Interview with Choi Jin-young: Treating Precious Things Preciously
- onMarch 25, 2021
- Vol.51 Spring 2021
When I first read To the Warm Horizon in summer 2017, I had no idea my English translation of it would be published in spring 2021, past the one-year mark of the COVID-19 outbreak. You predicted a virus spreading throughout the world—were you surprised? It must feel very different to discuss your novel now.
I was frightened that a situation similar to what I’d written in my novel happened in real life. I’m still very frightened. I wrote Horizon against the backdrop of a disaster caused by a virus, but I had only imagined it. I never thought something I’d imagined would become reality. At the time, I hadn’t experienced a global pandemic like COVID-19. That’s probably why I was able to imagine such a thing. The book would be harder to write now because the real experience would curb my imagination. I had thought that an infectious disease would discriminate less on the basis of race and nation than war or natural disaster.
I hope this pandemic won’t escalate like it does in my novel. I hope we can navigate this situation well. I wish for us to treat our precious lives preciously. I wish for us not to lose loved ones.
There’s another big difference. While we’re each in our own homes, the characters leave their homes, neighborhoods, country. I read that you used Google Earth while composing the novel. Could you tell us more about that process?
That’s right. In the novel, borders crumble, when in reality, there are national lockdowns and travel restrictions. Through COVID-19, I realized just how important each nation’s role is in the face of a global disaster.
While writing Horizon, I had a world map on my wall and often marvelled at the enormous size of Russia. I wanted my characters to leave Korea and speed across a very vast land . . . but I’ve never been to Russia myself. I didn’t have the time or money to go there for research. So I turned to Google Earth. Exploring Russia through satellite images, I imagined the characters’ routes and lives there. Perhaps I was able to imagine more freely while traveling via Google Earth.
The novel doesn’t indicate which city each of the characters lived in prior to the disaster, but Dori and Joy start their escape from Incheon Port. Is that why the novelist Kim Sehee interviewed you there?
It’s a little embarrassing, but that was my first time at Incheon Port. My publishers wanted me to do the interview in a place that was meaningful for me while writing Horizon. But as I revealed just now, I sat in my room, turned on Google Earth, and wrote facing my wall. It was my publishers who thought of Incheon Port. On the day of the interview, the air was thick with fine dust. I remember we talked about the view looking very apocalyptic.
In my first reading of Horizon, the crowd at Incheon Port overlapped with the refugees caused by the Korean War. It was striking to me that even in a sci-fi novel set in the near future, the Korean Peninsula is still divided and South Koreans have to reach Russia through China.
I intentionally did not mention reunification in the novel. I assumed they could reach Russia via North Korea or China. The novel doesn’t elaborate on how Jina’s family reached Russia in their box trucks or how Ryu’s family begins to evacuate from Vladivostok. I think they could have passed through North Korea. Whether Korea is reunified or not, I wanted to leave it to the reader’s imagination.
Reunification is an extremely difficult yet dear task for Koreans. Instead of “reunification” I want to say “peace.” Reunification seems like a narrower concept. After peace, reunification will be possible as well. Whether the Koreas become one country or not, I wish for the hostility to cease as soon as possible. I wish for the end of the armistice. I wish for the people of South and North Korea to freely travel throughout the Korean Peninsula and connect.
You’ve said Horizon started with your desire “to write an entire novel centered around a lesbian couple.” Did you come up with the characters Dori and Jina first? How did the post-apocalyptic setting come in?
Indeed, I wrote Horizon for the love between Dori and Jina. I plotted the apocalypse to show their love more clearly. I could have depicted an ordinary lesbian couple, but to write about the daily lives and love of a Korean lesbian couple, I couldn’t not include the prejudice, hatred, denial, and ignorance around homosexuality . . .
I felt trapped. If it were set in reality, everyone in the novel except Dori and Jina would lead peaceful lives, while the lesbian couple would suffer. I didn’t want to write that kind of novel. So I decided to throw the whole world in a difficult situation, amid a disaster where survival is the only goal. I wanted to show how Dori and Jina’s love shines in such a situation.
I really love the novel’s title and wanted to recreate it well in English. A literal translation would be “To the Place Where the Sun Sets,” but that’s too long and stiff; “To the Sunset” gives off somewhat of a cowboy movie vibe. To preserve the novel’s unique warmth, I decided on To the Warm Horizon. On a surface level, it means to go toward summer, to that warm horizon, because this winter in Russia is too cold—but I also wanted to evoke queer theorist Jose Esteban Muñoz in his assertion that there will always be another horizon, a there and then that looks better than the here and now. That “we can feel [queerness] as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” Our correspondence in the early stages of translating encouraged me greatly.
You told me recently that there’s a Russian translator working on this novel. I’m very curious as to how they will translate the title!
Thank you so much for coming up with a great English title. I think To the Warm Horizon is a beautifully poetic title.
I’m also very curious about how they translated the title into Russian. I wonder how Russian readers will respond to my novel set in Russia; I hope they don’t feel that their country is misrepresented. I did exchange some messages with the Russian translator, but I didn’t ask any questions. Not about the title either. I don’t want the translator to feel pressured by my questions. I believe in the aesthetic sense and interpretation of translators.
As soon as I saw the title of your novel Ijeya eonni-ege published last year, I thought it would be extremely difficult to translate, and I still don’t know how to translate it. But I have to translate this interview, so I truly brought this upon myself. [laughs] You explained the protagonist’s name Yi Jeya as not only as a pun on the Korean adverb ijeya meaning “finally” or “at last,” but also as her parents’ intention to name her after the noun jeya meaning “New Year’s Eve,” which is also her birthday. She also shares a syllable with her sister Jenny, and there’s even an “Unni” in the title . . . Do you tend to come up with names first? How do you decide?
I sketch the character first, then decide on their name. I don’t spend much time deliberating. I choose the name that comes to mind intuitively. The longer I write with that name, the more the name and character coal esce.
As someone who doesn’t know anything about translation, I might suggest writing the name Jeya in English and including a footnote? It might be nice for non-Korean readers to call Jeya as Jeya. I think the characters in the translated books I read use their original names as well . . . But translation is much more complicated than this, I’m sure.
Yes, character names are very rarely changed. But I did change the name of a character I really adore in Horizon. As you know, the Korean name Miso (meaning “smile”) is symbolic in a post-apocalyptic novel with characters who have “left our jokes and laughter behind in our hometown.” Since a simple transliteration would lose its meaning and remind most readers of Japanese miso soup, I boldly changed her name to Joy. In this way, your double meanings are renewed: “As Dad died, he asked me to look after Joy,” “I hid Joy behind my back and took out my jackknife,” “I felt like I’d grow farther from Joy whichever way I went.” The sorrow and charm of translation is that I had to change the name because it’s so apt.
I also like Joy very much. I hesitated a lot as I wrote the ending. Joy is Deaf. In Korean, miso means “to grin without a sound.” A smile you can’t hear but only see. I sympathize with your concerns and appreciate them. I think Joy is an excellent choice. Translation seems like a very difficult task, but the rewards must be just as great.
Speaking of Joy, you seem to value adolescent perspectives. Young characters who like burgers and undergo difficult situations often appear in your novels.
I lived half of my life as a child and a teenager. Whenever I see an adult disrespecting a child, I think, Don’t they remember they were once a child? If one must understand another to create a harmonious world, I think adults should understand children. Because we were all children once. With many curiosities and things we couldn’t understand. Who learned by making mistakes, who needed adult protection. But I find many adults in this world who don’t respect children and treat them only as immature beings. It enrages me to see adults treating children in coercive and violent ways.
To the Warm Horizon was adapted for the stage in 2020! I was touched just by seeing the teaser photos of Jina and Dori wearing puffer jackets in a field. Did you get a chance to see the play?
Yes. The theater students at Dankook University staged it as their graduation project last winter and invited me. Even then, the audience wore masks because of COVID. It was a very beautiful, elegant, heartwarming play. And I got to meet Dori, Jina, Joy, and Ryu who had existed only in my head.
The stage director won a theater grant for their adaptation, and a few days ago, I found the crowdfunding page for another run this year. I donated with great pleasure. A movie would be great as well . . .
I wish for Dori and Jina to reach many more people through various ways.
You’ve said, “Once a book is published, it’s no longer mine. It starts a new life as readers pick it up.” I read this as an invitation for fan works, whether it be interpretations or adaptations.
I think the more diverse the interpretations and points of appreciation, the greater the novel’s potential and possibilities become. I enjoy empathizing with readers in that way, as well as finding differences between our experiences. Those who read Horizon can collect their own impressions and memories, after which it’s no longer my book. I’d like for more people to be inspired to write as they read.
You’ve also mentioned a possible sequel to Horizon! But you said, “I’ll try when I run out of material someday”—doesn’t that mean we’ll have to wait for a very long time?
For now at least, I think writing a completely new story is more meaningful to me than writing a sequel. Plus, new stories feel freer and more fun. But I do sometimes imagine sequels, prequels, spin-offs, etc. to the novels I’ve written, and feel motivated. Thinking about characters I miss, I feel even more motivated. So my answer as to a Horizon sequel . . . I’ll leave as an open ending. [laughs]
You’ve been so prolific that it’s difficult to list all the titles, but you describe yourself as “subtly hard-working.” I wouldn’t say you’re subtle—your work ethic is totally obvious! [laughs] Which must be why last year, fifteen years into your career, you won the Manhae Literature Award for the aforementioned novel Dear Yi Jeya (this translation will do for now) and the Baek Shin-ae Literature Award for your short story collection Winter Break.
You said in another interview, “My life is a life where I can think about novels all day.” How do you look after your health? I read that you live according to a very regular routine.
Every day, I feel gratitude for being able to write like this. On days I have to run an errand in Seoul or do something other than writing, I get a little anxious. I feel like I should get through the day and return to writing.
My days are simple when I write. I clean the house and do laundry in the morning and write from noon to 5 or 6 p.m. In the evening, I take a walk for an hour to two, then come home to drink beer and fall asleep. This routine grounds me. If I have a dream, it’s to continue to live like this. I don’t do anything special for my health. Walks are my only form of exercise. But I’m starting to feel the need for something else. My lower back, neck, and shoulders hurt . . . Would yoga help?
From translating your novel actually, I learned how physically taxing novels are. Since then I’ve been trying to take care of my body and mind with the belief that I can’t write without my health. In your interviews you come across as an icon of self-sufficiency, but also discuss loneliness quite often. How do you relieve your loneliness? Do you have any advice for readers who have grown weary from a year of social distancing?
I’m relieved when I’m adequately lonely. From a young age I spent a lot of time alone and didn’t have many friends either. Perhaps that’s why I started writing fiction. There was, of course, a time I used to hate loneliness. I was sick and tired of it. The more I hated myself for being alone, the lower my self-esteem became. I grew distrustful of others and looked at the world with great hostility. After that difficult time, I found tranquility. I came to accept loneliness as I accepted my personality. I’m not one to give advice, but . . . we’re all lonely beings. I don’t think loneliness is something that can be “solved” by people or life events. Loneliness will be beside us forever. It allows us to live a little slower and think about others. Feelings such as joy and happiness can be felt more clearly because of it. Then isn’t loneliness very precious? I think it’d be nice if we didn’t hate ourselves for feeling lonely but appreciate our understanding of it.
You expressed interest in writing something set in space, a horror story, and a story involving exorcism—which do you think you’ll try next?
Yes, there’s a lot I’d like to write. But I think there’s a limit to the stories I can write right now. To write what I want to write, I need to read many more books, study the world more actively, and imagine more boldly. Luckily, I love reading and imagining, so someday I might achieve my goals. Without forgetting what I want to write later, I want to focus on what I can write right now.
Interviewer · Translator Soje
Soje is the translator of Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (Honford Star, 2021), Lee Soho’s Catcalling (Open Letter Books, 2021), and Lee Hyemi’s Unexpected Vanilla (Tilted Axis Press, 2020). They also make chogwa, a quarterly e-zine featuring one Korean poem and multiple English translations.
Choi Jin-young (b. 1981) was born on a snowy day in Seoul and moved around often during her childhood. She made her literary debut in 2006 by winning the Silcheon Munhak New Writer’s Award and has since won various awards, including the 2010 Hankyoreh Literary Award, the 2014 Shin Dong-yup Literary Prize, the 2020 Baek Shin-ae Literature Award, and the 2020 Manhae Prize for Literature. She has authored the novels The Name of the Girl Who Brushed Past You Is . . ., The Never-Ending Song, Why Did I Not Die, The Proof of Ku, To the Warm Horizon, and Dear Yi Jeya; the novella A Dream of Becoming Me; and the short-story collections A Spinning Top and Winter Break. The English translation of To the Warm Horizon is forthcoming from Honford Star in May, 2021.