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INTERVIEW

[Duet] Dear Alex — by Sang Young Park

  • onDecember 22, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • bySang Young Park

 

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 Alex,

This is Sang Young. Every time I put out a book, I always hear the same questions over and over again. I try to be courteous when I’m answering them, but inside I’m thinking, Are these the only questions in the world or something? But now that I’m in the position of writing to a favorite author, I find myself jotting down only the most obvious of questions, which makes me feel very sorry and embarrassed. But I hope you will accept my feeble excuse that I, a fellow writer walking one step behind Alexander Chee as a queer narrative author, have placed my deepest sincerity in each of these questions.

 

Photo by John Midgely

 

I read your novel Edinburgh as an effort to “heal” through the revelation of a writer’s inner conflicts and the forging of them into language. (Of course, this is entirely my own subjective impression, and it might differ from the author’s intent.) As an author, I write about problems of the heart or social ironies that I couldn’t resolve or reconcile in life; it’s my attempt at said reconciliation. This has always been my primary motivation as a writer. I’m curious as to why, of all the professions you could’ve had, you chose to be Alexander Chee, Novelist. (And isn’t being a writer the kind of thing Korean parents don’t press on their children, unlike becoming a doctor or a lawyer, and isn’t it a career that’s somewhat difficult to sustain?)

 

Well, thank you. I remember my harabeoji saying to me, when I was visiting him in the late 1990s, “So you’re a poet! You’ll be happy but very poor.” And then he slapped his knee and laughed as if it was the funniest thing in the world. He had gone from catching fish in the waters around Narodo to running an international fisheries conglomerate based out of the Canary Islands, and only many years later, reading his memoirs, would I learn that at one point, during the period right before the Korean War, he had considered becoming a bookseller. He and a friend had thought they might open a bookstore in Seoul. They tested their strength for the task by taking a wheelbarrow around to see if they’d be strong enough to deliver books, and decided they couldn’t do it.

It would take me a long time to realize the luck I had with my father, who would really only foist on me the obligation to be excellent. He told me, “Whatever it is you want to do in this life, find the person who does it best and see if they’ll teach you.” And then he added, “The people who don’t know how to do something cannot teach you to do it,” which may seem really obvious but can elude us all at times. He put exactly zero pressure on me to choose a career. 

I chose this life because I think novels do ask questions, or are a way for the writer to respond to a question in themselves that they may not even understand—a way to attach language to something. As one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth McCracken, said, “Fiction is a way of thinking about things.” Which is often not included in the ways people think of it.

 

When I read in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel that you had written superhero fiction that were almost X-Men fanfics, I laughed out loud; I used to draw similar cartoons as a child myself. Most of my characters were the type that could teleport or move things by telekinesis without having to lift a finger, and they were all very antisocial—basically reflections of my own laziness and general dislike for physical movement. I think your understanding of superhero narratives runs deep, seeing how in creative writing classes, you use Batman as a reference for layered plotting. So I was wondering: What is your favorite kind of superhero?

 

Like you, I love telekinetics, but especially pyrokinetics. If we were in a film about psychic children running from our governments out in the woods, perhaps you would cut the firewood and I would set the fire.

I once caught my husband reaching for his coffee mug but making that expression of extreme concentration I knew so well. I asked him, “Are you . . . trying to use telekinesis to bring your coffee to you?” And he told me that yes, he periodically tested himself. This was after us being together seven or eight years. I knew I’d chosen right, but then I really did.

 

Photo by Robert Gill

 

In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, I was touched by the part where you realized you could write after a four-hour session of writing during your junior year of college. I had a similar experience when I wrote “Chinese Knockoff Viagra and Jeje, a Short Joke on Piss that Doesn’t Pool Anywhere.” (I was working at a magazine company for twelve hours a day under tremendous pressure, and I wrote that story in a short period during early mornings where I gave up many hours of sleep. It’s a story especially dear to me because it taught me the fun of writing, let me dream of becoming a novelist, and won me a big newcomer’s award.) In my case, it’s not so common as a writer to derive “personal satisfaction” from the act of writing, and I was curious if any of the works you published later on (in other words, after you became a professional writer) gave you similar highs.

 

Edinburgh was like that for me. But I think we chase it again and again, that feeling of immersion in the way the writing makes you and you make the writing, yes? I go through periods when I think, “Well, maybe that’s the last of that feeling,” and then with my newest project, I’ve started having the series of coincidences that marked the others—people who I didn’t expect to know what I needed to know, telling me things I needed to know. Recently, I went to get some secondhand furniture, and visit the friends who run this store, and one of them handed me a very old book saying, “I feel like this is something you can do something with,” and as I turned it over in my hands, the hair on my arms stood up, and I understood that it was in fact exactly the kind of research material I needed for this new book—the sort of research I was just learning to know to look for. He had found it in a batch of things that he’d bought at auction, after the owner died, and as he was going through it he thought, “Oh, this is for Alex.”

 

I was interested in your description of Korea in the essay you wrote for the event KLN hosted at the 2018 Brooklyn Book Festival as part of its tenth anniversary celebrations. [The essay titled “Korean Gay Sex Is Superior” is available at our website.—Ed.] Unlike that Korea of the past, Koreans now are quite aware that there are queer people among them, and therefore men don’t walk around arm in arm or hand in hand like they used to. (I’m glad we have a more visible presence, but I do miss the blatant handholding.) I happened to live in New York City from 2007 to 2008 (in other words, at the height of the subprime mortgage crisis.) On the surface, New York’s queer culture seemed the most developed and open in the world, but I found the city (and perhaps the US in general) more gripped in the throes of the “myth of masculinity” than any other country I’d visited. It was a space where homophobic sentiment felt the densest to me. Reading about how gay married couples felt unable to hold hands in public, even after the marriage equality ruling, was heartbreaking. In recent American queer narratives being exported around the world (POSE, Sex Education, Queer Eye, Looking, Modern Family, and so on), I could see the attempt at presenting non-objectified queer characters but at the same time somewhat perpetuating the social homophobia of queer narratives of the past. AIDS, a condition that is controllable and manageable today, is again being used in dramas like POSE to portray suppressed queers in the 1980s. Such stories make me feel that homophobia is still a central issue in Anglophone queer narratives. (Which is why I feel that the Korean homophobia present in my own work might not be so behind the rest of the world, that it could still be read as current in Western nations, which is a funny bit of consolation. Especially when my latest novel Love in the Big City deals with the HIV issue.) I was wondering how you felt about the “currency” of queer narrative as something special and worthy of perpetuating, in other words as something that still shows the ironies of society, as someone who has worked and consumed queer narratives in the English-speaking world.

 

I think that’s a very acute sense of the crisis we face. Queer narratives though, to my mind, are shaped out of our relationships, and those are in many ways still finding their way into the world, much less to the front. We’re still struggling to be seen in our own right. For example, the new novel I’m writing is working to express the impact of a serious love affair on the main character, but over forty years’ time, as he and that lover go from being strangers to correspondents, to lovers to ex-lovers to ex-lovers who still have sex to friends to estranged but still always aware of each other. And the ex-boyfriends you have from the first days of the AIDS epidemic, if you’re of my generation, there’s some bond you have, hard to define, but that’s what I’m trying very hard to get at. It has something to do with surviving all that death, but also surviving the country born after that death—out of it—if you will.

The writer Bryan Washington has done a remarkable job of getting the fuck buddy relationship into mainstream American literature—and lately I think also of what a friend of mine called the International Lesbian Panty exchange back in the 1990s—where you go to bed with someone you’ve just met and find them wearing underwear that an ex of yours took with them when you broke up. How do we make stories, new stories, about those friends and lovers who show up from time to time, a kind of permanent impermanence? Before I was married I had all of these other men in my life, for example, the ones I would call “the men who don’t come closer and don’t go away.” And after I was married I knew who didn’t congratulate me. I’m looking at how these sorts of relationships and the very peculiar—queer—loveliness of them quite possibly requires of literature new forms to describe them.

 

 

I’m fascinated by the name of your official site: “Koreanish.” What is your definition of “Koreanish”? Is there a work of literature, film, or television drama that you find particularly Koreanish? I’m also curious as to what Korean artists (including writers) or works you like. (I’d like to know what K-dramas or K-pop you’re into.)

 

Koreanish is something of an old project—a blog I stopped updating back in 2017, though I’ve been thinking to bring it back. I’m about to go back to blogging, either way. At the time I started it, in 2007, I was teaching at Amherst College and I had a South African friend there who would ask me if this or that interest or food or habit of mine was Korean. And sometimes I would say, “ish”? And so he then started to ask me if it was Koreanish, and that was how I came up with it. To me it’s a way of talking about Korean American identity to others, a way to describe the feeling that you’re running a sort of bootleg identity, composed out of what you can learn from what your family will and won’t tell you, and what’s been translated, and what’s been exported when you’re someone who has to learn what the word gyopo even means. I know many Koreans are shocked at what Korean Americans don’t know about our culture, but for example, in my new novel I’m looking at the differences between what you know if your Korean immigrant parents came to the US in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s. The way what was going on in Korea politically affects what those immigrants were then willing to tell their children about.

 The essay I published in the New York Times Magazine over the summer on the legacy of the Japanese Occupation, for example, is born out of that sensibility. Koreatowns, for example, are Koreanish. Korean tacos are Koreanish. I am Koreanish. I guess you could say my books are too.

 As for Korean writers and artists, I’d begin with an anthology an aunt of mine gave me a long time ago called Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers. Published in 1989, it collected translations of stories by Kang Seuk Kyong, Oh Junghee and Kim Chi-won. The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-yong, also. And the two writers that participated with me and John Freeman in KLN’s event in Brooklyn, Song Kyung-dong and Hwang Jungeun, became favorite writers of mine. Currently I’m reading the new translation Jack Jung did of Yi Sang’s poetry, and am finding it transformative. I also loved The Court Dancer, by Kyung-sook Shin, translated by Anton Hur, as well as her novel Please Look After Mom.

 The director Park Chan-wook—especially his films The Handmaiden, Thirst, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and JSA. Bong Joon Ho also—before Parasite I loved him for Mother, The Host, and Snowpiercer, and his first feature, Barking Dogs Never Bite, which I have a special affection for. Someday I want to write an essay about the snacks in his films. I’m desperate for the next season of Kingdom to come out, as well as Crash Landing on You, which my sister told me to watch as she said it was the story of our family, and . . . well, I’ll need to talk to her to understand more what she means by that, but it is a lot of fun. And I love pure adventure flicks like Monstrum, by Heo Jong-ho, and the films of Yeon Sang-ho—obviously Train to Busan, and the animated films, but also Psychokinesis. I haven’t seen any of the gay films your characters complain about though, and I really want to.

 I like K-pop ok but follow my niece’s tastes there (I am . . . shall we say, older?) but one of my very favorite nights in Seoul was spent at an LP bar called Gopchang Jeongol, which plays Korean music from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and . . . honestly, that was pure heaven. It was the music I used to listen to when I would go to Korea to visit family and go out to the discos or the bars. I never knew those artists’ names but I want to know them now.

 

 

I was very moved by your essay “Gender Genre.” As someone who was taught mostly male writers throughout his teens and early twenties as a French major, I felt like I had a similar experience as you did. Also the fact that you felt more in sympathy with women’s narratives, despite being a man—I saw myself in that as well.

In Korea, no one asks a writer who writes about heterosexual relationships how long they are going to keep writing about heterosexual relationships. While queer writers are lauded for writing a great queer novel, heterosexuals are praised for having written great novels. Similarly, women writers are praised for having written excellent “women’s literature” or “feminist literature.” You could say creating a genre out of minority status helps bring that minority out of the shadows, but at the same time, it can be a subtle form of Othering.

“Genre” involves many controversies. In my case, I happen to have published two books of fiction and one volume of essays. The Korean media likes to portray me as the “first queer novelist” (in a violent erasure of all the queer works that came before mine) to succeed in the mainstream. (One major daily went as far as to publish an article about me as having come out when I hadn’t, solely for the reason I had written queer fiction.) I even heard a critic say, “The gays in Sang Young Park’s stories don’t have any sadness in their hearts, they don’t seem queer.” (In gratitude to this inadvertent compliment, I wrote the story “The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta.”)

On the one hand, some people like to say that my fiction is always about the same thing (queer life, in other words—when I have only written two books of fiction in my life!!!!!!!!!!!!). I never thought of queerness as “material,” which makes me somewhat upset whenever someone says that, or some demand is made of me. (When you said in your essay that an agent asked you what kind of fiction you wrote—immigrant or queer—and you simply said “fiction,” I felt an indescribable sense of liberation and immediately understood your answer. Because this is the question I always get in interviews and the exact answer I always give!!!!!!) This kind of labeling makes an “event” out of my work and treats it like some passing fad.

Having dealt with this issue so much I would sometimes get so sick of the word “queer” that I would set out for interviews praying that none of the questions would have the word “queer” in them. (I don’t even have a religion . . .) As a second-generation immigrant and writer of queer literature, I was wondering if you ever faced expectations from readers or critics for you to change, or ever thought your creative territory was fenced into certain “topics” or “genres.”

 

Oh yes. I know this one. It’s much the same here. I struggled with it probably most as I wrote my second novel, The Queen of the Night, which was set in Second Empire France, and was about an American opera singer passing herself off as a European in Paris. That feeling of performing a self, performing the self for an audience, I put that into that novel. And I also of course struggled with the idea that I was writing a story about these things, which seemed so weird to me, and which I eventually reconciled with the Korean obsession with French food and culture. In other words, if Paris Baguette exists in Seoul and San Mateo, I can write The Queen of the Night.

And I understand the idea that there were in all likelihood other Korean American gay writers before me, but I didn’t come up with my designation, the first Korean American gay novelist, on my own—I was told of it by Asian American literary scholars. Perhaps someone will be discovered who was earlier than me, but I take being first this way seriously, even as I also try to just make the work I want to make, always. I take it seriously in that I try to show the younger generation how free I am to do what I want. I don’t think of it all the time but when I do, I think of how I want them to see my career and think, “I can do what I want.” Guarding my freedom guards theirs, as I see it, and hopefully models it also.

So I don’t struggle with the identity aspects to these terms anymore. I wonder if it’s more of a struggle born from the early years of my career. I’m meanwhile trying to make more opportunities for young Asian American LGBTQ writers—a friend of mine and I created a scholarship for them at the Lambda Literary Foundation’s annual writers’ retreat—and I also created a fellowship for Asian/Asian American women writers at the Jack Jones Literary Retreat, named for my grandmother, Yi Dae Up. And I’m proud to say the first books nurtured by those fellowships are now appearing in the world—by the writers Kat Chow, Larissa Pham, Ricco Siasoco.

 

 

You’ve conducted your literary life from the intersection of being an Asian American and a queer person. You write about it in your essay collection to some extent. I have to admit that to a writer, their Otherness and various chaotic incidents in their lives do sometimes show up as assets in their narratives. But at the same time, minorities are often erased or objectified in society, and I was wondering if as a writer there are certain incidents that come to mind that have to do with discrimination or exclusion? (Things like objectification disguised as a reader’s or critic’s praise.)

 

Sometimes people say of me that I write about identity, but . . . I just think of myself as writing about the world in a way that insists on what is already there, and that gets called “writing about identity.”

I think of something the filmmaker Park Chan-wook told me, about his time on the blacklist in Korea. He talked about how it is so hard to know what you didn’t get—how do you ever know how it affected you? And yet, you can still see the mark of this kind of exclusion. It can drive you mad trying to figure it out. Sometimes I would hear about conversations people had about me, a major magazine that thought I was “too gay” in 2002 for them to cover my debut novel, which means the rest of them most likely did also—if there’s one, there’s more. I think about that a lot.

It shows up in ways like this also: Shortly after I received tenure at my job here at Dartmouth College, I met someone who seemed surprised that I was getting it after twenty years of teaching writing—tenure is commonly conferred on a six- or seven-year plan. When I received tenure, I had two books published and a third on the way, accomplishments more commonly needed for promotion to full professor, not associate. My dean even suggested I go up for full early. But I knew it had taken me this long to get to tenure, and that I would need, would always need, to have more behind me than another candidate who is white and straight.

 

What is the most unexpected (or upsetting) question a reader or critic has ever asked you?

 

I just had my essays published in England, and a white interviewer there asked me, “Why should someone in the UK read a book by a Korean American gay man? What does this book have to tell us?” And I just thought, Oh, fuck you. It was really hard for me to gather myself live on air to say something to him. I was furious that he would go out of his way to humiliate me like that.

And I remember someone who was writing a profile of me who said, “Well, I mean, it sounds like the sexual abuse wasn’t that bad,” and I just thought of how when you go through something like that so often people are weighing your story to judge whether or not it’s “really” trauma. As if they were the arbiters, and not you.

Mostly, though, I think about the young man who asked me, “Where is the queer Asian joy in this book?” In my essays. And so I realized I had more to write, to get that on the page too.

 

Photo by Castro St photographer Danny Nicoletta from the Documentary “Sex Is . . .”

 

After marriage equality became the law of the land in the US, has there been a change in queer literature from the Anglophone world? Or do you think attitudes toward queer narratives have changed among readers? (I read in an article about how the levels of happiness among queer people have not changed much since marriage equality was enacted. As someone living in conservative Korea where such a law seems like a distant dream, I was somewhat surprised at this finding . . .)

 

Well, a year and a half after that ruling, Trump was elected, and there was a massive uptick in homophobic violence and homophobic legislation, especially anti-trans violence and anti-trans legislation. So I’m not surprised that people’s happiness hasn’t gone up—the world for us went to hell. If it has stayed the same, maybe that shows how we were protected by those new laws.

Am I happy in my marriage? Yes. But I also married so it would be easier to protect my husband and I legally here in the US and then also if we tried to emigrate or even apply for asylum, should that day ever come. My husband proposed to me the night Trump was elected. We married two weeks before Trump took office, determined to have that for ourselves before this long despoilation began.

There is meanwhile most definitely a new breadth and depth to queer literature here in the US and abroad, I think. It’s been incredible to see. But to me the disjunct between our literature and our government in the US, this is a sign of the gerrymandering of the United States, the way a conservative minority has captured political power. Our government doesn’t represent us culturally or politically. It makes sense that it would be out of step, or even opposed, to the culture.

 

Do you have any rules for when you are in the act of writing? (Any superstitions, things you will not do, or daily routines you might share?)

 

Whatever it takes is the rule. No superstitions. I was at a writers’ retreat in Italy, and was getting annoyed at this new friend there, another American writer, who kept knocking on my door to go do things with her. I finally said, “Please don’t interrupt me.” And she said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m so used to interruptions.” And then she told me how she had written her first novels while she was getting chemo for breast cancer, and then raising her children, and how she just had to get things done while being interrupted. And I thought to myself, “Alex, you’re so damned spoiled. Get over yourself.”

So I will get up an hour earlier than my husband to have time alone, I will dictate to myself in the car if I get an idea, I will get out of bed and write if the idea is keeping me up. I will write on my phone. I just do whatever I have to do to get the sentences down.

 

What is a particular book that has been published lately that’s been on your mind? I’m also curious as to why.

 

Right now I’m listening to the audiobook for E. J. Koh’s memoir, The Magical Language of Others, and it is absolutely stunning. She reads the audiobook, beautifully, so it feels as if we’re in her head. It’s so intense, I can only listen to it a chapter at a time, but line for line, the prose is incredible, and the story she tells, of learning to survive her mother and father who return to Seoul without her—they leave her when she’s fourteen, to stay with her brother in America, and then, seven years later, she meets them again, almost as strangers—it is extraordinary.

 

What is your ultimate goal as the writer Alexander Chee?

 

You know. Heal the earth, starting with myself. That kind of thing. And write a lot of books. Oh, and I would really like to get more than seven hours of sleep a night.

 

Photo by Mark Hartman

 

Translated by Anton Hur


Alexander Chee was born in Rhode Island, USA in 1967 and spent his childhood in South Korea, Kauai, Truk, Guam, and Maine. He attended Wesleyan University and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and debuted with his novel Edinburgh in 2001, which established his reputation. Fifteen years later, in 2016, he published his second novel, The Queen of the Night, and in 2018, the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. He is winner of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose, and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction, the Paul Engle Prize, and the 2018 One Story Magazine’s Mentor of the Year Award. He is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College.