- Interview with Shin Kyung Sook
Gabriel Sylvian: After reading "The Strawberry Field" for the first time, I knew I wanted to translate it to let English-language readers get a sense of the intricacy and beauty of the original. What was the response of Korean readers to the work when it first came out in the year 2000?
Shin Kyung Sook: It was publicized as being quite a different work from the things I had previously written. My works until that time had been noted for their lack of sex scenes between lovers, but "The Strawberry Field" contains strong sexual images. One critic quoted a passage from one of the love scenes in "The Strawberry Field" and said it would be long remembered as one of the most beautifully written love scenes in Korean literature. That pleased me very much. Some people said they'd barely recognized the work as mine. "The Strawberry Field" is set in the context of 1980s Korea. The narrator is reflecting back on the period of military dictatorship when she grew up. The adolescent lives cast into the midst of oppression and violence during the 1980s, which is the environment that the "I" in the novel experienced, survived in odd ways. The characters appearing in the novel are not of the kind that gain easy acceptance, and they have not had a place in existing Korean novels dealing with the 1980s. They're not people participating on the social stage of history, but rather young [End Page 53] people who experience loss and dejection, and who have neglected themselves. Some people couldn't believe that the author of Where the Harmonium Used to Be (P'ung'gŭm i ittŏn chari)1 had written this story.
GS: SF seems to be one of those works that both attracts translators and yet discourages them from attempting to translate it. Discouraged, perhaps, by its intricate narrative design, such as its intertwining timelines and points of view, but drawn to it because of its "sense of melancholy" and also because it provides some of the most memorable seduction scenes in recent memory. You mentioned in 2000 that releasing SF gave you a feeling similar to one you experienced when you published your very first work back in the 1980s. That implies a deep personal investment in the story. Is this story at all about you?
SKS: You're asking me to answer about my own desire! (Laughs) The male character in the story with "the face like a criminal" and the luxurious character "Yu" both exist in me, to some extent. The "I" in the story experiences both people. I created the narrative "I" and then had her experience what I had inside me but could never realize. The word "seduction" is so interesting. I agree there are lots of seduction scenes. I totally censored myself in word choice, though. I wanted to make it a beautiful work yet with a sense of emptiness through the "I'" who seems to embody both "the man" and Yu. Conditions in Korea in the 1980s had both of those qualities. The entirety of my adolescence is in there.
GS: You have stated before that you prefer the term "empathy" to "sadness" when describing the basis of your own work. "Empathy" foregrounds a deep emotional connection between a work and its reader. Could you talk about that? [End Page 54]
SKS: I was talking about the emotion of being well disposed toward people who suffer from lack or want. The people I find burdensome are those with strong beliefs. People who try to accomplish something with those beliefs. People with strong beliefs oppress others without knowing they are doing it. If the world were made up of people who see themselves as forever unshakable in their resolution, what space could ever exist for seeing eye to eye? My novelistic world is always a search for vulnerable and imperfect people.
GS: "Lack" and "want" are often rooted in childhood experience. Healing from childhood trauma is a large theme in your writing, and this has made for very affecting narratives like The Outer Room (Oettan pang) that reference the oppression...