Apartment Fiction

  • onOctober 27, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byPyun Hye-Young

A large proportion of homes in Seoul are in multipurpose residential compounds called apartment complexes. Following the construction of a large complex in 1964 of a similar design to those of the present day, apartment complexes have expanded and been built all throughout the city. The first modern apartments built with the concept of being a complex were in a district of Seoul called Mapo, which is also where I currently live.

When I have to introduce the writer “Pyun Hye Young” to people, sometimes I want to begin by talking about this. What I mean is to point out that, in 1964 in the neighborhood where I now live, a multipurpose residential complex was built with an odd appearance, completely out of keeping with other forms of residential buildings in Seoul at the time. It was seen by some as a revolutionary means of solving the problem of overcrowding and lack of housing, but on the whole it had to withstand criticism from the perspective of aesthetics and popular sentiment.

Now there is no trace of the first apartment complex which once stood in Mapo—those apartments were demolished and replaced—but the whole area, aside from a few small exceptions, is piled high with apartments. Quite fittingly, I have been living close to where that first apartment complex, Mapo Apartments, once stood for over a decade now.

On top of that, I find myself wanting to tell people that I was born in Seoul and lived in Seoul the entire time was growing up. In fact, I have never spent more than two months away from the city; the longest holiday I’ve ever been on was two months.

Of course, I usually choose to talk instead about things like when I first started to write novels and what kinds of books I have had published. It’s a far clearer way to explain myself as a writer than talking about how I was born in Seoul and have lived all my life in apartment complexes.

In truth, I do occasionally bring up the topics of Seoul and apartments first. In which case, I frequently make a mess of trying to explain “the novelist Pyun Hye Young” with such information. Having been born in Seoul and lived only in apartment complexes is, at least in South Korea, something completely unremarkable. There must be an overwhelmingly large number of just such people.

Nevertheless, once in a while, the fact that I was born in Seoul, grew up in the city, lived in the multipurpose residential form of an apartment complex and have never lived outside the city for more than two months—this hardly a notable piece of information—seems hugely important to my work as a writer.

What influence has the city of Seoul and the architectural form of the apartment in which I have always lived had on my writing? I’m sure they have made their mark, but I don’t feel I can assert exactly what form that influence has taken. One thing that comes to mind is that most of my works are vaguely set in the city of Seoul, and are indebted to the form of space that is an apartment.

Generally, the characters in my novels are office workers in the lined up skyscrapers of the city. They spend their everyday lives as office workers in a crowded chaos that puts them on edge making them exhausted, then when they leave the office they return to an apartment and fall asleep feeling at ease with their tranquil routine. It’s a city that they long to leave but in fact feel most at ease when within its spaces; a city with which they are disenchanted by its chaos, but if they leave they soon miss that very commotion. A city that keeps them switching from one residence or workplace to another, despite the desire to stay put in one place. A city which runs ever onwards toward the future, and changes constantly, showing its volition such that it cannot be still in the present even for a moment. A city which encourages floating and circulation rather than accumulation. Seoul is that kind of space and the characters in my novels live in such a place.

In the early 1970s when I was born, the whole of Seoul was going through urban development (Seoul is still always being developed even now). The place where I grew up was a neighborhood on the very eastern edge of Seoul, which had just recently been enveloped by the city. Because it was a suburb, the neighborhood was always noisy. It was because of the construction noise. All the time, somewhere in the neighborhood, an old building was being demolished and a new building constructed in its place.

To get to elementary school, I had to walk along the crooked low embankments that vaguely separated rice fields. If it was a rainy day, it was not uncommon that my flimsy trainers slipped in the mud. When I tried to move my feet, the trainers would be yanked off by the mud and even my socks would be saturated with muddy water. As I got to school having walked that kind of muddy path, all around me were apartment complexes under construction. Grey concrete walls with their rebar exposed were densely erected upon wide plots of land. The concrete scenery that had come into being so suddenly was completely at odds with the rice field paths I had walked; but when I think of my childhood, the two naturally spring to mind together. Before long we moved house into a brand new apartment complex. From then on, I have lived in the kind of living space that we call an apartment.

Apartments are the optimum space for the modern individual. There is no real need for you to greet the neighbors with whom you share the same plot of land and if you so wish, you can live in an apartment for years without knowing them. I don’t think of that as hard hearted, sterile, or cold.

People who live in apartments have a relationship whereby they share an important wall which acts as the pillar of their home. If I sit in my room with my back leaning against the wall there is always the possibility that on the other side someone else is there, alone, leaning against the same wall. Occasionally that wall becomes a place to lean and rest alone, something you can quietly depend upon in the crowded and chaotic space of Seoul. The large, thick, solid surface of the wall is not only something that harshly cuts through the world. It is something you share with neighbors whose faces you don’t know, something you can lean your back against, and often something that guarantees your solitude.

People who live their lives in their own space, taking great pains not to inflict themselves on those around them, even so share part of what it is they rely on. People who live out the present and work towards the future in the vast structures of apartments which are also within the conflicting landscape of Seoul. People who, even in the midst of constant farcical and pitiable political and social upheaval, go on resolutely living out their lives in this city. When I write, these are the kinds of people who first spring to mind. 


by Pyun Hye Young

Author's Profile

Pyun Hye-Young completed her BA in creative writing and MA in Korean literature from Hanyang University. Her novel The Hole was the winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award, and City of Ash and Red was an NPR Great Read. Her works in English include Evening Proposal (Dalkey Archive, 2016), The Hole (Arcade Publishing, 2017), City of Ash and Red (Arcade Publishing, 2018), and The Law of Lines (Arcade Publishing, 2020). Her short stories have been published in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Words Without Borders. She currently teaches creative writing at Myongji University.