Q: Your hometown is Wonsan in Hamgyeong Province, isn’t it? What was it like where you grew up?
I was born into a middle-class farming family and grew up without any hardship. From the age of four I learned the Thousand-Character Classic from my grandfather, and until the age of seventeen I lived in Myeongsasimni just to the south of Wonsan. If you looked westward from our house there was a wonderful view out over Hwanghae Province. By the pass to Hwanghae was a big mountain and from near the top a beautiful stream came down. My short story “Big Mountain” is about that very scenery, the place where I grew up.
Q: Was there any particular moment or opportunity that ignited your interest in literature?
I have a sister four years older than me. My sister read to me from her school textbook and when she read Shakespeare’s “King Lear” I experienced a kind of literary shock. I could only have been about six years old at the time but even though I was young I think I was very sensitive to the emotion of literature. It was such a shock that on the night my sister had read me “King Lear” all I could do was think about how complicated this thing called life is.
In middle school I was active in a literary club. The first thing I ever wrote was when I saw a star in the sky right next to the moon and tried to capture it in a poem. My schoolteacher, who was a poet, went through my work underlining bits and complimenting it. That was the first time I realized that I had a talent for literature. In the third year of high school I was the leader of the literary club. I read so many books back then. I studied literature with the thirty-seven-volume World Literature Anthology from the Japanese Shinchosha publishing company, reading writers like Goethe, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. I was particularly interested in French novels and 19th-century Russian literature. That time studying the World Literature Anthology was how I gained a literary inheritance.
Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your experiences in the Korean War?
The war broke out in 1950 around the time when I graduated from high school. On July 7, I was drafted into the People’s Army and went all the way down to Uljin. Then when the UN and South Korean forces made a counter-attack I was captured as a prisoner of war while we were retreating. As I was being transported under the watchful eye of the Southern military police, by some miracle I met my brother-in-law, and he secured my release so that I could return home to my village. All I could think at the time was that the heavens must have intervened. But then that same year, on the ninth of December, I came down to the south again on my own. Rumors were spreading as the Chinese communist forces joined the fighting that an atomic bomb would be dropped on us, and so without a second thought I tried to get away. Everyone was rushing to the quayside in Wonsan, and I joined the scrum and managed to board an American transport ship and went down to Busan. I thought I would be able to go back home after a week or so, and now it’s already been decades.
A photograph of the writer and
a boyhood friend taken in his hometown
Q: I’ve heard that you also wrote during your time as a refugee in Busan, what was that like?
Well you see I had been writing fiction since I was in high school. As a refugee I would write whenever I could while working on the docks, in a factory, and as a security guard at an American military base. It was at that time that I wrote the short story “Odol’s Grandmother.” I sent it to Yom Sang-seop and he was very complimentary. That was a huge confidence boost and so I decided to search out the writer I most admired, Hwang Sun-Won and laid out all of my writings in front of him. He told me to pick out just one for him to read and so I showed him two. He took an interest in my work and helped me begin my career as a writer. It was by Hwang Sun-Won’s recommendation that my debut story “Far from Home” was published in the July issue of Literary Arts. I also kept a record of my life as a refugee in Busan in a diary; those experiences became the basis for many of my later works.
Q: How would you describe your debut story “Far from Home”?
“Far from Home” was first published in 1955 when I was twenty-three years old. At first the title was “In the Darkness,” then “Moonless Night” and then after changing it again and again it became “Far from Home.” “Far from Home” is about working on the docks. I included all of my experiences from when I was a dock worker. Aside from myself the main characters were Gwangseok, Duchan, and Hawon, and they were all based on real people. The most important thing in this story is at the end when I leave Hawon behind. Making the decision to abandon Hawon is really the same as leaving one’s hometown. People have told me that the story of experiencing this need to leave one’s home, even if it meant the agony of never going back, was something that deeply moved them.