[Web Exclusive] Finding Meaning in Inertia: Interview with Kwon Yeo-sun

  • onAugust 20, 2018
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: In your opinion, what is the purpose of literature?

Kwon Yeo-sun: What matters the most is that we live on because we’ve continued to do so. A danger arises the moment we start feeling lost as to why our lives have continued and why we must live on. I think what keeps us alive is the inertia of life. People play slight variations amongst repetitions, and find meaning in the gradual changes they generate. We experience both the inertia of repetitions and the process of searching for meaning in variations. I believe literature enables both and offers minimal help for us to retain our inner strength.


KLN: Did you undergo any inner transformation while writing?

Kwon: As with all writers, I often come up against my own limitations, and realize I’m not such a remarkable person. At times I feel that I lack talent and power in many ways. On a more complex level, I find myself almost possessed by the characters in my novels when I’m writing. I become so deeply engaged that I begin to reflect upon myself. I enter and explore the world of my novels. Therefore, the repulsive and terrifying aspects of the characters exist within me as well. I can’t turn away from my own flaws and shortcomings. Thankfully, instead of loathing or tormenting myself, I feel compassion and self-pity, which is really good for my writing. The virtue of writing is that it allows me to embrace with compassion both the characters in my novels and myself.


KLN: Hello, Drunkard has been published in Japanese translation. How do you feel about introducing it to Japanese readers?

Kwon: This is the first time I’ve had an entire book translated into a foreign language. I felt pleased and bewildered at first. The translator, Chiho Hashimoto, contacted me some time ago and we met up. I asked Chiho if she had any questions for me, and she said the job of a translator had become much easier thanks to the Korean Wave. Before, she had to add footnotes for names of Korean food, but these days many Japanese readers are pretty familiar with Korean culture from watching Korean dramas or other contents. She no longer encounters such difficulties. As I continue to write one novel after another, I always hope to give it my best and be as selective as possible. But that’s not always possible. Truth be told, sometimes I feel I’ve done a worse job than before, or worry that I repeat myself in some works. I just continue to publish one novel at a time. I’ve been lucky to receive favorable responses from my readers.



I thought I should share with Tae-woo the stories I’d heard from my aunt, but not knowing how to begin, I hesitated. I felt like I’d never be able to do it. My aunt talked about that winter night many times over, asking me each time if I noticed that something had changed a little. I would answer that I did. Perhaps our memories are structured in such a way that they creep about and shift as they pass through language and time. When I visited her for the last time, she was so frail that she could only utter a few words at a time. Again, what she said then was slightly different from what she’d said before.

Excerpted from "Aunt" in Hello, Drunkard

Translated by Helen Cho


KLN: In each of your novels, you seem to put a great deal of effort into describing different spaces.

Kwon: Indeed, I tend to go into too much detail about minor things. Especially when it comes to food and alcohol, I can’t help but intervene and add descriptions. I don’t do that so much anymore, but it’s largely for my own satisfaction. I do have a soft spot for food and alcohol. In the past, I used to include every little detail about food. My writing reflects my own prejudice and desires, and detailed descriptions draw people in. There are passages where I want my readers to fully experience this particular scene or space. That’s why I put a lot of effort into describing thing. Other times, I just let the characters be as if they exist in a vacuum. Even then, my desires operate differently in each scene or novel.


KLN: Where do you find new ideas for novels?

Kwon: No new subject matter comes to me in its complete form. Nor does it come as a story. Let me tell you how I wrote "Camera." There’s an uneven stone road in my neighborhood, where people often get their high heels caught and trip. I began wondering why the road was paved with stones. It’s inconvenient to walk on and makes for bumpy car rides. Why would the local government install a stone road? I even thought people might fall backward and die of a concussion. While I was writing "Camera," I suddenly remembered the stone road and decided to bring it in. Sometimes when I’m writing in a café or a library, I make notes of people or expressions that I find striking. If I start wondering about someone with an odd manner of speaking, a new character is born. In most cases, I can’t use such characters in my novels right away. But the notes I accumulate later turn into extensive lists that I can consult and bring characters from. I make delicate observations in everyday life. All of you here today could one day feature in my novels.


KLN: Food and alcohol are important elements in "To Believe in Love." Tell us more about the work.

Kwon: I wouldn’t call "To Believe in Love" a full-fledged love story. It’s rather ambiguous. It’s about a man and a woman who neither date nor fail to date. They share conversations while drinking together. I had a chance discuss the story with students at the LTI Korea Translation Academy. I was doubtful whether nuances or subtle shades of meaning could be translated. I still don’t know how they tackled such issues in translation. In this story, the focus is very much on the scene where the woman, disappointed in love, visits her aunt and listens to other miserable women in the decrepit living room. I did wonder how that unique ambience could be carried over. In fact, I don’t think a translation can convey everything in the original anyway. I think this ambiguous love story may find new readers elsewhere in a different culture.


KLN: Please tell us about your favorite writer.

Kwon: As I always say (and many have heard it all before), Tolstoy is my all time favorite writer. Tolstoy’s War and Peace takes me about a month to read if I do other things at the same time. The novel takes at least a week to finish, and I go back to it every 5~6 years. I must’ve read it 7~8 times so far, and I always find it absolutely fascinating. I have immense respect for a writer capable of creating that kind of world and mood. That’s not to say that I’ve been influenced by his writing. Even if I want to, I simply don’t have the capacity to be influenced by Tolstoy. In addition, I’m a huge fan of short story writers like William Trevor and Alice Munro, a Canadian Nobel Laureate. I like Raymond Carver for the way he uses alcohol in his short stories. I like different writers at different times, but my absolute favorite is Tolstoy.


KLN: What are you writing about now, or what stories do you plan to write in the future?

Kwon: Whenever I get tired of working on such fierce stories, language shows me another way. Language has changed me. My transformation means I couldn’t help but write the way I did before and now it’s inevitable that I write the way I do now. Each time I write a new story, I resolve to induce even the slightest change. In the same way, I’m currently writing a short story. My aim is to share what comes out of my inner world rather than look for something to write about.