[Web Exclusive] Interview with Cho Hae-jin: Solidary Arising from Simple Sincerity

  • onMarch 15, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: Please tell us how the English translation of I Met Lo Kiwan came about.

Cho: I once stayed abroad for 5~6 months as part of LTI Korea’s Overseas Residency Program. My residency was coordinated by Professor Ji-eun Lee from Washington University in St. Louis. She must have researched into my writing prior to my arrival. She read my novels, and was particularly struck by I Met Lo Kiwan. As soon as we met, she brought up the idea of translating it into English. Since none of my works had been translated into a foreign language, it seemed like a good opportunity. I gladly accepted her proposal.


KLN: It’s been published in the US. How do you feel about it?

Cho: I’m happy and excited, of course. I Met Lo Kiwan deals with the unique issues of perceptions of North Korea in the South and the woes of working in the media. At the same time, it explores the global refugee crises, and fundamentally questions the limits of human compassion. I’m curious to see how overseas readers respond to those more universal messages. I hope they delve deep into the story.


KLN: Why do you often choose to write about diaspora?

Cho: We live in an age when a large number of people simply float about. Like Lo Kiwan, some people go from place to place not by their own freewill but due to social or national issues. Many choose to wander around instead of settling down in one place.

As a result, many of my novels feature people from different regions. I’m inclined to write stories where two characters in different times with no point of contact encounter each other by chance, realize what they’ve been missing in life, find some kind of warmth, and achieve solidarity. For that reason, I search for someone who exists elsewhere and in a different era. That’s why diaspora is at the heart of my writing.


Your name is That’s how Seo-young’s second email started. your home.

Your name is home to your identity or existence. People forget things too quickly here. To pay respect to the lost world, we must at least remember a single name. 

  • Excepted from Simple Sincerity


KLN: Simple Sincerity exposes the problems of international adoption and women at the US military camp base in Korea. Ultimately, what is the story about?

Cho: Simple Sincerity is literally a novel about sincerity—sincerity about life and solidarity. There are lives that will newly arrive as well as lives that will depart or remain after death. The novel’s protagonist is an adoptee named Nana. When she has a child, the baby is warmly welcomed into the world. At the same time, she mourns the death of Choo Yeon-hee, the elderly lady from her second family in Korea. These emotions bear her sincerity about life. That Nana was once abandoned by Korea evokes empathy among readers.

We’re introduced to Korean director Seo Young who invites Nana to Korea, and her friend So-yul; Choo Yeon-hee, the elderly lady running a restaurant on the ground floor of the building where Nana makes her temporary home; the women of the US military base camp that Choo accepted years before. All the characters willingly embrace those outside the realms of their own lives without neglecting or rejecting them. Solidarity lies in that effort to understand and embrace the certain deficiency that they suffer. And the novel conveys sincerity about that too. Simple Sincerity can be summed up as the story of sincerity about life and solidarity.


KLN: Last year, you participated in A Platform for Peace and Communication hosted by LTI Korea. What was it like to meet writers of Korean diaspora?

Cho: At that time, I happened to be waiting for the forthcoming publication of Simple Sincerity. Since the novel deals with international adoption, it meant a lot to me to meet the writers of Korean diaspora. The event brought together overseas Koreans from different parts of the world as well as Korean adoptees, including Maya Lee Langvad, Sun Yung Shin and Jane Jeong Trenka. Personally, I valued every word they said. As I explained in my preface, I was able to start writing Simple Sincerity thanks to Jane Jeong Trenka’s The Language of Blood.

When I met Jane Jeong Trenka for the first time, I was very nervous. I introduced myself and asked, “I’m not an adoptee but still wrote a novel about international adoption. Do you find that acceptable?” She was pleased to hear about my work and thanked me. I sent her a copy of the novel when it came out. I don’t think she speaks Korean, so she won’t be able to read it. But I just wanted to share it with her anyway.


KLN: It must be difficult to write about individuals who have fallen victim to historical violence.

Cho: Questions like “Can I write about this person? Do I have the right to?” will never be fully answered. You must abandon that kind of self-consciousness and step into the character’s shoes. Of course, you must still keep your distance as an author. Writing a novel is not about losing yourself in the character and continually complaining of hardships. Therefore, you must create an emotional distance, while at the same time retaining a sort of narrative distance that will allow you to immerse yourself in the character as much as possible.


KLN: Please tell us about your plans for 2020.

Cho: Following up on Guard of Light, which was published in 2017, I plan to publish my fourth short story collection this year. In addition, I have a long-term project that I’ve not yet put into action due to scheduling conflicts. I’m very fond of Italian writer Primo Levi. His writing made me explore and produce testimonial literature. I’ve never met him since he died long before I became a writer. But I consider him one of the greatest teachers in my life. He transformed my value system. I plan to write about him in the future.



English subtitles translated by Helen Cho


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.