- Interview with Haïlji
Modern Korean fiction has been dominated by social realism. Even in recent decades there has been a great deal of resistance to the postmodern and experimental narratives associated in Korea with Western culture. This, despite the fact that many of the best and most celebrated postmodern works came out of areas other than Europe and North America: Latin America (Gabriel García Márquez), South Asia (Salman Rushdie), the Middle East (Orhan Parmuk), and Africa (Ben Okri). Yet your works have been consistently experimental and surrealistic, even when you deal directly with contemporary social issues, especially in your celebrated and controversial novel To the Racetrack (Kyŏngmajang kanŭn kil). What is your general assessment of the state of contemporary Korean fiction and your place within it?
I am a Korean writer but I have no special interest in contemporary Korean writing trends. I also do not spend much time thinking about my position in Korean literature as a whole. I am indifferent to such issues because, first of all, they are of no assistance in my own literary pursuits, and second, my focus is on world literature, and how I will be received by its readers. [End Page 55]
Yet if I had to assess the state of contemporary Korean literature I would say that even during the 1980s, Korean fiction was firmly stuck in the social realist mode and there was strong opposition to works that employed innovative literary techniques. You can see the same situation in modern Chinese literature as well.
I find it rather ironic that the literature of a country as thoroughly capitalistic as Korea should be so dominated by social realism. But I think there is an understandable reason for this development. During the 70s and 80s Korea was under a series of military dictatorships, and writers of the period harbored a deep resistance toward the inhumane and rampant progress of capitalism under those regimes. One can see their social realism as a direct product of that resistance.
Unfortunately this led to a closed-mindedness that rejects the value of any new form of literary experimentation. As a result, in literary culture there is a general feeling of antipathy or suspicion toward even exploring the earnest debates in the West on the nature of postmodernism and new forms of literary narratives.
In the early 1990s I found such intolerance in Korean literary culture rather tragic. I felt that writers and artists were neglecting their duty by allowing literature and art to be sacrificed for the sake of politics. For this reason, in 1990 I attempted to create a new literary form with my first novel, To the Racetrack. In a sense one might say that my position in contemporary Korean literature is that of a "traitor."
What is your assessment of the sharp criticism you have received for your Racetrack novels, especially from advocates of social realism? And what is your general response?
It's true that when I published my Racetrack series in the 1990s, I was attacked mercilessly by Korean literary critics. When I tried to understand the source of their strong objections, it didn't take long for me to realize that my writings were regarded as almost [End Page 56] heretical given the politically unified front Korean writers were trying to present at the time. And I also became convinced that such a perspective was wrong for literature. As a result I became involved in a vociferous argument with the critics about the nature of high literature. But that argument turned into a ridiculous farce. One critic, in taking on my literary works, resorted to attacking my personal life to threaten me in some way.
When I think about it now, I find the critics of that time quite pitiful. One can regard them as victims of the terrible political situation in Korea during the 70s and 80s who lost sight of the true meaning of literature and art.
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