Leaving Behind the Self to Understand the Other

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?


Oh: I was in my thirties at the time and writing had become dreary and difficult. Living and writing felt like hitting my head against the wall, so I decided to head for foreign shores in search of a breakthrough, an escape. I once expressed my state of mind at the time as being full of the “illusion and expectation of freedom, poverty, solitude, and isolation.” I was looking forward to having new experiences in an unfamiliar place but instead I seemed to sink deeper into a pit. Leaving my mother tongue behind made me feel as though I’d lost touch with reality, and I became caught up in the anxiety that I’d be regarded as a substance-less shadow. It might’ve not been entirely a problem of language. Looking back, I think that it could’ve easily been a slump experienced by a writer or it could’ve been one of the various problems you face in life once you cross thirty, but I justified it by saying that it was caused by the “loss of language.”


Lee: I can relate to what you once said about children being a subject of timeless, unchanging fascination, that the children of this world are potential before it becomes regulated, and are like “little seeds that harbor the cosmos.” But even before our children sprout and grow branches, society forces them into frames as though they were bonsai plants, twisting and pruning them to fit into those frames. As part of the older generation and as someone who writes, I feel guilty and helpless when I see the youngsters of today who endure and survive this process only to have to cope with a sense of powerlessness. Can literature shake this monstrous and rigid system even a little? What use do you think literature has in this day and age?


Oh: I think eighty percent of what made me the person I am today is literature, especially the novels I read indiscriminately whenever I could lay my hands on them, whether they were classics or folk stories. This will be true for most writers. Writers develop their knowledge and understanding of their and other people’s lives, and nurture their sensitivity towards suffering and sadness through literature. Somerset Maugham said that to become writers we need to understand our relationship with the world, with our surroundings, and with ourselves. His words hold true not just for aspiring writers but for anybody who wants to mature into a sound human being and not an insensitive animal. In today’s world, literature ca...