Poet Whon Jaeheoun interviewed novelist Jo Kyung-ran, whose novel Tongue has been translated and published in eight countries, broadening her international readership.
One day in October 2009, I found myself talking to Jo Kyungran’s mother on the phone. Her mother told me that her daughter would return from her writing studio around one p.m. and cheerfully asked me to call back then. I pictured her the way she looked at last year’s Dong-in Literary Award ceremony. Jo writes in her studio all night long and returns home at one in the afternoon. Several days later, I bumped into her in a small bakery near Hongik University. I was happy to see her. I debated what to ask her, and in the end, I asked her which questions she hates hearing.
One question Jo hates to receive is, “What has your life been like as a female writer?” The question itself is too abstract, making it difficult to answer, but what particularly troubles her is the term “female writer.” That is because it is not simply a term used to distinguish between male and female writers but reveals the sexism behind the implication that there is something especially commendable about a woman trying to write.
During the Joseon dynasty in Korea, women were forbidden from writing. Women did not need to learn how to write, and even if they did, they had no use for it. Nevertheless, there were “female writers” during the Joseon dynasty, such as Heo Nanseolheon, Yi Okbong, and Hwang Jini. The fruits of literature were off-limits for women; therefore, it was fitting to call them “female writers.” However, just as we would never say “male writer,” it is no longer appropriate to say “female writer.”
Writers simply happen to be male or female by virtue of birth. Likewise, Jo was born female but writes as a “person.” She spoke to me on the subject of her gender. “I met a geomancer once who asked me, ‘Do you think of yourself as a woman?’ I said no. When I am writing, I never think of myself as a woman.”
Nevertheless, the reason interviewers sometimes go on and on about Jo Kyung-ran as a woman writer may not be due to some particular ill will, but rather because she does come off as feminine. Like the essayist Charles Lamb, I also believe that men like womanly people, and women too, even more, like womanly women. Perhaps that is why I wanted to meet Jo Kyung-ran, who is an especially feminine woman. I met Jo Kyung-ran under more formal circumstances after reading her novel Tongue. It was already the subject of conversation in the literary world, and this much-loved work is now expanding the realm of Korean literature as it has been translated and published in eight countries. I particularly enjoyed this work for its fresh impact on Korean literature.
Ever since the publication of her debut novel Time for Baking Bread, Jo had been planning to write Tongue, which is also based on the theme of food. But instead of beginning right away, she carried the idea with her for a while, crafting the plot line and writing a sentence only to stop again. The reason she had kept picking up and abandoning the idea was because there were a lot of movies out at the time that dealt with food. As a creative writer, she did not want to be accused of copying any trends.
Jo’s attitude towards her work is one of caution and meticulousness. That is why it took her 10 years to complete her novel. Meanwhile, she published the short story collections The French Optician, My Purple Sofa, and Story of Gukja, and the essay collection Jo Kyung-ran’s Crocodile Story. After Tongue, she published another short story collection, I Bought a Balloon, which won the prestigious Dong-in Literary Award. I Bought a Balloon not only gifted her with a major literary award but also helped to pull her out of one of her intermittent periods of writer’s block. After publishing The Story of Gukja, a period of gloom had descended upon her like an unexpected guest.