Storyteller at Heart

SUNY New Paltz English professor Heinz Insu Fenkl’s short story “Five Arrows” was published on Monday, Aug. 3 in The New Yorker. Fenkl, a veteran writer, translator and editor, is no stranger to the world of fiction. According to his website, his critically-acclaimed autobiographical novel, “Memories of My Ghost Brother,” was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction in 1996.

“Five Arrows” is a work of autobiographical fiction and follows Insu, a young Korean-American boy, who visits his mother’s home in the countryside of South Korea. The author fashioned the young protagonist after himself, he said in an interview with The New Yorker, which is why they share a name. In fact, Fenkl said he drew most of the settings and sensory details in “Five Arrows” from his own memories as a child, hoping to preserve in words what will eventually fade from his memories.

This is not Fenkl’s first time working with The New Yorker. In 2011, Fenkl translated “An Anonymous Island,” a work of fiction by famous Korean novelist Yi Mun-yol, for the publication. Fenkl hoped his previous work with the magazine would encourage them to publish “Five Arrows.” However, it was initially rejected by the publication’s editors. The original draft of “Five Arrows” was over 7,000 words long, Fenkl said, and was excerpted with some editing from his memoir-in-progress, “Skull Water.”

Yet the rejection came with a caveat: the editors were more than willing to reconsider publishing Fenkl’s story if he were willing to revisit the story and change parts of the narrative to make the overall composition more cohesive. Fenkl said he knew without asking which parts of the story the editors were referencing. Since the story came from a much larger piece, the original draft contained too much content from outside the actual plot.

So Fenkl went back to work, shortening the piece even further and fictionalizing parts of the exposition to help the story stand on its own. He re-submitted the piece to The New Yorker, and they offered “Five Arrows” a spot in their summer issue … with a 10-day turnaround for multiple rounds of editing, revising and fact-checking.

“I had to drop everything for this story,” Fenkl said with a laugh.

Much of Fenkl’s writing and scholarly work involves his heritage as an American of Korean and German descent. Fenkl’s mother was born and raised in Sambong-ni, a small rural village in South Korea. His father, a German-American, met Fenkl’s mother while serving in the US Army in Korea. A self-described Army brat, Fenkl lived in Korea for most of his youth before following his father to different military bases in Germany and America.

Fenkl said that storytelling runs in his family. He described listening during his youth to his Korean uncle, who frequently told him elaborate stories and folklore. Later, in grade school in America, Fenkl was given a blank notebook and told to fill two pages daily.

“It was a huge amount of writing to do every week,” he said. “So I thought, I miss Korea and I miss my uncle. What if I tried to write down the stories he told me?”

Inadvertently, Fenkl’s work as a translator and folklorist began. He eventually learned from his classmates that he could fill a page quickly and easily with poetry. Before this revelation, though, Fenkl said he recorded 30 to 40 pages of folktales.

In college, Fenkl asked himself another question: were these stories really authentic Korean folktales? Through research, he found an encyclopedia of folklore classified by region. The Korea section of the reference guide was about 800 pages long, yet Fenkl read through it diligently.

What Fenkl found shocked him: he already knew about 80 percent of the content, he said.

“Except it was all mangled,” he added, smiling, “because [my uncle] had appropriated the stories and changed them. So that’s how I became a folklorist.”