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Author Lee Yong-han

A traveler seeking cats amid a sense of loss




Lee Yong-han is a poet who is comforted by cats and feels happiness through the feline creatures. Starting with his book Hello, The Cat Was Thankful (Bookfolio, 2009) in order to present street cats in a friendly light, Lee has gone on to publish more books about cats he has met during his travels and everyday life, like Be Bright, Cat (Bookfolio, 2011) and Travel, Love and Cat (Bookfolio, 2014). The author's books have gained him the nickname 'cat writer', and Lee says another stage of his career has opened with Humans Are Busy So Leave it to the Cats (Yedam, 2015). The book is about his father in law who ended up living with 16 cats after having disliked them in the past. Lee is also a poet, and his first book was a collection of poetry. However, more readers know of him as the 'cat writer', showing how popular his cat books have been. Lee says he started writing poems because he felt a sense of loss. Then what compelled him to start writing about cats? Lee has penned more than a dozen books on cats, and now his kitty content can be seen in his poetry. The following is his story.





I wanted to show readers that cats are beings that feel emotions just like us,
that they're living creatures that have beating hearts just like us.



Everyone calls you the 'cat writer', even yourself. There's no way we can't talk about cats, but it's likely you didn't expect to become popular through cat books when you started writing. How did you start writing books on cats?


Hello, I'm Lee Yong-han. I'm working as a writer of cat books and also as a poet, albeit somewhat lazily. Some time ago, I was also a traveler for roughly a decade, but now my life has very little of that.
At first, I didn't really think about writing books about cats. I started uploading photos of cats on my blog like a hobby, but after a year or so, I began receiving publication offers from publishers here and there. Among these, I felt one publisher could be trusted because they loved cats and things went on from there. I didn't start with some grand mission in mind, to deliver a great message to readers. I wanted to show readers that cats are beings that feel emotions just like us, that they're living creatures that have beating hearts just like us. I wished to tell readers that everyone has cat neighbors nearby.
My first book on cats was released about a decade ago. Back then, there was only one book on the market on street cats, basically showing the lack of interest the public had in stray cats prior to that book. Public interest in stray cats started picking around then, and I think my book received much attention because readers who are interested in cats felt the book shared an understanding with them.


Hello, The Cat Was Thankful was exported to Japan, Taiwan and China. What was the response like in those countries?


There is no surefire way to analyze the reader response in countries where my books have been translated aside from sales numbers. In all three countries, the book wasn't published beyond the first edition, so I guess you could say the response wasn't that great. Still, after that first book was published in Taiwan, Travel, Love and Cat and Humans Are Busy So Leave it to the Cats were both released there under the same publisher.
Also, one reader in Japan visited South Korea for the screening of “Cat Dance”, a documentary based on Hello, The Cat Was Thankful. That same reader came to my first photo exhibition two years ago and even purchased one of my works. I was very thankful.


<Hello, The Cat Was Thankful>, <Travel, Love and Cat>, <Humans Are Busy So Leave it to the Cats>

Hello, The Cat Was Thankful, Travel, Love and Cat, Humans Are Busy So Leave it to the Cats


Aside from your nickname 'cat writer' you are also a poet and a traveler. Which title for yourself are you most fond of?


I think apart from whether I'm fond of it or not, I am called a cat writer because I love cats and most of my work involves cats, so people have naturally come to call me that. I have published three poetry collections so far, but I am known as cat writer Lee Yong-han rather than poet Lee Yong-han. I guess perhaps you could say that's unfortunate, but at the same time, I do feel some pressure when people call me a poet. Back when I was traveling, I preferred to be called a traveler. I feel least stressed being called a cat writer, as now I'm usually working on my cat books.



To sum up, I didn't find anything in my travels, and it was all in vain,
but in my current life, without traveling, I now feel I am on a different kind of trip.



You've previously mentioned you stepped into the world of cats after seeing a mother cat sleeping with her five kittens on an abandoned sofa in front of someone's house. Could you tell us about other scenes that compelled you to become a poet and a traveler?


My hometown is now under a lake created by a dam. I still remember seeing my hometown grow far from sight through a cloud of dust as we were moving our entire belongings in a truck as if we were fleeing from something. That sense of loss and loneliness, I believe, pushed me to start writing. I started writing poetry when I was in 8th grade. I think it was rather out of a sense of losing the source of my self rather than losing my hometown. My writing poetry was an inner battle I fought in order to find what I had lost.
Traveling began in a similar way for me. I traveled the world in search of what I had lost. The countryside, the woods, far off places, abandoned places - I went to all of these and published my first book on travel called In Search of Disappearing Outback Villages (Silcheon, 1998). This book, I feel, was a record of my travels in search of my lost hometown. The truth is, however, I never found anything during my travels that I felt I'd lost. They're honestly not things that can be found through travel. My writing poetry is also part of that journey of seeking, but I don't think I've found anything through that either.
To sum up, I didn't find anything in my travels, and it was all in vain, but in my current life, without traveling, I now feel I am on a different kind of trip. I go out to meet new cats, take photographs and observe how cats live their lives. Stepping into a strange alley, meeting new cats and realizing what previously felt far away was actually nearby are whole different adventures on their own.


Late last year, you published your third poetry collection called Nap at Day, Walk at Night (Munhakdongne, 2018). It took you more than ten years to publish this collection after your last work of poetry. How do you feel?


My third book of poems was delayed because of my laziness and fear. Despite the fact that the publication was delayed, I still feel that it's lacking somewhat. I also feel some self-blame. Writing poetry gets harder and harder, the more you write. I want to write poetry easily but have found that a difficult goal. For some poems, I held onto them for months on end, only to feel they were not a big deal after they had been written. And other times, the flow is broken when I have to finish other books or another project I'm working on. When I go back to finish a particular poem, the emotions I had initially are gone, and at times, I have to admit I ignored my poetry with the excuse that I had to make a living.
I made many excuses to myself for not writing poetry: my livelihood, time and even my age. I found excuses for my laziness in so many things, and that caused so much time to pass. I also blame myself for having thought of poetry in too serious a manner. I realize I need to relax a bit, but that is easier said than done. While living as the cat writer, I was only able to write poems when I had bits and scraps of time. Regret from dissatisfaction with myself is bigger than happiness that the book is finally out. I think this all comes from that sense of loss I still carry within myself, which I feel is holding back my competence.


<Nap at Day, Walk at Night>

Nap at Day, Walk at Night


You mentioned that writing poetry can be difficult. It can be tough reading poetry for readers too! Do you have any tips for readers on how they can read your latest publication better?


While I was working on my latest book of poems, I tried to bring together words that usually don't go well together at all. So, from a reader's point of view, I think I can understand why they might find it hard to comprehend why some particular words were used. Some may feel this strange mismatch may take away from the experience of reading the poems. Rather than taking apart the sentences, putting them back together and delving within the meanings of the words, it's most likely better to just feel the flow of the entire poem like its ambience or the general feeling of things. This way of reading poetry will probably help with other works of poetry and not just mine.


In your latest book, you describe the life of mankind as something very exhausting while drawing out sympathy from others. The lives of cats can be seen in the same light, but in your poetry, they are described in a merrier fashion than the lives of humans. Was that your way of trying to tell human readers that there is something to learn from cats in order to become less tired and happier?


I believe I wrote this once in a book, but I think cats have a particular way of trying their best to live in a carefree manner. Rather than drown in past self-pity and self-blame only to torture themselves, cats are very much in the present. Humans are overly fixated on the past and worry about the future that has yet to come. And we deplete so much emotional energy in our present reality because of these things when we don't have to.


Your latest poetry collection brings together your characteristics as a poet, traveler and cat writer. Mongolia and Tibet are mentioned quite frequently in some of your poems. Are there any travel locations that stand out in your mind?


The country that was most memorable for me and the one that pushed me to think was Tibet. During my stay there, I met a monk who had embarked on a one-year ascetic practice, walking from Yunnan to Lhasa while bowing. I wondered why he was going to these lengths while destroying his body, but he told me that his journey to Lhasa showed his life was being led by his will. Upon hearing those words, I realized so many aspects of my life were being dragged around by numerous things like money, my lifestyle, family and time. I felt I too, wanted to lead my life in a more direct manner. It wasn't that my life was radically changed after this visit, but I now carry that feeling within me all the time, that my life is decided by me and that only I lead it.
When you hear the word 'Tibet', you think of words like 'mecca for the soul'. While I was in Tibet, I got that feeling the entire time wherever I went or whomever I met. What I remember most are the Himalayan apricots. At one point in my journey, I felt so hot and tired and was overall in bad condition because the food I had eaten had been too greasy, like yak meat. Craving something tangy, I tried an apricot, and it was spectacular. It was the best apricot I had ever had, and now whenever someone mentions Tibet, I think of that time before anything else.


Lastly, are there any books by other authors you'd like to introduce to our K-Book Trends readers?


First, I'd like to recommend poet Park Jun's I Ate For Several Days With Your Name (Munhakdongne, 2012). I can't speak for anyone else, but it really spoke to me. I could see glimmers of what I'd lost and the sense of loss that exists inside me through the poems. I think Park is quite good at creating very unfamiliar sentences with very familiar words. Next, I recommend Paper Umbrella's The Happy Stray Cat (Bookfolio, 2010). It's a book that shows cats' actions, expressions and their characteristics overall with photographs that are quite happy and joyful. I dare say readers who can't read Korean will also be able to enjoy it.





Arranged by Choi Hyo-jun


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