An Evolving Realist, Dreaming of the Unity of Life and Literature: A Conversation with Novelist Hwang Sok-yong

  • onMarch 10, 2016
  • Vol.31 Spring 2016
  • byShin Hyoung-cheol


Hwang Sok-yong had already presided over an era of Korean literature with his outstanding works of realism published in the 1970s and 80s, then with his visit to North Korea in 1989 he broke through a barrier in the modern history of Korea itself, and the masterful novels which he wrote in the 2000s following his release from prison have been translated into many languages and published all over the world. He now stands among diverse friends at the very heart of world literature. He is not just one person but three or four. On the cusp of the New Year I met with a few of these ‘Hwang Sok-yongs.’


Shin Hyoung-cheol: Was there a particular moment in your life or a particular work that you read that opened your eyes to literature for the first time?

Hwang Sok-yong: My parents were intellectuals of the colonial era who had studied in China and Japan. My mother bought me lots of books and also got me to write book reports and essays about what I read. Also, in the 1950s right after the Korean War, there were so many old and second-hand books in the night markets. They would sell books and lend them out as well. From among those books I read whatever fell into my hands. The very first thing I read was Alexandre Dumas’ The Man in the Iron Mask, during my second year of elementary school. Then, I read his The Count of Monte Cristo when I was in fifth grade. I also read novels like Crime and Punishment and Wuthering Heights when I was an elementary school student. When I was in the fourth grade, I won the grand prize in a national creative writing competition. When we returned after having been evacuated to Daegu, our house was in ruins; I wrote down my thoughts from the day. The title was “The Day We Came Home.”

Shin: In 1962, when you were still a high school student, you won the Sasanggye New Author Literary Prize, but your writing career officially began in 1970 when your short story “The Pagoda” won the Chosun Ilbo New Writer’s Contest. You have lived almost fifty years of your life as a writer. Would you be able to divide that long period of time into different eras or themes?

Hwang: There are literary critics who divide my career into the early years and the later years with my visit to North Korea and subsequent exile, imprisonment, and release as the turning point between the two, but I would rather make a more detailed distinction.

The first period would be from my initial literary debut in 1962, to 1966 when I was conscripted into the army. During that time, I wrote a number of short stories. You could say it was a time of individualism and estheticism. Then, I joined the marines and went off to the Vietnam War. It was only through my experiences of the Vietnam War that I realized the real meaning of the Korean War. For that reason, from then on I would always say “the Vietnam War is the Korean War.” They say that young people who have been to war are no longer young. By the time I returned to Korea my perspective on the world was very different.

The second period begins after 1970. I wrote works such as “Far from Home” and “Mr. Han’s Chronicle,” and in 1974, the serial publication of my epic novel Jang Gilsan began (which was completed with the 10th volume in 1984). During this period, I participated in the democratization movement in resistance to the Yusin dictatorship, and got involved in different kinds of cultural resistance activities. I guess I would have to say that the second period lasted up to the publication of The Shadow of Arms through which I revisited the Vietnam War.

The third period, which follows on from that is actually a time when I wrote nothing at all. This is the time during which, following my visit to North Korea in 1989, I lived in exile in places like Berlin and New York, and then, when I returned to Korea in 1993, was imprisoned until my release in 1998. But if you consider that a writer’s behavior is in fact an extension of his or her literary activity, this period too would have to be considered one of the stages in my life’s work. I refer to this period as my time doing “community service.” Before traveling to North Korea there was no way I could completely free myself from the ideological oppression that was controlling South Korean society. My visit to North Korea was an attempt to overcome the division that existed within me. Through my visit to the North a considerable part of my person did become much freer. And during my years of exile, I was able to see the Korean peninsula objectively, from the outside, and I came to identify myself as someone straddling the border between South and North. I also thought that I wanted to free myself from the frame of ethnic nationalism and become a citizen of the world. In terms of literature, I came to think that I needed to break away from the various disciplines of realist aesthetics, which I had stuck to in my work up until that point.

And then the fourth era in my literature began. This period began with The Old Garden and runs right up to my latest novel, Dusk. I can sense that the so-called “later years literature” nature of my work is becoming stronger.

Shin: Although your latest work Dusk was quite a short novel, it left a strong and lingering impression. The main character, Park Min-woo, is of pretty much the same generation as Oh Hyun Woo of The Old Garden. But his is a case of someone who has lived a completely different kind of life. The perspective and tone of the novel did have a similar feeling though. By returning to The Old Garden it seemed to me as though you were tying up the loose ends of an era. So I wonder, is the fourth phase of your writing finishing now to make way for the fifth?

Hwang: I would prefer it if you just saw it as a continuation of the fourth period. I don’t think there will be a fifth period in my work.

Shin: You have lived through the mid to late twentieth century as a writer in Korea, East Asia’s divided nation. During that time, have you come upon anything you have considered particular to the tasks of Korean literature?

Hwang: With the Korean War, the capacity of national literature in Korea was almost reduced to nothing. Many writers were displaced, many went north, and many died. Then, in the North, literature for the Party, and in the South, anti-communist literature, were each emphasized as the only possibilities for literature. Then, in the South, with the April 19th Student Revolution in 1960, the rigidity of society was alleviated somewhat, and as literature from all over the world flooded into the country, Korean literature was finally able to take on a sense of modernity in the work of the April 19th generation of writers. After that, we went through all of the things that the populations of developing nations go through, such as military dictatorships and rapid industrialization. Then came the watershed, I would say that this came at the time when the Cold War system crumbled with the demolition of the Berlin Wall. Following this Korea, too, entered into the system of globalization and now people in South Korea are experiencing almost everything in real-time together with the people of the world

I want to say something about the topics that I believe contemporary Korean literature needs to consider. The first is migration and harmony. From people to capital, everything is constantly moving. And as unfamiliar things gather in one place, intense conflicts are forming. The second topic, which is connected with the first, is identity and universality. Because we are now in an era when we each need to be aware of our own identity, but also have to know how to live alongside others. The third is desire and moderation. We are living in a time of low-growth globally, but the size of people’s greed is the same as it ever was, so problems are occurring. We may indeed be living through a transition period of great suffering. These days you can see young people boycotting values like success or happiness. Perhaps we can call this the “minimalization of life,” choosing to live in a kind of anarchy?

Shin: You said that the period in which you did not publish any literary works should also be regarded as a phase in your literary career. In fact it would not be an overstatement to say that, as well as your writing, your life itself has been a work of literature. I am reminded of the English word “commitment.” It has various nuances including dedication, devotion, intervention, and participation. For people who believe that a writer must show complete commitment to their craft, you are surely the most exemplary model of this kind of writer. In your view, do we still need writers like this? Or is it even possible?

Hwang: Hmm, could it be possible? Some time ago, when I met people like Oe Kenzaburo or Le Clézio, they would tell me they envied my having been born in a country with so many stories to tell. They are referring to the turbulent modern history of Korea. I have lived my life thinking that as a writer from such a country, I must make my life and literature one and the same. I am not judging myself as having succeeded. Thinking about it now, it’s as though I have been in the throes of an epic dream. But nowadays it’s difficult even to dream such a dream let alone live it. Literature doesn’t have the same standing as it once did. Also, it seems as though writers these days are getting more inspiration from other texts rather than from their own lives or the lives of others.

Shin: As you are the writer who has broken out of the particular conditions of South Korea in the most intense way, when you have participated in events overseas I imagine that journalists and readers want to hear about the political situation on the Korean Peninsula and your opinion on the subject. Has that been the case?

Hwang: It is inevitable really, as North and South are still in confrontation on the Korean peninsula. But here we have become somewhat numb to this state of affairs by now. When North Korea tests out a missile or nuclear device or whatever, people merely think, “Ah, that again,” and carry on with their day. On the contrary, my friends overseas get worried and ask after me, they take it very seriously.

Shin: As you traveled to North Korea in 1989, and then after many twists and turns were finally released from prison in 1998, the after-effects of your visit to the North presided over almost ten years of your life. You must have been asked this question countless times but, looking back, how do you feel about that period?

Hwang: After I traveled to North Korea, I experienced exile and imprisonment, and there might be those who say that in this way I wasted too much time at a very important stage in my life as a writer, but if I hadn’t been through those years I doubt whether my later literature would have become so established. Before all of that I had already written Jang Gilsan and The Shadow of Arms, but if it had not happened, I don’t think any of my later works would have been particularly special. During that time, I was able to stand right at the center of a violent upheaval in world history. If my later literary works have a certain universalism and are appealing even to international readers it is because of the things that I absorbed during that period.

Shin: The outlook for unification is not particularly bright. The younger generation seems generally unconcerned and even writers don’t show much interest in the issues of division and unification.

Hwang: Because unification is merely being used as fodder for political marketing, it has already been many years since I stopped referring to it. Instead I talk about a peace structure. There are certain risks facing each and every country. These risks must be well managed. In our case, the risk comes from division. Proper management of that danger would necessitate the establishment of a peace structure. There are many crucial reasons for this, but the economic factors in particular have the strongest appeal to ordinary people. Following the financial crisis in 1997 the capitalist capacity of South Korea reached its limit. We need to undertake economic cooperation with North Korea to develop the Tumen River and also to make inroads into places like Siberia and Mongolia. That is precisely why I have been calling for East Asian solidarity, but unfortunately this project is currently at a standstill. It may be fair enough that the younger generations are uninterested in unification, but it is difficult to accept their apathy towards the establishment of a peace structure. I mean, it is directly connected with all of our everyday lives. World peace is not something to be scoffed at. It starts with no one else but ourselves.

Shin: That which critics have called your “later era” and what you have referred to more specifically as the fourth era in your career, the fifteen years from 2000 to now, has also been a period of literary experimentation undertaken from the basis of realist aesthetics.

Hwang: That’s right, in the novel The Guest, I tried to break through the genre of realism by using the form of the Chinogwi shaman exorcism rites to structure the narrative. Then, with Shim Cheong and Princess Bari, I reinterpreted the pre-modern pansori of the story of Shim Cheong and the Baridegi shamanistic folktale respectively, to reflect deeply upon immigration in the 21st century. But I’m not satisfied yet. The novel that I am working on at the moment looks back on the modern history of Korea through the lives of three generations of railroad workers. In the beginning I intended to go back to the style I used with The Shadow of Arms and write it in a traditionally realist way, but recently I have become sick of it and so I was even about to give up on the whole idea. Now, I am thinking that if I take the story apart and completely re-order it to write it in a new form then I might just about be able to reach the sort of expansion of realism that I have been working towards for many years now. 


by Shin Hyoung-cheol
Literary Critic and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing
Chosun University