Telling the Lives of the Poor: Novelist Kim Joo-Young

  • onOctober 19, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • byUh Soo-woong


This May I went to the KLTI U.S. Forum held at UCLA with the writer Kim Joo-Young. The theme of the forum was “Looking to Prosperity from Within the Ruins: Korea in Korean Literature,” and Kim spoke with warmth and candor about his eventful past. If one had to sum up Kim’s work in one word, through its journey from ruins to prosperity, that word would be poverty. He comes from Jinbo-myeon, Cheongsong-gun, North Gyeongsang province. While few Koreans who remember the Japanese annexation and the Korean War could say that they did not suffer from poverty, Kim’s impoverished childhood growing up with a single mother sets his experience apart from many others.

Back in Seoul I met the author again at a café in Gahoe-dong one summer day, with the rain that had kept the city hostage for weeks still pouring outside. In order to ease into the lush garden of Kim’s work, which focused on poverty and the mother figure throughout his life, I first asked about his eccentric sleeping habits.



Uh Soo-woong: They say that you slept in the living room for 20 years.

Kim Joo-Young: More than 20 years. If I may exaggerate, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the living room—I don’t sleep well in the dark, is all. I have to have a light on. I don’t go to dimly lit coffee shops or cafes. Don’t want to. Why don't I want to? When I was a boy I lived entirely indoors. I hid in closets and slept there. I also had a stutter. Was it ever a pain to get rid of. Back in the day I hosted a talk show on MBC, in black and white. I did it on purpose to get rid of my stutter.

Uh: It only seems natural that a good speaker like you should be offered a job like that.

Kim: I knew one of the writers. He put in a good word for me. I warned him, “I stutter. I’m not very articulate.” But the writer, he says, “That’s why you’re likeable, because you blunder.” After that I decided to change my ways, seek out the light, sleep in bright places at home. That’s when I started sleeping in the living room. You could say I went from one extreme to another. I was a country boy with not a soul to call kith or kin in the city, trying to make it on my own, so I thought I had to change my ways to make something of myself.

Uh: What does your wife think about your shunning the bedroom forever? (laughter)

Kim: I’ve kept to one thing since I got married. I promised myself I would do anything short of stealing or doing con jobs to support my family. I would always have a monthly income of so much. And I stuck to that. I haven’t been very good to my family in any other way, but I have kept to that. At home my wife has the upper hand, of course.


1. The Sound of Thunder

Kim Joo-Young, Munidang

2000, 366p, ISBN 8974561484


2. Tradesman (9 volumes)

Kim Joo-Young, Munidang



3. A Skate Fish

Kim Joo-Young, Munidang

2009, 294p, ISBN 9788974564254


Uh: Now that we’re talking about money, let’s talk about poverty. You’ve been known to say that you were poor “the minute the umbilical cord was cut.” What does poverty signify in your work?

Kim: I haven’t told anyone about this yet, but I’m working on a novel right now. I’ve written about 140 pages so far. At the moment I’m calling it My Mother’s Memoirs. It’s going to be the definitive answer to where Kim Joo-Young’s poverty comes from. My mother had to support two households, hers and her brother’s, because my uncle was useless. I was depressed because we were so poor, always alone, always picked on. I tried to be strong but I couldn’t. It’s what I’ve been asking myself for the past 70 years: What has poverty done for me? Now I try to look on the bright side. I would never have become a writer if we weren’t poor. In the first place, poverty has a way of making people cringe and crawl. It makes you subservient. I never fell in that trap. And in the second place, I wrote about the kind of life poor people live. So I kind of lived off poverty. And lastly, being poor gave me the strength to survive on my own in the big city. It’s my pride. I used to be ashamed of it. But one of my friends gave me a piece of advice. Said I was too old to be ashamed of anything, and I’d be a healthier man to give up my hang-ups. I figured I’d take that advice.

Uh: But everybody was poor back then. Going without lunch at school and such was fairly common.

Kim: It was different for me in a more all-encompassing way. I didn’t just go without lunch. I didn’t have a father, and my mother had to work every day to put food on the table. The other children may not have had lunch but they all had normal families. They had a farm, a dad and a mom. They weren’t called trash. I was. My mother died two years ago. She was over 90 when the government tried to give her this ‘Outstanding Mother’ award. She was in her hometown Cheongsong, North Gyeongsang province. And she wouldn’t budge to come to the award ceremony no matter what they said. She said she didn’t deserve it. (laughs) She wouldn’t come even though I told her the prize was a golden hairpin, said she didn’t have enough hair to put up anyway. I wished she would have come. 


novelist Kim Joo-Young and reporter Uh Soo-woong


Uh: You worked at the tobacco co-op in Andong, North Gyeongsang province for about 10 years after you graduated from Sorabol Arts College. What made the young Kim Joo-Young, tobacco co-op worker in Andong, return to literature?

Kim: Actually I hadn’t graduated when I started working in Andong. I worked there and came to Seoul to take my exams. It all comes down to poverty. Kim Dong-ri was teaching back then and he let me get away with it. That job paid a lot. Everyone wanted it. So the problem was, I started drinking. Every day. Only went to places that had girls, too. I drank so much I ruptured my bowels. And suddenly one day I realized, I could ruin my life this way. Nobody gave me advice along the way in my life. I learned everything the hard way. My mother had remarried and was preoccupied trying to make ends meet, so I was alone. I had a flash of clarity that I couldn’t continue going on like that. So I quit. And I wrote my first story. It won Honorable Mention in the Wolgan Munhak (Literature Monthly). Not a bad start. And that’s how I went back to literature.

Uh: Now, poverty and the mother figure form the foundation of your work, but the building blocks are your vocabulary. I remember reading about the novelist Lee Mun-ku calling the vocabulary in your signature works such as Tradesman and The Sound of Thunder your “blood and capillaries.”


1. Ein Fischer bricht das Schilfrohr nicht
Kim Joo-Young, Peperkorn, 2002

2. El pescador no tala
Kim Joo-Young, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 1996
3. Рыбак не ломает камышей
Kim Joo-Young
Московский государственный университет, 2003

4. Le pêcheur ne cueille pas de roseaux
Kim Joo-Young, Éditions du Petit Véhicule, 2000
5. Sardellen
Kim Joo-Young, Peperkorn, 2007

Kim Joo-Young, 吉林大学出版社, 2010


Kim: Back then historical fiction was written from the perspective of kings and lords. Tradesman is written in the perspective of a commoner. It’s about traveling peddlers. Its greatest strength and weakness, however, was that there were too many obscure words. I wanted to write the novel in the language peddlers actually used in the olden days. It was a right pain researching that novel. I don’t think there’s a market in the country I didn’t visit, and I even sent off to Japan for some information. I am proud of one thing, though. There isn’t a word in the book that’s not in the dictionary. And I’ve never changed a single word in all the editions that have been printed since it came out decades ago. I was that thorough.

Uh: Don’t you think, however, that while writers don’t necessarily have to write with a global audience in mind, that using obscure Korean words makes it harder for your books to be translated? Tradesman and The Sound of Thunder must be hard to translate with all of those distinct words.

Kim: Lee Mun-ku and I talked about that when he was alive. He was an ardent defender of the Korean language and he knew that I lean towards that side as well. He said, “You and I, we’ll never be translated.” There are a lot of words in Korean that are difficult to describe. The meaning depends on the nuance. Lee Mun-ku and I use those kinds of words a lot. But you can’t translate the way those words are interpreted. You shouldn’t use those kinds of words, period, if you want your work to be translated. So of course they’re hard to translate. But I was determined that if that was the way the Korean language was, I was going to keep on using those kind of words.

But I do believe that the literary message will prevail. There’s a woman in The Sound of Thunder named Kil-nyo. She’s a sweet woman, uneducated, everyone takes advantage of her. She doesn’t even know the word for love, but she loves with all her heart. The word love doesn’t even appear in this novel except at the very end. I think maybe that has to do with what is truly Korean, what Korean literature means.

1. Раскаты грома
Kim Joo-Young, РИК Культура, 1999

2. The Sound of Thunder
Kim Joo-Young, Sisayongosa, Inc., 1990

3. 《惊天雷声
Kim Joo-Young, 上海译文出版社, 2008

4. صوت الرعد
Kim Joo-Young, Dar al-Adab, 2006
5. Der Stachelrochen
Kim Joo-Young, Peperkorn, 2001

6. Mopcka Komka
Kim Joo-Young, CEMA PШ, 2006

Kim Joo-Young, 上海译文出版社, 2004

8. La raya
Kim Joo-Young, Solar Editores, 2009


Uh: Now that everyone is living longer, I think we can expect more from even those of our writers who have already earned their place in the literary canon. What are your plans for the future?

Kim: I plan to finish the novel about my mother that I was talking about by this year. Next year I’m going to write the tenth book of Tradesman. I was going to stop with nine books, but now I have an excuse for another one. I was passing by a place called Uljin in North Gyeongsang province when I learned that there was the only surviving peddler’s path in the country there. I poked around for a couple of days and I found all the old memorial stones, the taverns, the spring, the commemorative marker. I rented a place right next to the Uljin Nuclear Plant, too. I’ll be working on that next year. And then I want to write about little things, flies, mosquitoes, mice, those kinds of things. I want to write the stories of creatures that are never given any thought, sort of half-novel, half-fairy tale. I went through a dry spell for three years or so since I’ve been trying to quit smoking. Bit of a side effect, if you will. Couldn’t concentrate. But now I’ve rested three years I feel like I’ve recharged my batteries. (laughs)

I was given a glimpse of the author’s famous laugh towards the end of the interview. Seeing Kim grin ear to ear is to experience all of one’s problems mysteriously vanish away, if only for a moment. And to read his most famous works—TradesmanA Skate FishThe Sound of Thunder—is to experience that laughter again. The people in those books stick together. They may be poor and sad and lonely by themselves, but they always have a rollicking good time together. In the end, Kim Joo-Young’s work comes down to that—the solidarity of the poor.