[Duet] Dear Sang Young — by Alexander Chee
- onDecember 22, 2020
- Vol.50 Winter 2020
- byAlexander Chee
This duet weaves together the experiences of two writers from different parts of the world. Alexander Chee from the US and Sang Young Park from South Korea pose questions to each other about their lives and their writing. In the process, they share their intriguing personal reflections on friendship, pop culture, writing, and answering annoying journalists’ questions.—Ed.
Dear Sang Young,
Alex here. I hope you’re ok with this, but you might be my new favorite writer. I’ve been reading your work and trying to imagine you behind it. Yes, there’s an ordinary way for writers like us to interact amid the ordinary questions, but I have faith in our ability to reach past them and do something different. Because I can’t think of when writers like us ever had a conversation. And I’m grateful for that.
I was struck by something in your novella, “The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or, Zaytun Pasta,” where the narrator is a young gay film director determined to create a work unlike anything he’s seen before from gay male artists—earning money during his military service to launch his career as an auteur. So many aspects of the story moved me—being in love with a closeted man who is also a good friend; the idea of a young man feeling trapped in a story that isn’t as original as the one he wants to film and tell the world; the trap that is military service. The long drunken arguments about film and art, the need for something more profound stealing the joy out of what is actually in front of you. And the King Chanel joke is something I’ll never forget. [The joke refers to the character’s nickname “Wangsha” in which “Wang” is his surname and “sha” comes from the Korean pronunciation of the first syllable of Chanel.—Ed.]
It made me wonder if you had that same feeling with the literature that came before you—if you and the narrator were alike perhaps in that way. How much are you inspired by what you see—and don’t see—in the work that came before you? And how much of this story comes from that?
Me? Your new favorite writer? I can only say that your many years of writing and engaging in literary criticism and teaching must have truly bequeathed you with a most discerning eye. (Just kidding!)
“Zaytun Pasta” involved many points of inspiration. I was in a similar state as the narrator; to begin with. I’d won a prize for new writers but didn’t have a single book out, and I wanted to say something to the world but no one was interested in what I had to say. Korea’s deungdan system [A system in which a writer officially debuts by winning one of the prestigious prizes for new writers.—Ed.] allows for thirty to forty new writers to debut every year. Only about 10 percent of them end up publishing a book. At the time of writing that story, I was under huge pressure to prove that me and my work were worthy of being picked out of the crowd.
I was the stereotypical bookworm as a kid. I read books at home before entering school, and learned hangeul on my own from looking at children’s books. In elementary school, I kept up the habit and ended up reading entire series dedicated to world classics: Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Crime and Punishment, Les Misérables, Little Women, Jane Eyre, Jekyll and Hyde, Around the World in Eighty Days, all sorts of books no matter how inappropriate for my age. And I lived for mysteries like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, and the Lupin series. From middle school I began reading Park Wansuh, Kyung-Sook Shin, Hwang Sok-yong, Eun Heekyung, Jon Kyongnin, and other Korean writers. That is where I began dreaming of writing novels myself. I loved those classics, chose to read them on my own, and enjoyed them a lot, but it was rare to find a work that completely slaked my thirst, that really shone a light on my particular experience.
With queer narratives published in Korea for example, the narrator as you mentioned works hard to objectify queer people and portray them as devices for unhappiness, which I really had a problem with. There’s a queer story I published before “Zaytun Pasta” titled “Chinese Knockoff Viagra and Jeje, a Short Joke on Piss that Doesn’t Pool Anywhere,” and when that came out, certain critics said things like, “It doesn’t read as fiction but as an essay or a diary entry, it’s very conversational,” or “The laughing, blabbering homosexuals in the story feel awkward as they do not give off the sadness of queers.” I couldn’t understand such criticisms, and they in the end motivated me to write “Zaytun Pasta.”
Friendships are a big part of this work, but friendships between friends that are also half-in, half-out of love. I love the way you write about men who feel haunted by the possibility of some greater passion, but always in the presence of what they think is a lesser one—when it might not be the lesser one at all. What interests you about that grey area—if that is what it is—in these friendships?
I’m very interested in this emotion called love. We tend to take love lightly, but there really isn’t another emotion as vague or as inclusive as love.
The thing is, love to me was always the most important problem. I never got along with my parents, and in my twenties I always failed to have “successful” relationships despite my best efforts. I felt a desperate loss whenever I had to break up with someone. It follows naturally that love became the main theme of my life and my writing.
Relationships that people take as given, like the unconditional love of parents or the “stable” love between lovers, are alien to me. Which is why I needed the space of long-form narrative to put down my feelings that were too complicated for just one or two words. I’m more used to relationships where one person gets hurt more than the other and the odd power differential resulting from that, and I think that’s why I keep coming back to that theme.
There’s something you call out intensely in “Zaytun Pasta,” that I loved, which is the stories about queers by straight men that always involve butt sex and tears, as if there’s nothing else—they can’t imagine ordinary queers. Are there other ways our sense of ourselves and our stories are shaped by these straight narratives that you see? And does imagining an ordinary queer in reaction to that mean we’re still being shaped by those narratives?
Because society has heterosexuality as its default setting, any narrative that gets written within the boundaries of minority experience will always have some element of being wrought from society’s central rules (even when queer writers writes in their “own voice” and centers the minority group in question).
Narratives that obsess over “anal sex” or “weird and forbidden love” tend to be particularly heteronormative in their gaze. I don’t think every piece of writing of this kind is problematic, necessarily. Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” is a queer melodrama that objectifies queers, but I think there is entertainment and value in it as well.
But I have an idea that it might be possible to overcome such flaws through diversity of narrative. I’ve a notion that importing and producing not just the unhappy and tragic but all kinds of emotions and stories in queer narratives will help us somewhat overcome the problem of the heteronormative gaze. To write a queer narrative that is completely free from non-queer narrative, well . . . I think that would only be possible in a society where being queer is truly no big deal. And I genuinely hope we get to live in such a world someday.
Something I noticed in your stories is the way your characters are shaped by their relationship to military service, which is not as present in American fiction. How much does the military and military service affect your literary imagination?
Well, for my teenage years and my twenties, the military was one of the places I dreaded the most.
Military conscription is a space of trauma not just for me but for many Korean men. You’re locked away during the most beautiful years of your life, made to follow strict rules and undergo hard training. Social minorities like queers tend to have a more dangerous time than others. The Korean military has separate laws from its civilian population, and according to their criminal codes, homosexual relations are subject to prosecution and the servicemen in question may even face imprisonment with hard labor. (There is a recent precedent where an army officer used gay dating apps to entrap queer soldiers on base and brought them to court martial where they were judged guilty, an incident that was a big motivation for me in writing “Zaytun Pasta.”)
Being outed in the military, sexual assault, these are all things that happen all the time in that space. Many young people commit suicide because of what they go through there or suffer from trauma brought on by the violence they experience. The military also plays a major part in reinforcing the male-centered and hierarchical culture of Korean society. But ironically, it is a space filled with men, and because there are so many taboos there, some gays find it an opportunity to exercise a kind of “escape.” I wanted all of that to come across in my story.
Who are your favorite American writers and what are your favorite American films and shows? Do you have a top five playlist right now for music, and who’s on it? And do you blog, or have you, or are you thinking of doing it ever?
I’m actually known as much as a K-pop and K-pop idol evangelist as I am a writer. It’s very difficult for me to pick just five songs.
I love every song by TWICE and BLACKPINK. It’s so easy for me to fully immerse myself in the worlds created by their music and videos. My favorite TWICE songs are “Heart Shaker,” “What Is Love?”, and “FANCY.” For BLACKPINK, “As If It’s Your Last,” “Playing with Fire,” and “Ddu-Du Ddu-Du.” When I want to escape somewhere, there’s Sunwoo Jung-a’s “Run with Me.” When I want to feel refreshed, there’s “Square” by Baek Yerin.
If I listen to Korean songs when I work, I get a bit of “interference” from the language; when I write, I listen to English songs. A song I listen to a lot these days is “thank you, next” by Ariana Grande because its conceit is similar to my own writing (I like how it lists the names of her exes). “React” by the Pussycat Dolls takes me back to my school days. I am, of course, listening to Korea’s number one export BTS’s “Dynamite,” and I like The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights.” I also listen to Dua Lipa and Doja Cat a lot.
My list of favorite English-language writers is endless. Agatha Christie is at the top; I’ve read every one of her books. Aside from her works, The Great Gatsby was a key book in my life. I also really like Toni Morrison and have read all her books as well. I think a more recent writer I’ve begun to like is Elizabeth Strout. Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton were great recent reads. When I was getting my creative writing master’s, I heard that my style was similar to Chuck Palahniuk’s. I read everything of his that’s been translated into Korean. I think the way he’s filled with rage and has a wicked sense of humor is very similar to me.
The first American TV shows I got into were CSI: Las Vegas and Ally McBeal. Korean TV showed every episode, and I never missed it. I was especially into Lucy Liu’s character. Later I really got into American shows and devoured Sex and the City, Friends, Will and Grace, Queer as Folk, and The L Word. During my time in the US, I watched The Simpsons, Gossip Girl, and Tila Tequila’s shows.
I’m a fan of trashy reality TV and used to watch The Simple Life, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. And I’ve been watching that new series, Selling Sunset.
I like almost every series shown on Netflix and HBO, most notably Sex Education and POSE. HBO’s Looking reminds me of a friend I have who likes to tell the same stories about other people having affairs over and over again. I like to have it on when I go to sleep, and it knocks me out right away.
Sean Baker is my favorite American director. His Tangerine and The Florida Project press my tear buttons for me. Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot, The Hours, and The Reader are also favorites of mine. And I love Park Chan-wook. I adore Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and The Handmaiden.
I have no thoughts on setting up my own blog, but I’m planning to be more active on my social media accounts on Instagram and Twitter (@novelistpark). And if I get the chance, maybe a YouTube channel?
I’m increasingly interested in trying to dramatize the ecosystem of sex in queer men’s lives, the long-term relationships queer men have with men they aren’t technically with but also never give up on. It’s something I noticed in older gay male stories that I think about especially as I see the gay men of my generation and younger try marriage out—and how they are renovating it, through non-monogamy, friendships, chosen family. It’s something I’m trying to write about now. Does gay life in Korea have this same kind of activity or set of concerns, or something like it?
I can’t speak for all Korean queer people, but I think our concerns are probably similar.
In Korea especially, the legal recognition of queer relationships seems so distant that it’s difficult to move beyond lovers or friendship. I think that’s why there are so many varieties of relationships. With gay men in particular there are some who place a divide between spiritual or life partners and sexual partners. There seem to be more kinds of relationships that you can’t quite summarize into a few words, more so than for straight people (or even for queer women).
In a general way, I love your dialogues between your characters, the way these stories seem born out of conversations that can’t be stopped. Like in “A Bite of Rockfish, Taste the Universe,” for example, about a young writer taking care of his mother, who once put him in what seems to be the Korean version of what we call ex-gay therapy in the US. He has just received a copy of his diaries—line-edited!—in the mail from an editor ex-boyfriend. The whole story relies so much on these very funny remembered conversations between the lovers and yet is controlled by what they don’t say to each other. But what also blows me away in that story is the mother, and the things she says, which seem to draw these stark boundaries around his reality. Like, “Don’t try too hard. We all die someday, anyway.” In your stories there’s such a keen sense of how our world is made or broken by what we say to those we love. Does your work begin in utterances like the ones the mother makes, or the conversations lovers have? How much do you hear your work, maybe even more than you see it in your mind, and how does that affect your writing?
“A Bite of Rockfish, Taste the Universe” was sparked from that scene where the main character and his mother are sitting on the grass in Olympic Park during the sunset, talking about life and death. That specific story didn’t come from a sentence or a purely visual image but a kind of scene from a movie in my mind.
Looking back, I think my stories don’t really use one kind of language (or voice) or a particular image but both at once. Maybe this is because I’m part of a generation that was bombarded with video from birth. A lot of the time, I would be going about my daily business when I’d think up a scene, whereupon I would quickly write it down on a memo pad like I was sketching. This is probably why people sometimes say my work is like video, and I do enjoy visual narratives like movies and television as much as I enjoy fiction.
How much do fathers figure in your work? Of your characters, I feel like I see them the least. It made me wonder if we’re perhaps both waiting to write about fathers (I also have not yet written about my father much). And perhaps our own fathers have something to do with it, perhaps not. I know I’m limited by what’s in translation, and I’m sorry for that, but I’m wondering if there’s a father masterwork somewhere ahead for you?
You’re absolutely right. Until I got to my second book, Love in the Big City, I didn’t really delve that much into fathers and sort of stored up the theme for later. While my mother narrative was very closely connected to the thoughts and feelings I was having at that time, my father narrative, while very important to me, has certain elements that I don’t fully understand yet, and I want to wait until I can handle the issues with justice.
My first real full-length novel, I Want to Be One-Dimensional, is about teenage relationships and crimes. There’s a “failed” father figure in that work. (My previous book Love in the Big City is also a novel, but it is also, technically, four interconnected short stories and novellas, whereas One-Dimensional is the first work where I set out to write a full-length novel.)
I published a short story titled “Beyond Tokyo to Hawaii” in Munhakdongne journal last year and that’s a narrative that deals directly with a father-son relationship. Writing it was a very enjoyable and painful process. Once I publish One-Dimensional, I’m going to develop “Beyond Tokyo to Hawaii” into a novel. It shall be replete with my thoughts and feelings on “the Korean father.”
How does the critical curiosity come at you in Korea? What is the most unexpected question you’ve been asked?
I’ve got to say that the weirdest question I received during a book event was asked by a male audience member: “Why do you write stories about men having sex? It pisses me off.” I found out that he was a newspaper reporter and debuted as a novelist around the time I did, which surprised me. (His follow-up question, “How do I get people to pay attention to my work like they do yours?,” kind of provided a window into his soul . . .)
How are things for queers in Korea? I was really alarmed to see news this past spring of evangelicals in Seoul trying to act as if LGBTQ bars were the root of COVID transmission, while they themselves held services.
Hate in Korea is generally very blatant. This is a country where the current president, before he won his election, went on a nationally televised presidential debate and said with emphasis that he is “against homosexuality” and “against same-sex marriage.”
The Itaewon coronavirus cluster incident triggered a deluge of homophobic comments in every newspaper article. The “viral host” gay man was completely doxed, his home and office addresses revealed. Lots of queers felt afraid of being outed because of what happened to him. We came down from Level Two social distancing (where noraebang and clubs were restricted) to Level One recently, opening up all the bars and clubs in the peninsula, but it was at the entrances of gay clubs where reporters from the major dailies stood waiting with their cameras. I think that just about says it all about what it’s like being queer in Korea.
The Anti-Discrimination Bill is in the process of being legislated. Politicians from both sides of the aisle think nothing of going on record saying the category “sexual orientation” should be struck from the final version. The Life Partner Bill has been discarded several times for the reason that it may be “misused” by gay people for same-sex marriage. I sometimes wonder if there’s any future for queer folk in this country.
Do you have any writing rules or superstitions?
I don’t really have any rules or superstitions. If I had to dredge one up—I have a bad neck, which means I can’t keep myself bent over a computer for too long, which is why I work mostly at home (where my monitor is installed at a high position) or at the window-side tables at Starbucks where the tables are a bit taller and I can place a laptop stand to prop up my computer.
I’m also in the habit of notetaking. I often get my ideas when I’m talking to friends or on the way home in a taxi after a few drinks, which makes me whip out my iPhone and start taking notes.
What ultimate goal is close to your heart?
I think I’ve accomplished everything that I dreamed of when I was twenty, to be honest—becoming a writer, publishing a book under my name, winning the Young Writer Grand Prize, having people of other languages read my writing. I’m very lucky in that sense. I don’t really have anymore
“milestone”-type goals at the moment. I’m too busy writing the things that are currently on deadline.
I go around saying that my final goal as a writer is retirement. It’s half in jest but I’m also half-serious. I want to write the work that satisfies me, and write enough so I can happily retire from writing.
Translated by Anton Hur
Sang Young Park was born in Daegu, South Korea in 1988. He studied French and journalism at Sungkyunkwan University and attended the creative writing master’s program at Dongguk University. He launched his writing by winning the 2016 Munhakdongne New Writer’s Award for “Searching for Paris Hilton.” He is the author of the short story collection The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta (2018), the serial novel Love in the Big City (2019), and the essay collection Sleeping Hungry (2020). He has received the 2018 and 2019 Young Writer’s Award, and the 2019 Heo Gyun Literary Award. The English translation of Love in the Big City is forthcoming from Tilted Axis Press and Grove Atlantic in 2021.