Salvation Through the Useless

Hae Yisoo: You were first published in 1994. When you were starting out, what did you believe literature could do for you?


Seo Hajin: I was introverted and obsessive back thento the point that I couldn’t fall asleep if my shoes weren’t neatly lined up in the foyer. But all that went away when I began to write. I did hesitate for a long time wondering whether someone like me, someone with little talent or experience, was worthy of being a writer. After hitting thirty as an avid reader, I got to thinking it was now or never. So I compromised, telling myself not all writers had to be great; some were merely weird. This was a great comfort, enough to get started.


Hae: So is writing still comforting and therapeutic, a salvation as it used to be two decades ago?


Seo: No matter how good or bad the writing is or my sales, writing is still a comfort. I think in the future when everyone writes stories, the world will be a better place. People begin to have hope in themselves when they write.


Hae: You’ve published six short story collections and two novels. Which of them were particularly difficult to write?


Seo: I was pregnant when I was putting together my second collection, Everybody Loves Differently (1998). I was already raising two young children and was petrified thatif I stopped writing for too long, my writing life would be over. A lot of women writers retire after their first book. And it’s with the second book when you start believing you’re a writer. So I felt like I’d stepped up to the plate. That book, whatever its other merits, is what resulted from me rising to the occasion.



Hae: Which character do you relate to the most?


Seo: Yeonsu in the novella Should I Tell You I Love You Again. She was someone who, despite feelings of loss, would either deny her own desire or let it all pass through. She was frustrated and sad, but resilient at the same time.


Hae: Are women writers discriminated against in Korea, or do they have their own distinct advantages?


Seo: Korea has a large female readership, so women writers aren’t without advantage. And there’s something cosmic about having and raising children. The creation of life and the laws of nature, the umbilical cord and fate, these are supernatural things. Men can’t easily experience them. The disadvantages are that male writers get to take their careers more seriously while women are expected to do it on the side. Women writers can supposedly fall back to keeping house, and we’re thought to be less knowledgeable in things like philosophy or history.


Hae: As a professor as well as a writer, do the two professions help or hinder each other?


Seo: Someone said teaching was the kiss of death for writers. But preparing for classes every day and constantly reading new work has been helpful in my case. It’s also wonderful meeting new students every semester. But after making tenure there’s been pressure to publish, to get good student evaluations, and that’s more difficult. I have to have fun and so do the students, but my teaching evaluations haven’t been good. Creative classes are dynamic in nature, but evaluations tend to reward adherence to restrictive criteria.


Hae: An unmarried French author once marveled, “How do Korean writers get so much done?” How do you balance being a wife, a daughter-in-law, raising three children, teaching, and writing?


Seo: If you want to maintain your identity as a writer, you need to assert it and safeguard your environment. My kids were put to bed by nine. They heard “Aren’t you asleep yet?” more often than “Have you done your homework?” I kept emphasizing that their mother had important things to do, and helping mother meant going to bed early. Once they were asleep, I locked the door to my study. My husband locked the door to the bedroom one time. He refused to open the door when I tried to go to bed at dawn. He was mad, saying, “You don’t let me in the study, either. Go sleep there.” I just slept in front of the bedroom door. When he apologized to me later he said seeing me there made him realize I was not doing this as a hobby.


Hae: Have any of your works appeared in translation?


Seo: My collection A Good Family was translated into English, and it’s being translated into Chinese. I’ve received a query for a Spanish edition. I’ve planned out ten short stories based on Korean folktales and characters, with “The Fairy and the Woodsman” and “Hong Gildong” being published so far. Foreign readers find the similarities to their own traditional works fascinating.


Hae: If you were to choose one of your works for translation, what would it be?


Seo: I’d go ...