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LBF sketch: Kim In-suk and Kim Young-ha on Migrant Literature and the motivations for writing

A write-up of a fascinating panel session at the London Book Fair with the title Writing Home: Migrant Literature. The write-up below focuses on the part of the session which focused on the work of Kim In-suk.

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)

The Long Road is Kim In-suk’s first book, and is one of the only Korean language book on modern Koreans abroad to have been translated into English.

Most Korean writers focus on domestic issues – for example stories about immigrants or foreign women are turned into films or TV dramas. There is less interest in expats abroad. But Korean Americans are exploring such issues.

Kim In-suk was a student of journalism – but being at university in the 1980s, not much studying was done. “I don’t remember much about the course,” she confessed.

Her work is about asking what our position is in the changed world. The past and the present are very different. We can make sense of the past – it is certain; but when it comes to the present we don’t know where we are.

Her historical novel, Sohyeon, is based on a 16th Century prince taken as hostage to China. But can the novel help us understand the present? “Yes. In the epilogue I make clear that this is the story of the present day. This is my only historical novel, but I didn’t really research much: I am interested in the person. Here is a person who was a hostage for 10 years, and when he got home he was put to death by his own father, the king.”

At this point in the discussion Kim Young-ha intervened: “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: “When I wrote The Long Road I found I had more perspective on my own country when I was in Australia.”

Kim Young-ha: “I have written seven novels, of which one is a historical novel. Black Flower is a book about migration. It’s about migrants to Mexico who end up trying to build their own country. In order to survive in a new and different world, you have to struggle. Koreans are like immigrants in their own country because of the constant change.

Interviewer (Ellah Allfrey): “How can fiction help people make sense of change, compared with, for example, film?”

Kim In-suk: “When I first started writing, I thought that novels could change the perceptions of the public. But later I began to doubt whether this was its purpose. Now I think it’s about communicating.”

Kim Young-ha: “Around 30 years ago people thought they could change the world through novels. But I started writing at the end of the chaos, and I realised that I can’t have a great influence. I realised that I couldn’t change the world. My role is to express issues of the present in a way that readers can accept, without taking offence.”

Kim In-suk: “When I started, I was involved in the labour movement and worked with them. Those were the roots of my fiction. Now, my interest is in myself, in introspection.”

Xiaolu Guo: “What is the concept of home nowadays? I am like an exile, but by choice. I can’t go back to China except on a 3 week visa. I have a double language and a double identity.”

Ellah Allfrey: “Is Seoul a city with short-term memory loss?”

Kim Young-ha: Yes, and Beijing too. We’re embarrassed about the past – for example our colonial period buildings. We try to forget. We demolish our old apartment buildings. We do it to ourselves – we constantly reinvent ourselves. When my father was a child, he had no shoes. Then he had rubber shoes; then army boots. Then he had Nikes. All in the space of one lifetime.

Kim In-suk: “In Beijing too they demolish so many things, but there is pride in the past. The attitude is that it’s just a building. But when we Koreans destroy the past we destroy the spirits and memories.”

Kim Young-ha: “The Namdaemun arsonist lived in a city that was going to be bulldozed. He started drinking. He burned down the gate, the national’s collective home, as revenge.”

Xiaolu Guo: “In China there was no colonization but pride in the past was buried after the Opium War. Now we are reclaiming our past through economic resurgence. “I am China” is about individual identity in China.”

Ellah Allfrey: “Can you expand a little on the concept of being an exile within your own home country?”

Kim In-suk: “With migrants or illegal aliens, what’s important is whether you have your own identity, how rooted you are.”

Kim Young-ha: “We all look alike. Our country doesn’t have many immigrants. The children of mixed-race couples will be an enormous asset for literature in about 20 years from now – there will be novels about such experiences.”

Ellah Allfrey: “What makes you happy?”

Xiaolu Guo: “Nothing. Only happy pills can make you happy.”

Kim In-suk: “I was miserable. I won a contest and then became a professional writer. I became a writer before I knew it. People get depressed reading my novels. Just feel what you feel. I haven’t been happy.”

Kim Young-ha: “A writer has greater pain not writing than writing. I feel relieved when I’m doing my job, whether I like it or not.”

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