[A Conversation with Han Yujoo] The Sum of the Worlds I Have Experienced
- onDecember 20, 2017
- Vol.38 Winter 2017
- byScott Esposito
Scott Esposito: You made your writing debut in 2003, when you were just twenty-one years old with the short story “To the Moon,” which won Literature and Society’s New Writers Award. Can you tell us a little about how you chose to get into writing literature and how your career progressed after the publication of this story?
Han Yujoo: There were just two things I wanted to do by going to university. One, leave home. Two, read loads of books. Because of this I decided to study German literature at a university in Seoul, far enough from Daejeon where I grew up. Just as I’d planned, I was able to read books non-stop, but there was never exactly a time when I thought I wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t something I actively didn’t want, I just don’t think I even dared to wonder whether I might be any good at writing. Then one semester I took a class on creative writing theory which was run by the Korean literature department, and I had to submit a short story for the end of term assignment. That was how I came to write “To the Moon,” and thinking about it now, it was an assignment, but I was able to write really freely. When a friend of mine who was a budding writer read “To the Moon,” he advised me to submit it for one of the annual contests. That’s how I became a writer. I’d hardly even lived much back then, let alone gone through the usual process of writing practice, so for the next few years it felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. To make things worse, because I came out with a string of short stories that didn’t appear to follow the traditional rules of narrative, I had to face a lot of disapproval. Still, from my debut onwards, I have continued writing works that question the very form they are written in. To tell the truth, I think my focus on form comes from the fact that I’m no master storyteller.
Esposito: Do you feel that the criticism you faced early on was in any way related to your gender?
Han: Thinking about it now it seems as though both my gender and my age did play a role in this. Come to think of it though, I can’t recall having ever seen a male Korean novelist in their early twenties, so I can’t really compare. I think being female and being so young had both negative and positive effects.
Esposito: Negative reviews and harsh responses to one’s work can be very challenging to bounce back from, particularly for young writers at the beginning of their career. To what do you ascribe your ability to have weathered these early critiques while remaining true to your aesthetic and not letting this disapproval influence your direction as an author?
Han: In this case it helped that I was so young. There was a huge age gap between me and my fellow writers, so I was automatically able to keep life in the “literary world” at a safe distance. And being so young, I didn’t really know what was going on around me. It was also helpful that I wasn’t majoring in creative writing. This meant I was able to avoid being directly confronted by harsh criticism from people of my own age. But more than anything, what helped me the most was that I had a small number of writers and readers who believed in me. It’s impossible to write creatively without a great amount of skepticism and questioning of oneself, so really, I think it’s very difficult for anyone to put their work out into the world without a strong sense of self-love or self-belief. It’s like walking a tightrope between this kind of skepticism and belief. To start with, while not having any great certainty in myself, I was going over and over questions like “What does good writing even mean?” or else “What is writing anyway?” And now, although I still haven’t found an answer, I’ve come to think of literature as a form of practice at least, something I can do for a lifetime, my life’s work. What I mean is, my aesthetic now may merely be a question of technique, but perhaps practice will take me in the direction of the aesthetic I have to find. If I think about it in this way, whatever other people say, be it good or bad, it becomes less important.
Esposito: What writers have been some of your biggest influences as an author?
Han: A huge number of writers have influenced me. When I was a teenager I read a lot by authors like Yi In-seong and Oh Junghee. Then at university I mainly read writers working in German, like Thomas Bernhard, Botho Strauß, Elfriede Jelinek, and Franz Kafka. Since then I’ve been influenced by so many writers that I couldn’t begin to list them individually. It’s my personal view that what a writer creates cannot be greater than the sum of what they have read. These days I’m reading through Flaubert’s works again.