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LBF sketch: Kim Young-ha at the London Book Fair: always adapting to a new environment

Kim Young-ha attended three London events during the this year’s London Book Fair: a conversation with writer Krys Lee on 8 April, a panel session with Kim In-suk and others on 9 April entitled  Writing Home: Migrant Literature, and a discussion with Daniel Hahn at the London Review Bookshop on 11 April. The below is a digest of those sessions.

Kim Young-ha with Krys Lee (r) and interpreter Cho Yuna (l)
Kim Young-ha with Krys Lee (r) and interpreter Cho Yuna (l) on 8 April

Introduction, themes, motivation for writing

Kim Young-ha is known for the wide range of his material and imagination and the diversity of voices he is prepared to explore in his fiction. “As a writer you are never in the same place. You are constantly moving and constantly changing”.

At the age of 10 he had an accident which made him lose his memory of earlier years and “hard to start all over again”. In addition, he had what we would now call Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as a child, and has difficulty concentrating on one thing for a long time.

He came from a military household, and as such he was always moving house when his father got a new posting. “As a child, I was always having to reinvent myself when I moved to a new place, to survive and adapt to a new environment. I went to different primary schools, I had to learn a different dialect, and learn the new rules of the game, and I think that is reflected in my writing.”

“When I started writing in 1995 one of the traditional themes in Korean literature was to write about your home town, your origins. But I didn’t have one, so it was impossible for me to write about it – and increasingly as people move from the country to the town other people don’t have one either.” Kim themes thus resonated with a newer audience and he came to exemplify Korean writing in the 1990s.

Up to that time, other traditional themes for Korean literature had been political – eg, the division of the peninsula, the Korean War. But people were becoming tired of that discourse. The theme of I Have the Right to Destroy Myselfwas designed as a reaction to all that. I wanted to depict what Korean people felt: boredom – they had been through the time of economic construction and democratic change, and now there was less for them to do.

The first draft of I Have the Right to Destroy Myself (published in 1996) was written in 15 testosterone-fuelled days at the age of 26. “When I wrote it I was unemployed and sponging off my parents. I was writing about boredom in a frenzied way, in the heat of youth. I feel that the frantic pace of my writing suited the theme of the book well.” It was his first novel, and also his first to be translated into English. “At the time I was in a much darker place than I am now, and I was thinking a lot about death and suicide – at the time the subjects of death and the meaninglessness of life were common themes in Korean society.”

“After that it became harder. I had to do something new all the time. It got harder and harder. And slower and slower. My wife loved the book, but my parents were shocked at the subject matter.”

“Korea has been through breakneck change – my father experienced Japanese colonialism, the Korean War, the onset of capitalism and modernity, all in the space of one lifetime …  there is a diaspora inside Korea, we are like immigrants in our own country because it changes so fast.”

Black Flower at first sight is different from other novels by Kim as it is an historical novel rather than exploring contemporary issues. It excavates a little-known part of Korean history, and explores historical issues rather than contemporary issues. Nevertheless, albeit in an historical context it is about forgotten migrants adapting to a strange and foreign environment: their new world in Mexico and Guatemala.

Similarly, Your Republic is Calling You is not a spy novel: it’s about an immigrant (a North Korean spy) cut loose in an alien world (South Korea). “It’s not Le Carre  — it’s Kafka and Ulysses”.1

And Memory of a Murderer, currently being translated by Krys Lee, is a story of someone who is losing his memory, and thus has to learn to adapt to a new reality. He is a serial killer who, after a car crash, decides he doesn’t want to commit murder any more. Towards the end of his life he gets Alzheimers and begins to forget how he used to kill and dispose of the body. But then he finds that his daughter is under threat, and he needs to do one last murder.

“I was also interested in writing a historical novel based on Sohyeon, but I heard Kim In-suk was already writing it. She beat me to it. This is a unique story of a migrant in the Joseon dynasty, a person who went to China and experienced modernity. Here he learned that the world was round, not flat. He had a hard time adapting, but he adapted.”

Kim In-suk and Kim Young-ha
Kim In-suk (L), Kim Young-ha and Xiaolu Guo (R) discuss migrant literature with Ellah Allfrey (2nd from L) 9 April 2014 (photo: LKL)

 Relationship with films

“As an author I have never been a million-seller, so I’m always looking for another source of income. I’m lucky that the film industry has always liked me. My subjects – death, murder, sex – are all juicy themes. The sad thing is, all the films have flopped. There seems to be a Curse of Kim Young-ha. I feel guilt that the films haven’t succeeded.

“A writer is a solitary person and I get energy from working with the film teams. The film industry is filled with many talented, passionate people, but the publishing industry is like the string quartet on the Titanic.”

On the author as representative of the nation

Kim Young-ha writes Op Eds for the New York Times (with the help of Krys Lee as translator). As artists and writers “we are drawn to the darker side, the things about society that are painful.” Similarly, the paper likes him to write about the more problematic aspects of Korean society.

Koreans often think that not much is known about them, that they are ignored, and they like Korean writers to represent them well abroad, Kim gets criticised by them for the topics he covers in his novels and articles. There is this outrage: “do you have to write about such things?”

“I have taken to baking to take refuge from the stress.”

On being translated

When I started writing, I must have been a bit deluded, and my books didn’t sell as well as I thought they would. At first I thought “Korean readers don’t appreciate me,” so I decided to try in other countries. But I didn’t well there either. Korean readers love me the most.

“Literature is something you write in your mother tongue.” Although Kim reads fluently in English he says: “You can appreciate my novels when you read them in English… but … it’s like caressing your lover with gloves on. Reading it in your own language is better.”

And how about languages you don’t understand? What is preserved, and what is compromised?

“When I see my books in languages I don’t understand, it’s like an ex-girlfriend coming up to you with a baby, telling you: ‘this is your child.’ I’m happy to see them, but I don’t know whether it’s my child or not. Once a work is translated, it enters into the culture of the language that it is translated into. I no longer own it, and it belongs to the translator rather than myself.”

Kim Young-ha (centre) with Daniel Hahn (r)
Kim Young-ha (centre) with Daniel Hahn (r) and interpreter Cho Yuna at the London Review Bookshop

On writing for an international audience

I try not to think too much about foreign audiences. Korean readers are the most important to me. More than that, it’s not about the reader. Writing is a complex process – it’s a battle within me, and the reader is not part of that.

Names and titles

The original Korean name of the novel Your Republic is Calling You is Empire of Light. The change of title was the suggestion of the US publisher. “I leave such decisions to the publisher – they know the local market best.”

“I am responsible for ‘Kyung-sook Shin’. My publisher in America said that I should be Young-ha Kim, not Kim Young-ha. He said people would think I’m a girl if my name was Kim Young-ha. So I’m Young-ha Kim in America, and Kim Young-ha in Europe. But because I am Young-ha Kim in America, Shin Kyung-sook is Kyung-sook Shin. And she uses that name everywhere. In fact in the London Book Fair publicity material, Shin is the only Korean author to have her family name last. All the other 10 have family name first.”

At the LTI Korea stand at the London Book Fair
At the LTI Korea stand at the London Book Fair

On living in Busan

“Busan is an interesting city in which it as if there are three ‘tribes’: the war refugees, who moved there during the war, the fishermen and the traders. Seoul is like any other city – people speak ‘globish’, a language that everyone understands.There are many local dialects in Korea, which have rich, more poetic, modes of expression, with use of metaphor. In Busan, the dialect is laconic, and I feel it has influenced my most recent work (Memory of a Murderer). In Seoul, I know lots of people, and lots of people recognise me; in Busan I don’t know many people, other than my wife’s family, and I can concentrate on my work.”

On planning a book in advance

Daniel Hahn: “Do you have an idea of where a book is heading, what it’s going to look like?”

Kim Young-ha: “Never. It would be great to have a map. What’s normal is that you end up in a completely different place from where you expected to end up.”

Daniel Hahn: “Some writers need a map”

Kim Young-ha: “I have a rough plan, but try not to pursue it too much. But Black Flower was different – it was a historical novel.”

The role of books in Kim’s childhood

“My mother was not very hands-on. At the time, 7 years was the normal age to start going to school, but I went at 5 years old. It was quite tough for me, moving around all the time. I sounded funny. I started reading, and found people I could sympathise with in the books. I was a weakling until high school. I kept on reading. Making up stories helped me to get on with people at school. I used to tell them part of a story one day, and finish “… to be continued” and I’d carry on the next day.”

On Book Tours

Daniel Hahn: “Do you get different questions from audiences in different countries?”

Kim Young-ha: “Yes. Some are the same, such as where you find your inspiration and your characters. But Koreans tend to tell you how they felt when they read the novel, while westerners ask you about the logical structure, the plot.”


  1. Apart from Joyce and Kafka, Kim says he is influenced by Milan Kundera – particularly the Unbearable Likeness of Being. []

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