[Web Exclusive] Interview with Lim Chulwoo: Memory-A Vortex of Profound Resonance under Placid Waters

  • onJune 11, 2020
  • Vol.48 Summer 2020
  • byKorean Literature Now


KLN: Please tell us about your life on Jeju Island.

Lim: There’s nothing special. Because I was born an islander, I’d hoped to return to an island one day. I had long planned to spend the twilight of my life on Jeju Island. Since I quit teaching and moved to Jeju, my health has improved significantly. I now have a lot free time. I usually read, write or take a walk. It’s wonderful that I can freely choose how I spend my days. 


KLN: You’ve been a novelist for over 40 years. In your opinion, what makes a good novel?

Lim: People from different walks of life have different ‘content’ to offer. Everyone is different. At the end of the day, your writing arises from your most desperate or innermost life experience. Therefore, it is only natural that each individual’s stories are and must be different. The most ideal form of literature from any era should be diverse and eclectic. When every writer remains true to their life or literature, the result will be like a garden teeming with all kinds of flowers. To me, that’s the most ideal and natural process. Ultimately, desperation gives rise to great fiction. Each writer’s perspective on life and sincerity towards their times are distilled into desperation. That’s what begets literature. I regard works written that way as truly great literature. 


KLN: What impact did your personal experience have on your previous works?

Lim: I was born in 1954, shortly after the end of the Korean War, and spent my childhood on an island with no cars or electricity. When I was 10, my family moved to Gwangju, and lived there for many years. I was a university student at the time of the May 18 Democratic Uprising, which served as a huge turning point for me as a person and a writer. Many of my novels deal with contemporary issues. My life itself covers some of the most turbulent moments in Korea’s modern history: the post-war destitution, oppressive and violent dictatorship, and problems of economic development. People have put up resistance, and sacrificed a great deal for freedom and democracy. Having lived through that era, it is inevitable that I explore such social issues in my novels. If I should give a broad definition of my writing, I’d say it’s rooted in my literary beliefs that encompass resistance and anger towards violence, not to mention advocacy of humanity.


KLN: Censorship and regulatory measures must have posed difficulties for writers.

Lim: Back then, for almost 2~3 decades, censorship and regulation were pretty much common practice—something that critical intellectuals and writers were subjected to all the time. Even in the midst of such measures, writers must publish their works and find a way to engage with readers. That’s why I’ve given a lot of thought to certain forms and techniques of fiction, and tried to devise new ways of writing.


KLN: Your novel Hundred-Year Inn features several characters scarred by history. Please tell us about the work.

Lim: In a way, the title, Hundred-Year Inn, is a condensation of Korea’s modern history. The Korean War, the Jeju April 3 Incident, the May 18 Democratic Uprising, the Vietnam War and the Bodo League massacre. Such historical tragedies are interconnected within the same coherent context. In the novel, several victims of history are brought together by chance. As victims of historical upheavals, they’ve been traumatized all their lives. At the inn, they encounter the spirits of their loved ones—those who passed away. In the end, the spirits deliver a simple message: “Grieve no more. Do not let pain take over your lives. Your suffering detains us here.” The story offers consolation and condolences.


KLN: What do you hope to write about in the future?

Lim: It was my experience of the May 18 Democratic Uprising that gave the first impetus to my writing career. At that time, I was unable to do anything. Afterwards, I struggled with guilt and resolved to do my bit. Writing novels is all that I can do. It’s my only talent. So, I’ve written extensively about the May 18 Democratic Uprising. To a certain extent, I can say I’ve done my best. Still, I have a lot left to write about. Something about violence. I’m currently preparing a full-length novel on the Jeju April 3 Incident. So long as my mind and sensibilities remain sharp, I won’t put down my pen.



English subtitles translated by Helen Cho



Lim Chulwoo (b. 1954) debuted in 1981 when he won the Seoul Shinmun New Writer’s Contest for “The Dog Thief.” He has authored numerous books, including the novels I Want to Go to That Island, Spring Day Vols. 1–5, The LighthouseParting Valley, and the short story collections Father’s Land and Longing for the South among others. He has received several awards, including the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, Yi Sang Literary Award, Danjae Literature Prize, Yosan Literary Award, and Daesan Literary Award. I Want to Go to That Island was published as The Island (Stallion Press, 2011) in English and as Je veux aller dans cette île (L’Asiathèque, 2013) in French. The Lighthouse was published as Le Phare (L’Asiathèque, 2016) in French and as Das Viertel der Clowns (Iudicium, 2018) in German. Parting Valley was published as Abschiedstal (Iudicium, 2015) in German and as Wakare no tani (San-Ichi Shobo, 2018) in Japanese. I Want to Go to That Island was adapted into the film To the Starry Island (1993).