[Web Exclusive] Interview with Park Min-jung: Identifying as a laborer that writes
- onMarch 14, 2020
- Vol.47 Spring 2020
- byKorean Literature Now
KLN: What does writing mean to you?
Park: I think of writing as a very physical act, and the finished work as something very concrete and real. I don’t think that because you’re an artist or a creator, your output should be seen as this narcissistic creation, but rather as the collective outcome of many people’s work in an industrialized society. So rather than identifying as an artist, I try to consciously think of myself as a worker whose work is writing, like many others. The actual writing process might happen by myself, but a book goes through so many hands before it comes out. So I think of it as the outcome of labor, as a very physical object.
KLN: Where would you recommend foreign readers to start reading your work?
Park: As it happens a lot of my work features people who aren’t Korean, or Koreans who are studying or working abroad, not just Koreans living in Korea. For example, my connected short stories “Happy Science” and “Last Will Sent to A-ko” and my short story “Cecile, Juhee” all feature Korean and Japanese protagonists who intersect due to family, chance, or work.
Looking at how they get to meet each other, it makes me think of all the similarities between Korean and Japanese society. Then there are the ways we are not so similar, the small but crucial ongoing differences in the realities we live in; I think these stories do a good job of showing that. I’ve had feedback from Japanese readers who are into Korean literature, who know how to read and write Korean, how they found the stories interesting and also quite weird. I think these stories could be a good jumping-off point for anyone, not just Japanese readers, who might be interested in the weird relationship Korea and Japan share within Asia, who want to read more about us, our people, and our society.
I, too, met my wife when I was studying in Germany. My wife wasn’t a student, but a laborer. I was at the lowest point of my life when I met her. For such a long time I used that fact, that she used to be a laborer, as if it were a way of projecting my authenticity. The fact that I had loved a poor laborer I met when I was at my lowest. Well, life has taught me since then that it’s impossible to love one person for life. Or at least it is for us, and we’re still together. But Kyung-hee is still with the love of her life, who she’s loved without missing a day.
Excepted from West German Auntie
KLN: Please tell us about your story, “West German Auntie.”
Park: I really drew upon my own experience when creating the protagonist, Oojeong. In the story, Oojeong attends a seminar on the 20th anniversary of Germany’s reunification, in 2010, where she meets an East German speaker who reminds her of her uncle, who was also an intellectual from East Germany. That is directly based on my experience as a graduate student in 2010, when I attended such a seminar and was shocked to hear that German history post-reunification had been an unbearably painful experience for East German intellectuals, a line that I used in the story.
Because growing up in Korea, we were taught that Germany’s reunification was a model for us, and the media only showed the triumph and joy of the Berlin Wall coming down, so I’d only heard about how Germany’s reunification was a success, but there were the attendees who were actually from East Germany and their expressions told a different story. So I’ve had this story in the back of my mind since 2010, in one way or another, and that’s how the story came about.
KLN: Why did you decide to study social science?
Park: When I was in graduate school, I felt a lot of resistance. My background is in literature, I started writing fiction in high school, I studied literature in university, everyone I knew was from that world, and I wanted to break out of it. I wanted to discover a different world, a different way of looking at things. I felt ashamed of being a writer, as if that were a part of myself I should hide, like being a changeling. In “West German Auntie” the protagonist wonders, ‘Do I look like a bed wetter sent out with a winnowing fan?’ and I wanted to get away from that. At the same time, I wanted to stand up for literature amidst that crew, to shout out about the greatness of literature, that it wasn’t just a subgenre of many cultural genres.
So I was dealing with these opposing emotions, doubting and questioning myself, and the people in that field would challenge me as well, as in what was I doing there. I only went to graduate school after making my debut as a writer, so what was my motivation, wasn’t I only there to gather material? And they would talk about how their reasons for studying were so much nobler. So when I was being attacked like that I wanted to say, no, it’s not just for the material, I have a bigger purpose, too. I want to write novels as a social act. That’s what I was saying on the inside.
But after my studies, and I am still studying, I came to think, so what if it was for material? What’s so wrong about that? Why was I so ashamed to say that? The most social and political action I could possibly take, for me, is writing fiction, so why was I so ashamed of myself at the time? And that gave me more conviction as a writer. Studying social science has given me that conviction in my work.
KLN: What is your take on the change in women’s narratives, on how they are written and received?
Park: As a writer, the biggest change is definitely a positive one. When you’re growing up and watching movies or reading books, you identify with the characters, and not only because they look like you or have experiences like you. For instance, a female writer I know says that she loves narratives like The Godfather, that she’s identified with it even since she was a young girl. A narrative about white male violence, that may not have had much to do with her life and identity, but she still identified very strongly with the story and put herself in the protagonist’s place.
It was taken for granted that we would put ourselves in that position, to read stories written by men and identify with characters that did not look like us, but the opposite was never true, stories about women could only be read by women and men couldn’t identify with them. When I was starting out as a writer, older male writers would say things like, I don’t get this, this is too much like a woman’s writing, I can’t identify with mothers, I don’t get this, you have to convince me.
But now people don’t talk that way anymore. Or they try not to. Anyway, after all these years of the male protagonist being the de facto in artistic narratives, I feel like we’re finally getting over the tendency to dismiss women’s stories as non-universal, as some kind of very specialized, marginalized thing. It’s finally OK to talk about my experiences, to tell my story.
KLN: What do you think of a critic saying of your work that ‘the sword of women today is unflappable rationality in the face of lunacy’?
Park: It was Kang Jihee that wrote that, she focused on that part in her review. She was especially interested in the way I don’t write about my emotions directly, but take a bibliographic approach, to reference or collage other sources and say that this is the historical background behind that emotion.
When it comes to emotions or feelings sometimes called lunacy, very strong feelings, you see a lot of that in some people’s work, and some less, like mine, but I don’t think of either case as being more suited to women’s narratives. Everyone has their own style, but it is true that in the past women have been accused of writing emotionally, of writing in a ‘wet’ style, and it’s been overblown as the end-all, be-all of women’s writing, so I think she was calling people out on that, saying that wasn’t the whole picture.
KLN: What are your plans for this year?
Park: I may have quite a few books coming out. I’ve got plans for a novella that’s coming out as an audiobook, and then there’s my third collection of short stories. I may or may not have a novel, and I’m also planning a book of connected short stories. My next book is going to have a school setting, in high school, it’s quite short, 300 pages, so I’m planning it as a novella and it’s coming out soon. My third collection of short stories featuring “Cecile, Juhee,” “Like a Barbie,” “Morgue Diorama,” and so on is coming out this year. And I’m going to begin serializing a novel.
English subtitles translated by Yoonna Cho