Interview with Lim Chulwoo: Bearing the Weight of Unfinished Memories

  • onJune 18, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byKim Yoseop

Photographs Copyright ⓒ Sung Tae hyun

Kim: Would you introduce yourself and share your life as a writer for our readers?

Lim: I was born in 1954 on a small island off the southern coast of Korea. I spent my childhood there, with no electricity or automobiles. At the age of ten I followed my parents and moved to the mainland of Korea where I lived for the next thirty years in Gwangju. Then in 1980 while I was in college, the May 18 Democratic Uprising occurred; this event was the most impactful in my life, both personally and literarily. The following year, I debuted as a writer by winning an annual spring writing competition. Since then, I have published several novels and short story collections. I also taught creative writing at the college level until my retirement. Now I live with my family on Jeju Island.

Over my career I have used fiction set in the dark periods of modern Korean history to primarily explore how the violence of state power has destroyed both individual and communal life. In fact, I would say that this issue is not just important to me, but is probably the most immediate and essential life question for my entire generation. The impoverished and destitute living conditions following the Korean War; the violence and brutality of a longstanding military dictatorship; the coercive and violent nature of the government’s economic development policies; and the sacrifices made by the Korean people in the fight to gain democracy—the traces of much of this pain and suffering, which have been etched into Korea’s turbulent modern history, can be found throughout my novels. In a way, they form the foundation of my personal authorial philosophy of “outrage toward and defiance against violence, and a belief in humanity.”

Kim: You’ve said that the violence rife throughout Korean society has been a menace even in your own life. For example, in college you learned that you were blacklisted by association to your father, who had been accused of being a leftist.

Lim: I remember the shock I felt when my father confessed this to me. I also remember the way my father’s face went pale and how his voice shook as he confided in me. That was the moment I realized that war and division and the crippling reality those two brought about were not just some abstract concepts, but problems that affected my existence directly—an actual “trap,” if you will, lying in wait for me. That experience of awakening, as well as the experience of the May 18 Democratic Uprising which happened not long after, became a kind of turning point in my outlook on the world as a writer.

Kim: Your novels deal with the tragedies of modern Korean history. In particular, the Naju Unit Massacre, which happened on your home island of Wando, and the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising, have had a large impact on your work. But because government censorship continued through the 1980s, you had to write fiction during a period when it was particularly difficult to write about such sensitive topics. Was it not difficult to write amidst such heavy censorship?

Lim: During the times of military dictatorship, when those responsible for the Gwangju massacre were in power and when freedom of expression was severely suppressed, I was forced to find an effective method of expression. Even into the mid-1980s, I would get regular calls from the intelligence agent in charge of monitoring me. He would make subtle threats by asking what I was up to or what the subject of my new novel was. A large number of my early works were the product of unavoidable decisions made under such circumstances. Sometimes I would utilize symbolic or satirical forms to circumvent censorship, and to this day I still enjoy experimenting with a wide range of expressive techniques.

People think of the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising as having lasted for only ten days, but it’s easy to forget that it was a “human event.” That is to say, the event continued and remained in the lives of the survivors of Gwangju. People also forget that the Gwangju massacre will continue for as long as the lives of the victims continue to bleed.

In the ten-plus years following the Uprising, the events of that month of May have been condemned as “riots” and the citizens of Gwangju have been falsely labeled as “rioters.” And it wasn’t just the government (that is, the perpetrators of the massacre); the majority of the populace also pointed fingers at and discriminated against the people of Gwangju. Indeed, for those many years, the people of Gwangju and the families of those who lost their lives had to endure the pain and suffering brought about by that discrimination. So as a writer and a victim, I believe that I must tell their stories to the world in their stead. That’s why my early novels often feature characters whose bodies and spirits have been completely broken. In this sense, my novels about that May in 1980 are, all at once, an accusation against those who participated in the massacre, a desperate overture to my neighbors, and a painful record of the trauma experienced by thousands of victims.

History takes an event and its complex processes, puts them at a focal point, reduces them to a single moment in time, and neatly organizes them into a chronological list of events. Literature, on the other hand, looks at people by focusing on people. And because of this, literature knows that, for the survivors of tragedy, a historical event is only the beginning—the beginning of a period of time that does not end, but is in fact succeeded by only more pain and suffering. It understands that beneath neat chronologies and historical facts, there exists something more. And it is precisely from this “something more”—this void of the unknown—that the true story of what happened emerges.



Kim: In your novels there are also characters who forget about the past, not because of any political reasons, but simply because they are ambivalent about politics. It seems like you have fought against this kind of voluntary forgetfulness as much as you have fought against the state’s attempts at memory suppression.

Lim: Perhaps forgetfulness or ambivalence about the past is an innate human desire. That is to say, it’s a natural impulse to want to escape as quickly as possible from a dark past one does not wish to remember. But such forgetfulness and ambivalence can never be a healthy attitude toward life because it can never be beneficial to one’s present being. That is to say, without one’s past, it is impossible to prove one’s current existence. Likewise, the collective history to which we all belong is also necessary to prove an individual’s existence. Thus, in order to value the present as it exists before us, we need eyes that can swim up the river of time and understand how the present came to be.

Besides, there is not one person who is truly free from modern history and its various instances of national, political, and social violence. And this includes those who were born after said events. This is because the victims of those events clearly continue to live and exist right beside us. None of us has the right to close our eyes and turn our backs on their suffering and their destroyed lives. It’s fundamentally a matter of ethics. It is a responsibility we, as humans from a contemporary era, share regarding our neighbors—a minimum ethic essential for being human.

That we need an awareness and imagination capable of understanding that people necessarily exist within every event; that we must ask questions about why they were there, what they thought and felt, and what they dreamed and feared; and that no historical record can record the subtleties of individual emotions, thoughts, and actions—these are just some of the ideas I’ve gained from writing novels. And lastly, writing novels has also taught me that these imperatives are the responsibility and obligation of literature.



Kim: In Spring Day, paratroopers receive a pair of black sunglasses that prevent them from seeing a victim’s humanity. Conversely, in Whispering into a Stone Wall, there is a person with special eyes who can observe forgotten death. In other words, some eyes mask tragedy while some eyes discover tragedy and bring catharsis. What kind of attitudes toward life would bring about such differences in sight?

Lim: Black sunglasses in Spring Day clearly symbolize the essence of violence. Black sunglasses, trapped in their own ideology, separate “us” from “them” and paint the world using a single brush. While completely concealing their wearers’ eyes and faces, they try to monitor and control everything for the Other. On the other hand, the special eyes in Whispering into a Stone Wall symbolize life, empathy, mourning, and consolation, and are open to the world and the Other. They are eyes for the weak, the wounded, and the hurt—they listen to their cries, understand their minds, and share their pain. They are not eyes for just the living, but also for the people who died unjustly; they listen to the dead’s rage, their prayers, their grievances, and shed tears with them. They are eyes that take countless souls and languages filled with pain and sorrow, and spread them to the people of the world. If there are any professions that absolutely require such special vision, they would be novelists, poets, and shamans.

Kim: You are currently living on Jeju Island. And in your works, islands are symbolic places. They can be read as both places where tragedies have been experienced as well as places where one can seek salvation.

Lim: An island is a point located on the border. It is an alienated frontier that has been pushed far away from the mainland, and yet it also has the freedom of not being tied to the mainstream. Islands are both small prisons encompassed by the sea and gateways to the infinite freedom that exists beyond the horizon. But most importantly, islands for me are the places that are unable to receive the benefits of civilization and the source from which island children draw their infinite imagination. Even at this age, I hope that I do not forget that time when I was a kid and used to dream as I stared out from the island at the vast continent across the sea; I hope I do not forget the dreams I dreamt as a free child. In that way, writing novels for me might just be another name for that desperate and futile hope.

Kim: Your background as an English literature major also seems to have affected your writing. Are there any foreign writers or works that have influenced you?

Lim: I think if there was any benefit to having studied foreign literature in college, it would have to be that my perspective on literature and the world has been broadened and that I have a more eclectic eye. Heinrich Böll’s And Where Were You, Adam? which I read during my college days, was structurally very impressive in the way it painted the fast-paced realities of the battlefield using a mosaic of numerous characters. That technique was of great help to me years later when I wrote the epic Spring Day. I was especially blown away by Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I read in the 1980s. I also enjoyed reading James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill and Kurt Vonnegut.

Kim: Recently, the number of foreign readers who love Korean literature has increased. Do you have any writers or works you want to recommend to readers who are interested in what’s current in modern Korean literature?

Lim: These days the spectrum of Korean novels out there is astonishingly colorful and wide. I am always both envious and proud of contemporary Korean authors’ passion for exploring their own worlds. For me personally, I am interested and want to recommend those works that focus and explore the healthy relationships between individuals and the Other and between individuals and society—works by authors like Han Kang, Jeon Sung Tae, Hwang Jungeun, Kim Soom, Cho Haejin, and Choi Eunyoung.


Interviewer Kim Yoseop · Translator Sean Lin Halbert


Kim Yoseop is a literary critic and researcher.