[A Conversation with Kang Young-sook] On Writing against a Ticking Clock
- onJune 20, 2018
- Vol.40 Summer 2018
- byHannah Michell
Hannah Michell: We’ve known each other for many years now but I’ve never asked you how you began writing. Was it something that you always wanted to do? When did it, if ever, become a political act for you?
Kang Young-sook: As a teenager, rather than wanting to become something, I had a strong rebellious desire to not become anything. Then I started work and found that my experience of the world conflicted with my inner consciousness, which led to a lot of introspection. It was some time before my soul-searching led to writing, but I began to write as a way to secure a world of my own, where I could create things while keeping myself isolated from the real world.
I don’t think authors always write the truth, but I try to write truthfully. Even if my work contains a rather pessimistic view of the world, I yearn for change and to challenge authority. I believe that I speak the truth in my work and in this sense I think writing is a political act.
Michell: I ask about writing as a political act because of Rina, which was published ten years ago but has recently been getting attention in Berlin. It seems to me that there’s a lot of interest in Rina because it delves into the experience of the North Korean defector and the refugee experience. In Rina, countries are not named outright, but might be referred to simply as “P.” What was behind the authorial decision not to name countries?
Kang: The refugee crisis is a pressing issue in Europe, which might explain the interest in my book there. I received the same question about P during a reading at the Berlin Korean Cultural Center. Someone even asked if P stood for “perfect.” During my talks at Berkeley too, the most frequent question I was asked was the meaning of P. The letter P could refer to whatever utopia each reader has in mind, or it could be South Korea. If it were South Korea, I hoped it would be an ideal place for the North Korean girls to settle, where they wouldn’t have to wander anymore after risking their lives to defect. In that respect though, I didn’t think South Korea was mature enough as a society yet. So, Rina decides against going to the land of P and crosses another border. You could say that this is a schematic ending only possible in the imagination. In real life, she’d have to settle somewhere. P, in this sense, could be a metaphor for a world Rina has yet to reach.
Michell: It struck me as a brilliant authorial decision—in not directly naming P, the narrative becomes more universal in speaking for the refugee experience. Rina also struck me as an interesting protagonist and I was struck most by her resilience. What led you to write this character as not only a woman but also a teenager?
Kang: Resilience is a surprising word choice. It’s not one that I would use to describe Rina, but it does illustrate one side of her personality very well. You were raised in South Korea and the UK, so you must know that relocation has an especially personal impact on you in your teens. Rina and I were also brought up in a patriarchal, Confucian culture and moved to a different city in our teens—of course, my journey wasn’t as long or arduous as Rina’s. Rina was my first novel, and I wanted to write a coming-of-age story of a girl who grew up on the outskirts of Asia. While I was writing the novel, I taught a South Korean media and media literacy class at a social education center for a group of teenagers who had defected from North Korea. There I met students from Setnet School, an alternative school for North Korean migrant youth, who were just about to enter their twenties. This meeting, and the students’ silence on the story of their defection, inspired me to write Rina. My own childhood was weaved into the novel as well.
Michell: You’ve written fifty short stories and three novels since your debut. In that time you’ve also raised two daughters and had full-time work. How do you juggle all these responsibilities?
Kang: I remember the time we met at Berkeley. We were chatting about literature when your little boy, wanting to play with you, ran off into the distance beyond the park’s fences. When you brought him back and tried to resume our conversation, he would run off again in the blink of an eye. This might sound strange but the years following my literary debut also seem to have passed by in the blink of an eye. It’s not that I have been especially prolific; I’ve just barely managed to keep on writing. Time really does fly. I’d like to turn back the clock to the early days of my career.