[Web Exclusive] On the flaws of the system: Interview with Chang Kang-myoung

  • onDecember 31, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: Tell us about a typical day for you.

Chang Kang-myoung: Nothing special, I’m afraid. I’m quite boring. If I have an interview like today, I’ll go out, otherwise I might stay home all day. On those days I get up early—I set my alarm for 6:27, and when it goes off I’ll let it ring for a couple of minutes and get up at 6:30. My laptop is on the kitchen table, and I’ll start writing right away. I’ll start working on what I was doing the previous day, and keep going, and then break for lunch, nap, write some more, dinner, write some more, go to bed. That’s a working day for me.


KLN: It must have been a hard decision to quit your job as a journalist and become a full-time writer.

Chang: You know, I actually didn’t plan to. I know how hard it is to be a full-time writer and I planned to keep my day job. I wasn’t prepared to deal with the loss of income and I wasn’t exactly an established writer or anything. My plan was to keep my day job and publish a novel every two or three years, and if I suddenly became a bestselling writer I would quit my job, or I would keep working if they didn’t do so well.

But I had a bad day at work and just switched off my phone and went home and sent in my resignation by email that night. It was very irresponsible… It’s funny when I think about it now. I’m not that brave a person, so what got into me that day? It takes a lot of courage to be a full-time writer in Korea. Or any country, for that matter. It’s not a decision you make lightly once you’re past a certain age and when you already have a career. The usual me would never have done it. But the funny thing is, everything worked out for me. I got lucky, but I also think that focusing exclusively on writing helped to push me to a certain level.


KLN: How did you get the idea for your first novel, Bleached?  

Chang: That’s another thing that wasn’t really planned. The story I first wanted to write was about a young reporter in Korea but I simply wasn’t good enough to write that story. I completed it but I saw how bad it was. That was a huge disappointment. For me the best way of dealing with disappointment was to write some more. So I wrote another story, and that was Bleached.

The theme of Bleached was something I’d been thinking about since my mid-twenties. There was this kind of doomsday feeling about the late 90s, the Eastern Bloc was breaking up, and there was this book called The End of History, which I read again and again. I was obsessed with it. I thought that maybe Korea had reached that aimless point after hitting the marks of industrialization and democratization.


KLN: How do you feel about Bleached being translated into French?

Chang: If you look at the ideology upholding our society today, whether it’s capitalism or democracy, you’re looking at over two centuries of scholarship and world-building so trying to stand up against that as an individual feels pointless. There are small adjustments made according to the demands of the people, new rules, new laws, things like that, but that’s more of a fine adjustment and you get the feeling the system itself could never be overturned. I think that’s a feeling that young people everywhere can relate to, not just in Korea, but in Europe, in the US, I see a lot of content and writing related to that.

It seems like a common phenomenon in the developed world in the post-2010s, in countries resting on some modicum of political and economic success. On the other hand there are lots of Korea-specific details in Bleached, such as the strict hierarchy based on elite schools, or how companies recruit their workforce…There are some minor details that I wonder whether foreign readers will get, but for the most part I’m more excited than worried.   


KLN: What kind of reaction do you expect to the upcoming Chinese translation of Because I Hate Korea?  

Chang: Again, I’m excited and worried at the same time. Looking at the youth in Korea, China, Japan, Northeast Asia, I don’t think the situation is so different. Here we like to mock Korea as ‘Hell Joseon’ but I’ve heard that the Japanese and the Chinese have their own names for putting down their countries as well. Taiwan, too. This is something I talked about in Bleached as well. Young people, especially those from East Asian countries, have a lot in common when it comes to the injustice and mistreatment a lot of them experience due to the patriarchal, Confucianist model of those societies. On the other hand, the message of Because I Hate Korea is hardly, let’s leave the country and everything will be fine. Rather, it’s about how the protagonist Kyena accepts that she has to change in order to move forward. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched for a Chinese audience to understand, so I’m quite looking forward to it. 


KLN: Your work has immediately captivated critics and readers alike. What do you think has factored in that?  

Chang: I’ve thought about why I right the way I write, and why something might get attention, and I don’t think it’s because my writing is so unique. This may sound a bit farfetched, but I think Korean literature is undergoing something of a generational change. I’m putting this very broadly here, but I think that readers are discovering a new group of writers. Back when Korea was under military dictatorship literature was at the vanguard of resistance, of democracy and social reform. We had what we now call resistance literature. That was a big part of Korean literature up to the 1980s, until we became a democratic society.  

Since then we’ve had introspective novels that are deeply personal but from the 2010s onwards I feel like Korean readers and young readers in particular are ready to read about society again. There are so many things about Korean society today that you look at and think, that’s not right. Starting with gender inequality, or the economy how come anybody starting a new business fails, how come there are no jobs, what’s the story there? And nobody knows the answer. You wish that somebody would write about that, to read about the pain you’re going through from a slightly different angle, maybe read about what other people are going through, too. There are a lot of writers working that angle now, not just me.


KLN: You wrote the reportage Win, Pass, Climb, searching for an alternative to the extremely narrow path open to people who want to become writers in Korea, i.e. by winning literary competitions. Have you found it?

Chang: I’m not saying we should completely abolish the way people are recruited by open call in Korea, whether in the corporate or literary world. That system was created to meet a particular need in Korean society which many people happen to agree upon. I would even argue that the number of people depending on open calls/competitions is so great that abolishing them would actually cause more problems. My alternative is not to abolish the system but to complement it, that is to say that whether it comes to the workforce or writers that shouldn’t be the only way that people are recruited. The current system does have the merits of fairness and stability, so while it is useful to select new writers this way there should be other ways for new writers to break through. There should be a way for people to become writers not because they were selected by a committee but in a more organic way, because they wrote things people liked to read, because they had the support of a community of readers. They should be elected by the power of the readers, if anything, not the critics, the established writers, the people who usually judge literary competitions. If we could have some sort of database or network of readers that supported word of mouth, and if the government would support that platform, we could have new writers coming up that way.


KLN: What do you have in the pipeline?

Chang: I’m working on a crime novel right now. I want to write it in a very realistic style, I’ve been doing research with the police department to that end. It’s about chasing a serial killer, which I hope will be an entertaining story in itself. It occurred to me that I’ve always written about the larger system of society. Because I Hate Korea and Bleached were both about individuals rebelling against the system. People live in this society where their choices are limited by that system. I’m one of those people and I’m not one to deny or try to shake off that system completely. So with this novel I’m taking a look at those problems from a different angle. I want to experiment writing in different genres to kind of flex my writing muscles that way. I’m building up my biceps and my quads and what have you, building up my writer’s toolkit so I have whatever I need to write whatever I want, to take my writing to the next level.