An Interview with Kim Young-ha
Dafna Zur: It's a great pleasure to conduct this interview with you. Your stories and novels have been awarded the major literary prizes in Korea, and have been welcomed with great enthusiasm by your English-speaking readers as well. What seems striking first of all is your unconventional background both as a business major at Yonsei University and as a teacher of Korean as a foreign language. Can you tell us a bit about how you decided to become a writer, how you work, and where you get your ideas for your stories?
Kim Young-ha: Ever since I was very young, I dreamed of becoming a writer, though I wasn't sure what being a writer actually meant. I wrote my first short story when I was fifteen. It wasn't very good, but I remember how excited I felt throughout the entire process of writing it. I chose business administration as a major in college because I wasn't sure you could actually make a living just by writing. Once I became a writer, I turned to teaching Korean as a foreign language part-time because it afforded me more time to write. I am inspired and influenced mostly by books, as well as plays and film. While the countryside gives me a kind of peace of mind, I find that walking around the city and watching films stimulates and inspires me to put my ideas down on paper. [End Page 27]
DZ: The drama in your stories seems to be enhanced by a strong visual quality; reading your stories and novels often feels like a cinematographic experience. The dynamic dialogue contributes to this aspect of your work. Is this something you develop consciously? Are there any particular stories of yours that started, say, from a visual sequence rather than an abstract idea?
KYH: I think it is more precise to say that rather than being influenced by films, my writing is less influenced by preexisting literary conventions. What concerned me most when I started to write is the economy of my sentences; I have made conscious efforts to convey my stories by using a succinct, straight-to-the-point style. Around the time I became a writer, I enjoyed reading works by authors such as Hemingway and others whose styles are concise and clear, and their influence, I think, is apparent in my own writing. Many of my works have been inspired by a single sentence, but often they are driven by a compelling story rather than my own stream of consciousness. Also, I pay attention to how people really talk and I'm interested in bringing this into the genre of the novel. I like to think of my writing style as a product of the negotiation between economy of storytelling and realistic dialogue.
DZ: Can you tell us a bit about each of the three stories in this volume of Azalea, "This Tree of Yours," "Their Last Visitor," and "My Brother's Back"? Please tell us also about your first novel that is coming out in English with Harcourt Press, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.
KYH: I wrote "This Tree of Yours" when I came back from a trip to Cambodia. I was raised Catholic, and so I never felt a particular connection with the Asian tradition of Buddhism. But the trip to Angkor Wat made an immense impression on me, and for a while I became deeply immersed in that religious world and tradition. These feelings inspired this particular work. [End Page 28]
"Their Last Visitor" was commissioned by a newspaper. I was asked to write a short story celebrating the end of the year. It started with a tale the art director working on the film Memory of Murder (2003) once told me. I find there's always something eerie about young workaholics. I remember I was reading a novel by Raymond Carver at the time. The story is a sort of homage to him.
In "My Brother's Back" I tried to capture what I see as the deterioration of family values in Korea today. Contemporary Korea is a battleground where the values of the older patriarchal generation clash violently with those of the younger generation, which no longer accepts patriarchy. Korea has undergone immense changes, and I see the family unit as an epitome of those changes. Some might feel that my portrayal is an exaggeration, but except for a slight comic twist, the family depicted reflects quite realistically what is happening in Korea today. The Korean family is a family in crisis, and lacks the communication skills and education necessary for confronting a new reality.
My novel I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, which will soon be published in English translation in the United States, is the very first full-length novel I ever wrote. Its narrator is a sort of "suicide facilitator" who carries around a catalogue designed to help people commit suicide in the most convenient way. I used this particular character to address the loves and deaths of young people living in Seoul in the 1990s. But I believe that even outside its geographic context, the message of the novel comes across because the lives depicted in it are found all over the world. I believe young people today lead very similar lives. We all suffer from issues such as high rates of unemployment, alienation, and communication difficulties, and we consume the same kind of music and food. This novel deals with the despair of young people.
DZ: Who do you like to read, or who are the writers who have impacted your work? [End Page 29]
KYH: My favorite writers include Tolstoy, Hemingway, Kafka, Oscar Wilde, Yukio Mishima, and Rushdie. I just realized that they are all male writers.
DZ: Can you tell us about any of the current projects you are working on?
KYH: I am currently working on a new novel called Quiz Show. Basically, it discusses the adventures and love affairs of young people who meet one another through a "quiz."
DZ: What expectations do you have of yourself? In what directions do you wish to grow or evolve?
KYH: My goal is to produce a masterwork like Tolstoy's War and Peace or Anna Karenina that contains a rich understanding of humanity. That is what my life will be dedicated to for the next ten years. [End Page 30]
Dafna Zur is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia majoring in Korean language and literature. Her translations have been published in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Korean Literature, Manoa, and Words Without Borders. Her research interests include Korean children's literature, North Korean science fiction, and contemporary Korean women's fiction./