[Web Exclusive] Ordinary Alienation: A Conversation with Son Hong-kyu

  • onMay 16, 2018
  • Vol.39 Spring 2018
  • byKorean Literature Now


Q. What do you do when you’re not writing?  

Son Hong-kyu: I’m useless when it comes to other things than writing. I don’t have any real hobbies. I lead a very boring life. What I like best is reading and writing. I turn to books for inspiration, I turn to books for relaxation. I’ll work myself up reading and cool down reading again. It’s really the only thing I truly enjoy, reading books and writing.  


Q. Is there a reason that most of your novels are set in the city?

Son: I’ve lived in the city longer than I lived in my hometown by now, but I still can’t shrug off the feeling of being an outsider in the city, that the city will never belong to me, nor I truly belong to the city.

In my thinking, this feeling of being an outsider means that you don’t assimilate with the qualities that make city living attractive to people in the first place; it’s where you have the material goods of civilization in their most sophisticated form.

There’s a sense of disjointedness to that, which I connect with feelings of loneliness, profound solitude, poverty, exclusion.


Q. How did you come to write The Muslim Butcher?

Son: At first I was doing some research on the Korean War when I learned that our first brush with Islamic culture, the first time it directly inserted itself into Korean society was during the Korean War. That piqued my interest, and it slowly dawned upon me that Islamic culture in Korea wasn’t a recent phenomenon but something that has been here for a long time. I learned more, did more research, and eventually I had a novel on my hands.  Islam exists and has been part of Korean society for quite a long time. People tend to think that Islamic culture is foreign to us, that it has nothing to do with us, and that hasn’t changed much. 


Q. What draws you to the themes of alienation and healing?

Son: I couldn’t say exactly why. I do identify considerably with suffering, probably because I struggle as well, so to me it’s not an outlandish proposition, it’s an everyday thing. I don’t think that just because you’ve written a book you’ve changed something, that you’ve managed to make alienation go away. That’s not in the cards. We alienate each other by our own doing, by the shadows we create…

It’s not about saying, ‘No, you’re fine,’ when someone says they’re in pain, it’s about acknowledging their suffering. I think that takes a kind of courage, and that could be the first step towards healing. I see my books not as a solution but taking that first step, which actually might be the most important step. That’s what I wanted to convey in this book.


Q. What does writing mean to you?

Son: It’s a way of life. Writing has become as natural as breathing to me, nothing special, but nothing trivial, either. Life isn’t always dramatic, nor is it unimportant; you have your very ordinary life, but when you live that life to the fullest, that elevates it. Writing is like that, and for me it’s become synonymous with living. 


Q. How long do you see yourself living as a writer?

Son: Ever since I started writing, I’ve dreamed of retiring. I’d write what I had to write and get out because I would have said everything I wanted to say. I had this fantasy of complete idleness, of withdrawing completely from life, from everyday doings. It’s happened to me quite often that I think, I don’t want to live anymore, I don’t want to write anymore. But then I come to my senses and I’m still kicking, still writing. I guess that based on those experiences, I’ll probably keep writing until I’m in the grave.