Heo Hee: I’d like to discuss the issue of Korean education, which I believe is related to the “contemporariness” you often emphasize.
Jeong Yi Hyun: It is. Contemporariness sounds like an objective concept, but its definition really depends on how one sees and understands the contemporary era. I see myself as a single camera capturing this era from my own perspective. Maybe my fiction resembles documentaries. Not that documentaries are completely objective, either. And of course, it is the author’s prerogative to select or edit as they see fit.
Heo: There’s such a fever for education in Korea. It’s not easy being a student here [laughs]. What kind of memories of school do you have?
Jeong: I only have memories of hating school. One thing I’ll never forget is how one evening, as a high school senior in study hall, I looked up and took in the crammed classroom around me and thought, I will write about this someday . . . this desperation . . . I shall bear witness to this world [laughs]. And I did. I wrote about that moment in the preface to Goodbye, My Everything, which is based on teenagers in the 1990s. Any happiness I had back then was from outside that system: time and space outside of class, extracurriculars, playing hooky. I went to high school in the late 1980s, and we were the first “KTU (Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union) Generation.” Young teachers taught progressive values that clashed with the content in our textbooks. It was unsettling, and I didn’t know how to deal with that as a student. For example, the poetry in our literature textbook was only about how beautiful the world was, while our KTU teachers introduced us to minjung poetry (peoples’ poetry). It was in that clash between worlds where I first thought to seek new questions and answers. I’m currently serializing a YA novel featuring high school students in 2017. I had certain questions: Is “study hall” still the glorified incarceration that it was? That kind of stuff. Turns out, it still is. I graduated from high school about twenty years ago, but many things are surprisingly the same. I didn’t need to do a lot of research. That frightens me.