Gong Ji-young is at the forefront of the new wave of women writers who rose to the top of the literary tree in Korea in the 1980s and ’90s. We meet a few months after the UK publication of Our Happy Time, her invigorating tale of victimhood, love and redemption, on the eve of her appearance at the Hay Festival. Ably assisted by interpreter Kyeong-Soo Kim, she is open, frank and engagingly mischievous as she discusses big themes like democracy and dictatorship and the nuances of female observation.
MR: Your break-out novel My Sister, Bongsoon tells the story of an uneducated, hard-working live-in maid through the eyes of a precocious five-year-old girl. To what extent was that book autobiographical?
GJ-y: All my books are autobiographical to a degree, but rather than make an autobiography, the main objective was to describe the Seoul of that time, the industrialisation from the 1960s through to the ’80s, and the people who went through that time, who witnessed that process like myself, going to university in the ’80s.
And why do you think that book struck such a chord with the Korean public, and with audiences around the world?
I’m not sure why. Maybe the story appealed to a lot of other people who had gone through childhood lonely and perhaps fearing adulthood. Another important push in Korea was that it had been introduced on a TV culture show, where it was the second book they ever recommended.
Three of your books, including Our Happy Time, have been made into films. Which adaptation of your work have you been happiest with?
The Crucible; the other two adaptations were a bit too far off the contents of my novels, but the adaptation of The Crucible (based on a real case of children at a school for the deaf who were sexually abused by their teachers) was a bit closer to the original book. And also as a film it’s been very highly praised. In addition, the effect of the movie was so great that it really shook up the government. In the end there was a legislation passed called ‘the Crucible law’; the name was taken from the title of my book, and the children were able to regain their identity, to clear their names from the wrongful accusations, and the real criminals were arrested. It was a big factor in the government change.
Your sense of justice is rooted in the student and labour movements of the 1980s. To what extent have the battles for women’s, workers’ and students’ rights been won in present-day Korea?
I’d like to answer that from a literary point of view based on my experience. If I look back, it’s 27 years since I began writing, and for the first ten years I focused entirely on political issues because we were under a dictatorship at that time. I didn’t really use as much imaginative power as I’d have liked to, but somebody had to address the political issues. In the early part of this century, after Korea had become a democracy under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, we really felt that we could expand our imagination, and under this democracy the first work I produced was My Sister, Bongsoon. Our Happy Time was also from that time when I was very, very active. But after Lee Myung-bak became president six years ago our democracy became regressive, and I felt my imagination being restricted. Nowadays I think more writers may write in protest against the political situation, so I predict that more work’s going to come out dealing with political issues, that’s my understanding.
What have been the most significant improvements – and failures – in Korean society since the early years of economic growth and the introduction of democracy?
I think women’s rights have improved somewhat; not all the way but somewhat, especially in comparison to workers’ rights. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement in labour.
Are your books available in North Korea – either officially or on the black market?
Yes, I learned that they’re able to obtain my books. I was there in 2005. They seem to really like My Sister, Bongsoon, but was a bit much because it wasn’t ordinary citizens who talked about my book, it was party members who liked it, and that made me a bit uncomfortable. My books are not published there, but they might have them at the library. Because North and South Koreans still speak the same language, technically they don’t need to republish there. I don’t think they ever publish South Korean writers’ books in North Korea officially.
Could you say a little about the Special Media Award from Amnesty International for Our Happy Time, in recognition of its role in promoting the abolition of the death penalty?
It was the most meaningful award I’ve ever received. Amnesty International in Korea has very little funding, so the award they gave me was a small gift but it made me incredibly happy.
How involved were you in Sora Kim-Russell’s translation of the novel?
We didn’t stay in touch that much, but we made some email exchanges, particularly about certain terminology or colloquial expressions used in Korea, because Sora grew up in America.
In her essay for Bookanista, Sora mentions that she struggled for a time with the narrator Yujeong’s silences, omissions, sarcasm, excuses and frustrations. What are the particular issues facing a translator from Korean into English?
I think the problems arise mostly from the way we express things. For example when I describe Yujeong’s anger indirectly through the gesture of her just lying down, it would be difficult for English speakers to understand that as an expression of anger; you may assume it’s a gesture or posture that would comfort you. So I think it’s largely that kind of difficulty that she experienced.
At what age did you realise you wanted to be a writer?
I never thought I’d become a writer, never even imagined it, but when I was a teenager I used to carry around anthologies of books. The very first time I thought of writing was after I was released from prison. I had been incarcerated when I was 26, and this was in the wintertime and the temperature was below zero, and I thought I was going to die, and I thought if I get out, or when I get out, I am going to do one thing that I would like to do, and I surprised myself: it was actually to become a novelist.
So why were you in prison?
I was caught in a student protest and was in prison for one month. It was a short sentence, but in that prison cell there were no books, nothing to read. The only thing you could do is just think. Actually I feel rather appreciative of that time – I’m grateful to the police and the government. I always say I was born thanks to Park Chung-hee, the 18-year dictator of Korea, because before he came to power my father had been sent to the United States to study on government support, and after he had been there for five years Park Chung-hee seized the government in a coup d’état so my father had to return, and then I was born. So I have to say thanks to Park Chung-hee I was born into this world. And then I also joke about Chun Doo-hwan, the other military dictator at the time I was imprisoned, that thanks to him I became a novelist.
How do you feel about being described as a ‘feminist’ writer?
First of all, I don’t feel comfortable with the label ‘feminist’, I don’t like that, because if I was a man I’d have tackled the same subjects. I do think there are differences between women’s work and men’s work, though that’s not to say that one is superior to the other. But perhaps women are at an advantage because in the contemporary world we do not deal with epics, we can make stories out of our observations about ordinary life, and I think women are able to see and describe ordinary things more closely than men.
Do you have a sense of the number of women readers versus men who are reading your books, in Korea and elsewhere?
In Korea, they say that 80 per cent of readers of my books are women and 20 per cent men, but this ratio is generally about fiction readers, so not just necessarily about my own novels. But compared to other female writers, I think I probably have a lot more male readers.
South Korea now has its first woman president in Park Geun-hye, who was literally born of Park Chung-hee. What are your thoughts on her making that breakthrough as a pioneering female politician; and what about her policies?
Like I said earlier, I don’t like the label ‘feminist’, and I also believe that just because one is born biologically as a woman, that does not make a person womanly, or pay more attention to women’s rights. Whether the president is male or female, I don’t think makes any difference in terms of dealing with women’s rights issues. Park Geun-hye is the daughter of a dictator, she did not have any career other than that, but above all what we have now in Korea is the result of our own greed, born out of our longing for material wealth in the ’60s. To sum up, I would say that Park Geun-hye actually exposes all the bad in men and women.
Are there other political dynasties in Korea, other families with a similar lineage?
Not in politics, but in the financial world, the economic backbone of Korea, the main players like Samsung and other conglomerates are all run among their families.
Which of your books will be the next to appear in English?
I’m not sure. It’s something that agencies and translators work out between themselves, but I would like to see My Sweet Home translated, it hasn’t been translated yet.
What are you currently writing?
I’m not working on anything at the moment, because I’ve just finished a novel called High and Blue Ladder, and that’s why I’m here now; after finishing it I was able to take off.
And what are its broad themes?
God and humans, and war and destiny.
Gong Ji-young has sold over 10 million books in South Korea. Her awards include the 2011 Yi Sang Literary Award, the 21st Century Literary Award, the Korean Novel and Literature Award and the Special Media Award from Amnesty International for Our Happy Time, which is published in the UK by Short Books. Read more.
Kyeong-Soo Kim is a freelance interpreter currently pursuing a doctorate at SOAS in Korean literature in translation.
Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.