Interview with Cho Hae-jin: Writing Empathy

  • onMay 16, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byJi-Eun Lee

Photographs Copyright ⓒ Melmel Chung

First off, congratulations on the 2019 Daesan Literary Award. Please introduce us to the winning novel. 

Simple Sincerity is a novel about having a genuine belief in the value of life and camaraderie. The story follows Nana, a Korean adoptee, who also goes by Esther Park and Munju, as she visits Korea on the invitation of Seoyeong, an indie filmmaker. Nana is pregnant, and her search for her origins, explored in the film, intertwines with her contemplation of the new life growing inside her, and also of her parting with Yeonhee, an old woman she encounters in Seoul. In welcoming a new life and mourning another, Nana and everyone she meets willingly reach out and bond with one another.

From November when the award was announced until about the end of last year, I was very happy. But I’ve now come to see it as part of my larger literary journey. Awards offer great encouragement for authors, of course, but they’re not my goal. Having passed through and noted that point in my life, I now think only about my next writing projects.



How do you write? Where do you get your inspiration from? Do you write every day? 

Often it begins with a scene. It could be something I witnessed, or imagined from a film or a book. Then I build a story with characters and events related to that scene. “An Escort of Lights” started with an image of a girl falling asleep by herself in an empty room watching a snow globe. It tells of a bond that transcends time and space (Nazi Germany, South Korea in the 1980s, twentieth-century US), but it started with that simple image.

I wrote almost every day throughout my thirties. That worked very well at the time, but at some point I also went through a serious phase of writer’s block. I now try to take breaks during my writing process, and I don’t write every day.


Among your numerous works, is there one you treasure most?

This is maybe an expected answer, but I treasure everything I wrote. I think most writers feel the same. If forced to pick one, it would have to be I Met Loh Kiwan (2011). It has special meaning to me as a work that provided me with a platform to grow. By writing it, matters I knew only vaguely and did not attempt to investigate further—like an image hidden in a folded page of a book—became part of my world, an area that I needed to learn more about and that I had to try to represent in my writing. I owe it to meeting Loh Kiwan, my hero in the novel, that my writing now attends fully and consciously to the struggles, sorrows, and losses of others. I also love my short story collection See You on Thursday (2014). Maybe because it came out between the first short story collection and the most recent one, it didn’t attract much attention. But the nine stories in it were written at a time when I was thinking most intensively about fiction writing. On a more personal note, the collection was put together during my time at Washington University in St. Louis where you work. It thus reminds me of my time in the East Asian Library there.


The European refugee crisis arose after I Met Loh Kiwan was published, which makes the work seem almost prophetic. Were there particular incidents or encounters that propelled you to write this novel?

You’re right that the refugee had yet to become a global issue when this book was published. It was an even more alien concept in South Korea at the time: I didn’t even know a proper definition for the term “refugee,” or the legal process involved in granting refugee status. Only while writing this novel did I learn that an international treaty on refugee status existed. In other words, I had no agenda to call attention to a refugee crisis. One of my personal experiences in the book, however, is Kim leaving for Belgium out of the blue to follow Loh’s tracks. While looking for travel information, I came across an article describing the lives of North Korean defectors without any legal status wandering the streets of Brussels like ghosts. I wanted to know more about why and how these North Koreans ended up in Europe in their quest for refugee status, and like Kim in the novel, I emailed the reporter who wrote the article. As soon as I received a reply, I headed to Brussels as Kim did. Curiosity about how a person survives without anything that proves his legal status, or even his existence on earth, was the starting point of this novel. The other inspiration for the novel came from my university days in the 1990s when reports on the North Korean famine were delivered not through conventional news media in South Korea, but through posters on campus bulletin boards. I think reading those postings in passing planted the seed for my curiosity about North Korean defectors, which then flourished when I encountered that article.


In major works from the US and mainstream media, North Korea is deployed to criticize the regime and ideology—directly or indirectly. The place tends to inspire and feed a dystopian imagination. Loh Kiwan is remarkable in that it focuses not on North Korea but on a person born and raised there, and who then left. What accounts for your specific perspectives and motivation for adopting North Korea-related themes and figures in your work?

When I read the article on North Korean defectors in the streets of Brussels, their existence of non-existence, I was drawn to the person interviewed not because he was a North Korean, but because I perceived him to be a complete stranger to anyone in this world. In no sense was I interested in using a North Korean person as a foil for exposing North Korea, and besides, I didn’t know much about the relevant political and ideological sides. I wanted to write Loh as a person in his own right. I researched books and academic articles on the so-called “arduous march”—the North Korean famine of the 1990s—and learned that their struggle was created by both North Korea’s domestic and international circumstances, and these notions inform the novel as well.


Kim, the TV show writer who follows Loh’s tracks in Brussels, and Pak, the doctor who helped Loh and Kim on their journeys, are crucial in bringing the novel’s central question to the fore: what is compassion, and what does true compassion look like? I was impressed by your bravery in deciding to tackle such fundamental philosophical questions. The most difficult moments during my translation process concerned how to handle Kim’s unrelenting guilt. I’d like to hear more about Pak and Kim from you. And does true compassion exist?

The notion of true compassion seems to suggest a kind of pure ideal, as in Plato. Real-life emotions, in relating to the concrete messiness of actual, complicated people, cannot be so perfect, and everyone would have different standards for what passes as compassion. But the efficacy of ideals is not in their concrete existence, but in that we can and do strive for them. By seeing something of myself in you, I thus recognize your pain and, as a conscientious, humane person, I take some responsibility for it. Living a compassionate life means striving to be conscientious in daily life. For her part, Kim turns her guilt from personal experience outward, and in doing so—by literally assuming Loh’s footsteps as her own and sensing the world as he did—finds deep resonance with this total stranger. Pak doubts himself, wonders whether his act of compassion—helping his wife die with dignity—was the best he could do. Both Kim and Pak, each in their own way, transcend superficial meanings of pity or mercy as relatively simple moments or acts, and evoke a deeper, richer sense of what compassion and empathy can mean for life. I wanted the world to think of these through Kim and Pak.


The formal and aesthetic aspects of your work have changed over the years and I find that the short stories included in An Escort of Lights (2017) show greater interest in “telling” stories rather than experimenting with style and plot. How do you perceive changes and continuities in your own writing?

What has been consistent is my focus on socially neglected groups of people. From my very first short story collection, City of Angels (2008), I wrote characters who are like shadows, invisible unless one pays close attention. If my early works featured persons with a tendency to be closed in and easily disillusioned, at some point I found myself preferring to stress mutual understanding, camaraderie, and warm bonds between people. The situations of both groups of characters—earlier and later—are similar, but their attitudes and my perspective on them are different.

More recently, I’ve nurtured a desire to write novels as testimony and have a strong interest in history. Some of the stories in An Escort of Lights feature characters whose lives were ruined because they were wrongly incriminated as spies under South Korea’s dictatorial regime. One of my fervent beliefs is that “an individual surpasses the world,” and this is why I’ve long focused on characters who lived through the time rather than on the socio-historical era itself when I work with historical material. My present commitment is to bring these sensibilities to bear in squarely confronting history and the world we live in. I want my sentences to expose the most acute problems of the world and lay bare wrongdoings that ended up destroying individuals.


Was there a reason for this change? And how much of this change was a conscious effort?

For a long time, I resisted literature—especially novels—that carried politically “correct” messages. Perhaps that’s why, in writing on disenfranchised people, I would drive characters to pursue outcomes or breakthroughs that were rarely possible. I didn’t want my stories to flow toward expected “right” endings. That doesn’t mean that my early works were wrong; I stand by what I did. My works have simply changed. As I said before, I’m now searching for mutual understanding, warmth and bonds between people. As I wrote in “The Happiness of Those Who Walk” (2016), “futility that results from an attempt to proceed, but which fails because of a barrier, differs from an anchored futility that does not allow even trying.” I therefore believe “One has to find the meaning of one’s existence within everyday routines and the oscillation of emotions.” I didn’t strive for this change: as I aged and continued to read and write, it came to me naturally. Compared to before, I’m devoting more serious effort now to engaging myself in this world and educating myself in history.



Your works often feature faraway places, places that evoke difference and foreignness. Loh Kiwan is set in Brussels. Simple Sincerity is set in camptowns near American military bases in South Korea. Many of your short stories also feature difference or alienation—a Korean adoptee, a North Korean refugee, a Zainichi (Korean-Japanese), or a Chinese foreign exchange student. You and I met in St. Louis, during your residency program at Washington University, and you also lived in Poland. Encounters with difference thus permeate both your stories and your lived experience. Can you comment on the significance of encounters with difference in your works?

It’s true that many of my stories are either set outside Korea or feature people from different ethnic and national backgrounds, but this is true of many authors, including a majority of younger ones. Perhaps this is because a nomadic life style is much more common now than a settled one. Another contributing factor is something that has become more obvious since I wrote Loh Kiwan: I’m interested in plots where two people from two different worlds prepare to meet and encounter each other, and where each person comes away changed. This is why one often finds “double plots” in my works.

In my private life, I often think of the studio apartment where I lived in St Louis, and the road that connected the apartment to Washington University. Sometimes they appear in my dreams. The road from point A to point B is somehow much more clear than either place. My works, especially novels, can be read as “road movies.” Perhaps that’s because I love streets and roads.


I remember during your stay in the US, you wanted to visit places like a desert or the Rust Belt, not typical tourist sites but bleak and deserted places. You said you’re interested in roads that connect one place to another, and I now understand that these places—Belgium, Poland, St. Louis—became meaningful as transits to the next place in your journey. Do you have some memories you’d like to share with readers?

I love streets and roads, but ironically, I also often get lost in them. I’ve gotten on wrong buses, missed flights, and once lost a train ticket that couldn’t be reissued. When these things happened, I despaired at the time, thinking “I’m ruined!” But each time, a kind person miraculously appeared and offered unexpected help. Moments like these, even though they plunged me into despair, became special memories. When I worked as a Korean language instructor in Poland for a year, I travelled to neighboring countries—Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Germany—for short trips during breaks, and those moments of crossing borders by bus or train also come often to my mind.


I haven’t heard much about your upbringing or childhood, and I’m curious where “here”—a place near your heart—is for you, what that place means to you, and where is it for you now.

My here and now would be where I read and write. On a map, it is somewhere in the west corner of Seoul, but that’s not significant.

I have a plan to spend a couple of months, maybe longer, in Torino, Italy, sometime this year. Torino was Primo Levi’s hometown, and it’s where he returned to and spent the rest of his life after leaving the Nazi concentration camp. I will write on Levi while I stay there, and I also hope to plan out new stories.


I noticed you quoted Levi in your essay presented at the 2019 Göteborg Book Fair. How did your interest in Levi start?

I started reading Levi’s writings after visiting Auschwitz during my time in Poland. Having visited there, I was very much absorbed in his works. Because of his testimonial writings, people like myself who did not live through his time could learn and think about the world he lived in. I also realized while reading his books that literature could function as testimony. Digits and numbers in dates are not witnesses, but a person is, and the task of bringing the faces of those people back as a testimony of that time falls to literature. Primo Levi influenced me profoundly, and I respect and love him as a writer.


You’re an avid reader. Besides Levi, tell us about other authors you love and who influenced your writing.

I do try to keep up with contemporary Korean works, especially novels. I can’t read all of them, but I try to read the latest works by authors I like and also works that touch on themes I’m interested in. Translations of foreign works take time to appear, so I can’t get to them right away. But I always keep my eyes out for new translations of Herta Müller, J. M. Coetzee, Svetlana Alexievich, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Nicole Krauss. These authors write historic events that happened in their lifetimes as well as histories of the communities they belong to.


I imagine your path to becoming an author without formal training in creative writing or Korean Literature would be somewhat different from other writers. How did you become a writer?

From my teens, I loved reading things other people wrote, especially fiction. Love of reading led to a desire to write. But as much as I loved reading and writing, I was worried whether I could write well. I gained a bit of confidence when my short story won the university literary award during my undergraduate days. I started to write in earnest after graduation. I had to make a living floating from one temporary job to the next, and I couldn’t have endured that if I didn’t write. That made it clear to me: “I’m a person who lives and writes (and must write to live).” I wrote almost every day during that time.



When did you realize you’d finally become a writer?

I came to that realization when I first received literary journals that featured my stories. I remember vividly when the journal carrying my debut work, and a subsequent one carrying my second piece of fiction, arrived in the mail. A chill ran down my spine as soon as I recognized the address on the envelope. I had to spend a long time passing my hands over the cover before I could even open to the page, then my heart swelled as I began to read sentence by sentence. Moments in life when you actually shiver with joy are rare enough to remember them.

Another moment when I felt I’d arrived as a writer came after several publications, when a reader told me my book had inspired him to write. Of course it also helps when I see royalty payments in my bank account. [laughs]


You also teach creative writing, and I assume you get this question often. What is most required of someone who aspires to be a writer?

Fiction involves telling about someone other than yourself. A part of the author may dissolve into it, but in the end, it becomes the life of a stranger. A fiction writer needs to know the situation and circumstances of a laid-off factory worker even if she herself has never experienced that. She must understand the pains from the trauma of war her character carries despite never having experienced war. A writer must study much about the world and must always strive to learn more. She should be able to become a conduit for someone else, and this is only possible through empathy.


With The Vegetarian winning the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, Korean literature has been gaining more attention in the US. Do you feel a difference in the international publication market generated by these changes?

I find it very encouraging that Korean literature is promoted overseas. I feel that within Korea, too, Korean novels have become better appreciated since Han Kang won the Man Booker Prize. There was a preconceived notion that Korean novels are stale and difficult to understand, and only a handful of star writers’ works sold well. After Han’s award, the number of readers who search for the works of lesser-known authors increased greatly. I was told that Korean novels are treated differently than before in the international publication market. Korean works such as Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo (2016) and The Plotters by Kim Un-su (2010) have become bestsellers outside Korea. I think of these as little miracles that motivate me and give me more hope in my own writing.


May I ask what you’re working on now or want to write in the future?

First of all, I’d like to do a good job putting together my fourth collection of short stories. I’m not writing anything new—I’m collecting and cleaning up several published works from the last three years, and I hope the verdict will at least be “it’s better than her previous work.” I haven’t thought of a new novel, but I hope I may start one this year. As I said, I’m preparing a collection of travel essays about Primo Levi.


Recent works by you and others strike me as battling the trauma of the 2014 Sewol ferry sinking and other socio-political problems facing South Korea. The sense of communal mourning in these works seems to seek a new balance. If so, travel essays sound like an appropriate, perhaps cathartic, genre following what Korea has gone through. What differences do you expect to find in essay writing compared to writing a novel?

Yes, there have been indelible tragic incidents, and also the “Candlelight Revolution” that brought about a regime change. My new collected stories will show the lives of people who have passed through these historic moments. I’m still in the planning stage with travel essays and haven’t taken any concrete steps yet. It will be different from novels for sure. The person taking the journey will be myself, not a fictional character, and instead of a string of events connected by clear cause and effect, the essay collection will revolve around the life of Primo Levi and the books he left us.



May I ask your plans and wishes for 2020 and beyond?

I debuted at around thirty and in the fifteen years since have published eight books. I never imagined I would be able to publish so many works when I started. Taking heart from that progress, I’m cautiously optimistic about the next ten, twenty, or more years. My hope—my wish, not a plan—is to encounter and grapple with things I cannot even imagine at present.

Another wish I have is to write a reportage or a series of testimonies, rather than fiction, on people who exist in the blind spots of human rights, or on the people who help them. I have too much fiction on my mind at the moment to try this new genre of writing, but it is something I hope to explore in several years’ time.

Interviewer & Translator Ji-Eun Lee

Ji-Eun Lee is an associate professor of Korean language and literature at Washington University in St. Louis, USA. Her translations include Cho Hae-jin’s I Met Loh Kiwan (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2019). 


Cho Hae-jin (b. 1976) debuted in 2004 when she won Munye Joongang’s New Writer’s Award. She is the author of five novels, In an Infinitely Splendid Dream (2009), I Met Loh Kiwan (2011), A Forest No One Has Seen (2013), Passing Summer (2015), and Simple Sincerity (2019), along with three short story collections, City of Angels (2008), See You on Thursday (2014), and An Escort of Lights (2017). She has received the Shin Dong-yup Prize for Literature, Mu-young Literary Award, Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award, and Daesan Literary Award. Her works in translation include I Met Loh Kiwan in English (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2019) and in Russian (Hyperion, 2016). Cho’s writing explores the lives of people pushed to the margins of society and the connections that weave people together across distances.