black market.

FADEL: There's also this theme of belief. I mean, in it, you see the teenagers influenced by Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism. It's all present here and kind of mixed up as they try to decide what's OK and what's not OK.

FENKL: That's also actually - I guess you would say sociologically accurate. The traditional Korean religion is a very interesting mix of shamanism, Taoism, Buddhism and, of course, Confucianism. And then Christianity came in later.

FADEL: Yeah.

FENKL: So all those religions sort of swirl together in daily life. And, of course, we had Western fathers, and they were mostly Christian. My father tried to raise me as a Catholic. I sort of made of Catholicism what I could, and it didn't make sense to me, whereas the shamanic tradition made perfect sense because I participated in it. When there was a neighborhood tragedy, there would be a shamanic ceremony.

FADEL: Yeah.

FENKL: Or when somebody opened a business, there would be a shamanic ceremony. So that's what my friends and I were exposed to.

FADEL: Yeah. And shamans, the cleansing of bad omens - that's a major part of the plotline, as you point out. If you could talk about how that shapes the outcome of this story.

FENKL: One of the things I did as I was writing the novel was I had to imagine Big Uncle's experience. And that's the 1950s sections - are me partially imagining what his experience might have been like but also documenting the things that he actually told me. And then because he was a geomancer and he had also done exorcisms, he was connected to the folk tradition of - I guess the Indigenous tradition of Korean shamanism, which is people go into trances. There are, you know, drums and flutes and cymbals and things like that. It's a very loud and raucous kind of ceremonies. And since a lot of the domestic trauma and things like that were addressed by shamanism in the structure of the novel, of course, what happens is things just keep going badly. One of the themes, as you probably noticed, is that even when you're trying to do the right thing, you can never know what the outcome will be.

FADEL: Right.

FENKL: So these tragic outcomes occur, and those are addressed shamanically in traditional Korean religion.

FADEL: There's so much happening, but I'm just wondering how much of this was just routine in 1970s Korea, what you describe between the rooster fighting and the dog fighting and the gambling and the black market and teenagers running on - around these American bases.

FENKL: In my experience, that was just daily life.

FADEL: Yeah.

FENKL: It's one of those things that in retrospect just is kind of alarming to me. Especially, like, after we had my daughter, I was talking to my wife and reflecting on some of the things I did at certain ages. And she would ask me like, would you let Bella (ph) do that? And I would, of course, say, you know, of course not because so many of the things I was doing were, you know, potentially lethal.


FENKL: And I just could not imagine my daughter doing those kinds of things.

FADEL: Heinz Insu Fenkl. His new novel, based on his own life as a child and teenager in Korea, is called "Skull Water."

(SOUNDBITE OF LEE SAENGKANG'S "SHAMANISM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.