Interview with Kim Hye-jin: A New Kind of “Togetherness”
- onJuly 5, 2021
- Vol.52 Summer 2021
- byPark Hye-jin
Your novel Concerning My Daughter begins with a house and ends with a home, one could say. In that sense, I think the story is about forming a family as an economic unit and expanding it into an emotional support unit. The story considers new possibilities and forms of family by bringing together families that don’t meet society’s approval, families that have been torn apart, and families that have been lost. I wonder whether you had set out to write a family narrative different from pre-existing ones when you wrote it.
I didn’t start out wanting to write a family narrative. All I knew was that I wanted to write about a mother and daughter. In any case, the daughter moves in with the mother in the beginning of the story and brings her same-sex partner with her, and in the end the mother brings home an old patient named Jen she had been looking after in the convalescent home. It wasn’t until the characters were living under one roof that I realized that this novel could be read as a narrative about a new family. In the initial draft, Jen does not move in with the mother character. I had only written up to the scene where the mother goes looking for Jen when Jen is forced out of the convalescent home. It didn’t occur to me that the mother could bring Jen home with her.
The novel is also a portrayal of women of different generations. Many people read the story as a portrait of women’s solidarity, and I wonder what the solidarity could mean for them, what possibilities it opens up going forward in their lives. Any feelings or thoughts on this?
The most powerful unit of solidarity in Korean society is the family. When I was writing this novel, I thought it didn’t necessarily require blood relations to form a family. Then, as now, this is not a very radical idea in Korea. It has gained substantial social approval. But I do think that compared to people’s perceptions, the laws and institutions are more conservative. I think that once the laws and institutions become more flexible, family and solidarity will perhaps take much more diverse forms.
It was interesting to see that the climax of Concerning My Daughter was different for different readers. For me, it was the scene where the mother couldn’t say her daughter’s cell phone number at the protest scene. Some say it’s when they eat together at Jen’s funeral, while others say it’s where everyone gathers in one house. I wonder what the climax of this work is for you. Or maybe there was an image that inspired this novel?
In the second half of the novel, there’s a scene where the mother goes to the hospital to see her daughter who was injured at a protest. There, the mother meets up with her and her daughter’s partner and takes them to the cafeteria. Watching the two of them eat, the mother finally sees that these two are out there in a ruthless world. She realizes that they’re struggling to live their reality, not pursuing an illusion or a daydream. I thought this scene was the climax of this novel. This is also the scene where the change in the mother is most palpable.
I think the notion of change is at the core of the novel. The change that happens to the characters is especially important. I imagine you must have given a great deal of thought to how much change the mother can afford. For me, I liked the fact that the change in the mother’s attitude toward the daughter was not shown directly through her own relationship with her daughter, but through her relationship with Jen and through the daughter’s relationship with her partner. The difficulty of understanding a person is revealed very slowly through the changes in her own relationships.
I thought the mother was looking at her daughter’s future through Jen. There is also a part of her that understands her daughter a little better through her partner. How should I put it? I think in order to understand a person, you must understand the person’s relationships and circumstances, and your own relationships and circumstances in turn work closely to give you insight. I also think that understanding a person starts with facing and getting to know the external things that surround a person.
The novel is being translated into several foreign languages. Some have already been published, and some are forthcoming. Do you have any translation releases you are especially looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to the English translation. I think it’s because English is the only foreign language I can read a little at a time.
Concerning My Daughter has already been published in Japan. Have you been following the response since then? What was it like to see the Japanese translation? You also spoke at a book event hosted by the publisher of Eobi, your first short story collection.
It is always fascinating to see books in Japanese because the text runs top to bottom and right to left. All translations, not just the Japanese ones, feel like strangers to me because they come in different languages and different covers, too. It’s as if they aren’t mine. I haven’t been following the response of Japanese readers, but I’m curious.
What was the reaction or review from a reader or critic on Concerning My Daughter that you most appreciated as the author?
I remember when a critic said, “This novel is a novel about words.” I had never thought of it that way, because the mother isn’t able to fully articulate herself in the novel. But at some point, she verbalizes her thoughts. And she is astonished to find these words within herself. So the view that this is about a person finding her words stuck with me.
How would you say Concerning My Daughter impacted your later works?
Several more books have come out since Concerning My Daughter. I can’t say I felt a distinct sense of change each time. However, there is one thing: when I was writing Concerning My Daughter I thought I had to pour more into in the novel. That I had to put more into it and create something richer. But now I think it’s okay to have only one very small but very pure emotion in the novel, and that it’s enough to contain just one very clear thing in the story.
You started your career in 2012 with the short story “Chicken Run.” You have had a prolific career for the past nine years, receiving both critical and popular acclaim. What were some changes that occurred in terms of your views for value regarding fiction over the course of your career, if any?
I used to think that the narrative was the most important thing in a novel. Now, I think a scene, an interaction, or a sentence can carry greater meaning than a narrative. I guess you could say that my idea of what a novel is has become more flexible.
The homeless characters in your first novel, Central Station, and the characters at the protests in some of your short stories are examples of people in the streets who often appear in your works. They come off as having no choice but to go out into the streets, rather than being those who are unable to find a place for themselves. What would you say this instability in your characters represents in your works?
I think that a novel is the story of an individual and embodies the process of an individual living life. In that light, I think I consider life itself to be a great instability. I don’t know if instability is representative of something in my works, but I would say that the individuals I am examining live unstable lives. Maybe I want to keep asking through my stories how people are living their lives, and with what thoughts in their minds?
You chose the excerpt from Concerning My Daughter that appears alongside this interview. Can you tell us about why you chose this particular scene?
I think the scene best reveals the heart of this novel. It is the clearest portrayal of the conflict between the mother and daughter, and an honest depiction of the mother’s character.
The theater adaptation of Concerning My Daughter was staged last year. What was that like for you, seeing the sentences you wrote performed through actors’ bodies and watching it in person?
People experience the same novel in different ways perhaps because we each have such different lives and experiences. Maybe that’s why we sometimes get the feeling that we are seeing ourselves in the novels we read. Watching Concerning My Daughter on the stage felt like that for me. It was exciting to see scenes from the novel I wrote performed live, but the emotions and scene progressions that the director and actors discovered in my story were astonishing. It was a meaningful experience to reflect on why the stage adaptation took notice of those aspects and scenes.
Preparations for the screen adaptation of Concerning My Daughter are underway. I am curious if you ever imagined what the book would look like on the screen. Are there any scenes that you are especially looking forward to watching? Any casting hopes for the mother, daughter, and daughter’s partner roles you have in mind?
I get asked about the film adaptation a lot, but I honestly have a hard time picturing what it will look like. Or which actors would be good for the parts. There aren’t many incidents in the story, so I do hope that the everyday scenes of daily routines are portrayed well, but I truly think it’s all up to the director and the actors. One thing I’m curious about is what soundtrack will be used for which scenes.
This year marks the tenth year since you debuted as a novelist. How has your perception or attitude toward fiction changed in the last decade?
My perception of fiction has changed significantly since long ago when I first made up my mind to become a novelist. Back then, fiction was a story that was separate and distant from me, and that was enough. I must have believed that it was possible to maintain that distance between my life and the novels I write. But I think my stories are bound to come into contact and overlap with my life at a certain point. This is unavoidable.
Another change is that I find myself often wondering what it means to be a novelist in this age where personal narratives are increasing exponentially. Why should we read novels today when the stories of individuals are special and important? The standard of art in general, including fiction, is changing, and I wonder if we are living in an age where the value of a work of art is actively and quickly re-established by the audience and readers. I don’t have any good answers to these questions, but I certainly do wonder about more questions and take more things into consideration when I write than I ever did before.
Translated by Jamie Chang
Park Hye-jin has been working as a fiction editor at Minumsa since 2011, where she has edited bestsellers such as Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, Because I Don’t Like Korea, and others. A literary critic as well, she received the 2019 Annual Young Critic Award. She has co-authored The Books I’ve Been Meaning to Read Keep Piling Up. She is the editor of Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin whom she interviews here.