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  • Writer's pictureArielle Kouyoumdjian

Climate Storytelling Winner: Dystopian Fiction from Korea

Congratulations to Hanjun Lee, an 8th grader at the Korea International School! We are excited to declare Hanjun's flash-fiction piece the CPJ Post of the Month. Hanjun's startling, skillfully crafted story takes readers on journey to an African village gripped by the climate crisis. With exceptionally creative metaphors, a riveting storyline, and a striking plot twist at the finale, Hanjun masterfully infuses narrative fiction with an urgent climate wake-up call. This deeply tragic piece will haunt readers long after the story ends. Environmental storytelling at its best.

The sun shone radiantly against the tranquil Inkisi River. The river roared downstream like the whistle of the wild Okapi. Kellan waded through the thick mud near the coast of the river. Kellan carried a crudely shaped bucket made of tree bark and waterproofed with tree sap above his head. Soon, he lifted up the bucket and scooped up the water in one swift move. His firm hand held the jar in place while he cautiously waded through the mud once again, cautious not to spill even a single drop.

Kellen kicked open the door, exhausted, and carefully lowered the pot. When he did drop the pot, his family rushed forwards to greet him. His three younger brothers darted out of the kitchen with excitement when they saw that Kellen had brought so much clean water. His mother and grandmother however, came out much later as his grandmother required assistance in order to transport herself. When they saw the precious jar of water, their face rippled into an expression of relief.

“You know, when your father was still around, I could have sworn that he brought half as much water than you did”, his mother said.

Kellen smiled at her. He would have been much more content with the compliment had it not mentioned his father. His father was a stoic man, who was incredibly skilled at hunting. He would often bring back his hunting bag filled with freshly killed animals.

“Thank you, mother," Kellen whispered. “Tomorrow, should I bring the same amount of water”?

“No, that’s not necessary, you already brought so much”, she replied.

His grandmother and brothers nodded in agreement. Kellen stared up at the cloth canopy knotted to his bed frame. An intricate tapestry was woven onto the fabric. It depicted a flood and a man inside a large boat filled with every species of animal. When he was just five, his grandmother would often tell him the stories of Noah’s ark. The great flood was often present in his nightmares.

The sun shone over the village of Kinshasa, illuminating the small village. Kellen, as the eldest son, woke himself up at 8 am in the morning. He lumbered over to the living room, passing his sleeping family members to fish out his basket in the storage room. Then, he silently inched open the front door and crept out of the house.

Kellen trudged through the heat of the blazing sun. His body was soon littered with beads of sweat. The Inkisi River had dried up and had condensed onto the air, which drifted on the wind like flower petals. He could see that the dried up river was littered with plastic bottles, plastic bags and plastic straws. He had seen numerous plastic appliances around his village lately despite the fact that no one in his village used plastic.

The path twisted through the landscape like a corkscrew skewing into a wine bottle. The shrubbery was scattered on the road with several beggars finding comfort under the greenery. As he approached the entrance to the market, he could smell the distinct odor of roasting fish, antique wood and tanned leather. The fragrance was so strong, he could taste it in his mouth.

Once he was inside the market, he was surrounded by stimulation. In every corner of his eyes, he could make out jesters juggling multi-colored balls, fish being slowly roasted on an open fire, live chickens being slaughtered in front of customers. He hooked out a bundle of coins from his pocket. He approached the farmer and handed him the coins.

“Two pounds of onions, one pound of beef and 50 grams of pepper please”. Kellen said.

The shopkeeper limped behind the store to retrieve the products. Once he came back, he threw the three sacks onto the balance.

“There”, he whispered, after weighing all three bags.

“Thanks”, Kellen replied, as he retrieved the bags. After slinging the sacks on his back, he trudged back home.

“Where were you”? His mother demanded when he came back.

“I was out in the market buying food”, replied Kellen. He was drenched in sweat.

“Well, you shouldn't have gone without telling us first”, his mother snapped back.

Kellen ignored her and jumped into his bed. He fell asleep immediately as he was exhausted from the tiring journey. The sun dipped down like a bait on a fisherman’s hook. The tapestry above Kellen shone luminously as moonlight slipped through it. The flood stood out as it seemed to flicker ominously.

The next morning, Kellen woke up naturally by the harsh sunlight shining into his eyes. He was temporarily blinded as his eyes adjusted to the normal light. He lumbered over to the breakfast table. His meal was already ready for him. The sweet fragrance of Muamba Nsusu wafted in the air. The chicken blended in perfectly with the appetizing yellow of the peanut sauce. He ate the meal with a cup of warm milk that their neighbor had bartered with them for.

“How are you today? ”His mother asked.

Everyone murmured that they were fine except grandma, who was usually

quiet. His brothers squabled amongst themselves, resulting in one of them knocking over their soup and ended with their mother telling them off.

It all started with a small rainfall. Then, that small rainfall started to make the Inkisi River rise. Despite the fact that the river had been almost dry the day before, the river was now overflowing like a volcano.

Kellen ran to the window. The dam that had always churned out an incredibly meager amount of water was now acting like a funnel, focusing a vast amount of water in a relatively small space. The water roared out like a canon. It was a tranquil cascade turned into a destructive tsunami. Kellen squinted into the broken dam. He could see that the massive gates were jammed. As he squinted further, the gates were jammed by a small item. It was shaped like a water basket except it was twisted like a corkscrew. Then he realized. It was a plastic bottle. He had heard that those plastic bottles were created by America and were destroying their country. Now, he could see the plastic bottles destroying his country.

It was like Noah’s ark, except the flood was caused by a piece of plastic instead of the will of god. Only he, out of everyone in his family, could swim. Although he could swim, he was not proficient at it as he did not have many opportunities to practice. He knew that he would only be able to carry himself out of the water.

The mass of water struck against his hut, ripping through the building like a torpedo. As the water churned around him, Kellen instinctively kicked off and managed to stay afloat. He looked at his family. His brothers, his mother and his grandmother were all struggling to float. Everyone but his grandmother thrashed wildly in the water, like an antelope writhing against the grasp of an anaconda.

His grandmother, on the other hand, stared directly into his eye and said, "Kellen, do you know why you were named Kellen? It is because you are strong. Kellen means strong. You must leave us and swim to the shore. We will only drag you down.”

Kellen faced his family, tears cascading down his face, for the very last time. Kellen swam as much as he could, until he finally managed to find himself on the only part of the region that was not covered in water, Mikeno Volcano. He looked around and saw a foreign machine in the sky. It had long blades that spun on top of a strange bulbous shaped capsule. The machine dipped lower and a long ladder was dropped in front of him.

When he climbed into the machine, he was greeted by a large group of Americans. Using a translator, they told him that he was the only survivor in his village. His heart pounded in his chest. Everything he loved was gone. His family, his friends, his neighbors, all of them were gone. “It’s because of plastic,” he thought. “Everything happened because of plastic.”

*All images created by A.I.

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