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LBF sketch: Hwang Sok-yong and the burden of history

Like many of his fellow authors at the London Book Fair, Hwang Sok-yong was put to work in at least three events: first at the Free Word Centre on 7 April with author Adam Foulds; then on the first day of the Fair itself he appeared with Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie in a panel session chaired by Grace Koh on the subject of Writing Literature after History; and finally on the last day of the fair he was in conversation with Jo Glanville. He also had an interview with the British Council for their website. What follows is a write-up and re-assembly of the various talks he gave while in London – mostly summaries or transcripts of what he said via his interpreters, together with comments from his interlocutors.

Hwang Sok-yong at the Free Word Centre on 7 April
Hwang Sok-yong at the Free Word Centre on 7 April

Brief biographical detail

  • Born in Manchuria in 1943; published fiction in his teens. He was a student rebel, an activist as a factory worker.
  • Served in Vietnam War; involved with Kwangju uprising.
  • Visited Pyongyang in 1989 as part of his work with Literature of the Reunification magazine, thus breaching South Korea’s National Security Law.
  • Went to Germany and US, returning to South Korea in 1993 – jailed for 7 years, but released early when Kim Dae-Jung became president in 1998.
  • Selected bibliography: Mr Han’s Chronicle (1972) | Road to Sampo (1973) | Jang Gilsan (1974-84) | Shadow of Arms (1985) | The Old Garden (2000) | The Guest (2001) | Princess Bari (2007) | Shim Cheong (2007)

The Guest

As is well-recorded, the title of the book is a euphemism for smallpox. But for Hwang, smallpox, which was a disease brought by foreigners, is a metaphor for the various diseases brought by modernity (which in turn is brought by outsiders) including socialism and Protestantism.

The book is structured as a shamanistic ritual for warding off smallpox. The ritual itself is not really for the dead: it is a ceremony for the living, transforming the survivors to enable them to move on from the disaster.

The subject of the book, the Sinchon massacre, was a notorious event, causing enormous outrage internationally. It was the subject of Picasso’s Massacre of Korea. The official North Korean version, as reinforced at the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities, is that Americans were responsible. In Hwang’s version of the story it is Korean Protestants who are killing their fellow-citizens, Korean communists – people who before the war had broken bread together.

The massacre took place between 17 October and 7 December 1950, when UN forces were driving the North Koreans ever northwards. According to Hwang, “Washington sources indicate that the Americans knew that the massacre was taking place but chose not to intervene.”

After the publication of The Guest, Hwang received complaints from North Korea (because it contradicts the official North Korean version of the story), and some elements of South Korean society don’t like it because it portrays Protestants in a bad light. But for Hwang, it is a lament for a society caught in the evils of certain aspects of modernity.

Hwang Sok-yong
At the PEN literary salon on 10 April

Road to Sampo

The Road to Sampo also deals with the shock of modernity – the story of what happened to all the workers who were responsible for the modernisation. It is set in the 1960s, but was published in the 1970s. “It is a story of my own experience,” said Hwang “though I changed a few things. In the novel it’s snowing, but it was actually raining, for example.”

“People came to the city from the country to become factory workers. Their children also became factory workers. The modern youth are the grandchildren of the first generation. This is the third generation of labourers. Capitalism is the same, but is slyer than in the beginning, with most today’s workers being on temporary contracts.”

Shadow of Arms

Shadow of Arms was published in 1985. “The military dictators were veterans of the Korean War and you couldn’t really write about it. So I wrote about the Vietnam War in order to escape censorship.”

The book is set behind the lines in Danang, Vietnam, and depicts the corrupt corporate scams which rake off profits from the war. Although it is a dissection of the “Business of War” it is more intended as an allegory for the Korean War.

Shadow of Arms
Seven Stories Press had republished Chun Kyung Ja’s translation of Shadow of Arms (first published by Cornell in 1994) in time for the Book Fair

“I didn’t want to write the Norman Mailer aspects of the Vietnam War.” Instead, he wanted to tell the story of the Viet Cong. But his narrative does not describe a single gunshot, instead depicting how the US troops deal with the enemy in black market goods.

“As a new recruit going to Vietnam I had to clear up the dead bodies. Lizards used to eat the flesh of the dead. After six months of being a foot soldier, my job was to investigate the black market. That market was the essence of the Vietnam War. US films don’t really deal with the truth of the war.”

Hwang’s time in jail

“There was no writing material in jail: there wasn’t even any decent toilet paper. I stored up my experiences in my memory. When I came out of prison I wrote 8 novels in 10 years. There are still ideas I haven’t written yet.”

“The biggest challenge was simple everyday living. You had to change the way of doing the small things – for example, if you wanted to eat an apple you had to find a tin can to act as a knife.”

“I gained a lot from prison. I spent two years on hunger strike and protesting. I read a lot. But then I realised that reading alone is not as good as sharing it. To read, you must also communicate with people. You cannot read in isolation. So I took exercise with the my fellow-inmates and learned to live life everyday. PEN International sent me a book once a month for 5 years, which improved my English.”

On publishing, the loyalty of Korean readers, and their enthusiasm for reading

“When I was released from prison, I had nothing. I had enough money to last a month. I was 57. But my readers brought me back to life. I sell well in Korea, where the very best-selling book can sell up to 2.5mn. Readers are very loyal to their writers, unless the writer betrays that trust.”

“In the 1950s, when I was in the first grade, my family fled to Daegu. As refugees we lived in a city of tents. One day my mother went to the market for some food and brought me back a copy of Gulliver’s Travels. Amazing woman, and an amazing country. When a country is in such chaos, who would think of publishing at a time like that? Who would think of buying a book at the time of such poverty? As a child I used to take advantage of this. I used to ask for money for books, and spend it on candy.”

Hwang Sok-yong in conversation with Jo Glanville
Hwang Sok-yong in conversation with Jo Glanville on 10 April

More recent work

A turning point for Hwang was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Hwang was bored with Western formalism and wanted to move to a more Korean way of storytelling. Ever since then Hwang has been “writing about reality” in his storytelling style. Indeed, his 2012 Sound of the Rapids is about a storyteller in the market place.

Post 9/11 Hwang became interested in the immigrant’s experience. He was in London on 7/7, and thus became aware of the tensions of Muslims in the UK. He was aware of the North African  ethnic riots in Paris. He realised that death and uproar is everywhere, and that migration is a universal issue. He is exploring these issues in Princess Bari and Shim Cheong.

Jang Gilsan

With the epic 10-year serial Jang Gilsan, Hwang used the legend of a Korean Robin Hood figure to avoid censorship while still addressing the problems of the dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. 

The Old Garden

The Old Garden was a way of resolving his prison traumas, and was a deconstruction of his former writing style.

“Love and History are the same. It is only in retrospect that you realise that something special was happening. ‘It was like that, but I didn’t know it at the time.’ Looking back over history, just as with past loves, we see things more clearly.”

North Korea

When he was in North Korea, Hwang met Kim Il Sung 22 times. “He seemed to be quite fond of me. I joked around a lot, which he found interesting.” Kim Il-sung was a fan of Hwang’s Jang Gilsan epic, which had been published in North Korea. It was turned into an audio-book for Kim Il-sung’s benefit.

Hwang Sok-yong wtih Kamila Shamsie (l) and Grace Koh
Hwang Sok-yong discusses his motivations for writing wtih Kamila Shamsie (left) and Grace Koh on 8 April (image credit: British Council Twitter account)

The motivation for writing and the burden of history

“When I was younger, I thought I could change society. When I was older, I took a step back and realised I couldn’t change everything: I had a greater responsibility to doctors, priests and teachers – those who really could change society – and tried to work through them. Writers have less influence than in the past, and are becoming isolated from society. Especially for younger readers, who access their entertainment on the internet, writers are becoming less relevant.”

“After the 90s I moved away from putting history in the foreground. Instead, I put it in the background, like thunder, and focus on the characters.”

“Foreign writers say to me: ‘You’re lucky that because of Korea’s history you have a lot of stories to tell’. To which I respond: ‘You’re lucky because you have the freedom to write about whatever you want.’ They are free of the pressures to write about history. History is like a worrisome wife who places a heavy burden on you all the time. In Paris I had boundless imagination, but in Korea I have to write about our reality. I have fought against the dictatorship and have suffered trauma as a result. Because of my personal history I have to write about what I write about. I therefore consider myself unfortunate as a writer. I wish I could have written about other things.”

“I have the suffering of history to endure. But now I do my best to show contemporary life.”

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