[Web Exclusive] Interview with Sang Young Park: A Novelist of the Modern Naïve

  • onDecember 4, 2019
  • Vol.46 Winter 2019
  • byPark Sang Young



A Novelist of the Modern Naïve   


KLN: You’ve published two books in three years. What’s in them?

Park: In The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta, I tried mostly to write interesting stories. It was my first collection, and my intention was to honestly show my deepest, most unspoken part of my soul. There are two queer stories and five non-queer stories. This latter five are about love. In terms of setting, they range across Seoul, Zaytun in Iraq, and the fantastic.

I wrote A Manual for Love in the Big City keeping in mind that it would be a full-length book. I wanted each section to be meaningful as a standalone story but also for the book to cohere as a whole. There are four sections. Each is set in contemporary Seoul. The “big city” of the title is Seoul, and there are a few other big cities in the book. I focused on how these cities, like Shanghai and Bangkok, change the way that my characters love, and what that love entails. It’s also an aggressively queer work, and I worked hard to show the Korean queer agenda as it truly stands, warts and all, in the 2010s.


KLN: Do you feel pressure from being thought of as a writer of queer fiction? 

Park: I felt a lot of that pressure with my first book. But it has straight stories as well as queer stories. I wrote about other aspects of society as well, such as religion. I thought I might get pigeonholed into being a writer of queer work and that would limit me. I changed my mind with the second book. It’s not up to me what people call me, that’s up to the readers and critics. A writer’s job is to concentrate on his abilities as a writer to show everything that he has to show. I think of myself as creating “Sang Young Park” as a genre in itself. Since I can’t control or do anything about what people call my work, I’m letting it go. And as a huge fan of queer fiction, I have no problem with my work being categorized as that.


Translator's Interlude

Anton Hur

Translator of Sang Young Park's


KLN: What made you want to translate Sang Young Park’s work?

Hur: So as a queer translator, it is very important for me to find a work that is queer, but at the same time is written by someone who lived in the same time period as I have, had similar experiences that I’ve had, and is around same age as me.

So, it calls out to be translated into English. There were other writers, for example, whom I won’t name, who maybe write in a more “Japanese-y” style and that’s great for them, but to translate them into English is much harder than to translate a writer like Sang Young Park, who has a much more, I feel, a Western sensibility in the language of his work.


KLN: What is the word that best describes Park’s work?

Hur: I can’t really think of any off the top of my head. The thing about the language that he used in this work was that it’s language very familiar to me, this is the language that I use with my friends, who are queer. So for me it was very familiar language.


KLN: Were there any particular words that were hard to translate?

Hur: The fun part was translating the curses because obviously I can’t translate Korean curses into just English. That would not work. I had to find curses in English that were very gay, that were very sort of explosive and very dramatic and campy. And that was for me the most fun part in translating the languages and the particular words in his work.


Now back to Sang Young Park


KLN: What does the city of Seoul mean to you?

Park: I’m from Daegu, a place infamous for being conservative and insular. When I was a teenager, Seoul in my mind was a Platonic ideal of a place. And since my twenties, it has been my place of residence, the place containing my whole life. And as someone who writes queer fiction, I’ve heard that it’s rare to see this many gay clubs and queer cultural spots in so many areas within one city. Seoul is meaningful to me as a symbol of the metropolis, a great city where diverse cultures coexist, and also as the place where I’ve spent my twenties and now thirties.


The places where we’d go for dates followed the flow of gentrification. We went to Samcheongdong and the art museums of Bukchon, to Serosugil near Gyuho’s workplace, Bogwangdong and Mangwondong, Haebangchon and Seongsudong—we both ended up gaining over five kilos.

        From A Manual for Love in the Big City


KLN: How do you think foreign readers will take your work?

Park: My first work to be translated was “The Tears of an Unknown Artist and Zaytun Pasta” and was published by Words Without Borders, an American magazine. The editor told me that the translation had the highest number of hits for any work on the site since last November throughout the first quarter. I think people are interested in the topic of American deployment troops. The Korean military is also fascinating. There’s been consistent interest in the conscription issue and the problems of how gay people are treated in the military. People also like “A Spot of Cod, Taste the Universe” a lot. I thought it was a very Korean work. Foreign readers are familiar with the democracy movement and queer-related conflicts with Christian values, and yet there’s still a freshness about these topics. What worried me was whether my Kpop references could be understood in the West. But readers can always look them up on YouTube, with subtitles no less. I’m excited to spread the word about my favorite songs and works as well as about my own books.


KLN: Your characters are very independent. Tell us about that.

Park: I think that many of the characters in my stories seem so independent because they’re so well-aware of the true shape of their desires. And they like to show their desires in their raw state instead of hiding them or changing them to comply with social norms. This is why they seem independent but also somewhat antisocial. Not that I ever wanted to show a “cool” or “special” character, I just think this is a mindset particularly prevalent in my generation. I’m also direct, and that’s probably what’s coming through my characters as well. I didn’t think my characters were that unusual. Their single-minded desires are similar to mine, their values as well, and I suppose my characters are just taking after me.


KLN: What do you want to write in the future?

Park: They say looking too far ahead makes you unhappy. I still don’t know what I’m going to write over my whole career. I’m publishing my column in Hankyoreh, No Snacking Tonight, as a book early next year. I’m going to try making the essay collection as relatable as possible. I’m serializing a novel for Munhakdongne online. It’ll have queer elements and be about teenage love. Korean teenagers today are exposed to a very violent reality. I want to write a work that transparently shows that reality. I’m also a huge fan of Agatha Christie. I love mysteries. I want to write a book that’s a thriller or in the horror genre someday.


-  English subtitles translated by Anton Hur


* You can also watch Sang Young Park's unscripted, casual interview here:

Sang Young Park (b. 1988) studied French and journalism at Sungkyunkwan University and attended the creative writing master's program at Dongguk University. He began his career by winning the 2016 Munhakdongne New Writers Award for "Searching for Paris Hilton" and published his short story collection The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta (2018) and A Manual for Love in the Big City (2019).