Autumn was in full swing as writer Oh Junghee and I strolled in the grounds of Sungkyunkwan University’s Myeongnyundang Lecture Hall. In that beautiful setting, amidst trees that were shedding their leaves in preparation for winter, Oh shared her candid thoughts in her soft voice. I felt her passion for literature burn bright on that afternoon.
Lee Hye-kyung: When I think of you I always recall the time you and I were returning from an event in Washington DC. You treated me to a meal at Incheon Airport and later had the remaining food packed so you could take it with you to feed the stray dogs in your neighborhood. That side of you—uncluttered and earnest—remains a prized memory. How do you balance your life and identity as a writer and as a homemaker, wife, and mother?
Oh Junghee: To tell you the truth, finding a balance isn’t easy. Measuring literature and maternal instinct, two desires of entirely different natures, on the same scale is, in a way, illogical, but regardless of the sense of achievement involved, I feel that motherhood is in my blood and so is writing. I mean this in the sense that I’ve never found myself free of the influence of literature ever since I took it up, nor have I ever forgotten I’m a mother, or resisted that fact, after having children of my own. But I do feel wary about the myth of the writer and the myth of motherhood. Securing a creative space for myself, which required freedom, solitude and even isolation, without denying the value and virtue of everyday life was hard. I can empathize with something poet Hwang Tong-gyu said a long time ago: “Art drowns on treading too deep into the water of ethics, but if it jumps out of it, it becomes ontologically bankrupt.” The liveliness of poetry lies not in an ambiguous middle but rather in the struggle between living with ethics and escaping its constraints. This is the power and life force of aesthetics.
Lee: You once said, “After a certain time, one’s family history can become an obstacle as well as an irresistible temptation.” After reading about your account of running away from home when you lived in Incheon, I felt a little less guilty about having run away from home a few times when I was in elementary school. Edward Said remarked that exile means keeping “a critical distance from all cultural identities,” while Theodor Adorno said that “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” I feel you’ve put down your roots in the reality of the home but at the same time have remained constantly alert to preserve the point of view of a refugee. What is home to you?
Oh: Even as I raised a family of my own, I didn’t want to be sucked into the myth of the family. Familial solidarity and affection can take on a nature of violence in its own way in the prejudice and exclusion we display towards those that exist outside our family. A family is the smallest communal unit bound by blood, but I feel it is important to be determined not to be confined by one’s family even as you belong to it. I’ve lived in Chuncheon for more than forty years but I’m not comfortable calling it my hometown. I don’t call the place I was born my hometown, either. I simply differentiate between the two as my place of birth and my place of residence. This is a result of my resolve not to become habituated to something, whether family or land, even as I dwell within it. It’s also a reflection of my desire to free myself of everything in which I received a literary initiation early on in life.
Lee: In your account of the two years you spent in America long ago, you said you didn’t wish to look back at that time. The reasons could be many, but if I were to hazard a guess I’d say the sense of loss you felt on being distanced from your mother tongue would’ve played a big part. Today, writers tend to spend long stretches of time outside their native country. What do you think are the merits and demerits of a writer staying away from his or her native land for a long time?