Forever Wandering in Search of Home: An interview with Choi In-hun

  • onJuly 21, 2017
  • Vol.36 Summer 2017
  • byBang Min-Ho


Bang Min-Ho: Which of your works do you think most represents you as a writer? Or, is there a particular work you value most?

Choi In-hun: Let me see . . . If I had to pick just one I would have to say it was Hwadu, and if it can be more than one, then Hwadu and The Square are the two works I would like to be read by as many people as possible.

Bang: The novel Hwadu left a lasting impression on me. Why did you use the word hwadu for the title?

Choi: In the late 1980s, I wrote a piece titled “Civilized Consciousness for Becoming a Primitive,” which was published in a magazine. I was thinking then about everything I had done up until that time. Following normal common sense it should have had a title like “Recollections of a Primitive Trying to Become a Civilized Man,” but I turned this on its head. With “Civilized Consciousness for Becoming a Primitive,” I was thinking about what my roots are, as one example of a modern person. I was searching for myself, and it felt as though I had found my very own solution to self-identity by going back through the ages, past the era of the classics, and finding myself in the primitive. This became the starting point for the novel Hwadu. You could say that with this questioning I sought to depart from the perspective of a civilized man and go back to the world of origins.

Hwadu is a term from Zen Buddhism. I was attracted to this method of questioning, whereby Zen monks contemplate how to bring about public peace and stability as part of their own path to enlightenment. So I tried asking a question according to the methods of the instructors of Zen as practiced in the three countries of East Asia. This is not the way of thinking of the intellectual giants of Greek culture, who are said to be the ancestors of Western thought, nor the kind of thinking which looks to an all-powerful being who governs the universe, as began in the Hebrew tradition. I was looking for my own way of questioning and contemplation as a writer from the East. I was thinking about how to title the book on the grounds of this kind of contemplation and I suggested hwadu to my editor, who thought it was a great idea.

Bang: The main protagonist in Hwadu seems to be your own alter ego, and the story follows him as he takes a fundamental question and wanders the world with it, searching for the answer. There seems to be some similarity here with the story of Ulysses’ wanderings. Considering your own life as well, you were born in Hoeryong and grew up in Wonsan, both of which are now part of North Korea, and then during the Korean War sought refuge in the South, in the port city of Busan. The story of how you spent time living in the US writing plays in the 1970s, and then following the collapse of the Soviet Union traveled to Russia, with the question of what kind of social system is desirable, is also woven into Hwadu.

Choi: Yes. Wherever possible I try to stay aware of major writers and works in world literary history and also things like intellectual traditions. Included in my work are my thoughts on James Joyce and Franz Kafka. Recently I’ve been reevaluating the novels of André Gide. In particular one novel titled La Porte Étroite (Strait Is the Gate). When I was younger I merely thought of it as a well-written love story. But now I want to give La Porte Étroite much higher acclaim. At the end of wandering as an East Asian with a hwadu, when I read that novel again it took on a whole new significance. If someone mentions French literature, it’s easy to imagine things like love stories, sex, and Freud, but looking at this book you can see, it is not only about things like that. La Porte Étroite is the story of Alissa, a faithful Christian brought up, not in the aristocracy or the household of an intellectual, but in an ordinary French family. It is told in the form of her diary, which she wrote while living out her days in a nunnery, having conceded the man she loved with all her heart to her younger sister. It is well composed, and the main protagonist, Alissa’s philosophy for life felt—how can I put it—somehow Korean or East Asian. I want to value this kind of longing much more highly than the eros or agape that Western philosophers spoke of.

Bang: How do you consider your own literature?

Choi: That is a very difficult question. Well . . . as a writer, as an intellectual, having now lived through eighty years or so, I think the thing that has had the greatest influence on me is the spirit of nationalism. If you were to ask, “What kind of person do you want to be?” or “What kind of works do you want to write?” the writers who appeared in the modern era of Korean literature would mostly have said something like, “I want to be of useful service to our people.” You could call it love for the motherland or the mother tongue. In my youth I couldn’t understand why Korean writers, Korean poets such as Kim Tong-ni or Baek Seok were placed so highly and enjoyed such strong aesthetic influence. But when I read their works a little later on, I came to understand how they had so impressed the young new intellectuals of Korea who had received a modern education, and why they garnered such a large following. In a broad sense it was because of nationalism.

But I strive to create literature that comes from a standpoint diametrically opposed to such writers. I try to separate political nationalism and the independence of the individual as an anthropological entity. If someone asks me who the main writers in world literary thought are, the first authors I think of are Joyce and Kafka. It was these two writers who shook my very soul, and now too, as an inhabitant of this world, I feel close to them, and as someone who works with the art of prose I value their work as the best there is.

To reiterate, I have more respect for people like Kim Tong-ni and Baek Seok than I once did, but even so, even now, I am far more interested in the works of Joyce and Kafka. I don’t think that me having been so influenced by them in my youth represents some misdemeanor or going astray in any way. To this day I want to examine their work anew, and looking to the future also, I think they are closely connected to my trajectory. Within this current, I think finding myself means thinking about my position in world literary thought.

Bang: I’m curious as to how you understand the historical flow of Korean modern history, in particular Korea’s experience of colonialism and the Korean War.

Choi: I think that contemporary historical thinkers in Korea and modern Western intellectuals, for now, have all failed to form a properly convincing explanatory paradigm for Korean modern history. In order to solve the problems of the Korean nation, or else the problems of the world, I think that the issues cannot only be considered from a Western perspective, nor merely according to the default thinking patterns of Koreans, who consider themselves victims.

To put it another way, there is no paradigm for a singular explanation of history. Be it in the material world or historical world, civilization or nature, there is no such thing as a fixed self or entity. There is no fixed category of East or West. Nor is there a fixed structure that places Korea as a colony, Japan as an empire. For so long such things have been understood to be set in stone and in complete opposition, but this is not the case. Organized in such a way, it may seem as though things have been neatly grasped, but this simplification cannot remedy anything. Anyway, I have always thought of the history of Korea, if it can be considered some kind of entity, was outside of the dominion of such concepts. The reason, then, that I am so fond of Joyce and Kafka is because they never said anything to the tune of having conquered some resolved, established theory. Kafka did not speak like Aristotle, nor did he speak like a Hebrew prophet. Nor did he try to encompass the entire universe like the great sages of the East who said “everything is created by the mind.”

Bang: In that case, it seems as though the novel Hwadu is a story where a protagonist, like Sudhana from the Buddhist Sutras, roams the world asking what this world really is. Could we say then that the plot of Hwadu is the spiritual pursuit of such an adventurer? One who does not think that the answer is preexisting, and does not think that it is enough to create an answer according to some formula.

Choi: That’s exactly it. In the end there is no way to come to any conclusion. People who climb up into the Himalayas say they climb simply because the mountains are there. I still never think that I will feel some great sense of conquest by climbing.

Bang: The protagonist of The Square, Lee Myong-jun, experiences life in both the South and North and then during the Korean War boards a ship to go to a third, neutral country, but commits suicide during the sea voyage. And you said that at the end of travel, such as the voyage in Hwadu, one has to return to oneself. More recently you published a collection including your short story “Letter from the Ocean.”

Choi: If you read “Letter from the Ocean,” there is a skeleton lying in scattered fragments on the seabed. But that skeleton is already not an “I.” It once was, and perhaps you could say it is the tomb of that “I,” but, anyway, I think it is already not an “I.” In that case what is an “I”? Here the answer is the universe, the universe is “I.” In some ways this is the most . . . humble kind of science. Bone is made of things like phosphorus and iron, and on this chemical level “I” was never born and so “I” does not disappear either because “I” is one with the whole universe. In that case, if I ask what it is that I’ve achieved, what I’ve arrived at, the answer is the ocean.

Since going from Hoeryong to Wonsan and then arriving in Busan as a refugee, I have now lived through eighty years, and I haven’t become anything at all. I tried to become something, but in the end I have become nothing. So if you ask whether it’s sad—yes, it is, it’s extremely sad. But that’s how things turned out, so there isn’t much use in feeling sad about it. I don’t think this is the kind of thing about which one can say, “I am satisfied” or “I am unsatisfied.”

What I’m talking about now, I think of as hwadu also. Hwadu is something which has not been solved, and something which has not evaded being solved. It simply is as it is, hwadu. The process of me writing a novel and it conveying something to a reader is the same. You could say it’s like the story of the Flower Sermon. When Buddha was giving a sermon on the sacred mountain, he lifted a flower up to the audience and smiled, and from among the audience Mahākāśyapa lifted up a flower that was beside him and smiled too. The Buddha addressed him, “I have given you what cannot be said,” and smiled, two, three times more.

Bang: I think it must have been your fate to be a traveler. When you spoke just now about “Letter from the Ocean,” I could really feel the way that, as a writer, you consider the whole world a place to travel through, and at the same time, as your home. When you write, do you write with readers from all over the world in mind?

Choi: The word travel can feel like a kind of movement which has a sense of purpose or destination, but in fact, for me, it is nearer to the diasporic condition of constant wandering, unable to find utopia, but also unable to give up on it. There is some similarity here with the way in which, in the Old Testament era, the Israelites held captive in Babylon as prisoners of war could not forget their homeland and sought to return, but could not. Even as they failed to escape they could not give up hope.

To the question of whether I write with global readers in mind, I could answer both ways. When I needed to be, I was mindful of this aspect when writing, and when I didn’t see the need, I didn’t pay it any regard. To take regional dialects as an example, my regional dialect will sound warm and familiar to me, but to others it is no more than someone else’s accent. In such cases, I didn’t strive to explain things or receive understanding from others. However, on the occasions when I thought that my stories could really reach international readers, I tried to use that potential to the full.

Bang: Reading your works, there are many references to folktales or fairytales such as the Korean story “Kongji and Patzzi” and the Western story “The Frog Prince.” I think this is an important part of your literature, something underlying all of your work. Is there a particular reason why you bring these stories, folktales, and fables from East and West, into your literary work?

Choi: I can explain that simply and precisely. When I was in America, I came across a book of folktales and legends from the northern regions of Korea. It took hold of me completely. It was as though I’d taken a blow to the head. That’s why I worked stories from Korean legend like that of the “baby general” into the book Once upon a Long Time Ago. It felt as though I’d struck gold in the ground I’d been standing on all along.

Things like mythology, legends, and folktales are a goldmine for people who work with the mind, like writers. Consider all the artistic works inspired by Greek mythology. And it’s not only that, art itself was born in every human society out of the sum of myth and legend. Ancient arts and religious consciousness are intertwined. That’s why the further back you go the more arts and religion are in communion. If you go back to the myths, legends of origins, and folktales, that’s where you’ll find people’s most universal thinking, and these things all speak to each other. I was able to discover what East and West looked like together as one. Such things are precisely what I want to find through my literature. 


by Bang Min-Ho
Literary Critic
Professor of Korean Literature
Seoul National University