Salvation Through the Useless: An Interview with Novelist Seo Hajin
- onApril 5, 2017
- Vol.35 Spring 2017
- byHae Yisoo
Hae Yisoo: You were first published in 1994. When you were starting out, what did you believe literature could do for you?
Seo Hajin: I was introverted and obsessive back then—to the point that I couldn’t fall asleep if my shoes weren’t neatly lined up in the foyer. But all that went away when I began to write. I did hesitate for a long time wondering whether someone like me, someone with little talent or experience, was worthy of being a writer. After hitting thirty as an avid reader, I got to thinking it was now or never. So I compromised, telling myself not all writers had to be great; some were merely weird. This was a great comfort, enough to get started.
Hae: So is writing still comforting and therapeutic, a salvation as it used to be two decades ago?
Seo: No matter how good or bad the writing is or my sales, writing is still a comfort. I think in the future when everyone writes stories, the world will be a better place. People begin to have hope in themselves when they write.
Hae: You’ve published six short story collections and two novels. Which of them were particularly difficult to write?
Seo: I was pregnant when I was putting together my second collection, Everybody Loves Differently (1998). I was already raising two young children and was petrified thatif I stopped writing for too long, my writing life would be over. A lot of women writers retire after their first book. And it’s with the second book when you start believing you’re a writer. So I felt like I’d stepped up to the plate. That book, whatever its other merits, is what resulted from me rising to the occasion.
Hae: Which character do you relate to the most?
Seo: Yeonsu in the novella Should I Tell You I Love You Again. She was someone who, despite feelings of loss, would either deny her own desire or let it all pass through. She was frustrated and sad, but resilient at the same time.
Hae: Are women writers discriminated against in Korea, or do they have their own distinct advantages?
Seo: Korea has a large female readership, so women writers aren’t without advantage. And there’s something cosmic about having and raising children. The creation of life and the laws of nature, the umbilical cord and fate, these are supernatural things. Men can’t easily experience them. The disadvantages are that male writers get to take their careers more seriously while women are expected to do it on the side. Women writers can supposedly fall back to keeping house, and we’re thought to be less knowledgeable in things like philosophy or history.
Hae: As a professor as well as a writer, do the two professions help or hinder each other?
Seo: Someone said teaching was the kiss of death for writers. But preparing for classes every day and constantly reading new work has been helpful in my case. It’s also wonderful meeting new students every semester. But after making tenure there’s been pressure to publish, to get good student evaluations, and that’s more difficult. I have to have fun and so do the students, but my teaching evaluations haven’t been good. Creative classes are dynamic in nature, but evaluations tend to reward adherence to restrictive criteria.
Hae: An unmarried French author once marveled, “How do Korean writers get so much done?” How do you balance being a wife, a daughter-in-law, raising three children, teaching, and writing?
Seo: If you want to maintain your identity as a writer, you need to assert it and safeguard your environment. My kids were put to bed by nine. They heard “Aren’t you asleep yet?” more often than “Have you done your homework?” I kept emphasizing that their mother had important things to do, and helping mother meant going to bed early. Once they were asleep, I locked the door to my study. My husband locked the door to the bedroom one time. He refused to open the door when I tried to go to bed at dawn. He was mad, saying, “You don’t let me in the study, either. Go sleep there.” I just slept in front of the bedroom door. When he apologized to me later he said seeing me there made him realize I was not doing this as a hobby.
Hae: Have any of your works appeared in translation?
Seo: My collection A Good Family was translated into English, and it’s being translated into Chinese. I’ve received a query for a Spanish edition. I’ve planned out ten short stories based on Korean folktales and characters, with “The Fairy and the Woodsman” and “Hong Gildong” being published so far. Foreign readers find the similarities to their own traditional works fascinating.
Hae: If you were to choose one of your works for translation, what would it be?
Seo: I’d go with “Tidal Path” (Korean title: “Jebudo”) into Japanese. I think the particular space of its island setting and the overall mood of the piece would appeal to Japanese readers.
Hae: What is it like interacting, both officially and unofficially, with foreign writers?
Seo: My own life is pretty uninteresting, so when I meet foreign writers I tend to get more interested in them as people than in their fame or influence as writers. I once met a young woman writer who was doing her nails in the middle of an international literary forum. It was surprising, yet refreshing to see. She made me think I was too domesticated myself. I wanted to know more about her thinking.
Hae: What are your teaching points when it comes to literature?
Seo: I’m always thinking of interesting new approaches for my students. I’d set a theme like “The Novel and Fate,” and talk about our own fates. If the theme is “Taboos,” we talk about our own taboos. I don’t center the work but the student’s own story. I want the student to realize that reading and discussing fiction is directly helpful to them. They’re going to face a difficult world after graduation. I hope their memories of writing in my class would be a comfort.
Hae: What could be done to tackle our shortcomings in creative writing education?
Seo: Educators need to change their perspective and thinking on literature. If you assign Dostoevsky or Thomas Mann to undergraduates, they’ll force themselves to write up a paper and never read another novel again. When I judge student writing contests, I sometimes find myself arguing with certain judges who refuse to accept changes in students’ writing styles. The times are changing, but our education and evaluation systems sometimes have trouble keeping up.
Hae: As a mother of three, you must have many thoughts on Korean education. What has been the most frustrating aspect?
Seo: There are so many problems, but I think once you fix the college entrance system, the effects will trickle down. All three of my children had to go through that system. Korean parents seem to make money solely to sustain the private tutoring industry. I wish there were systemic reforms that allowed students to enter college without having to work so much.
Hae: There are alternative criteria available for assessing a student’s candidacy, but there isn’t much to it at the moment.
Seo: Our generation used to look down on people who would get certifications overseas and return as baristas or chefs. But attitudes are changing. It’s our idea of a hierarchy of professions that leads to college hierarchy, so our attitudes towards various professions must change first.
Hae: Is college education still important for writers?
Seo: Some things are useless but meaningful. For example, an empty lot. The sun doesn’t shine there and it’s pretty useless, but taking a spin in it improves your mood and your productivity. Likewise, some may consider novels useless but their uselessness gives strength to that which is efficient and productive. We need a writing curriculum that’s more useless than ever. One that is the opposite of efficient or productive.
Hae: Have there been any changes in your thoughts on literature and writing over the years?
Seo: At first you write because you have a lot to say. But at some point, you wonder, Does anyone really care what I think? A critic once asked me what kind of reader was I expecting, writing such frustrating stories. I thought I was being cutthroat, but apparently, that reads as frustrating. I’m a more relaxed writer now.
Hae: Novels can’t help but deal with relationships and affection and love. What are your thoughts on love?
Seo: I believe in one love. I believe that if I love someone, that love doesn’t disappear until the day I die. I want to write about such love.
Hae: What has been the most difficult period for you since you’ve been writing and how did you overcome it?
Seo: No matter how hard it is to write, I never remember the difficulty afterwards, oddly enough. My most difficult period is the current moment. I never have enough time, I’m getting weaker, and my imagination is running out. I’m constantly doubting whether I can write the next story.
Hae: If you could choose to be reborn into another life, where and what would it be?
Seo: I’d choose Nepal, somewhere in the Himalayas, where I shall weave linen and have ten children. I like repetitive, physical work. I want to farm during the day and weave at night. But to be honest, I’d hate to be reborn. Anywhere, or as anything.
by Hae Yisoo