When I was a child, Korea was like an island. A society with a thick wall of taboos, oppression, secrets, irrationality. From as far back as I can remember, I was like a child trapped inside a mirror. There was another world, a real world, on the far side of the mirror’s transparent wall, and though my gaze could reach beyond that wall, and though I could imagine all that lay there, it wasn’t something I could touch with my own two hands. I think it was probably due to growing up in such an environment that the very first thing I mastered was nothing other than “dreaming,” which is another word for what I have just described. That dream was the story of another world. I realized that stories where written letters do the work of description are ultimately describing the world beyond such a mirror. And so, as soon as I’d learned the Korean script, the world of reading drew me in. This time I spent inside books was my happiest.
But I never thought of becoming a professional writer. Stories and dreams were a natural part of the very fabric of my life, so much so that it never occurred to me to tell others of these imaginary constructions. Besides, I doubted whether I had the necessary talent. So when one day, learning how to use a word processor, I typed a sentence which had just happened to pop into my head, and that first sentence was followed by a second, the second by a third, and so on, until they eventually came together as the full story of a dream with a plot, never imagining that such a thing could be classed as a “short story,” I simply put it away in a drawer, where it remained for almost a year.
That, my debut work as a writer, the very first piece I ever wrote, happened unconsciously.
And my decision to become a writer came after the lucky chance of that piece being published in a magazine.
I was like a child who ends up passing beyond the door, beyond the mirror, unprepared for this sudden happening. Up until then, the only work I’d done in the field of literature was to dream, to read, and to conjure up stories. As for things like elaborate plots, sentences that are elegant and concise, balanced structure, themes presented in such a way that the reader will easily grasp them—I was utterly ignorant. Even now, I know that these aspects of literature are not my strength as a writer.
There is a memory from my childhood that I still haven’t forgotten. I was born in Seoul, but until I started kindergarten, I was raised at the home of my maternal grandparents, in a port town in the same region. Their house had a big yard packed full of flowerbeds; there were even some plants that towered over me. Enormous red dahlias and cockscomb bloomed there, and I remember a sunflower so tall I had to crane my neck to look into its face. My grandmother loved flowers, and tended hers devotedly. To the child I was back then, the yard and the flowerbeds seemed incredibly huge, almost as though they were the entire world. The gate at the far end of the yard was almost never opened, the only exceptions being the occasional times when a wagon was wheeled in bearing fish from the wharves, or the mornings when my grandfather took me out for a stroll. My relatives considered the world beyond the gate a dangerous and frightening place, and as the only child in the household, forbidden to pass beyond it by myself, it weighed constantly on my mind.
I was in the yard one day, alone among the flowerbeds. But strangely enough, on that day the gate was standing open just a little. Perhaps the need to close it had slipped their mind, either the maid who had gone to market or my uncle who had gone to school. There was no one else in the yard, and in the house too, the eyes that would usually be watching me were absent. It was as though they were all momentarily preoccupied, and my existence had been forgotten. Unable to suppress my curiosity and excitement, I slipped out through the open gate. And when I did, I was confronted by a shocking sight.