By Levin Stamm
On a chilly October evening in 2019, after another day of monotonous chores and following orders from senior soldiers, Chul Kim’s mind felt even more numb than usual. Most of his friends were partying and studying in Amsterdam; he was stuck on a military base near the border to North Korea, watching surveillance cameras or standing on guard all day long. He had just completed half of his mandatory 20-month service in the South Korean army – his discharge and return to AUC seemed nothing but a far-distant promise.
19-years-old Kim was sickened of spending another night cooped up in the narrow 12-person dormitory with no more personal space than a bed and locker on three square meters. While his fellow soldiers watched dull Korean reality TV on the common flat screen, he escaped the stale smell of sweaty clothes and went straight to the IT room. He sat down at one of the numerous computer terminals and opened a Word document.
Around 700 words later, Kim had captured the idea that had come to him earlier during the day. The story about the struggles of a Korean first-generation immigrant in an American high school was full of typos and, as he would later admit, “a little all over the place”. More importantly, it sparked his passion for writing.
“The army routine almost made me depressed. Writing was a way to escape for me.”Chul Kim
Soon after his first lines, Kim used every minute of his scarce free time to write down the stories he incessantly thought about during the long days in the service of his homeland. “The army routine almost made me depressed. Writing was a way to escape for me,” he says.
Kim, not even an avid reader before his service, struggled a lot at the beginning. “I had never written anything similar in my life, but finally I had found something that gave me some inspiration in the army base,” he says. Skimming the internet for useful resources, he familiarised himself with the conventions of novel writing.
About half a year later, the manuscript of Dear Time Traveller was done. The initial short story had unfolded into a 282-page manuscript about the coming-of-age story of socially-awkward Charlie Kim who dreams of nothing more than to finally be a starter player on his high-school football team. It was published in January of this year by a small London-based online publisher. The novel did not get any reception, nor did Kim try to actively promote it. “I was just experimenting,” he says.
Kim, now 22, sits at the table of his spartanly furnished Amsterdam dorm room. In front of him lies Eye for Eye, the second novel that he wrote in the army. It recounts the experiences of Peter Chen, a fictional undercover medic who helps injured activists during the 2019 Hong Kong Protests to non-violently express his dissent with the government. When Chen rescues wanted criminal Blaze Lai in one of the protests, the police apparatus suddenly becomes aware of him, putting his peace mission gravely at risk.
Eye for Eye has just been published by the South African publisher Kingsley in late September. In contrast to Kim’s previous publisher, Kingsley works with a smaller number of authors, but puts more effort into promoting them. Kim’s book is prominently positioned on the webpage and regularly promoted on social media.
Kim estimates to have sold over a hundred copies of Eye for Eye so far and describes it as “the best literature I could come up with”. Thanks to Zana Bulteel, as he is quick to add.
Kim had met the Belgian screenwriter during his time in the army on the South Korean messaging app KakaoTalk. She wanted to practice her Korean, he his Dutch before returning to university. “But the focus of our conversation changed once he found out that I’m a writer,” Bulteel, a creative writing graduate of the prestigious Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound, recalls.
She agreed to read his manuscripts – and was intrigued. “A natural born talent with rough edges,” Bulteel says. Promising to get back to him “soon”, she devoured Eye for Eye within two days, surprised by how thoroughly and detailed he explained scenes regardless of their complexity. In the following months, she would help him give the characters and the story the final touch.
“Chul has a very big imposter syndrome. He doesn’t realise how crazy it is to have published a book at his age.”Romy Coers
Behind Kim’s desk lie a few sheets of paper with hastily scribbled physics formulas. He is currently in his final year at AUC. Why does he study physics when writing is his true passion? “Even though writing is a lot of fun, physics was the only thing I was good at in high school,” he says.
Romy Coers, a close friend of Kim, has another explanation for why he is reluctant to go for writing full bore. “Chul has a very big imposter syndrome. He always talks about how much his friends have already achieved, but doesn’t realise how crazy it is to have published a book at his age,” she says.
Coers had met Kim during their first year at AUC and kept exchanging letters with him while he was in the army. Like all of his other AUC friends, she graduated in 2020 – right before he returned to Amsterdam. “Now I know nobody at AUC,” Kim says. Hard for his social life, great for his writing. He is already working on his next manuscript, a historical fiction novel about post-WWII Netherlands, to be published again by Kingsley.
Is it the one that will make him popular? Kim’s hackneyed response is another expression of his self-doubts. “I don’t care how many copies I sell. When people feel inspired by my writing, that’s where the meaning lies for me,” he says.