Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

I wrote this novel in the summer of 2009.

On the 20th
of January that year, the South Korean administration murdered evictees in Yongsan, central Seoul. In the course of a mass demonstration, a huge conflagration broke out and six people died in the flames. It was an illegal mass operation in which service workers (civilians) were employed. The day before the incident, police called these service workers inside the police line, which they were not legally supposed to cross, and sent them inside the building where the evictees had gathered. In the over eight hours that the service workers spent inside, they forced the evictees up onto the roof where they would be cut off, lit a fire on the stairs and sent the smoke up to the roof. Though several fire engines were sent out during this process, the service workers who had remained outside the building threatened to throw the firefighters out. Later, a firefighter who was present in the courtroom said in testimony, ‘even though we requested the police to collaborate, they did not accept our request, and each time we went back unable to extinguish the fire’. The fire broke out on the 20th
January, as soon as police special forces were deployed onto the roof. The entire process was broadcast live via an internet news channel, and many people witnessed the moment of the fire breaking out. I was one of those people.

After the incident, the incident itself became known as the ‘Yongsan Disaster’, and the site of the conflagration as ‘Namildang’. Families who had lost their loved ones and had the corpses taken from them by state bodies gathered at Namildang. They stood isolated there for over 300 days, demanding an apology from the government and the truth about the incident. Hundreds of police were constantly surrounding the building, cursing and attacking the bereaved families. There was also a court case centred on those who had died in the fire. In the case, the victim was the government authority and the assailants were the evictees. I attended the trial and wrote a five thousand word essay on it, titled ‘A Mouth That Eats A Mouth’ (this is the same as one of the chapter titles in One Hundred Shadows, but the content is different). Through the process of the trial, the circumstances of this disaster were revealed, in which money (capital) egged on evictees, service workers, and policemen to fight. Though the issue of who gave the order to suppress the evictees’ protest is extremely important, ‘no-one is the person who gave the order’ was the police executives’ consistent answer. The Lee Myung-bak government did not make public the 3000-page report investigating the police executives. The phrase ‘Yongsan disaster’ became a sensitive one for the duration of the Lee Myung-bak administration. Wherever you happened to be in the streets, if you were holding a picket with the words ‘Yongsan disaster’ written on it, a dozen police would rush over and encircle you.

And yet, such wretched scenes do not appear in this novel. People who have died through great violence, burning buildings, smoke, people who cannot come away from the place where their father or husband had been at the last, the attacks and isolation that they would experience as everyday occurrences, are not mentioned in this novel.

Over the course of the summer of 2009, I wrote One Hundred Shadows by day and at night I held a one-woman protest at Namildang. Because that place and the things that had happened there were so grim and miserable, I wanted to make something warm. It seemed at the time to be all that I could do. And so I wrote this story, and it became my first novel. There will be many readers who read it as a warm love story. Even in Korea, there were many readers who read it this way. But I was not constructing a love story while I was writing this novel. I thought of it as a novel about shadows. A story to do with despair and death and powerlessness, which, like shadows, exist universally throughout the human world. I thought that I had to write something in a place where people were crying every day, I wrote with the earnest wish for even a scant handful of warmth, and then, as I completed the final sentence and looked back at what I had written, I saw that it was love, that it was a song. I surprised even myself. Each time I am asked to talk about this novel, I find it difficult. And it is still more difficult to talk about it briefly. In general, I give two short answers: ‘One Hundred Shadows and ‘A Mouth That Eats A Mouth’ are twins with their backs to each other’, and ‘This book could also be titled The Night Before’. Before things at the electronics market come to a head, the way they did that night in Yongsan, seven years ago.

One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun, translated by Jung Yewon, is published by Tilted Axis Press. Find out more and order the book here.

PEN Presents helps literary translators to champion exciting books from around the world to be published in the UK. Submissions are now open for PEN Presents… East and South-east Asia. The deadline is Monday 5 December 2016.