- A Conversation with Kim Sagwa
We have to confess that when we first saw the name Kim Sagwa translated as Apple Kim we assumed the translator had made a mistake. But now that we have signed copies of your books complete with an apple icon we know your pen name is for real. Can you explain how the name Kim Sagwa/Apple Kim came about?
It came about accidentally. When I became serious about writing, I decided to have a pen name. I wanted it to be ordinary, boring even, because my real name is extremely noticeable, which I sometimes find very annoying. So I talked with my professor (I was an undergraduate back then) about having a pen name and he suggested p'odo (grape) and of course I immediately dismissed it. But on my way home I had a strange idea: Why not? Fruit names are pretty. What about apple? And that was it.
In your 2016 volume of essays 0 iha ŭi nal tŭl (literally Days Below Freezing; what would you think of The Cold Snap, the Deep Freeze, and the Ice Age: Essays on Psychological Climate Change in the Republic of Korea?), you mention dropping out of high school. This seems to us like a revolutionary act for a society that traditionally values education as a means of getting ahead in the world. Did you feel that by dropping out of high school you were doing something revolutionary? Or did you [End Page 55] see it as a natural stage in your development as a person and a creative writer?
(I love The Ice Age: Essays on Psychological Climate Change in the Republic of Korea.) Yes, it was a revolutionary act for me, but there was some historical background. In the late 90s and early 00s, there was a social trend called t'alhakkyo undong (de-schooling movement) among middle-class teenagers and their families. I had a friend who was interested in the movement, and one day he took me to a meeting of the largest de-schooling movement group in Korea at the moment. There were a bunch of teenagers like me and they seemed pretty cool. I decided to join them. So it was quite an accident, like the pen name!
Looking back, I think that dropping out of school was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the first decision about my own life that I truly made by myself. I learned what it is to be "independent" from experience. When you decide something on your own, you have to really think. No one can think for you. It feels like you're creating your own life, and it really does do that. And what's more, it's just like writing a novel.
In "Seized by Strange and Ominous Presentiments" (our title for your essay "Yisanghago pulgilhan kibun e sarojapil ttae ka itta") you mention the psychological oppressiveness of life in Seoul. How do you find life in the Chelsea area of New York City?
I live in Chelsea but it's not Chelsea-Chelsea and that's what I like about my neighborhood. My place is in between Chelsea, Greenwich Village, and the West Village, which means there's no strong local identity. In the East Village, for example, people act like East Village people. It looks interesting, but sometimes absurd since you also have to act and look like an East Village person. It's the same in Brooklyn, the Upper West Side, etc. I think the beauty of living downtown in NYC is you can be "anybody" there. You don't need a local identity. You can be anyone [End Page 56] there, people don't ask you anything, really. In modern life I think that's a great relief.
What benefits have you experienced from writing when you're overseas, as opposed to writing in Korea?
At the stage of higher creativity, times of absolute solitude are necessary. Staying overseas is the one of the easiest ways to gain that...