Interview with Han Changhoon: Island Vibes

  • onMay 16, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byJason Woodruff

Photographs Copyright ⓒ Melmel Chung

I was able to visit you on Geomun-do in 2015 while I was translating your short story collection, I Like It Here. If I remember right, you were born on that island. Can you introduce the island to your non-Korean readers? What is life like on Geomun-do?

Geomun-do is located about 115 kilometers south of the city of Yeosu, and is the southernmost island in Korea’s South Sea, so it’s not an island next to a harbor, but one located far out in the ocean. It was also occupied by British naval ships for two years in 1885.

Life on an island is simple, very different from the way of life you see in the city. The first thing I do when I wake up is see what kind of wind is blowing and how high the waves are crashing. If the waves aren’t too high, I get in a boat and go catch some fish. Or else, I might hike to the back side of the mountains or head to the rocks on the shore to collect things like clams. I might just observe the passing clouds as well. And of course there is lots of time to hear the stories and complaints of the other island residents.


That’s very interesting, I never knew the British had occupied any Korean Islands. Obviously a lot of time has passed since then, but are there any remaining landmarks from that time?

There are three gravesites of British soldiers that have been turned into a memorial park. I’ve heard that when a new British ambassador is appointed, he or she comes to visit the site without fail.



Are there literary reasons why you still choose to live there, or is it more simply because you like it there?

It’s actually neither. It’s just that I’ve lived here a long time, and, though I won’t say I think it is especially great, there is nothing too bad about living here. Anyway, I have to live somewhere, so I simply chose to live on my hometown island. I’m used to it. You could say my goal is to “skillfully live a life of ordinary days” in the words of Laozi. And I often think it’s good to have the ocean close by.

I’ve recently been serving as the secretary general of the Writer’s Association of Korea and have been living in Seoul for the past two years. But my term is ending so I will be returning to the island this spring. I guess I’ll be back there by the time this issue comes out.


Do you feel like the natural surroundings of most of your life, such as the coastal towns, islands, and the ocean, had an effect on your writing? For example, a lot of your characters often feel like islands themselves: they’re isolated, alone, and seem to exist on the far peripheries of society. Do you think your novels would be different if you had spent most of your life in Seoul?

Even if I was born and raised in Seoul, I feel like I would be writing work similar to what I write now, or perhaps it would be more urban and dandy. Maybe I would even write more psychological novels, because I feel like the possibility for all of these lies within me. I don’t feel regret for doing one thing over another. I don’t even worry about it. Simply because I received my history and language on an island, I write things related to the ocean and islands. Also because there was no other contemporary writer writing about these things, I felt it was my responsibility to make a record of them.


Your maternal grandmother was a haenyeo, or female diver, and taught you how to dive and fish when you were young. Could you tell us a little about her and what kind of influence she had on you as a writer and as a person?

My grandmother was a mentor to me. I followed her to where she dove for seafood when I was eight and ended up wearing a pair of goggles myself and learning how to dive. I can still vividly recall the things I saw my first time under the ocean. I was influenced by my grandmother in many ways, but the biggest thing was her serene dignity. My grandmother never attended school, but she learned how to read by herself, and her entire life she supported her family by diving for seafood and working in the fields. And yet she never put herself forward. She simply lived every day like another natural part of the world, skillfully and serenely. I found that impressive. It’s a way of life that we’ve been losing since industrialization.


You didn’t decide to become a writer until you were twenty-six, a comparatively later time in life than most writers, I think. Before then, you worked a lot of odd jobs, for example as a DJ. Do you feel like these life experiences helped you during your writing career?

Besides a DJ, I also worked as a construction worker, a factory worker, and a crew member on a boat. Having a wide range of experiences did help, but I didn’t do them to gain inspiration for my writing, I worked those jobs simply to earn a living. These experiences became a strength to me not only because they helped me to fill out my stories with strong details and characters, but they also helped me mature mentally. They helped me pick up some physical problems too, like a herniated disc in my back.


You’ve also said that it is important for a writer to have non-literary hobbies as well. Why do you feel that is so important?

I always encourage any aspiring writers or students to read the book Cosmos by Carl Sagan. I do this because I want them to gain an interest in astrophysics. It’s such a profound and beautiful field. Novels require long breaths, a wide point of view, and a discerning eye. This is also why poetry is considered a passionate, youthful genre, and novels a middle-aged genre.

A narrow examination of a subject is not enough. We tend to mistakenly believe that a narrow and practical examination is a literary one. We need to protect against narrow-mindedness by strengthening our powers of discernment. This is why I encourage people to examine fields on the opposite end of the spectrum from literature, whether it be astrophysics, math, economics, or athletics.



Was there any writer that you felt inspired or influenced you even before you decided to become a writer?

There are several writers I admired, including the Korean writers “Byeok-cho” Hong Myeong-hui, Park Sang-ryung, and Lee Mun Ku. The foreign writers I liked are Anton Chekhov and Ágota Kristóf.


What did you like about those writers?

I liked the ability of Hong Myeong-hui to perfectly weave together large narratives, and I was impressed by the prolix style of Park Sang-ryung and Lee Mun Ku. I read Chekhov when I was just starting to write and could really feel his authorial mind. And as for Ágota Kristóf, I was impressed by her powerfully short sentences.


You were part of a group called “Writers Off to the Sea” and took two extended oceanic voyages. Would you please tell us about these experiences? What do the writers gain from investing a couple months of their time travelling the sea?

How could I talk about all of that in this interview? To answer shortly, I will say that we [Koreans] are living our lives hedged in by the largest and most dangerous military border in the world—what people call the Armistice Line. I’ve chosen the ocean as one way to cross that border. On this ocean voyage, we writers were able to see the pure form of the earth and how the sea shapes people’s lives. I would love to see this project continue on, but unfortunately it has been discontinued because the shipping company we travelled with is having financial difficulties.


You won the Hankyoreh Literary Award in 1998 for your novel Mussel and since then have been well-known for writing about the working-class lives of people who live on islands or the coast and who struggle to earn a living from the ocean. Do you feel any responsibility to be the voice of these people in their more generally overlooked regions of South Korea?

I entered university in the 1980s and so inherently see things through the lens of the pro-democracy movements from that time. I’ve always thought that pain and injustice are caused by systemic problems of the state-society rather than individual ineptitude or luck. And so my heart and eyes went toward these people. I was born as one of them. I still believe that laborers form the base of society and I’m saddened to see that laborers are beginning to be disparaged once again.



Your short story collection I Like It Here was translated and published into Russian in 2017. I have also translated this collection and your short stories have been translated and published in several languages. How do you feel about literary translation in general? Do you like to work closely with the translators of your work? Do translators from different languages ask you similar questions?

Translation is a very important genre. The translator is another creator and I believe that it has to be that way. I generally like to give complete control of the translation to the translator because I don’t know the foreign language, but I received a lot of questions from the Russian translator, Lidia Azarina. She asked me questions ranging from clarification on gender pronouns to very detailed questions about the direction of the streets on the island in the story and the types of wind I described. I was amazed at her thoroughness.


Your work contains a lot of regional dialect and colloquialisms that can be hard to translate (I would know). How do you prefer for a translator to handle this issue?

My work has always contained a lot of regional dialect, but I don’t feel like it’s very important by itself. It’s simply a way to establish the setting of the story. And so it’s difficult for me to welcome the translation of a Korean regional dialect into a dialect from a different country. More important to me is the witticism or metaphor contained in the dialect.


In the title story of your collection I Like It Here, an old fisherman and his wife take out their large fishing boat for the last time before selling it. The man has been a fisherman his entire life and is very sad about the upcoming change, but his wife has always been unhappy on the island and is hoping now to convince her husband to move to the mainland. The story is a good portrayal of these dueling sympathies between the romance of the island and the difficulty of island life. Is this a common feeling among people who still make a living on the islands?

Correct. An island will perfectly exhibit both romance and difficulty. First of all because it’s so small. Discomfort and alienation, fresh seafood and beautiful scenery. Life is always swinging back and forth between these two opposing feelings. All the islanders I’ve seen have felt this, including myself.

The discomfort of the island is worse for women, just like the character in the story. I can share this now that it is all in the past, but the couple in the story was based on an actual couple I knew. They ended up getting divorced and the wife left the island and moved to the mainland. She got remarried and later the man remarried as well. Sadly, I heard not too long ago that the woman had passed away from an illness.



You mentioned you’re the current secretary general of the Writer’s Association of Korea. As the secretary general, what is your impression of the rise of Korean literature on the world stage? Do you approve of the way Korean literature is being introduced to non-Korean readers, or do you think something more could be done?

Through the hard work of LTI Korea to introduce Korean literature to the world, I can see that good things are happening every year. I only worry that maybe the focus on promoting the translation of the most popular writers isn’t the best idea. I would like to see more focus on figuring what kind of works would be best received by which countries.


What work of yours do you feel the strongest attachment to?

I used to not have a strong attachment to any specific work, but that has changed with the novel I published in 2018 called When You Leave This Star. I feel most attached to this book because it contains so many of my personal experiences at sea and in ports, as well as the story of the little Prince coming back to Earth.


Please tell us about your writing rituals. Do you keep a strict schedule when you write? Do you prefer to write only on Geomun-do or do you write in Seoul as well? Do you like to do a lot of research before you write, or do you like to stick to things you know well?

I sit in front of my computer from morning to noon, but it’s not because of a strict schedule. When I have an urgent deadline, I can generally write whenever and wherever I need to. I don’t do much research either. When I feel like the stories I gather from my surroundings have ripened within me, I’ll write them down.


What authors are you reading lately? Are there any Korean writers specifically whose work you admire?

I’m currently reading Ha Ha Ha Busan by the writer Bae Gil-nam which he sent me a few days ago. I won’t answer your second question. If I mention one writer, I’m afraid I might hurt the feelings of a writer I don’t mention, even if they might not read this magazine.


Is there any story you are working on now or something you feel like you have to write about in the future?

I’m not currently writing anything. When I finish up my work in Seoul and return to Geomun-do, then I’m sure something will begin to form in my mind. But right now I have no plans.


Interviewer & Translator Jason Woodruff

Jason Woodruff is a writer and translator. He has translated Han Changhoon's short story collection I Like it Here into English and the title story can be read online at Asymptote


Han Changhoon (b. 1963) debuted in 1992 when he won Daejeon Ilbo’s New Writer’s Contest with the story “Anchor.” He has since received several awards, including the Hankyoreh Literary Award in 1998 for Mussels, Violet Prize for the People's Writer in 2007 for Song of Youth, and the Heo Gyun Literary Award and Yosan Literary Award in 2009 for I like It Here. He wrote the screenplay for the movie Unforgettable (2015) based on a story from his collection, Island, I Live the End of the World (2003). His works in translation include I like It Here (Literaturnaya Uchoba, 2017) in Russian. Han is known for his frank and humorous portrayal of life in small towns and farming and fishing villages, featuring the dialects of Chungcheong and Jeolla provinces instead of the standard dialect of big cities.