In 2018, I had the privilege of being invited as a guest speaker by the much-respected German Nikolayevich Kim of the Al-Farabi National University of Kazakhstan to present at their International Symposium Culture and Literature of Korea and Korean Diaspora. My presentation, Re-establishing Identity Through Contemporary Art - The writing of a novel about the Koryo-saram, was based on my novel The Unreliable People.
During the formal dinner ceremony I was expected to stand and present myself and my gratitude to the group. I sang the Waiata Te Aroha, which Paula Morris taught my class during the Masters of Creative Writing programme. My performance started off an entire evening of songs of appreciation from other guest speakers, and they were all outstanding. One professor, a musician, sang the Arirang song that I used in my novel – and it was breath-taking.
The next day I was driven three hours to the village of Ushtobe where the Koryo-saram community I focus on in the novel were exiled to by Stalin in 1937. Today, it is a small community of hand-built houses and large market garden backyards, just as it was when it was established. Only two of the original exiles survive, and I was honoured to be taken to meet both of these beautiful ladies. At each house, a traditional Korean meal was prepared for my arrival, which was especially delightful, considering that I know they turn most away who come in search of an interview with them. This was truly one of the most memorable days of my life. My heart is full of Kazakhstan love-treasure—their openness, their beauty, their generosity.
This was an incredible journey that I feel so blessed to have been able to experience.