In her early thirties Kim Sagwa is already one of the most distinctive and promising Korean writers of the new millennium. No Korean writer of literary fiction has a better grasp of the malaise that has come to characterize life in metropolitan Seoul, a climate of intense competition, pressure to succeed, and the expectation that one must look good. To investigate the pathology that has elevated the suicide rate in South Korea to record high levels and led to a negative birthrate and a divorce rate of approximately thirty percent, Kim in her first novel, Mina, focused on the lives of high school students and the overwhelming societal, family, and economic pressures to which they are subjected in a society that retains a strict class structure and strong neo-Confucian elements of social control. She is one of the very few writers to graphically depict the trauma resulting from these pressures, trauma that in more than one of her works results in mental breakdown and homicidal violence.
Kim's literary output is remarkable: Since her first book, Mina (Mina), was issued in 2008 (by Ch'angjak kwa pip'yŏng sa), she has published a book a year. Three years earlier, when she was barely twenty-one, she broke into the Korean literary world when she was honored with the 8th Ch'angbi New Writers Award for her short story "02" (Yŏng'i), the title story of her 2010 short-fiction collection; [End Page 13] Ch'angbi, short for Ch'angjak kwa pip'yŏng sa, is one of the most influential publishers of literary fiction in Korea, having celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016). It's worthwhile to bear in mind that gaining entry to the elite, conservative, and patriarchal Korean literature power structure, whether as a poet, fiction writer, or literary critic, is a formidable challenge: one must emerge successful over hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other entrants in a handful of annual New Writers Award or New Year Literary Arts Prize competitions. That Kim did so when she had just begun her studies in creative writing at Korea National University of the Arts is a noteworthy achievement. The following year she began publishing short fiction in literary journals, and she has since been short-listed for half a dozen awards for literary fiction.
In between Mina and the story collection 02 she published the novel P'ul i numnŭnda (P'ul recumbent; Munhak Tongne, 2009), which earned her comparisons with American Beat Generation writers such as Jack Kerouac. Then came Na b ch'aek (The butterfly book; Ch'angbi, 2011), a young-adult novel; the novel T'erŏ ŭi shi (City of terror; Minŭm sa, 2012); the novel Ch'ŏn'guk esŏ (In heaven; Ch'angbi, 2013); Sŏlt'ang ŭi mat (The taste of sugar; Sam & Parkers, 2014), a collection of travel essays; and o iha ŭi nal tŭl (Days below zero; Ch'angbi, 2016), a collection of personal essays. She has also contributed columns to the Hanguk ilbo and Hangyŏre newspapers.
In 2016 she obtained from the United States an Alien of Extraordinary Ability in the Arts visa that enabled her to launch a three-year residency in New York City, where she is now at work on a variety of projects. Her first novel, Mina, will be published in English translation by Two Lines in 2018. She also appears in English translation with the flash fiction "SF" in Azalea 7 (2014) and the story "It's One of Those the-More-I'm-in-Motion-the-Weirder-It-Gets Days and It's Really Blowing My Mind" (Umjigimyŏn umjigilsurok isanghan il i pŏrŏjinŭn onŭl ŭn ch'am ŭro shin'gihan nal ida) in the anthology The Future of Silence: Writing by Korean Women (Zephyr Press, 2016). [End Page 14]
Kim is well read in English-language literature, and one of her current projects is a study of the works of Henry James. She has a cosmopolitan world view that led her early on to study English as a tool of communication rather than as a means of getting ahead in the...