[Web Exclusive] Interview with Han Changhoon: Living on an Island Among People

  • onMarch 14, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: You’ve been living on Geomundo Island for many years. Please tell us about your daily life.

Han: Many people are curious about how I spend my days on the island. Life on the island is very simple. It is inevitably so, since there’s nothing much to do. On the island, the first thing I do in the morning is check the direction and speed of the wind. The wind’s velocity per second and its direction—whether it is easterly, westerly or southerly—determine my daily schedule. That’s because the sea changes with every wind.

As for work, I mostly read and write in the morning. During the morning, I usually stay at home in front of my computer. But I can’t do that all day long. So, in the afternoon, if the weather is good, I go out to the sea on my boat to catch some fish for food. On rainy days, I climb the mountain or go down to the village to listen to my neighbors. I tend to lend an attentive ear. Or, sometimes I throw questions at them. That’s about the extent of my daily routine. It’s pretty simple actually.


KLN: When did you first decide to become a writer?

Han: I got off to a late start compared to most other writers. At age 25, I thought long and hard about my future career. I knew I wasn’t cut out for money-making. Which profession would exempt me from censure even if I failed to make any money? Being a novelist.

It was back in the 1980s. I’d set myself certain laws or principles of life. I wondered how I could retain them for a long time. The answer was to become a writer. I’m from the periphery—an outsider whose language and sensibilities are tied to that island. I hoped to put down on paper the stories of my fellow islanders. For these three reasons, I made up my mind to become a novelist, and then started with the very basics.


KLN: How did you learn to write a novel?

Han: At first, I didn’t know anything. After dropping out of school and wandering around for a bit, I’d found a job at a factory. Then one day, I decided to become a writer. It seemed easy. All I had to do was write a great novel. I got myself paper and several pens of different colors. But as soon as I sat down to write, I hit a huge wall. I didn’t know how to write a novel. So, I went back to school. I got help from my classmates who were ahead of me, while taking as many classes as I could. Little by little, I began to improve. I had no idea what I was doing back then. Other writers must have gone through something similar.


KLN: Since your literary debut in 1992, you’ve been a novelist for 28 years. How do you find the life of a writer?

Han: I’ve not enjoyed it much. It’s been a tough ride. I may get criticized for saying this, but to be honest, I regard being a novelist as a kind of a job. To me, writing is a duty that I must work hard to fulfil. That’s why I’ve never stayed up all night writing. My colleagues talk about the joy of completing a new novel at dawn after writing through the night, but I’ve never experienced that feeling. I just think to myself, ‘Goodness, it’s done finally.’ Without fussing over this and that, I’ve been writing diligently in given circumstances. That’s all. I’ve not taken pleasure in it. I’m the odd one out.


KLN: The main characters of Mussels all live off the sea. What made you write about such people?

Han: They are no doubt the kind of people I’m most familiar with. I’m one of them. There are a few other reasons. Most importantly, I’m from a small village on a remote island. As an outsider from the periphery, I’m naturally drawn to people far removed or pushed out from the center. Inevitably, they appear in many of my novels. That’s how Mussels came about.


“You must become a great captain.”

Those were the last words his father said to him before he moved on to the next world, leaving his big toe in the belly of a rat. His father, who had been a crewman all his life, considered becoming a captain as a way to avoid being eaten by a rat. His father’s will aside, the man liked the sea and seamen.

Excerpted from I Like It Here


KLN: I Like It Here is the story of a fisherman. Please tell us about the work.

Han: There is something fateful about such a remote island. Inconvenience is part of island life because there are no handy facilities around. Women in particular have always had a rough time of it. Although my childhood friends miss the island, they do not wish to return. They dislike it there. Some of the women who move to the island after marriage struggle with their new lifestyle. Most of all, they feel lonely and isolated. Plus, there’re no department stores or big markets. At the same time, delicious seafood and beautiful scenery exist side by side.    

Life on the island can be described as a pendular movement between those two elements. I Like It Here is set against that backdrop. They clash with each other. The man in the story wants to continue living on the island, while his wife wants to move to the mainland. To this day, that remains a fateful conflict for everyone. There’s a story behind the story. The novel is based on a real-life married couple. In reality, they got divorced. The wife left the island and remarried, and the husband stayed behind and remarried, too. Last year, the woman passed away on the mainland. The tragic stories of the island encompass all of that.


KLN: How do you want Russian readers to respond to I Like It Here?

Han: I hope the novel provides foreign readers with a vivid portrait of people in Korea especially those living on the outskirts. The book does not contain a grand theme. As contemporaries, we are bound to share some common sentiments. There must be peripheries in other countries, too.


KLN: Humor plays an important role in your writing.

Han: Humor prevails in the furthest depth of sorrow. People often turn to humor as a way of enduring and overcoming hardship. One of my favorite phrases is “laughter at the end of a tunnel.” You can always tell when someone laughs consciously in order to ease their own sorrow. The ladies I met back in my factory days had it tough but laughed readily. That’s what kept them going through difficult times. In my writing, I place a great deal of weight on wit and humor.


KLN: You began writing in order to hold on to your principles. Have you been successful?

Han: Nobody knows what tomorrow may bring. That’s what makes life endurable. It doesn’t hurt to live by one’s own principles. I’ve managed to pull through without violating mine. At least I don’t think I’ve turned into a bad guy.


English subtitles translated by Helen Cho