[Web Exclusive] In Conversation — Sang Young Park & Alexander Chee

  • onDecember 24, 2020
  • Vol.50 Winter 2020
  • byKorean Literature Now



Sang Young Park(Park): Hello, I am Sang Young Park in Seoul.

Alexander Chee(Chee): Hello, I am Alexander Chee. And I am in eastern Vermont.

Park: There are Tarot cards in front of me. I didn’t know this but Alexander Chee can read Tarot cards. We’d love to talk in person but because of various constraints, we’re going to ask each other questions by picking at random one of the twelve Tarot cards in front of me. The point of this, and fun of this, is to see how Mr. Chee and I in our respective locations communicate and answer the same question differently. Now, let me pick a card, the one right here in the center.

Q1. Where do you find the inspiration in your writing and what does the initial spark come from?

Park: This seems to be a question about creative motivations. The simplest way to put it for me would be, “daily life.” There are many reasons for writing. You can be intellectually motivated by a philosophical topic, discover a fascinating social phenomenon, wish to widen your perspective, or achieve an aesthetic goal. In my case, I enjoy talking about my daily life, the things that accumulate within me day to day. That is why I tend to write notes to myself about interesting things I think about during the day or heard in conversations with friends. I enjoy the process of developing these notes into a story.

Chee: Often I get ideas from talking to other people, talking to my friends, or oftentimes someone will tell me a story about something that has happened to them or someone that they know or they'll tell me a story about a historical figure or they'll tell me a story about a mythological character of some kind. These are all just examples of things that have ended up in my books and in my stories. One idea for a story I got: just from being on a train and being at dinner with a stranger who was telling me a story and just one piece of it stayed with me and started to turn into something in my mind. I do get a lot of ideas in what I think of as being the apertures in someone's understanding, by which I mean someone tells me something and they're very convinced of it, they're very confident of it, and I usually sense a gap somewhere, and I don't usually bring it up, but that's usually where something emerges that wants my attention and then that turns into a story.

Q2. What is it like being a writer, and what does it mean to be a writer in the middle of COVID-19?

Chee: I have at times felt utterly helpless and useless, and then at other times, I have come to understand the value of what I do very differently. I think in the United States it's very common that your value as a writer is measured by your success, and usually that means sales, means money, and means advances, it means magazine covers, status, prizes. But I've really come to understand how intimately I am connected to my readers and their lives in the last nine months now and that's been a tremendous education actually to learn that. They have written to me to tell me how my work helps them keep going. It's been interesting sometimes because I feel like I'm struggling to keep going and so to hear from someone, Oh, this thing that you wrote is really helping me keep going, I just think, like, I wish I had someone doing that for me. But then it's just a reminder for me to turn back to my own reading, keep looking for other heroes, and to go back to the inspirations that brought me to this place and to renew my sense of commitment to this work.

Park: I think we really are living in what is official called the COVID-19 Era. Just a year ago, I was the writer with the busiest publicity schedule in Korea. I enjoy promoting my work in front of an audience and my publishers and many bookstores knew this and kept putting me in things. A lot of these appearances have been canceled, there are fewer opportunities to talk directly with readers now. I think my own writing has shrunken from roaming all over the city to a much smaller range of movement. Even the way I write and what I write have changed, and my life as a writer has also become somewhat narrower. Even if I had always worked alone as a writer, I feel I am definitely living a different life now.

Q3. Next, our third question. It says to move on to a different question. Let’s try a different question then.

What does marriage mean to a queer couple?

Park: Marriage has become a passé topic in 2020 Korea. What people talk about now is non-marriage, even sologamy ceremonies. While my special topic of queerness is often connected to discourse on marriage, a social unit of particular significance to queer folk, I think concern for it becomes overemphasized because there is no marriage equality. Alternative life partnership laws are currently being discussed in Korea. So to be talking about what marriage means to queer people seems old. But maybe to a writer of queer literature like me, marriage means having hope that there is something more.

Chee: It’s a good question. I think marriage was an interesting thing for me to get involved in, understanding that the desire that I had was a desire to marry, which is a very strange thing to say after a period of not even believing that I could, that I would be allowed to in my lifetime. What it means to make a family with someone, even if you don't have any children, but to decide to be there for each other that way. How even though this is very public thing where you're declaring your love for someone else in this, in a civic and government setting, there are forms involved. Your families are part of it. It still feels like a secret, and I don't know why.

Q4. On to the next question. Good luck . . .  Thanks for wishing me luck. I think it’s a question about the meaning of love.

Park: To me, love is a mysterious emotion that flares up one moment and becomes ugly the next and is over before you know it. It’s hard to define love in so many words, which is why I think my two books of fiction and one essay collection have to do with love. I needed long-form narrative for the theme, and so I find defining love concisely a difficult exercise, but I would like to say you can read my books for my full answer.

Chee: Our lives are one long education on what love means. How does that deal with like interpersonal love or love of friends. I think it's kind of the same way that so much of our lives is about trying to figure out how we can relate to each other, how we are able to connect and stay connected. You know, the family is the first chance, I suppose you can certainly blow it. And then your friends are the second, and then if you're lucky with romance, even if you're unlucky with it, romantic love would be probably the third. Something that really made a difference for me was learning the difference between loving someone and wanting to be loved by them. That was one of the biggest discoveries of my life before finding my husband, learning so much of what I thought was love was actually just me wanting someone to love me, a specific someone. It is not the same.

Q5. I think this question is about how we might connect: If you could meet with Alexander Chee, what would you do together?

Chee: If you come here, then we have to go first to . . . Well, I will I meet you in New York City, I'll put it that way, and we will go out to the gay bars in Hell’s Kitchen, but we also need to take you around and introduce you to my friends from this queer Asian party in Brooklyn called Bubble Tea, and so we should time your visit for when they're doing a Bubble Tea evening. Well, the next night we'll meet up with filmmaker Patrick Lee who's been in Seoul making a documentary on Korean queer clubs whom I’ll definitely want you to meet if you haven't met each other already. And then I would probably throw you a party in my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen and invite a bunch of my writer friends as well as my Asian American nightlife friends and just have kind of like a great big dinner-slash-hangout with everyone. I don't know if you play piano, but we have a piano in my apartment so there might be some my piano karaoke, which will be pretty fun if you're up for that. And then I would want you to come with me to my cabin in the Catskills, which is to place that my husband and I got about six years ago and we bought it with another couple so we share it and it's a retreat that I use for writing and for fun. I'm going there this weekend, it’s just a place that I never have to apply to, that I can always get it, basically. There's no board of directors, there's no jury, I just immediately give myself the prize of going to that cabin, and I will give you that prize also. And then we can hang out there, we can hike, cook, I will dare to make you some of my favorite Korean dishes that I like to make like dakdoritang and tteokbokki and, what else do I like to make, my husband really likes to make miyeokguk, so those are some things that you'll eat with us, and of course kimchi fried rice as well for when we are hungover and trying to put it together in the morning.

Park: What I would like to do… I was actually blocked when I saw this question. It’s hard to think of what you’d like to do with someone you’ve never met. But because we’re meeting as writer to writer, just sitting down and talking would be fun on its own. Maybe a modest meal, and if I were to be somewhat old-fashioned, there’s a great Korean full-course place I like where we can eat multiple courses and have great conversations in a quiet atmosphere, that’s what I’d most like to do.

Q6. Moving on to the next question, which is a question I’ve taken great pains to prepare the answer: If you were to work with Alexander Chee, what would that be like?

Chee: Well I think we should write a movie. I have a couple of ideas of things that I want to adapt, stories that I came across when I was doing my research into the Japanese colonial period. So maybe a historical film. It should definitely be gay, and I guess you know I still want to hear your ideas as well, but yeah, I've done a bit of screenwriting myself in the past few years, a certain amount of TV writing too, nothing's been made yet but I have my fingers crossed. But I just, I don't know, reading your work I just had the feeling of, well, first of all, I think that your work should be adapted for the screen, but I just felt like, yeah, that it would be fun to write a movie with you.

Park: There are different topics we can work on. There are a few pandemic-themed anthologies coming out. I’ve thought of something we might work together on. We could pick a celebrity and write about our impressions or stories about them, and see how writers from different cultures use that celebrity in their work and how that celebrity appears in the work. For example, we can use one of my childhood favorites like Mariah Carey, or an actor from the olden days or a mainstream Hollywood actor like Leonardo DiCaprio, talking about our impressions or setting one to write stories about.

Q7. In his autobiographical articles, Alexander Chee has talked about writing superhero fiction that were almost X-Men fanfic. Also, he’s heard about K-pop and Korean culture from his younger relatives. I wanted to ask him about that. Who is his favorite superhero character and favorite aspect of Korean culture?

Chee: My favorite superhero character is probably The Phoenix from the X-Men, Jean Grey, or it is another excellent character, Storm.

Park: The X-Men are also my favorite superhero characters. I like Jean Grey the best. Her superpower is mostly telekinesis, as well as becoming possessed by a powerful otherworldly being called the Phoenix and taking on its powerful abilities. I was very intrigued by her powers and her omnipotence.

Chee: You know, I always used to wish that I could move things with my mind, always wished that my anger could throw things around the room. More than I did myself, I had a terrible temper as a child, and I would always be slamming doors or threatening to run away, and just the ability to destroy the building that I was in and leave through the roof, just seemed like a perfect expression of that rage.

Park: When it comes to Korean culture, I am so in the middle of it as a consumer that I wonder if I’ve really anything to say about it, but my biggest guilty pleasure in K-culture are K-pop idols. I’ve been listening to Twice right before filming this, and I know all the popular songs of everyone’s favorite groups, and keep on top of hot new releases. That’s my primary method of relaxation and the happiest way I know of how to spend my day.

Chee: It's a tough one. I mean, I think maybe as Lady Vengeance from Park Chan Wook’s film. The pure determination in her, and the way that she could still be funny even the worst times. I don't know if that's a cultural icon, it’s another character, but she's a character who stayed in my mind for a very long time after seeing the film. The red eye shadow and the sort of diabolical plot making mind that she has, all of that have just stayed with me all this time. I'm not really, I know this is almost sacrilegious to say right now, I'm not really a Kpop fan, even though I love the phenomenon. I'm a fan of the phenomenon. I love that my nieces and nephews love it so much, and that it's given them a less complicated relationship to their Korean identity than I had. Because so much of so much of mine was bound by various difficulties with family and various traumas for them to just experience it as pure joy. Let's just say that it's beautiful to me.

Q8. This last question is quite disconcerting but important. It’s about the conflict and reconciliation between parents and children.

Can parents and children ever reconcile?

Park: The question implies it’s related to queer literature but I think the topic relates to Korean lit, foreign lit, and literature itself. Family problems! Conflict between parents and children or any expression of generational differences is a classical topic in literature. After all, isn’t one’s family one’s first contact with the world, a space where they learn about the world and become socialized? That’s why familial conflict is an inevitable issue in literature and is one of the most effective tools to show not just the problems of two or three people but the societal issues surrounding us and how we are in conflict or disharmony with the world, which is why regardless of country or race, writers have kept calling up their parents for material. Almost every writer I know personally or indirectly has some issue with their parents. I almost think it’s a prerequisite towards becoming an artist, although there are, of course, many people who have great relationships with their parents, but I wonder if such fundamental lack becomes creative motivation.

Chee: So much of what we think of as abuse, I think, happens because the people feel compelled to be in relationship to each other as opposed to choosing it. That said, I think there is a different bond between a parent and a child, and while the bond cannot be ruptured lightly, it also cannot be put together lightly again, either. This outfit that I'm wearing, for example, is not a particularly fashionable outfit, but it is a kind of homage to my Uncle Bill who I've been missing, my dad's brother. I learned a lot about reconciling with a parent from him, I guess you could say. He fought terribly with my grandfather, by which I mean like they had a profound disagreement when he was young over his marriage, and when he was older, over what he felt was the unfair treatment of my grandfather to my grandmother. It was a battle waged by himself, and it made him very lonely. I never stopped loving him though, and I understood why he did it, even if I didn't necessarily agree with why he did it. So it's hard, yeah, once that ruptures, it's done. But I think I guess I've talked more about the need to rupture than the need to reconcile.


English Subtitles Translated by Anton Hur


Sang Young Park was born in Daegu, South Korea in 1988. He studied French and journalism at Sungkyunkwan University and attended the creative writing master’s program at Dongguk University. He launched his writing by winning the 2016 Munhakdongne New Writer’s Award for “Searching for Paris Hilton.” He is the author of the short story collection The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta (2018), the serial novel Love in the Big City (2019), and the essay collection Sleeping Hungry (2020). He has received the 2018 and 2019 Young Writer’s Award, and the 2019 Heo Gyun Literary Award. The English translation of Love in the Big City is forthcoming from Tilted Axis Press and Grove Atlantic in 2021.

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.