An Evolving Realist, Dreaming of the Unity of Life and Literature

Hwang Sok-yong had already presided over an era of Korean literature with his outstanding works of realism published in the 1970s and 80s, then with his visit to North Korea in 1989 he broke through a barrier in the modern history of Korea itself, and the masterful novels which he wrote in the 2000s following his release from prison have been translated into many languages and published all over the world. He now stands among diverse friends at the very heart of world literature. He is not just one person but three or four. On the cusp of the New Year I met with a few of these ‘Hwang Sok-yongs.’


Shin Hyoung-cheol: Was there a particular moment in your life or a particular work that you read that opened your eyes to literature for the first time?


Hwang Sok-yong: My parents were intellectuals of the colonial era who had studied in China and Japan. My mother bought me lots of books and also got me to write book reports and essays about what I read. Also, in the 1950s right after the Korean War, there were so many old and second-hand books in the night markets. They would sell books and lend them out as well. From among those books I read whatever fell into my hands. The very first thing I read was Alexandre Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask, during my second year of elementary school. Then, I read his The Count of Monte Cristo when I was in fifth grade. I also read novels like Crime and Punishment and Wuthering Heights when I was an elementary school student. When I was in the fourth grade, I won the grand prize in a national creative writing competition. When we returned after having been evacuated to Daegu, our house was in ruins; I wrote down my thoughts from the day. The title was “The Day We Came Home.”


Shin: In 1962, when you were still a high school student, you won the Sasanggye New Author Literary Prize, but your writing career officially began in 1970 when your short story “The Pagoda” won the Chosun Ilbo New Writer’s Contest. You have lived almost fifty years of your life as a writer. Would you be able to divide that long period of time into different eras or themes?


Hwang: There are literary critics who divide my career into the early years and the later years with my visit to North Korea and subsequent exile, imprisonment, and release as the turning point between the two, but I would rather make a more detailed distinction.


The first period would be from my initial literary debut in 1962, to 1966 when I was conscripted into the army. During that time, I wrote a number of short stories. You could say it was a time of individualism and estheticism. Then, I joined the marines and went off to the Vietnam War. It was only through my experiences of the Vietnam War that I realized the real meaning of the Korean War. For that reason, from then on I would always say “the Vietnam War is the Korean War.” They say that young people who have been to war are no longer young. By the time I returned to Korea my perspective on the world was very different.


The second period begins after 1970. I wrote works such as “Far from Home” and “Mr. Han’s Chronicle,” and in 1974, the serial publication of my epic novel Jang Gilsan began (which was completed with the 10th volume in 1984). During this period, I participated in the democratization movement in resistance to the Yusin dictatorship, and got involved in different kinds of cultural resistance activities. I guess I would have to say that the second period lasted up to the publication of The Shadow of Arms through which I revisited the Vietnam War.


The third period, which follows on from that is actually a time when I wrote nothing at all. This is the time during which, following my visit to North Korea in 1989, I lived in exile in places like Berlin and New York, and then, when I returned to Korea in 1993, was imprisoned until my release in 1998. But if you consider that a writer’s behavior is in fact an extension of his or her literary activity, this period too would have to be considered one of the stages in my life’s work. I refer to this period as my time doing “community service.” Before traveling to North Korea there was no way I could completely free myself from the ideological oppression that was controlling South Korean society. My visit to North Korea was an attempt to overcome the division that existed within me. Through my visit to the North a considerable part of my person did become much freer. And during my years of exile, I was able to see the Korean peninsula objectively, from the outside, and I came to identify myself as someone straddling the border between South and North. I also thought that I wanted to free myself from the frame of ethnic nationalism and become a citizen of the world. In terms of literature, I came to think that I needed to break away from the various disciplines of realist aesthetics, which I had stuck to in my work up until that point.


And then the fourth era in my literature began. This period began with The Old Garden and runs right up to my latest novel, Dusk. I can sense that the so-called “later years literature” nature of my work is becoming stronger.


Shin: Although your latest work Dusk was quite a short novel, it left a strong and lingering impression. The main character, Park Min-woo, is of pretty much the same generation as Oh Hyun Woo of The Old Garden. But his is a case of someone who has lived a completely different kind of life. The perspective and tone of the novel did have a similar feeling though. By returning to The Old Garden it seemed to me as though you were tying up the loose ends of an era. So I wonder, is the fourth phase of your writing finishing now to make way for the fifth?


Hwang: I would prefer it if you just saw it as a continuation of the fourth period. I don’t think there will be a fifth period in my work.


Shin: You have lived through the mid to late twentieth century as a writer in Korea, East Asia’s divided nation. During that time, have you come upon anything you have considered particular to the tasks of Korean literature?


Hwang: With the Korean War, the capacity of national literature in Korea was almost reduced to nothing. Many writers were displaced, many went north, and many died. Then, in the North, literature for the Party, and in the South, anti-communist literature, were each emphasized as the only possibilities for literature. Then, in the South, with the April 19th Student Revolution in 1960, the rigidity of society was alleviated somewhat, and as literature from all over the world flooded into the country, Korean literature was finally able to take on a sense of modernity in the work of the April 19th generation of writers. After that, we went through all of the things that the populations of developing nations go through, such as military dictatorships and rapid industrialization. Then came the watershed, I would say that this came at the time when the Cold War system crumbled with the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Following this Korea, too, entered into the system of globalization and now people in Sou...