[A Conversation with Lee Kiho] Straight Outta Gangwon
- onJune 20, 2018
- Vol.40 Summer 2018
- byEd Park
Ed Park: It was nice to meet you when I was in Seoul a few years ago. I was very taken with your first novel, translated as At Least We Can Apologize and published in the US in 2013. Before we get to that, I’d love to know more about your origins. Where were you born and what was your family like? What were you like as a youngster?
Lee Kiho: I still have fond memories of the late afternoon chat we had at the café in Hongdae. I was born in 1972 in a small city called Wonju in Gangwon Province. My father was a regular civil servant and my mother a homemaker. My family, my city, it was all completely ordinary. But inside, I was simmering, just about ready to boil over. Reading had been my favorite pastime growing up, so I was always a little emotionally sensitive. I would often think about running away for no reason and had a hard time adjusting to school. One thing I’m very glad for is that whenever things got unbearable, I would go to my grandmother’s house in the countryside, far away from Wonju. (If I hadn’t . . . well, I’d have ended up being a runaway.) I’d stay for a month or two with my grandmother and listen to her stories (mostly her griping about my parents), read books, and write ridiculous things on an ancient typewriter (it was sort of like typing practice). Once I’d gotten the strength to get back on my feet, I’d go back to Wonju. I suppose books and my grandmother’s house are what define my childhood and adolescence.
Park: What was your grandmother’s life like?
Lee: Like a lot of people from her generation, my grandmother was a quintessential Buddhist who respected Korea’s old feudal order. She was forced to flee her home during the Korean War but put down her roots afterwards and raised eight children. She was widowed rather young and never remarried, which may be why she loved spending time with people and talking with them. She knew all kinds of interesting stories and believed that the world wasn’t just made of the things we could see with our eyes—that, in fact, the world was made up of more things that were invisible to us. My grandmother told me stories about every elder in the village; stories about the lives they lived and the adventures they had. She also told me mysterious folktales about snakes turning into humans, or about the souls of the dead being absorbed into trees. It was much later that I realized that all my stories were rooted in her.
Park: What did you dislike about school?
Lee: As a child, my curiosity leaned in atypical directions. I’d gone through every book in the house and run out of things to read, so I would read my father’s newspapers before going to school every day. Dailies back then used to publish serialized fiction. And as you might expect, they were geared toward the lowest common denominator and very risqué—you have to remember that I was about ten years old when I read these. I’d ask my teachers about the things in those stories that weren’t in the textbooks, like why the king was always trying to take the concubines’ clothes off. The teachers had a hard time trying to answer my questions, and eventually they stopped letting me ask at all. So I turned to books even more to satisfy my curiosity, until at some point the world was just no longer interesting. I fell deep into nihilism, thinking that everything was pointless because we were all going to die anyway. That wasn’t what the world was trying to tell me—I was still in elementary school and I’d misinterpreted the messages I’d read—but those emotions were real, and they sat heavy on me for a long time. I was always gripped by this fear that life was pointless, and that adults were despicable and the world was all misery. I couldn’t connect with anyone at school or at home, skipping classes to wander the mountains and rivers in the area. School got even worse as soon as I started junior high; I was hospitalized for a lengthy time because of liver problems, isolating me even more from my peers. So I ended up being a loner and a bookworm.
Park: Which writers struck a chord with you early on?
Lee: I would say Son Chang-sop is my biggest Korean influence. He was mostly active in the 1950s, and my master’s thesis was on the manifestation of desire in his works. Son wrote extensively on the themes of death and materialism, which were particularly pertinent at the time because the country was still reeling from the Korean War. He was an impoverished wanderer to the end and passed away in Japan. What I find notable about Son is that rather than ideology, he dealt with real, more immediate problems like poverty. You’ll find he’s done a lot of interesting work from a psychoanalytic perspective. Other authors I would cite as influences include Lee Mun Ku, Hwang Sok-yong, Kim Seungok, and Jang Jung-il.
Park: Were there any non-Korean authors whose works you responded to?
Lee: I draw significant inspiration from Kenzaburō Ōe and Günter Grass. I once had a Russian literature phase, reading authors like Dostoyevsky, but one day I realized that all their stories ran along the same emotional lines. Or maybe it was just the translation, but either way, I found it a little monotonous. That was when I encountered Ōe and Grass. Their works showed me that our emotions can be divided into a colorful spectrum, the way a beam of light refracts into a rainbow when it hits a prism. (To think that humor could be found even in scenes of ruin and the grotesque!) They also inspired me in many ways to think about the ironic things of life. Afterwards, I read more non-Korean authors like Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, John Williams, and Flannery O’Connor.
Park: What sparked you to become a writer? You won a monthly “new writer’s” contest in 1999 (for “Birney”). Had there been many prior attempts?
Lee: Spending time with a very talkative grandmother meant I was exposed to all kinds of stories. I found myself thinking a lot about respect for things that are not visible to the eye, about decisions and the things in our individual lives that reason and rationality can’t fully explain. I wanted to tell the world about these things. I’d known myself well enough to guess I wasn’t a good fit for office life, so I chose to major in literature. I started writing seriously as an undergrad and submitted short stories and full-length novels to competitions . . . to little success. I was in graduate school when I was published in a literary magazine called Hyundae Munhak. That was how I officially kicked off my career as a writer.
I wrote “Birney” in February of 1999, when gangsta rap was all the rage in South Korea. I took the characteristics of the genre and applied them to my work, essentially making the story a set of rap lyrics. Hip-hop artists like Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre were especially popular at the time, and if you look at their lyrics, you can see a common narrative—the story of resistance against rules and the system, an ode to rebellion. I saw it as a sort of philosophy, a philosophy of authenticity. I’d happened to have an interest in these people who operated outside the system. And I came to the conclusion that rap was the most authentic, intimate way to convey the character’s perspective to the readers.
Park: Fascinating! I’m curious: Have there been any Korean rap acts that you feel capture this outsider philosophy or point of view?
Lee: I listened a lot to ZoPD at the time. He was one of Korea’s first big rap artists—that’s the generation that stopped singing ballads about love and farewells, and instead talked about inequality, the problems with the educational system, and even things like ideology, taking it all in a subversive direction that praised resentment and deviance from the norm. After that, I listened to Drunken Tiger, Leessang, and Verbal Jint.
Park: Was there a literary tradition you were reacting against—or trying to extend?
Lee: Korean literature has a long history of being an agent of enlightenment and education. This tradition has its roots in Korea’s modern history—literature was compelled to take on the mantle of guide because of the many tragedies and extreme ideological conflicts that filled the peninsula for half a century. Korean literature was right to expressly decry the inhumanity and directly depict the tragedies that took place—it was an act demanded of the field from a social responsibility perspective—but at the same time, diversity in the field suffered for it. Writers from my generation and later (people who started working in the early 2000s) are making a break from the decades-long tradition, speaking through a wider range of situations and characters to put today’s ideological conflicts and tragedies into story form. My goal isn’t to be a teacher of right and wrong—it’s to respect the lives of those who cannot be completely defined by reason and rationality. This is my philosophy as an author: to always maintain a sense of humor and cheer, even as I refuse to look away from historical truths and tragedies.
Park: Which contemporary Korean writers do you feel a kinship to, if any?
Lee: My favorite Korean writers are Park Min-gyu, Hwang Jungeun, and Kim Ae-ran, and I also really enjoy Kim Yeonsu, Pyun Hye Young, and Han Kang—not as fellow writers, but simply as a fan and reader. They showed me the beauty of writing in Korean and taught me that the spaces between sentences were themselves a language. I also learned from them that a novel isn’t just a story—it’s a genre that tells stories while pursuing the deeper truths that lie beyond them. One big commonality between these authors is that they stood their ground against the injustices in South Korean society and refused to ignore the plight of those most victimized by it.
Park: I want to talk a bit about your novel At Least We Can Apologize, which I found totally exhilarating. To me it’s a perfect novel—the conception and execution feel welded together. And amid the grimness of the situation, there’s a note of humor, even cheerfulness, that excited me. How’d you do it?
Lee: It’s not easy to describe what happens to me when I’m writing. At Least We Can Apologize was especially grueling because it was my first full-length novel, and—of all things—was serialized daily on the internet. But what I found most difficult about this book was staying true to the “aesthetics” of the novel. To me, the most important thing while writing a novel is communicating something new, and I consider this “newness” to be the “aesthetic” of the novel. I want to break new ground, going where no Korean novel had gone before—whether in terms of writing, character, plot, or any other element.
That’s why it took me a long time to plan out At Least We Can Apologize and just as long to revise and edit the manuscript. You noted that the book was humorous and cheerful; I did that on purpose, to make sure that the harrowing events later hit even harder. I believe that emotion isn’t just a reflexive response or a sensation—it’s fundamentally influenced by our beliefs. And sometimes, we use those beliefs to discriminate against people or judge them. With this book, I wanted to ask readers: Are your beliefs justified? Are your emotions, which stem from your beliefs, not twisted or violent in nature?
Park: The book follows two friends, Jin-man and Si-bong, who become inseparable during their time in a mental institution where they’re treated barbarically. They appear to be of circumscribed intelligence (though there are qualifiers and twists). Cruelly beaten, they later offer their services to the general public: they will apologize on your behalf to the person of your choice. It’s an absurd situation, yet hauntingly believable, given that the one thing they did become expert at while at the institution was apologizing. Did Jin-man’s “simple” mind/voice dictate how the story unfolded, or did you have a general idea of the structure and plot beforehand?
Lee: I did have a general sense of where I wanted to take this story and how I wanted to structure it. As it happens, I heard some people had started an apology business in China. (Of course, it crashed and burned.) Apologies were the starting point for this novel. I knew that I could use Jin-man and Si-bong’s apologies to create a very ironic situation in the book. But the specific scenes and incidents came to me spontaneously, one day after another. All I did was to serve as a compass so they wouldn’t lose their way. But by the halfway point, it felt like Jin-man and Si-bong were the ones guiding me.
Park: Part of what’s so energizing about the novel is that it feels laden with symbolic meaning, while the actual line-by-line writing is spry, even playful. It’s a pleasure to read, even as it goes into some dark places. I wonder: Did you always have a moral in mind? Are there connections we should draw between the plight of your heroes and Korean society (or civilization) at large?
Lee: I see the idea of apology as connected to the idea of guilt, and guilt again connected to the idea of shame. Korean society is especially sensitive to guilt and shame, which means there’s a lot of self-consciousness in our culture. Morals, ethics, and customs are held more sacred than written law, and they dictate whether a person in this society is “normal” or “abnormal.” I wanted to use Jin-man—who is an abnormal character, especially by Korean standards—to suggest that “shame” in Korean society is externally imposed, and that such external pressure is actually a means by which we discriminate against different people.
Park: I don’t think we ever learn which city or town Jin-man and Si-bong escape to (or where the institution is, for that matter). This makes the story universal. In your mind, did you have a specific or general idea in terms of location?
Lee: A few years ago, there was an outcry in South Korea about abuse and violence against people who were committed to institutions. The solitary confinement, punishment, and sexual abuse I discussed in the novel are all things that happened in real life. But I didn’t personally do a lot of deep research on those incidents. My biggest concern wasn’t with individual cases or locations, but with all of Korean society. To me, the entire society feels like a giant institution, with those in power and those who protect the status quo being the ones committing these abuses. And I don’t think this problem is limited to South Korea, either. When someone wields power and becomes too powerful, he creates a metaphorical institution in order to justify and conceal his full influence.
Park: Do you have any rituals?
Lee: I’ll let you on in a trade secret—I sleep before I write. Very briefly, about half an hour to an hour. It’s a warm-up ritual I call a “cut-off.” I have to do this because I’m juggling two things at once: teaching classes during the day and writing my stories in the evenings. Just sitting down at my desk isn’t enough. I have to somehow separate my two lives. During the day, I’m bombarded with all kinds of information—I’m talking with my students, preparing for classes, and glued to my smartphone during breaks. All that information gets in the way of my writing. That’s why I have the “cut-off” ritual. I separate myself from the endless flow of information and transform into a writer, kind of like when Bruce Wayne goes into the Batcave and comes out as Batman. The one downside is that sometimes I forget to set the alarm and sleep through the night. Otherwise, it’s a great strategy. I highly recommend it!
Park: You said something fascinating when I met you: that your second novel, A World History of Second Sons, was sparked in some way from reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Since many of our Anglophone readers haven’t read History (which hasn’t been published in English), but might be familiar with Oscar Wao, could you elaborate a bit on this? Are there parallels in the way you address moments of history? [Note: A few days after I sent this question, Díaz was accused of sexual misconduct and misogynistic verbal abuse by several American writers.]
Lee: Both A World History of Second Sons and Oscar Wao deal with real historical dictators (in South Korea and the Dominican Republic), and both mourn a single person who was victimized within that context. I can’t speak for Diaz, but I thought that conveying the story in an upbeat tone would emphasize the brutality of the history I recount. There are differences between our books, of course: Oscar Wao uses the character of Yunior as the main voice of the story, but in my book, the same role is filled by the author’s voice. The author actually steps in at points and even gives his own subjective perspective on the characters. Another difference is that Oscar Wao dies at the end of his story, but my main character survives and is still a wanted man. So it’s not all the same, but I can certainly see a lot of commonalities in the way the two books use reality as a tool in the pursuit of truth and convey the fears and anxieties of people subjected to brutal dictatorial rule.
Park: What does the title mean?
Lee: The title does need a bit of explaining. Back in the 1980s (when the novel is set), the Chun Doo-hwan regime in South Korea was afraid of only one thing: the Reagan administration, which implicitly approved of Chun and turned a blind eye to his military regime’s abuses. (This is described in full detail in the novel.) You could think of the two administrations as brothers, with the Reagan administration as the big brother, the first son, and the Chun regime as the younger brother or second son. The people in the “younger brother” country were subject to all sorts of misshapen ambitions and twisted violence (the people in power weren’t exempt either), even though the ordinary people of the “big brother” country didn’t necessarily want to cause them harm. Because of this relationship, a formless, invisible fear ran through South Korea, driving people into tragic and unthinkable circumstances for no reason other than the fact that they lived in South Korea in the 1980s. That’s the story behind the title A World History of Second Sons.
Park: What are you working on these days?
Lee: I’m writing a story that puts my own spin on the Book of Job. It takes place after the Bible story; he has a bad relationship with the children born to him after his ordeals and is hurt because of the friction between them. I’m calling it The Book of Job, Chapter 43.
by Ed Park
Author, Personal Days (2008)
Editor, Buffalo Noir (2015)
Photo ⓒ Jung Yoojin