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[Interview with Park Min-gyu] The Best Thing A Novel Can Do

  • Provider
    Literature Translation Institute of Korea
  • Issued Date
    Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • Running Time



Saito: Have you ever thought of writing poetry? I’d love to read your poems.

Park: In that case, I’ll write some.


Saito: I look forward to it. In your opinion, what is the best thing fiction or poetry can do? Or the worst thing?

Park: I think of a scene from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. A black tenement in the 1920s, men drinking and playing craps . . . A woman sitting on the steps in front of a run-down house, singing to her baby. It’s a lullaby. The season is summer, of all times. Summertime in the slums is when rats and fleas run wild and everything stinks. But this is what the woman sings to her baby:


Summertime, and the livin’ is easy

Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high

Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’

So hush little baby, don’t you cry


All of this is a lie. The baby’s father is not rich. And the mother’s life is one of poverty and hardship, with little time to think about good looks. And need I say, father, mother, baby, are all black in 1920s America. Life’s not easy for them, can’t be easy. The lyrics are meant to be ironic, so the bits about the cotton and fish are probably 100 percent lies, too. And hello, what about the Great Depression? But then if you were that baby’s mother, what kind of lyrics would you sing to the crying baby? If you were the goddess of this planet, what would you sing to a human race in tears? For me, fiction is about writing about those lies, those lyrics. And when that baby grows up, the time will come to tell the truth: “This is why your father had to live the way he did, and your mother . . . and you . . .” That the river and cotton fields belonged to someone else, and that all they had to look forward to was working for two cents a day. Someone has to tell them all this. And writing those lyrics is also the role of fiction. But get this, that song may seem more truthful, but it’s just as fictitious as the other lie. Why? Because the world doesn’t change. OK, so what then? But it’s by lying to ourselves in both instances that we are able to get through our lives, and even muster the power to change them. That may be the best possible thing fiction can do.


Saito: One question I get all the time is about the attraction of Korean literature. I always answer, thinking it’s so hard to sum up in a few words, that it’s about vitality in all its forms. Even from the quietest, most somber work, you feel that vitality. What do you think of my answer? And what would your answer be?

Park: I think you nailed it. I would probably say something along the same lines. South Korea is not the country of the “morning calm” at all. Imagine if the Bill of Rights, the Industrial and French Revolutions, the world wars, the Cold War, genocides and civil wars, military coups and dictatorships, the fight for democracy and workers’ rights, rapid economic growth and collapse, the digital revolution and smartphones . . . Imagine you took all of those things and crammed them into a few decades instead of centuries, what kind of person would you be? But that’s what actually happened in South Korea. You could say it was a tough place to survive without “vitality in all its forms.” If you’re thinking, “They must be crazy,” then that’s just one manifestation of that vitality. Let’s say that you, the reader, are an American. If you compare your life and mine, I was born into circumstances similar to your grandfather’s or father’s, and now I use smartphones and FaceTime like you do. It’s people like me that write, or are driven to write, Korean literature.


Saito: It feels like more of your writing is set in countries and lands other than South Korea these days. If that is so, is there any special reason? Does it feel different from writing something set in South Korea?

Park: You’re right, I enjoy writing stories set in foreign countries. Do I enjoy going abroad? Not at all. I don’t like traveling. Why use foreign settings, then? Well, I guess you could say it’s to write about South Korea. It’s like when you travel abroad and it gives you the distance to look at yourself or your country objectively. Whether it’s set in the past or future, I don’t feel different at all from when I write stories set in South Korea. Even if all of the characters are foreigners, it’s a Korean story I’m writing. Then again, people are alike wherever you go, so it could be a story from there. If you look at the big picture, everything we do, regardless of what country you’re from, is part of the great human comedy. The American comedy, the British comedy, the Japanese comedy, the Korean comedy. Distinguishing between countries is pointless when the human race seems to pretty much overlap on the whole.


Saito: You excel at music, art, sports. Is there anything you can’t do?

Park: I never think about whether I’m good or bad at something. I just do what I enjoy doing. So what’s hard for me is to do something I don’t like. For instance, if I were to get stuck in a debate with someone who believes in something religiously, dogmatically. That’s not my thing at all, so I would just agree with whatever he or she said and then go off and do something more enjoyable. I pride myself on training my brain to be good at finding things I like to do, like a sniffer dog.


Saito: What is something that you could do but rather wouldn’t?

Park: Be a K-Pop idol.


Saito: I was at one of your events at Niigata last year, and something you said really stood out to me. You said you weren’t too concerned with how the younger generation would react to the music in your work, because they had their own stories to tell. How did you read the work of established writers when you were young?

Park: I didn’t have very deep thoughts about them, if you know what I mean. I have zero respect for the older generations (throughout the history of humankind), and I expect the next generation to treat me exactly the same way. My reasoning is that if you want to wake up to the modern age, you need to wake up to the fact that your father didn’t know a damn thing, that nobody gives a damn about the history of your tribe, your country, your nation, the god you worship. Strictly speaking, we haven’t evolved past totemism and shamanism. That’s the way I see it. But I really hope to break past all that, a little bit at a time. Niigata was a truly beautiful corner on this earth. Please say hello for me.


Saito: Two years ago, you said that the greatest Korean movie of all time was Memories of Murder. Has there been any other movie to top it since then?

Park: Not for me. I think Memories of Murder was made at a time when artistry and commercialism had, for whatever reason, struck a perfect balance in the South Korean film industry. The tables have turned very rapidly in favor of commercialism since then. I don’t know when, if ever, that balance can be struck again. I do hope.


Saito: Do you exercise every day? Do you think fitness is important for a writer?

Park: What fitness has to do with writing, I couldn’t say because I think that the balance between body and spirit is not exactly the same as fitness. For me, I would say there are two kinds of really good writing. The first kind is to write a boy’s story from an old man’s point of view, and vice versa—to write an old man’s story from a boy’s point of view. It may sound weird, but this kind of writing is infinitely more balanced compared to a boy’s story written from a boy’s point of view, or an old man’s story written from an old man’s point of view. And for me, it’s that balance that counts, fit or not. So to answer your first question on exercise, I’ll just say that I try to strike a balance every day.


Saito: Do you dream a lot? Do your dreams influence your work sometimes?

Park: I rarely dream. Occasionally I’ll have one that makes me sit up and take notice. But for me, the reality we live in is much more dreamlike than any dream. I love things like dreamcatchers or wind chimes. I love to watch them moving in the wind. I guess I prefer to be on the edge between dreams and waking, rather than rely on or have my eyes fixed on one or the other.


Saito: I’ve read that you write short stories as if they were letters to someone. Do you have a specific person in mind when you begin a story? And do you sometimes get a reply?

Park: I do write short stories as gifts to people I like, to my friends, to people I take an interest in. I do it because I like it, not to receive something in return. I’ve already received so much before that, so the process of writing stories is my way of saying thank you.


Saito: Do stories come from inside or outside of you?

Park: I don’t know. I just write. When I think about it, this world could be a story. So what I’m doing isn’t writing so much as perceiving or reading. Yes, that sounds more accurate. Everything is a story in this place. I just show up. If you look around, you can’t find anything that’s not a story.


Saito: Tell us a little about what you’re working on now.

Park: I’ve some works in progress, and some things slated for publication. If we’re talking about projects in the planning stage, I’m thinking about taking on mythology one of these days. I have an idea for a story called “Son of Sodo.” I’m also rewriting Peter, Paul, and Mary, a novel I wrote a few installments for a long time ago. It’s about actors in the adult film industry in 1970s’ San Francisco. More precisely, it’s from their point of view in their old age. I’m also working on a story called “White Christmas.”


Saito: Sounds like a treat. Now I want to know about your current works in progress and those coming out soon. Could you tell us about your publication schedule?

Park: I think my novel Holy Land is coming out first early this year. And then I have a novella called Lucy that’s going to be published in a bilingual edition (Korean and English). Later this year I have Mass Game Generation, a novel I’ve expanded from a few installments published years ago. Then there’s Elephant, a novel I’m serializing right now, but I don’t know how much material I’ll have when it’s finished and whether it’ll be published this year or pushed to next year. Apart from that, I’m going to publish my third collection of short stories in a three-volume set, called 3ple. As for that one, I’m thinking next year, probably. All of this is ongoing, so things are up for change. But there you have it. I had fun writing them, so I hope you’ll have fun reading them.


Saito: I know I’m going to have fun waiting for them and reading them. And so will your other readers in Japan.

I’ve been looking forward to Holy Land, in particular, for two years now. I’m positive this book is going to be translated into multiple languages and read all over the world.

I hope you’ll stick to your course of not becoming a K-pop idol and continue writing fiction and poetry for a very long time.

Park: Thank you.

by Mariko Saito
Poet, Translator

by Mariko Saito

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