[Web Exclusive] Observing the spectrum of humanity: Interview with Cho Hae-jin

  • onApril 3, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byKorean Literature Now


Observing the spectrum of humanity


1. Your work often leaves readers with questions. Is that intentional?

It’s hard to write something that touches people, and that kind of work has its place, but I think that what all writers would really like is to write something that makes you think, that broadens your horizons and challenges your perceptions of yourself. That’s what I aspire to and what I’m constantly working on.


2. How did you come up with the character of Hong Miyoung, the protagonist of “Happiness of a Walker”?

I taught at a university myself for many years, so I know how precarious that job is, and that’s where the character Hong Miyoung comes from. Hong Miyoung is a former philosophy lecturer who gets lays off and finds herself working at a convenience store. I’ve also written characters like a film director who doesn’t get the chance to make films, thwarted artists, office temps who don’t know when they might lose the job that has become their function in life. I’ve started paying more attention to those kinds of characters who are in free fall since turning forty myself and becoming more aware of that kind of precariousness. I’ve also observed a lot of people in my life, people who look put together but whose lives could be derailed at any minute.

Any sense of belonging or stability we have just seems to get weaker as we grow older, and as our society becomes subsumed by capitalism. It’s a society ready to collapse at any time. And it’s taken me until my forties to feel that keenly. So there’s that, and my general take on society these days that sparks my interest in characters like Hong Miyoung.


3. Your characters seem to be characterized by their dignity even in the most trying circumstances.

I don’t think a change in circumstances or a job can change a person’s fundamental being, their philosophy, their way of life. Of course, you can have a character like Hong Miyoung, who used to think about her happiness and death in abstract terms and then goes through this very concrete experience of poverty to emerge on the other side thinking she wants to keep living, but there’s no need to strip a character of their dignity, quite the contrary.


4. Is it because of your faith in humanity?

I do have faith in a fleeting instant of humanity. I don’t believe we wear our humanity all the time. I don’t, nor my friends, nor my characters. We don’t go about our lives like that all the time, but there are instants where you stumble upon your own humanity, or should I say happiness, like the “Happiness of a Walker.” It’s those fleeting instants that I try to capture in my work, like a ray of light.


5. You often write about politically marginalized characters. Do you believe that fiction has a social responsibility?

I don’t think at all whether fiction needs to be socially responsible. I don’t think about how something will be read or whether it has a moral or not. What I do think about is the writer as witness. I think that one of the things fiction can do is to represent the politically oppressed, the practically erased.

I don’t expect someone to read my work to broaden their political horizons or sharpen their critical abilities. But if someone reading my work were to learn about people travelling all the way to Europe to seek refugee status, or about a group like Koryoin, who have disappeared from the pages of history but are very much in existence, if not political prominence; if someone were to realize that that while the Holocaust happened at a different time and place but the same principles are repeating themselves in Korean society, that would make me very happy as a writer. For me, that is the reach of fiction.


6. What do you place the most importance on when writing about heavy subjects?

Writing fiction is writing about people, in the end. I try to write as authentically as possible. In “Guard of Light,” for instance, the character Kwon Eun is struck by the parallels between her and Alma Meyer’s life. All of those characters are fictitious, of course, but for instance there’s a scene where Alma Meyer is interviewed after her son’s death and she smiles. I wrote that scene to make Alma Meyer as real as possible. I try to make all my characters as real as possible, to convey that feeling to my readers.


7. What draws you to write about historical and political themes?

I don’t think you can write a novel completely removed from current affairs. As a member of society, of this era, I feel that responsibility more strongly as I grow older. It overlaps with my responsibility as a writer, as that’s the biggest part of my identity. When I look at society and think, that’s not right, or if there’s a great tragedy, I can’t just look away any more. Part of it is being a writer, and part of it is physically getting older and thinking, maybe I didn’t actually do wrong but I’ve played a big part in this.

All those tragic events, all those ups and downs. It makes me wonder where we went wrong, which brings me back to history. Things that happened in other countries in the past, this great tragedy that’s manifesting itself in Korea today in the form of fear and hatred of the other. War, the Holocaust. Maybe all of that started simply with people going, we don’t like foreigners, we don’t like their culture, we don’t like people whose skin is a different color. From there it’s all downhill. I’m thinking, is that what’s going on in Korean society today? And I wrote “Guard of Light” and “A Farewell to Objects.”


8. Your works have been well received in translation. What do you think is the reason?

As far as I know, I Met Lo Kiwan has been published in translation, and among my short stories “Guard of Light” has been published in an anthology, while “A Farewell to Objects” was the text for LTI Korea’s translation award. I actually thought that “A Farewell to Objects” might not be the most universal, as it deals with political events in Korea in the past. But the story itself focuses on the emotional involvement between Seo and Aunt. They’ve been badly treated by history, but rather than that I chose to focus on the guilt, sadness, and pain they must have gone through. It’s the personal history I wished to highlight rather than that of the outside world, and I think a lot of people relate to that. 


9. Do you have anything coming out now?

I’ve expanded a story called “Moonju” from my collection, Guard of Light, into a novel called The Plain Truth. I worked on it for most of last year, and I’ve just sent it to my publisher, so it’s probably coming out in April or May. Besides that, I’m always working on short stories.