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INTERVIEW

In Your 20s - Reliving the Most Painful, Brilliant Times: Novelist Kim Ae-ran

  • onOctober 19, 2014
  • Special Edition 2011
  • byJung Yeo-ul

Prologue

In Korean culture, it is a compliment to be referred to as “precocious.” On the one hand, precocious means “mature beyond one’s age,” but it can also mean “being someone adults like.” Even though the label, “the youngest” always followed Kim Ae-ran around as she received numerous prestigious awards, adults become nervous when they hear her name. Their anxiety is attributed less to her reputation as a feisty novice or prodigy than to her being a young precocious writer. Readers who love her works report that they find Kim’s works surprising not because she is younger than they had imagined, but because she has “figured out things about life I don’t know.” Kim Ae-ran continues to make the older generation delightfully nervous as she, much to her embarrassment, continues to be an iconic figure in Korean literature in the 2000s. She is one the most influential young writers who speaks for 20-something young Korean men and women. I met the young Kim at Café Yri in the trendy Hongik University area.

Jung Yeo-ul: When you first debuted, critics reviewed your short stories “I Go to the Convenience Store,” “Paper Fish,” and “Always the Narrator” as great depictions of Koreans in their 20s. What were some things you had in mind as you worked on these stories?

Kim Ae-ran: I was born and raised in the provinces, so everything I saw in Seoul when I moved here for college seemed new and surprising. It was the first time I had my own apartment. Many things about Seoul caught my attention because I wasn’t familiar with the lifestyle and living space. I wondered why certain things were placed in certain spots, and why certain spaces were expanded. What I yearned for the most when I was in my 20s was a room of my own, so I suppose the stories were naturally suffused with my personal motivations.

 

Novelist Kim Ae-ran and critic Jung Yeo-ul

Jung: “I Go to the Convenience Store” was especially well-received as a great portrait of young Koreans and the peculiar nature of convenience stores.

Kim: I was a little nervous when I first wrote that piece. I wasn’t sure if I could craft it into a story. It was probably because the main character of the story was a space, not a person.

Jung: I think such close descriptions of spaces can accurately express the sentiments of a generation. The convenience store, for example, is a place that’s meant for young adults to work and shop. It’s the most familiar space for them but it is also fraught with painful memories. I’m also curious about your thoughts on the way society sees people in their 20s. If I were in my 20s now, I would be very uncomfortable with the label, “880 Thousand-Won Generation.” Isn’t it also problematic that society sees them as lacking love, romance and passion, which is what the 20s should be all about?

Kim: I think that, to a certain extent, each generation has misconceptions and fantasies about the other generations that often lead to disappointment. I thought it was interesting that the monikers for previous generations such as “4.19” or “386” came from political contexts whereas the names for our generation came from our economic circumstances. “4.19” or “386” sounds like an accomplishment or a result, whereas “880 Thousand-Won” seems to refer to our present circumstances. When I think of my friends while we were all in our 20s, I remember how the low pay relative to their efforts wore them out. The “880 Thousand-Won Generation” seems like one interpretation or explanation for people in their 20s, but I hoped to portray something beyond that in my stories—people who aren’t satisfied with what they have and are in need of something more. I suppose I placed greater faith in the portrait of a generation that surfaces through the portrayal of one individual rather than the attempt to describe the whole generation. I also hope that what I say does not work against what I write by getting too far ahead.

 

1. My Palpitating Life

Kim Ae-ran, Changbi Publishers, Inc.

2011, 354p, ISBN 9788936433871

 

2. Mouthwatering

Kim Ae-ran, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.

2007, 309p, ISBN 9788932018041

 

3. Run, Pop, Run!

Kim Ae-ran, Changbi Publishers, Inc.

2005, 268p, ISBN 9788936436902

Jung: Kim Young-ha’s Quiz Show reminds us of just how difficult it is to be in your 20s in Korean society today. The current generation of people in their 20s is educated, cultured, and more fluent in English than ever before and yet their gateway to society is so narrow. Their trials were quite heartbreaking in this novel. How do you feel about this perspective on people in their 20s?

Kim: I guess being the most privileged generation also means we are obligated to have reached a higher standard before we can be referred to as “average.” I think I’ve mentioned in a story that while for the previous generation poverty is a fond memory and a heroic tale, it is a secret and a shameful one for our generation. It is true that our generation is on the whole much more well off, but who’s to decide what’s “average?” Even when people are in the same biological age bracket, they lead vastly different lives depending on class and region. So I wonder to what extent the word “generation” can bind all those in their 20s together.

Jung: At the end of the day, the generational gap inevitably has areas of convergence with the class gap. When I was in school, class trips were always some place within the country like Gyeongju or Sorak Mountain, but I hear traveling abroad is becoming more common. But not everyone can afford it, so children start to encounter economic and cultural marginalization from an earlier stage in their lives. In that context, your “Christmas Specials” really speaks to the generational and class struggles. I know quite a few people who teared up reading that story. The sufferings of people in their 20s who must endure poverty at their most carefree and dazzling age comes through very movingly in your story.

Kim: It’s the most scandalous story I’ve ever written, too. (laughs) I’ve lived in university neighborhoods for a long time and have seen lots of love motels of different sizes. Every time one of those bright yet eerie signs caught my eye, I used to think, “Lots of people are ‘doing it’ today, too. They’re so sedulously going at it…” I found it somewhat poignant. (laughs) It’s one interesting phenomena in large cities, especially Seoul, where one can’t find a room on Christmas Eve. The story was inspired by the fact that all these young people want is to “do it” but they’re not even allowed that.

Jung: I feel there are too many events and “special” days these days. One prime example is Christmas. When I was young, people did not use to get so stressed over Christmas. I think the obsession with doing or giving something special on Christmas became far worse after 2000. The desire to consume has becomes greater than ever but few are capable of satisfying their needs, so people constantly suffer from a relative sense of loss. I think the 20s is when such a sense of inadequacy is most acutely felt. And I wonder if the sharp decline of patriarchal influence around the house has anything to do with the economic pain people in their 20s feel. Since the economic crisis at the turn of the century, it feels being a good father has become extremely hard to achieve. Your most acclaimed work, Run, Pop, Run! is a very meaningful, insightful testament to this power shift. Your story essentially looks at the fall or absence of the father figure from a child’s perspective and depicts the dysfunctional relationship like no story has ever done before.

Kim: For me, Run, Pop, Run! was the first story where I started to talk about the father figure. I started out with “Fathers are…” and then I didn’t know how to finish the sentence. I summoned up the character and then couldn’t figure out what to do with it, so I guess I started making fun of it and inviting it to play with me.

Jung: For our last questions, I would like to ask what advice you have for people in their 20s. Koreans in their 20s today tend to feel cornered. Their college tuition fees are astronomical, their debt from college is bound to restrict them with bad credit the moment they graduate, and they spend years after graduation not knowing when they will be hired, if they are ever going to be hired. No one needs more encouragement and help than they do, but it seems they are the most neglected. How would they make it in a world where they have so many wants and not enough means? What would you, as a recent graduate of the 20s, say to them?

Kim: I don’t think I’m in any position to hand out wholesome advice. Not because they’re so lofty, but because advice often tends to turn a situation into one’s own fault. The moment you say, “cheer up,” it is as though their failure is attributed to their lack of cheeriness. I think that to give advice to people, you have to have the right aura. I’m not one of those people. I’m still swayed by my own petty desires. I get depressed because I can’t have something I want, and I am not free from the pressures of consumerism. So I can’t just tell people that it’s nothing. But I also have the desire to bring whatever lives inside of me to the surface, and maybe find and foster whatever healthy or wholesome being that lives there. I know this makes me happy, and I think it’ll be similar with other people. I chose the novel to express these thoughts because I couldn’t turn them into one neat sentence or unambiguously be defeated or encouraged by what I have. So I can’t give people in their 20s some heartfelt advice, “Do such and such” or “I hope you do this or that.” But I can say that I hope to continue the dialogue with my readers and the characters from my stories that keep looking back at me through the eyes of people in their 20s. I hope to remain a writer who contemplates the times we are living in.

 

Epilogue

The older generation in Korea worries about the generation in their 20s more than ever. The older generation worries that 20-somethings have no gumption, no passion, and no vision when they should be full of dreams, love, and passion. The awful label, “880 Thousand-Won Generation” is often a reflection of the older generation’s merciless judgment. But the young characters in Kim Ae-ran’s stories suggest that what these young people need is not pity or concern, but to be simply left alone. The labels such as “Boomerang Kids (children who move back in with their parents)” or “Yi Tae-baek (Isiptae taebani baeksu, or “half the twenties are unemployed”) are ones imposed on them, not how they see themselves.

Young people, more so in their 20s than in any other time in their lives, have a right to be sensitive about what it means to “be myself” and constantly, unabashedly search for a way to be who they are. Kim Ae-ran is a writer who knows how important it is to contemplate “how I can be true to myself in life.” It is always a pleasure to watch her as she finds her own path unaltered by readers, critics, or other writers, for her characters seem to put us on the right path through their journeys to find themselves.

 

By Jung Yeo-ul