[A Conversation with Han Yujoo] The Sum of the Worlds I Have Experienced
- onDecember 21, 2017
- Vol.38 Winter 2017
- byScott Esposito
Scott Esposito: You made your writing debut in 2003, when you were just twenty-one years old with the short story “To the Moon,” which won Literature and Society’s New Writers Award. Can you tell us a little about how you chose to get into writing literature and how your career progressed after the publication of this story?
Han Yujoo: There were just two things I wanted to do by going to university. One, leave home. Two, read loads of books. Because of this I decided to study German literature at a university in Seoul, far enough from Daejeon where I grew up. Just as I’d planned, I was able to read books non-stop, but there was never exactly a time when I thought I wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t something I actively didn’t want, I just don’t think I even dared to wonder whether I might be any good at writing. Then one semester I took a class on creative writing theory which was run by the Korean literature department, and I had to submit a short story for the end of term assignment. That was how I came to write “To the Moon,” and thinking about it now, it was an assignment, but I was able to write really freely. When a friend of mine who was a budding writer read “To the Moon,” he advised me to submit it for one of the annual contests. That’s how I became a writer. I’d hardly even lived much back then, let alone gone through the usual process of writing practice, so for the next few years it felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall. To make things worse, because I came out with a string of short stories that didn’t appear to follow the traditional rules of narrative, I had to face a lot of disapproval. Still, from my debut onwards, I have continued writing works that question the very form they are written in. To tell the truth, I think my focus on form comes from the fact that I’m no master storyteller.
Esposito: Do you feel that the criticism you faced early on was in any way related to your gender?
Han: Thinking about it now it seems as though both my gender and my age did play a role in this. Come to think of it though, I can’t recall having ever seen a male Korean novelist in their early twenties, so I can’t really compare. I think being female and being so young had both negative and positive effects.
Esposito: Negative reviews and harsh responses to one’s work can be very challenging to bounce back from, particularly for young writers at the beginning of their career. To what do you ascribe your ability to have weathered these early critiques while remaining true to your aesthetic and not letting this disapproval influence your direction as an author?
Han: In this case it helped that I was so young. There was a huge age gap between me and my fellow writers, so I was automatically able to keep life in the “literary world” at a safe distance. And being so young, I didn’t really know what was going on around me. It was also helpful that I wasn’t majoring in creative writing. This meant I was able to avoid being directly confronted by harsh criticism from people of my own age. But more than anything, what helped me the most was that I had a small number of writers and readers who believed in me. It’s impossible to write creatively without a great amount of skepticism and questioning of oneself, so really, I think it’s very difficult for anyone to put their work out into the world without a strong sense of self-love or self-belief. It’s like walking a tightrope between this kind of skepticism and belief. To start with, while not having any great certainty in myself, I was going over and over questions like “What does good writing even mean?” or else “What is writing anyway?” And now, although I still haven’t found an answer, I’ve come to think of literature as a form of practice at least, something I can do for a lifetime, my life’s work. What I mean is, my aesthetic now may merely be a question of technique, but perhaps practice will take me in the direction of the aesthetic I have to find. If I think about it in this way, whatever other people say, be it good or bad, it becomes less important.
Esposito: What writers have been some of your biggest influences as an author?
Han: A huge number of writers have influenced me. When I was a teenager I read a lot by authors like Yi In-seong and Oh Junghee. Then at university I mainly read writers working in German, like Thomas Bernhard, Botho Strauß, Elfriede Jelinek, and Franz Kafka. Since then I’ve been influenced by so many writers that I couldn’t begin to list them individually. It’s my personal view that what a writer creates cannot be greater than the sum of what they have read. These days I’m reading through Flaubert’s works again.
Esposito: I very much like your point about writers not being able to create things that are greater than the sum of what they’ve read. It recalls Cormac McCarthy’s statement that, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books, the novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” Is there a particular kind of writing—be it of a nation, a language, an aesthetic or collective, a kind of format, or a certain subject-matter—that you are interested in investigating in-depth as you develop your future work?
Han: At the end of October I had the opportunity to go to a book festival in Bali in Indonesia. Because I majored in German literature and I have studied English and French, I have a certain familiarity with European languages and I’ve been to countries that use these languages on a number of occasions. A few years ago I went to Thailand, and it was the first time I had experienced visiting a country without knowing anything of the language used there. I was faced with a script that I couldn’t decipher at all, and to be honest I felt a little embarrassed. So this time I started going to online classes to learn even just a little bit of the grammar of the Indonesian language before going there. And I felt a strange sense of freedom. Whenever I learned a foreign language before it felt like I was being knocked down at every turn by things like declension, the usage of articles, irregular verbs, and fussy changes in tense (this was probably because I was such a beginner), but with Indonesian, things felt relatively easy and intuitive. For example, “book” is “buku” and “books” is “buku-buku.” And if you connect the words “me-dislike-leave-eat-food-outside” it means “I don’t want to go out to eat.” It’s pure coincidence, but in the novel I’m working on at the moment the narrator is losing her syntax, the ability to construct sentences in her language. She has to communicate only by making lists of words.
Just as I cannot write something that goes beyond the sum of everything I’ve read up until now, I think it’s also very difficult to write anything that goes beyond the sum of the worlds that I have experienced. As someone born as a Korean in the 1980s, living in a country that is attached to a continent but feels like an island, and only speaking Korean, it’s a little difficult to experience different worlds. In the case of female writers, to say it in a slightly distorted way, you’re kind of living in two worlds at once. Because, especially in Korean society, “male” has a default value. I’m someone who is really interested in language, so to start with, I am examining languages. Things like the different ways people use language.
Esposito: Your most substantive release thus far in English translation is your novel The Impossible Fairly Tale, which came out in spring 2017. This novel largely deals with the world of children, as it centers on a grade school class. The main character is named Mia, and she’s something of a lost child, uncertain of who she is and living in a psychologically abusive family. The other lead character is simply called “the Child,” and she comes across as rather sinister, but also fragile and vulnerable. The first half of the book deals with Mia, the Child, and their school class, culminating in a rather shocking moment. This was your first novel, published when you were thirty-one years old. Why did you choose to explore the world of children so deeply for your first novel?
Han: As you just mentioned, The Impossible Fairly Tale was my first full-length novel. Theoretically, because of the length of the work, I needed to give a lot more complexity to the characters. But at that time the only ages of characters that I could look at with a suitable distance were the pre-teens. I thought that even if they were middle or high school students it would be difficult to maintain an objective distance between myself and the characters. And in a way, I thought that with characters of this age, at the same time knowing a fair amount about how the world works, there would be lots of things that they understood in very ambiguous ways. I considered this to mean that they would be able to make more radical choices. Also, people don’t usually take the voices of such young people seriously or listen to them in earnest. I wanted to make a deliberate effort to foreground characters whose voices often go unheard.
Esposito: The first half of The Impossible Fairy Tale revolves around the development of Mia’s world and a strange “crime” that the Child commits: adding sentences into the children’s journals at school. But then the second half of the book goes into entirely new territory, as it becomes heavily metafictional, with a character described as the author—who may or may not be yourself—confronting the Child and having a series of strange conversations with her. Can you tell us a little about this second half and how the novel came to take such a radical turn?
Han: When I first came up with this novel I was mulling over the idea of “atonement on behalf of another.” This led me to ask the following kinds of questions: One, how should a crime committed by a child (with many years left to adulthood) be understood or atoned for? Two, if a writer makes a character commit a crime in order to make the story happen, who should take responsibility for this fictional crime? Three, can a writer rescue a character? Four, can a character rescue a writer? Five, why are we still fixated on the modern concept that you must have a sense of guilt in order to become an adult? And so on and so on. I started writing the second half of the novel with such thoughts in mind. (The “author’s dream” chapters at the beginning of the second half are there to create a spatial, temporal distance between the first and second halves. I’m not sure if they succeed in doing that though.) So, of course, in the second half, a metafictional rotation takes place. When the character comes to find the writer, the boundaries between narrator, character, and writer disappear. (Or at least that was what I hoped.) Rather than the story coming to a “proper ending,” I wanted to end it with the traces of a crime, the traces of a story having been told.
Esposito: What surprised you about The Impossible Fairy Tale’s English-language reception?
Han: Well first off, it seems more people are reading my work in English than they did in Korean, so I’m pretty happy. I think in South Korea, people took more interest in the behavior of young people and the idea that it’s impossible to understand. With readers of the English [version] though, there has not only been interest in the social context surrounding such behavior by young people, but there have also been reactions as to why this becomes the momentum leading the form of the second half of the book.
Esposito: In an essay in the Times Literary Supplement, you wrote that “one issue with which we [Korean authors] are grappling is how to rescue and revive female autonomy,” a sentiment that I have heard expressed frequently by other Korean writers, particularly women writers. Is this something you feel that you’ve grappled with in The Impossible Fairy Tale or elsewhere?
Han: Aside from the fact that almost all the characters in The Impossible Fairly Tale are female, there are no particularly feminist elements to it. I guess this is because the main characters are children who still have not been through adolescence, and the dynamics of the relationships within their families are not yet overtly clear. But my being a feminist has probably had direct and indirect influences on the work. Lately I’ve been thinking about what methods there might be to orient a work toward what’s right and proper without making it serve as propaganda.
Esposito: That’s an important line to maintain and, given what I know of you as a writer, I can’t imagine you would publish a novel that even remotely resembled propaganda. What sorts of interventions do you feel that literature can make into political and social issues?
Han: A few years ago I realized that up to that time I was a kind of formalist. I realized that I’d consistently concentrated on the form of language, the form of the novel. Of course, the novel is a narrative genre, so content cannot be overlooked entirely, but I was more interested in the form than the content, in the “how” than the “what.” If I want to write about certain content, there comes a moment when there’s no way other than to write about things I have not experienced myself. But I think that it would be wrong not to write such things “well.” So I thought that perhaps I had been trying to avoid that moment when I would have to write about content that was not my own. This thought came to me as there became more and more times when I felt outrage, as a citizen, as a woman. So lately, I think the focus of my deliberation is on how to mix content and form together. One way or another, I want to bring into my novels the things that are having a direct impact on my life, things like the Sewol Ferry incident, the prevalent hatred of women in society, the poverty faced by young people, the fantasy of a nationalized homogenous race and racism, or the concentration of fine dust in the air.
Esposito: You’re working on a novel at the moment. Can you tell us something about it?
Han: In essence, it’s a work about suicide. I’m writing about things like the problem of how to properly mourn, how to write again or rewrite.
Esposito: What do you feel are the characteristics that distinguish South Korean literature from other national literatures, and what do you believe makes it relevant to world literature in contemporary times?
Han: That’s a very wide-ranging question so it’s not easy to answer, but what I can say is, it hasn’t been that long since the nation known as South Korea established the modern national system, and modern Korean literature too has a relatively short history. So I think it can still be very new, like in the fact that it can still ask questions about “identity.” I think it can continue asking new questions in debates that are already over in the West. I’d say that what connects it with world literature of the same era is simply time. Synchronism, the present—it’s things like these that make South Korean literature intimately related to world literature. Now, when there are more writers than ever before, when almost anyone can write if they feel like it, when rather than vast epic stories there are more microscopic stories that are being taken much more seriously than before, I think that at its core writing is a genre of equality. This kind of equality also means that South Korean literature cannot really be examined as something separate from world literature.
by Scott Esposito
Author of four books, including The Doubles
Senior Editor and Publicity Director, Two Lines Press