Han Eun-hyeong: You’ve changed residences from Wonju to Seoul and then again from Seoul to Gwangju. Do you feel a great difference? For example, in your most recent short story collection Who Is Dr. Kim?, which you wrote while living in Gwangju, you didn’t just write “To Me, A Very Ethical Piece of Underwear” there, and you were actually thinking of leaving that short story out.
Lee Kiho: I do really feel a difference. Since it’s a change of space, the people you meet are different, and even my writing seems to have changed. Whenever I publish a new book I see how I’m changing—maybe as a kind of finishing of one stage and moving on to another. “To Me, A Very Ethical Piece of Underwear” seemed like it really went better with my second collection. I don’t think it was just a question of where I wrote that story.
Han: It seems like it plays a transitional role between your second collection, Fumbling, I Knew I’d End Up Like This, and your third.
Lee: Yes, I was hoping it would have that effect. Actually, after the second collection was published I was in a strange place. At the time I was writing a novel, and there was always one thing or another that interrupted the process. Since I kept trying to work on the novel I wasn’t able to work on my short stories, and so it took about three years for me to write one again. As I was putting this collection together it really made me think about that time.
Han: In “Flagpole Romance,” the flagpole gets reimagined as a sexual allegory, and there’s this connection between Kim Il-sung’s death, undergarments, and boxers. As the reader encounters these contradictions there’s an emotional reaction. This also seems a manifestation of your creativity.
Lee: Also in “Prisoner” the process of reunification is haphazard. It’s the result of a radioactive explosion. Political realities like division, things that are sacred like a flagpole or the great leader (a figurative father)… linking these things with the absurd, I think, can demystify or emasculate them. Exposing their falsehoods or breaking down the myths, I think, are acts of resistance.
Han: When reading a Lee Kiho novel, you get the image of a writer torn between the premodern and postmodern. The notion behind the story is quite traditional, but the way in which it’s dealt with is distinctly postmodern, and there’s a very interesting reaction that takes place there. It even creates some great humor.
Lee: I don’t consciously write that in. I mean, what is modern? It’s the rational. I’m from the provinces, I was there until high school. The people I’ve met over the course of my life have either been rational or irrational. So I’ve been influenced by those people. As all of these things come in contact with this genre we call a story, you have this feeling that things are bumping into each other, brushing up against each other by chance. It’s hard to completely separate writer and reader, and I think that since these are works I wrote while I was young, that’s even more the case. Why do novels have to be so rational and level-headed? There were also elements that were just inexplicable. Because we’re talking about the canon, I wanted to follow a path that would counter canonical works, thereby resist the canon itself. I thought that that was the only way I could maintain my identity as a writer. But after I wrote At Least We Can Apologize—that is, before writing Who Is Dr. Kim?—I went through this period of reflection regarding my novels. I wondered: “Have all of my works just been fights with the works that came before?” I was angry at my old books and it felt like I was quarreling with them. It would have been better if I’d been fighting with myself. This time I felt as though I was examining myself as I wrote.
Writers Han Eun-hyeong and Lee Kiho