[Web Exclusive] Interview with Park Mikhail: Inclusiveness over Identity: Building a Better Society

  • onJune 28, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byPark Mikhail



1. Please tell us about your childhood, which provided the setting for Sunflower Petals Carried Away by the Wind.

My great-great-grandfather moved to Primorsky Krai, Russia, during the 19th century. Later, my parents were deported to Central Asia by Stalin. In 1937, my parents met and got married in Uzbekistan, and started a family. There are seven of us—five brothers and two sisters. My novel Sunflower Petals Carried Away by the Wind recounts the history of my great-great-grandfather, who left Korea for Russia.

I grew up in a small village in Uzbekistan called Navoi. Our neighbors were from Russia, Uzbekistan, Tartar, Turkey and Azerbaijan. After school, I’d hang around with friends from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and soon began to pick up their languages. From a young age, I was exposed to many different languages.

We could speak Uzbekistani, Turkish and Azerbaijani. Because my Turkish friends’ parents didn’t speak Russian, I’d communicate with them in Turkish. When my Turkish friends came to my house, they spoke Korean. Those days were filled with fun.


2. When did you start learning Korean? While growing up, did you have a chance to encounter the Korean language, culture or literature?  

There were no Korean schools in Russia back then. I discovered the Korean language in my 40s. Two Korean professors (Shin Gyu-cheol and Byeon Young-jong) came to Almaty in 1989. They established a Korean language institute, and that’s where I began to learn Korean. I was already old by then, so it posed a tough challenge. To this day, I continue to try and improve my Korean. I still have a long way to go. I once tried writing a short story in Korean, but it didn’t work out in the end.

3. Your works pivot around the characters’ search for identity. How would you define the true identity of the Korean diaspora in Russia?

When I first began writing novels, I was curious about my ethnic identity, and hoped to find out who I was. The question was, what kind of identity must I look for? Ethnic identity, or literary identity? Then, what was literary identity? Because I didn’t speak Korean, even though I wanted to read books in Korean and study Korean history, none of that was possible while I was in Russia. My novels all naturally came about, and I didn’t have to force anything. 

The protagonists in my novels have a lot on their minds. But I don’t think there’s a serious problem. It’s all very well to gain new knowledge, but Korean is not widely spoken in Russia. When I write novels, I do not consciously create Korean characters. From Russians to ethnic Koreans, there are all sorts of people. I think what matters the most is inclusiveness rather than identity. Russia is home to over 140 ethnic groups. Each group has its own language, but they all communicate in Russian. I think that’s more important.


4. As a member of the Korean diaspora in Russia, Dimitri in Still Life with Apples experiences discrimination and alienation in society.

In Still Life with Apples, Dimitri’s Korean grandmother and mother still feel that way. The history of his parents’ generation was fraught with suffering, because of Stalin’s forcible deportation. We don’t know what’s in store for Dimitri in the years to come, but his mother and grandmother wish him a more fortunate life. There are over 140 ethnic groups currently living in Russia, so Koreans do not face a great deal of difficulty. Nothing gets in the way of smart, hard-working Koreans. 


5. Why did you choose Gang Sowol living on Jeju Island as the protagonist for Helen’s Time?

For a long time, I lived in Eomsa-ri, Gyeryong-si near Daejeon. I made many new friends in that small village. My computer broke down one day, and I took it to a repair shop. I became friends with the computer engineer there. He later told me about his trip to Ethiopia and filled me in on the country’s history. Then I suddenly recalled my visit to Jeju Island and came up with a new idea.

The protagonist of Helen’s Time is Korean because I am fond of Kim Sowol’s poetry. I translated some poems by Kim Sowol when I was in Russia, and they became popular with my fellow writers. That’s why I decided to borrow the name ‘Sowol’. When the book first came out, I was both curious and anxious about responses from Korean readers. I’m glad that it’s been received favorably.


6. Please explain in detail what kind of works you hope to write in the future. 

Globalism brings everything together across the world. I don’t think that’s a good idea. Globalism combines all literatures and erases national identities. Every nation must have its own unique originality. Otherwise, things won’t be fun. Originality must be developed in both artistic and ethnic terms. Under the umbrella of globalism, all countries become the same, and that’s boring. The novel I’m currently working on has a rather long title. It’s called What a Shame I Didn’t Become a Penguin When I Was Little. The protagonist is a painter. Painters have deep thoughts, don’t they? I’ll have to wait and see how the story unfolds.