[Web Exclusive] The Priorities of Being: Interview with Jeon Soochan

  • onMarch 24, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byKorean Literature Now


The Priorities of Being


1. What is a typical day like for you as a writer?

I go to the library in the morning and I write until the sun goes down, 365 days a year. No holidays. Right now I’m finishing a new project. Apart from that, I do a few odd jobs here and there and that’s it. The new book I’m working on is an extension of the issues dealt with in Shame, my previous novel; it’s going to stick very closely to contemporary Korean society.


2. What made you decide to quit your job to write?

People say someone is a born clown; I think that of myself now. I always liked art best as a child. But the era being what it was, I got a job like everyone else, until I reached a breaking point. So I switched careers. I became a writer, thinking only I would be doing what I liked, except it turns out that writing is a really hard job. I couldn’t deal with it. When I first started writing I was trying to prove that I’d made the right choice. But I think that writing itself also has the power to change you and help you move forward. I would say now that I’ve grown as a person, learned some things about myself and become more accepting of this job. 


3. Why did you feel it was hard?

When you’re a writer, you’re in charge of everything. It’s not easy to ask for help, and even then it’s mostly learning from other writers who made the same mistakes as you did. And I found it hard to share what I was going through with other people. I felt quite isolated. I think that’s the hardest thing to deal with, the pain of isolation. As for the positive side, writing forced me to face myself. Accepting those sides that are lacking can be painful, but in the end that’s how you move forward. 


4. Your novel Shame has been published in Japanese. Have you received any feedback from your foreign readers? 

Not so much directly, but I’ve looked up reviews on the internet. Using Google Translate, you know. It’s important to me to know whether the message I wanted to convey to Korean readers comes across in translation. Luckily that seems to be the case from the reviews I’ve seen. It’s a wonderful experience, an invaluable experience knowing that someone from a different culture and language is holding a book I’ve written in their hands and reading it.


5. Why did you decide to involve the North Korean refugees in Shame in a scandal over the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics?

North Korean refugees were on the rise when I was writing Shame, and considered something of a social problem. It was not at all my intention, however, to write a novel emphasizing with the plight of those marginalized in South Korea, or to highlight their troubles to show what a cruel society we are. I happen to think that the gaze of South Korean society towards North Korean refugees itself speaks volumes about Korean society. So you could say that the North Korean characters were written to expose South Korean society, which in my opinion is a society that is losing its humanity. One of the reasons being that our society prizes matter over mind. It’s the side effect of growing so much in such a short period of time, this valuing of material things over the abstract, which translates to an extremely vulgar point of view when it comes to North Korean refugees. That’s what I wanted to write about. Even the Olympics, it’s supposed to be a celebration of humanity and peace or whatnot, but now it’s become a massive marketing tool. I admit I couldn’t resist the opportunity to juxtapose that with the highly contrasting situation of North Koreans in Pyeonchang. I wanted to create the most difficult situation possible. So now you know where that part of the novel comes from.


6. Do you think that writers have a responsibility to write about social issues?

That’s more of a question of what it means to be an artist. I don’t think it’s an obligation, but I’m going to assume that if you’re a writer you’re motivated by the truth. I don’t mean that in the moral sense, but artistically speaking, asking what art is. Let’s say it’s not about entertainment, or religious spiritualism, but the expression of beauty. I think that already covers the entirety of the human spirit. And if there’s no urge to uncover the truth beneath all that, it wouldn’t be easy to create something of artistic value. That’s what I think.  


7. What qualities does a writer need to have?

If I knew that, I would be the god of writers. Personally speaking, I would say first you need an artistic temperament. By that I mean a love of art. And then you need some self-awareness, or should I say humility. You need some of that before you can go messing around other people’s lives. And then, as mentioned before, a writer needs to be courageous. To accept no compromises. Your quest is to search for the truth, to obey the truth; those are the things I’d say a writer needs.


8. What are your plans for the future?

As I say in the project I’ve just finished working on, I think that we as a society have failed to evolve beyond a certain point. It’s a question of humanity, not just social issues. As I said before, after the liberation Korean history has been one of prioritizing matter over mind, and once that has reached a breaking point you need to find a solution, if only that were so easy. If we were to put humanity before material success and try to run our society that way, I don’t think we’re capable of doing that yet. Anyway, I see that as my theme—the question of humanity, or even salvation, of people living in this society.