[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.