Monday, January 30, 2012

Royersford native releases debut novel about Korea, living as an expat & finding meaning in life

Joshua Lorenzo Newett, a Royersford native and author now residing in Korea, recently emailed me an electronic copy of his debut novel, "Along the Naktong" (Nov. 2011, Gentleman Tree). Hard copies of the novel are available for purchase at, and other booksellers. 

If you're interested in it, keep on reading til the end. An e-copy is up for grabs.

Below is an interview I did with Newett via email about his book. He kindly supplied me with the cover art and photos used here.

Q: Can you tell us more about your background?
A: I am a native of Royersford. I grew up on the corner of 4th avenue and Vaughn Road.  I feel fortunate to be from one of the last generations that grew up playing outdoors. My memories of Royersford are filled with camping trips, neighborhood games of tag and hide and seek, sledding, the smell of freshly cut grass, and the last fireflies of summer lighting up the dusk as the street lights came on. I attended Temple University and studied political science, with a focus on Cold War politics. After university I stayed in Philadelphia and eventually landed a job with a publishing house. I grew restless doing the nine to five and decided I wanted to doing something adventurous and out of the ordinary. I narrowed it down to the French Foriegn Legion and teaching abroad. I decided on the latter and since moving to Korea four years ago have owned a bar/restaurant, The Hemingway, and started my own school, People's English.  

Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: I wrote this book for three reasons: 

The first was to give people some sort of frame of reference to understand what it's like to live as an expat. I tell people I teach in Korea and they just nod their heads and say "oh great" or "cool" without any real understanding. I wanted the reader to feel what it's like to come to a completely foreign country and have to adapt.  

The second reason I wrote the book was to showcase Korean history and culture and clear up a few misunderstandings about the Korean War. Historically Korea has been over shadowed by its neighbors China and Japan. Many people know a lot more about Chinese and Japanese culture and history than Korean, even though Korea has an extremely interesting culture and history of its own. Also many people misunderstand the Korea War.  They frame it in terms of a communist North invading a democratic South but in order to properly understand the conflict you have to go back to the 1592 invasion of Korea by the Japanese. (Here is an article I wrote about it, which can be seen at

For most Korea conjures up images of war and the ongoing conflict that resulted; video snippets showing thousands of North Korean troops goose stepping in massive parade, the Dear Leader, mass gatherings, and the DMZ. Many recall the harsh rhetoric unleashed by both sides in years past or, recently, the headlines full of news about the North’s rocket attack on a South Korean fishing island and the supposed sinking of a South Korean man-of-war by a Northern torpedo. 

It’s ironic that the conflict and imagery which have so defined Korea for outsiders are so truly misunderstood, it is alarming how little the general populace knows about how and why the conflict that has shaped the present day political climate in the divided country came about. The headlines are full of catch phrases and sound bites that conveniently roll off the tongue and are easily and instantly committed to the memory of the news consumer, “Axis of Evil” “Rogue State” and “communist Dictator” just to name a few. Most are aware of the conflict but don’t truly understand the roots causes or they subscribe to the over simplified idea that it was the opening battle in the war between communism and democracy, or capitalism, that would shape the politics of the world over the next fifty years, that the communist North lead an unprovoked attack against the south in order to snuff out capitalism and install a communist government, all the while Joseph Stalin the grand puppet master furiously worked the strings behind the scene.

In order to better understand the divided nation we have to go much further back than 1950 for it was much more than a conflict between two ideological systems, it was a conflict rooted deep in the past of Korea, as far back as the 1592 invasion by the Japanese, who invaded with 158,700 troops in hopes of establishing a base in Korea which would allow them to launch an offensive against the Ming dynasty in China, and then eventually India. The Japanese swept over the peninsula at will but were rebuffed by Admiral Yi Sun-Shin and his Turtle Ships, the world’s first armor clad warships. The Ming dynasty sent 22,000 troops to assist the Koreans and together they pushed the Japanese into a small area up against the sea in the south eastern part of the country and forced them to terms.
Japan stalled in treaty negotiations and launched a second invasion in 1597, which was quickly rebuffed by Admiral Yi and the Ming forces, but this attack was different from the first in goal, its aim wasn’t to gain a strong hold to take the rest of Asia but to punish Korea for defeating Japan on their first invasion attempt. Japanese soldiers killed, raped, and tortured civilians, bringing over ten thousand noses and ears back to Japan. The invasion left a legacy of anti Japanese sentiment among Koreans that lasted up until the 20th century.
In 1904 war broke out between Russia and Japan over their spheres of influence in Korea, and Japan came out the victor. Under the peace treaty, brokered by Theodore Roosevelt, Japan gained paramount rights to Korea and established a protectorate at the point of a gun, taking control of Korean diplomacy, deploying police forces and taking over industry. By 1910 Japan had annexed the peninsula and made Korea a colony. 

The Japanese were oppressive and put down all forms of rebellion and dissent with blade and bullet. Over ten thousand Korean woman, known as “comfort women” were kidnapped and made sex slaves to the Japanese army. They were raped dozens of times daily by soldiers who believed the practice would make them victorious in battle. Rebellions threatened the Japanese government in Korea several times before the colonizers changed their tactics from brute force and repression to a divide and conquer mentality, taking loyal Koreans under their wing, giving them Japanese names, and installing them in positions of power. It was mostly the old landed class, or Yangban, that benefited while the rest of the Korean people starved in misery under Japanese rule. 

In China tens of thousands of Korean rebels were engaging the Japanese army in guerrilla style warfare, successfully enough in fact that the Japanese created special units, headed up by Koreans who were loyal to the Japanese, to track and destroy these guerrilla leaders. One of the most well known and feared guerilla fighters was none other than Kim Il Sung, the first leader of North Korea. 

Here can be seen the root of the conflict, it wasn’t about communism or capitalism; it was about collaborator against nationalist. After Japan surrendered in 1945 the Soviet Union swept into Korea and then allowed the United States to occupy the lower half of the country. The Americans immediately began making mistakes, they refused to turn Korea over to the Koreans instead they wanted only to create an anticommunist South Korean state, just as they would in Greece, Indochina, Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua. It didn’t matter that many of the Koreans supported by the United States were seen as traitors and Japanese sympathists, it mattered only that they called themselves “anticommunist”.
There was a government set up by Koreans for Koreans in Seoul in 1945 called the Korean People’s Republic. General Hodge, the commanding American officer in Korea, “declared war” on the KPR on December 12th 1945 and later said, “one of our missions was to break down this communist government outside of any directives and without the backing by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the State Department.” Here we can see one crucial problem of American cold war policy, there was no differentiation between communism, nationalism, and democratic socialism, as would later been seen in such places as Chile and Vietnam. It was a nationalistic movement in Korea, not a communist movement, Koreans wanted their country back they wanted to rule themselves after suffering at the hands of the Japanese for the first half of the century. They asked the United States for help but, instead of helping Korea achieve independence the US installed the very people into power who had worked for the Japanese, terrorizing their own countrymen in order to keep the Japanese in power, people who labeled everyone not in their small elite class as communists.

We can look at the Korean Nation Police force as an example. In 1946 eighty-five percent of the police force had served in the Japanese police force, the Americans put into power the same people that tracked down leaders of the Korean resistance movement during the Japanese occupation. The group the United States chose to support was, at the time
” A numerically small class which virtually monopolizes the native wealth and education of the country…Since this class could not acquired and maintained its favorable position under Japanese rule without a certain minimum of “collaboration”….the forced alliance of the police with the Right has been reflected in the cooperation of the police with Rightist youth for the purpose of completely suppressing Leftist activity. This alignment has had the effect of forcing the Left to operate as an underground organization since it could not effectively compete in a parliamentarysense even if it should so desire.”
And in referring to the structure of the southern bureaucracy the CIA said it was “substantially the old Japanese machinery” (National Records Center, CIA “The Current Situation in Korea,” ORE 15-48, March 18, 1948; and CIA, Communist Capabilities in Korea,” ORE 32-48, Feb. 21, 1948.)

In late 1948 the Soviets withdrew their troops and left North Korea to the Koreans and a little over a year later the war broke out. The North didn’t just invade the South, there were provocations on side; posturing, threats, border skirmishes and fire fights. The South was egging the North on in hopes of an invasion so they could call for international support and the North was waiting for a reason to invade. After the war started the story is pretty familiar to most but the often overlooked or ignored fact is it wasn’t a communist North wanting to spread their ideas southward, the DKPR felt themselves, and still does, to be the true Korea, a representation of the Korean people, they felt their governement was the one picked and supported by the people , the government whose members fought against the Japanese while they occupied Korea and China, while the leaders in power in the south had fattened under Japanese rule, hunted down and killed their own countrymen who opposed the Japanese. 

During the American Civil War, France and England were in favor of the South, while Czarist Russia favored the North. How would the United States look today if the British and French threw their full weight behind the Confederates and Czarist Russia supported the North, what if a stalemate had been declared in that war? There wasn’t a stalemate, the States were left alone to determine for themselves what they would become. There were many lives lost and much bloodshed but it was a process that needed to happen in order for the country to move forward, there was a clear winner and a clear loser, the winners wrote history and the country moved toward repairing itself. Korea was given no such opportunity for self determination. It wasn’t the Chinese or Russians who invaded the South, let us remember, it was the Koreans. The only reason the Chinese later joined the war was because the U.S. had taken sides with the South and was advancing toward the Chinese border with MacArthur at the helm, who left to his own devices would have invaded China. China wanted to keep the U.S., with its hostile policies toward Communism and self determination for countries of the “third world,” off of its doorstep and it owed Korea a favor for their support in fighting the Japanese in China. As a side note it is also interesting that the United States supported not a democracy in South Korea, but a military dictatorship that terrorized its own citizenry right up until 1988. 

Both the North and the South have been active participants in revisionist history,as this is how history is written by the victor and when there is no clear victor we have two opposing stories. In hopes of reconciling a divided country the two Koreas, as well as the rest of the world, must to take an honest look at the root cause of the conflict, as damning as that might be to national pride or sense of righteousness, it needs to happen in order for the country to move forward. No side can claim innocence in a war that snuffed out the lives of millions of people, in having participated in the creation of two opposing systems that have turned brother against brother and led to the oppression and silencing of countless more millions on both sides. If one claims to be more just than the other there will be no way out but for one side to be destroyed, be it by war or famine. The mistakes that have been made must be admitted, the South must admit the role they played in repressing the majority and welcoming yet another colonizer into their country and the North has to realize just because it has suffered at the hands of imperial powers and in some way been demonized it doesn’t make their behavior, or what their country has become, any more tolerable or acceptable.

For further reading: The Two Koreas by Don Oberdorfer, Koreas Place in the Sun: A Modern History by Bruce Cummings. *These two books are a great place to start and they include a long list of other books for further reading. I would like to include a small cautionary warning about any book, especially first hand accounts of events such as The Aquariums of Pyongyang, published by a South or North Korean. I’m not suggesting that they aren’t great resources but you have to remember the citizens of both countries have been shielded from anything that isn’t state approved history, the South does have freedom but with the spectre of a repressive miltary dictatorship looming in the recent past. The point is have your propaganda filters tuned to a high pitch.

The third reason was to make a commentary on the existential crisis the post modern individual finds themselves in.  It is about something we all feel even if we don't admit it, a deep disconnect with the world that surrounds us. Post modern man is adrift in a sea of rules, norms, and ideas on what we should, must, or must never do; the proper and the improper, winners and losers, the beautiful and the damned,the saved and the lost, the us and the them. We're born into a world created by others, told who and what we are from the time we take out first breath many never realizing the choices they made were never really choices at all. The characters in this book represent the struggles of the intrepid few who took a fleeting day dream and turned it into a reality, who garnered the courage to turn a feeling of vague dissatisfaction into a quest for meaning. It is a story of consciousness becoming aware of itself, the realization that our existence precedes our essence, a place from which all great journeys must begin. (Here is an article I wrote on existentialism:

    Q: Would you sum up the plot/what it’s about for our readers?
A: The characters in the book are all on a genuine search for meaning. For one reason or another they all feel disenfranchised by the societies in which they live and make decisions to live life as they truly want, or at least figure out what they truly want. The story unfolds on three continents and showcases some of the more interesting things I have seen in my travels, like an industrial town in China that looked as though it were out of the USSR in the 1950's.   

Q:  What sort of publicity have you pursued?  
A: The book was just recently released but so far I have had a book release party in Royersford, and (had one in mid January) in Busan Korea. I have advertised online and will have ads coming out in The New Yorker in the spring. I am also in the process of hiring a publicity agent. 
Q: What advice might you offer to other first-time novelists in the areas of writing … and publishing?  
 A: For me the first step in writing anything, be it a novel or an article, takes place inside my head over the course of time. It starts with a basic mental outline that my brain sort of builds up automatically. For instance I'll be riding on the train and see a woman with a parka and think "character x would wear that when they met character y." For me it is also about setting aside time everyday to write. When I feel the story is developed enough to put down on paper I set a time frame in which I want to finish the first draft and then write x amount of words a day. I usually set my bottom limit at 1,500 words a day. 

For me writing is a hobby and a form of expression. It is a way to destress and, if I am successful, bring others into a world I've created in my mind. It used to be that publishing was considered a gentlemanly endeavor undertaken by men of leisure who published books for passion not profit. It was known as a gentleman’s profession meaning they usually didn't make any money and that's how I like to think of writing, a passion and a hobby. If I can make a living doing it then great if not that is great too.  

Q: Do you have another novel in the works?  
A: My second novel, Saving Bill Murray, should be out late summer 2012. It's about two Evangelical Christians who believe God has asked them to save the soul of Bill Murray .  Eventually they kidnap him and he makes them a deal, if they can last as his personal assists he will accept God at their church on national TV. I am also working on The Manifesto of the Unlanded Gentry; Becoming a Rugged Gentleman, which is a non-fiction field manual to help people reach what I call escape velocity, aka going after your dreams.  I also write for a website called The Rugged Gent

If you'd like to take a look at Newett's "Along the Nanktong," with his permission I'm giving away ONE electronic copy of his book to a reader. If you'd like to win it, simply comment on this blog post with your email address; or, for more privacy, email it to me at 

1 comment:

Marj H said...

The book is very good, it's character's display feelings we all have while doing things we wish we were doing in an enjoyable way. It's an easy read...