An Outsider Within: A Chat with Kim Young-ha
- onOctober 18, 2014
- Vol.8 Summer 2010
- byKim Stoker
Kim Young-ha is a representative of Korea's new generation of writers. His latest novel to be translated into English, Your Republic Is Calling You, will be published by Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin this fall.
On a breezy, borderline windy spring day, I sat down with writer Kim Young-ha at an outdoor café with arguably the longest name in all of Seoul. Located in the Hongik University district well-known for its indie music and club scene as well as its uncountable array of cafés, Look Outside the Window, The Wind Is Blowing, One Day from the North, One Day from the West is the kind of quiet, understated place just off the main street where you could imagine tucked in a corner. With eyes fixed to his laptop, fingers clicking in fits and spurts, a man pausing to look up in thought out a window. In other words, it’s the kind of place where Kim Young-ha feels right at home.
It was quite fitting that for a writer known as a hipster with a pulse on the state of contemporary culture and Korean society, Kim had with him a brand new iPad, not even available yet outside the U.S. Like many of his generation who went to university in the late 1980s during a time of tremendous political, economic, and societal change, or “chaos,” as Kim describes that time, he was struggling with finding a new identity in the midst of so much uncertainty. “As an author,” Kim commented “I feel my duty is to grasp and change and express the feeling of my generation.”
"My generation is different,” Kim says, in talking about how he and his contemporaries are no longer interested in writing about more traditional aspects or topics favored by Korean writers of the past. “We focus on the individual.”
Indeed, the characters that appear in Kim’s novels and short fiction are alienated, isolated, often without meaningful human connections wandering through the crowded neon-lit streets of Seoul, crammed into vehicles, trapped in elevators, or fixated on their computers while they listen to jazz, muse about Western art, and drive imported cars.
Kim burst onto the Korean literary scene in 1996 with his short novel, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, a story about connections and dislocations with an anonymous narrator who assists the walking wounded in committing suicide. Since then he has published several novels and dozens of short stories, over 24 of which have found their way into foreign language translations. He’s also won numerous literary awards in his native country. His latest work, Quiz Show, which was also adapted as a musical last year, captures the inner lives of educated, talented, yet disaffected people in their 20s, groping for a cause that will give meaning to their increasingly isolated lives in cyberspace.
Likening the job of a writer as being similar to that of a spy, Kim says that of all his characters, the one he identifies with the most is Ki-yong, the North Korean protagonist-spy of his latest novel to be translated into English, Your Republic Is Calling You. According to Kim, both writers and spies spend their time observing and recording the life that’s going on around them, which at the same time puts them in the position of being slightly removed from those they attempt to get to know. “I felt myself an outsider as a university student, like Ki-yong,” he says, of the character who enters South Korea posing as a leftist activist university student during the 1980s. “After graduation I also felt like I was an outsider.”
Reportor Kim Stoker and novelist Kim Young-ha
It’s not only the distance that an observer must have in order to fully gain perspective of those being observed that makes Kim feel like an outsider. Growing up near the DMZ, often moving as a result of being raised as a soldier’s son, Kim’s sense of removal from his peers was exacerbated by an accident when he was 10-years-old. His family was living in a cheap rental house on a military base. He and his mother were poisoned by gas fumes from a coal briquette (commonly used for heating at the time). As a result, Kim lost all of the memories from his childhood before age 10.
Without memory, without a concrete grasp of one’s past, it is hard to formulate a sense of place and belonging. Writing has been a way for him to “confront my inner problems…my past and trauma.” “Sometimes I feel I have no roots,” Kim says. “I feel myself floating on water.” It wasn’t until he started to write in his 20s that he realized his early childhood memories had been lost. It was then that he confronted his subconscious. “Now I live just as a kind of nomad,” he says, comfortable living in Seoul or New York or any number of other cities throughout the world.
Set to be published by Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin this September, Your Republic Is Calling You tells the story of Ki-yong, a North Korean spy sent to the South who is now working as a distributor of foreign films in Seoul. He lives a typical middle class life as “The kind of man who supports his family but is ignored by them.” His wife’s indifference is masked by her secret love affair with a young college student, and their young teenage daughter is cautiously navigating her own way through adolescence. Told in a 24-hour span of time, Ki-yong has to figure out how to react after he receives “Order No. 4” commanding him to return “home”—the first directive he’s heard from Pyongyang in the past 10 years.
Kim Young-ha’s interest in the lives of those on the fringes of society takes a new turn in Your Republic Is Calling You. “This novel is about the new diaspora,” he explains. “Ki-yong is kind of an immigrant.” Kim goes on to explain how his complex antihero is not really North Korean or South Korean. “I was looking for a character who sees Seoul and South Korea as a foreigner…[Ki-yong] always feels himself to be an immigrant, an illegal immigrant.” To be sure, Seoul from Ki-yong’s perspective is a dynamic, vibrant capitalist metropolis, yet at the same time it’s a surreal reminder of how alien he feels having grown up in the stifling “harmonica apartments” in the North. In the South he had to adapt and assimilate: “As a transplant in South Korean society, his whole mission was to adapt. He didn’t have the confidence or the courage to resist or reject change. That was a privilege of only the natives.” Ki-yong’s father told him, “Don’t be a fish; be a frog. Swim in the water and jump when you hit the ground.”
Indeed, Kim’s depiction of the fast-paced lifestyle of Seoulites will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the city. “Korea is a very fast changing country,” he says. “When I wrote that novel, I wanted to show Seoul to the readers, even to the Korean readers in different ways.” From the eyes of Ki-yong, an outsider within, the streets of Seoul have “never grown more familiar to him.” Kim would agree with his protagonist: “We think we know Seoul but I believe we don’t know [about] where we stay, where we live, so that’s why I combined Jongno with COEX. Jongno is a very old street and COEX is a newly built complex …Seoul is a city where everything is mixed, old things and new things, and weird things [that we take for granted.]”
These days, Kim is preparing for a year-long sojourn to New York where he will be a visiting scholar starting this fall at Columbia University. No matter where in the world he is, Kim Young-ha will continue to be a voice for those on the fringes of Korean modernity. “When I write I feel happy,” he says. “I feel alive.” Kim’s growing base of foreign readers should surely hope that he stays a happy man.
By Kim Stoker
1. What Happened to the Guy Stuck in the Elevator
(2006, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.)
2. Black Flower
(2003, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.)
3. Your Republic Is Calling You
(2010, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.)
4. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself
(2005, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.)
5. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself
(2006, published in Germany)
6. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself
(2007, published in Turkey)
7. What Happened to the Guy Stuck in the Elevator
(2008, published in Italy)
8. Your Republic Is Calling You
(2009, published in France)
9. Quiz Show
(2009, published in China)
10. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself
(2002, published in France)