[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.
Michell: I do remember that afternoon. Just when I thought we could settle into a proper conversation, he would disappear again. You said you would like to turn back the clock to your early career. Why? What is it that you are nostalgic for? Or what would you like to do differently?
Kang: I’m not so sure. I’d be stumped if someone asked me what I’d want to be in my next life, but if I could really start over again, I think I’d be able to write more stories, or overcome some of the mistakes I’ve made. Nowadays I wonder if I should have started out my career with full-length novels. They say that only crazy people write novels, and it sure is difficult to write one. I’m always left either in despair or unsatisfied. Time goes by relentlessly no matter what I do. And readers don’t think any more highly of my work just because I struggled to write it. I say this because I know that neither age nor the passage of time guarantees better work. It’s been hard lately to be certain that I’m not regressing, both in life and in literature . . .
Michell: There’s a saying that you never complete a novel, you simply give up on it and then begin another. There’s writing for the reader, but also writing for oneself—to fully flesh out and explore one’s ideas about a theme or situation. You once said in an interview, "I write to live. To stop melancholy from running me into the ground." Is this still true for you? What do you feel is the biggest shift in your work since you began writing?
Kang: I am melancholy by nature and have destructive tendencies. But ever since I started writing, I think much less about suicide for one thing. Another upside is that the laboriousness of the writing process helps me take less of an interest in myself. All writers eventually write about themselves, but so far I’ve tried to maintain a distance between myself and my writing.
Michell: Tell us more about that distance. How do you approach characters who feel distant to you?
Kang: It’s difficult to explain. When I write, my self as a writer exists somewhere between me as a person and my laptop screen. But if I always stay in this state, my characters or storylines may lack a sense of reality. So while I maintain this distance, sometimes I push forward, ahead of my characters. But I generally respect authors who don’t push forward. I’ve tried hard to keep a distance between myself and my writing so far. The reason is actually quite simple. Doesn’t everyone find it too painful to talk about themselves? It’s still tough for me to talk about myself.
Michell: Yet there was something about Young-in, your narrator and protagonist in The Writing Club, that reminded me of you. She’s a character who is strong yet full of longing. She's complex and yet immediately recognizable. How did this character come to you?
Kang: Young-in strikes me as a very lonely person. She’s also someone who has failed in life. Choosing a writer as my protagonist wasn’t easy, because it was difficult to distance myself from her. This novel was not what I was used to writing in terms of style or theme, but there was no way to avoid writing it. Perhaps I wanted to write a book like Paula by Isabel Allende where a woman looks back on her life and her daughter’s life as the latter (Paula) lies dying. Young-in is like me in that she has a hunger for writing, but she possesses a purer, more sincere interiority. Also, I found great inspiration in the women’s archives at the University of Iowa while I attended the International Writing Program in 2009. The records left by Iowa women in the archives were about very small, trivial things. Recipe pamphlets and chapbooks and such. I kept dwelling on the process of calming down, of relinquishing the passions and feelings aroused by writing. Then I returned to Seoul and roamed the city. When I write I normally can’t develop a story before I decide on the setting. At the time, I was captivated by scenes from the Bukchon and Gye-dong neighborhoods, and the traditional hanok houses and writing schools there, so I placed the protagonist Young-in and her mother, the novelist Kim, in a narrow, snowy alley of Gye-dong in winter. Then the story began to write itself.
Michell: I was struck too, by Young-in’s mother. She’s really the opposite of the stereotype of the cherished servile and devoted mother in Korean culture. Was this intentional? How did the character of the mother come to you?
Kang: As not all women are motherly, I view the mother as one type of persona. I think about what side of a woman I can reveal outside of her role as a mother. Young-in’s mother Kim is in some ways a lot like my own mother. My mom married an only child of an only child of an only child, all three generations of whom were sons. When she had me, she failed her in-laws’ expectations for a son and suffered constant put-downs. With the single-minded belief that she was to have a boy, my grandfather named me Nam-sook, where nam is the Chinese character for “male.” But when my mom registered my birth with local authorities she defiantly changed my name to Young-sook, which bears the meaning of “flower.” That was only the start of it. When I was eleven, she filed for divorce on the grounds of domestic violence. It was unheard of in the late seventies for a small-town woman to demand a divorce because her husband had hit her. There are numerous anecdotes about her after that too. And in every one of them my mom was brave and not at all apologetic for what happened. Yet in reality she couldn't be happy. The most painful moment of my teens was visiting my mom’s workplace and watching her do menial labor. Perhaps that’s why I introduced Kim as a writer and made her succeed. Though, of course, my mom isn’t a writer . . .
Michell: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Kang: I can’t call myself a full-fledged feminist. But I do try to think from a feminist perspective. Perhaps that’s a lie. Sometimes I snap condescendingly at my mother in our day-to-day exchanges. My heroines suffer certain ordeals because they are women and I just let it happen. This is a very uncomfortable thought. That the person oppressing women is actually me.
Michell: I think that despite our best intentions we all need to confront the ways in which we have internalized patriarchy. My second novel began as a conversation between two men. I was in the throes of new motherhood and the distance between my life and what I was writing was too great for me to write. But a part of me thought that no one would be interested in a woman’s perspective in the story I was writing. So much is changing with the #MeToo movement. On the other hand, there is already a strong tradition of female authorship in Korea. How do you think that the #MeToo movement will change Korean fiction?
Kang: I never thought I had what it takes to be a full-fledged feminist. That’s why I always qualify my statements with “I’m not a full-fledged feminist but . . .” This hesitation is part of my identity. My mind has been in a state of indecision for a very long time. Even so, I write about women. The woman’s perspective and her story, as you mention, is in fact the essence of my work. I don’t choose female narrators to use them as a convenient fictional device; I choose them to tell their stories. Because I’m a woman, I want to write decidedly female stories that can never be anyone else’s narrative.
There is an article in Mslexia, a British magazine for women writers, by the British-American author Nicola Griffith on some interesting findings from her study: “When women win literary awards for fiction it’s usually for writing from a male perspective and/or about men.” She examines Pulitzer, Man Booker, National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, Hugo, and Newbery Medal winners over a fifteen-year period from 2000 to 2014 and notes their gender as well as their protagonists’ gender. She observes that works about women written from a woman’s point of view won zero Pulitzers, the most prestigious honor. She also points out that these awards aren’t given to narratives that center on grown women especially (as opposed to ones about girls). One explanation she offers is that “those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, distasteful, or boring” and that we still live in a culture where “women’s voices are not being heard.” Her take may be a tad provocative, but it is interesting. Does the perception that something is slightly distasteful or boring matter so much? Some basic questions should be reconsidered, like what matters in literature, or what is literature.
You put it so accurately when you said we internalize patriarchy despite our best intentions. Korean society has started to speak out. Recently I’ve begun to see trenchant commentary in Korean fiction by young female writers. The key to the #MeToo movement is that women have started talking, and what makes the movement unique is that no one can stop this conversation.
Michell: I’m curious what you will write or want to write about in the future.
Kang: To tell you the truth, I’ve been suffering terrible writer’s block since 2014. I’ve reached the point where I’m not sure what I want to write anymore, and I’m scared I can’t write well. The story I’m working on right now opens with a middle-aged woman explaining her identity at ground zero, where everything has been destroyed. The voice, the themes, and the space are all unfamiliar territory for me. I struggle with articulating the central idea behind this story. I suspect it will take a long time to finish, yet time is ticking.
by Hannah Michell
Author, The Defections (2014)
A Buried Life (Forthcoming in 2019)
Photo ⓒ Jung Yoojin