In association with the Asia Literary Review (ALR). Translated from Korean by the ALR and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.
ALR: Korea is described by the media as the hippest country in Asia, but ‘hell’ by many of its young people. Why does this contradiction exist?
Cheon: In the term Hallyu, the ‘Korean wave’, there are undertones of imperialistic aspirations and an aggressive kind of nationalism. It’s like propaganda. Maybe it comes from a sense of inferiority. But it is mainly a media label. The entertainment industry, with well-trained stars and musicians, and engineers and composers from countries like the USA, has a lot of influence on the population. The production values are dazzling. However, consumers of the product are hardly dazzling at all. The lives of K-pop stars are dream-like, while their fans’ lives are tragic. This contrast is grotesque.
Han: I sometimes question whether the wave even exists. Yes, many tourists visit Korea because of it. And Koreans know how far ‘Kangnam Style’ has reached around the world. But I mainly see people who work hard for no output. So I don’t feel any contradiction – it’s more like an illusion. Koreans are good at creating these cool and chic images at a fast pace. The government encourages this because it sells, but real people ignore it because they’re disconnected from it.
ALR: Is the success of K-pop and K-drama aspirational or troubling to you?
Cheon: [laughs] You know, Psy studied music overseas. Perhaps novelists may now be expected to live abroad to get a similar broad experience and perspective. When I travelled in France and mentioned that I was from South Korea, many people responded, ‘Oh, Kim Ki-duk!’ [a Korean film director]. At least the wave is good in that way. When I visited Thailand, people frequently asked if my novel The Whale would be made into a TV series – because Jewel in the Palace, the massively popular TV series, had a spin-off novel that became a bestseller.
ALR: How do the extreme competitive pressures and expectations faced by ordinary citizens, especially young people, feed into your writing?
Han: I see competition and stress every day. The country has developed unevenly, and the younger generation have been forced to think about how to step over each other in order to win. And Koreans don’t know not to be ashamed when they trample each other in this ruthless way. Every Korean writer is definitely affected by this social phenomenon to different degrees. For me, such topics are embedded in the tone of my sentences.
Cheon: In my opinion real competition happened during the thirty years of the 1970s to 1990s. Before then, most people were poor and undereducated, so competition wasn’t necessary. With industrialization came ‘dragons born out of a stream’ – people who made a name for themselves out of nothing. Now, competition doesn’t even exist because your destiny is decided when you are born. For instance, kids from the Kangnam district in Seoul have a higher likelihood of entering a good university than anyone else. Most stories written by authors tend to focus on people who win, but I find myself more drawn to those excluded and left behind.
ALR: Is the international recognition of Han Kang and Shin Kyung-sook giving other Korean novelists a larger platform?
Han: The authors’ popularity shows that there is interest overseas in more than just music and drama. The very fact that we are here in London is evidence! I’m curious to know how my books are being received internationally. The level of interest fluctuates in France and the USA, but it’s definitely rising.
Cheon: Yes, I believe so. I was able to visit the USA because Modern Family was published there. Writers now have more opportunities than the older generation. Maybe the rising number of successful writers can build a new wave.
Find out more about Han Kang and her latest PEN-supported book, Human Acts, on English PEN’s World Bookshelf.
Read pieces by Han Kang and Deborah Smith about The Vegetarian on the PEN Atlas.