Gong Ji-young was passing through London on her way to the Hay Literary Festival. Saturday would involve dinner with Stephen Fry as president of the Festival, together with other authors. Sunday morning, hopefully without a hangover, she would be sharing the stage with British author Ned Beauman in a conversation with Granta online poetry editor Ted Hodgkinson. But Friday night she was in conversation with Grace Koh in front of a SOAS audience, as part of the ongoing programme of cultural events connected to the London Book Fair.
Gong started writing at an early age, and from the age of nine the awards seemed to keep coming. As a reader, she confessed always to having been a consumer of literature. And literature led her to try new experiences. “I read about a tuna sandwich. But we didn’t have tuna in Korea, so I put some sardines between two pieces of bread to try it.”
By the age of 13 she had read all the “World Classics” – western literature translated from the Japanese. One of these classics was Jane Eyre. “I had always wanted to be a heroine in a novel, but I wasn’t demure like those heroines,” she confessed. The Bronte novel gave Gong a model for a strong heroine who had to grapple with difficult social issues – and someone who wasn’t demure.
Gong said she’d had a relatively privileged upbringing, growing up in an apartment. But like most other students of her generation, at university she was heavily involved in the protest movement. “When I was at university in my 20s I couldn’t throw a rock as far as the men,” she admitted. But that was the extent of gender difference in the student movement – other than that, the genders were equal. It was only when she was in her 30s that she started thinking about women’s status in society. This is reflected in her novels and short stories in the 1990s (such as Human Decency and Dreams) which look back over the tumultuous 1980s and focus on female characters trying to adjust to the new democratic but male-dominated society.
Another aspect of life in the 1990s: “I was always introduced as ‘the author who has been divorced’; now at least that’s not mentioned.”
Gong has a pretty unpretentious approach to what she writes and why. Here are some of the quotes I jotted down during the course of the talk:
“I’m not aspiring to write a grand commentary.” “Everything I write, I write from experience.” “I write because of painful experiences in the past, and not for one big reason.” “I write as a mother – I’m not writing with a ‘writer’s perspective’ on anything.” “It’s accidental that my books sell well. I write for myself and from within.”
Our Happy Time is probably Gong’s best-known novel in the West, recently published by Short Books in Sora Kim-Russell’s translation (which Gong likes for preserving the simple, uncomplicated prose of the original). The novel was particularly meaningful for her: it was published after a seven year hiatus (in 2005) in which she, like the central character Yu-jeong, had been going through depression and had tried to commit suicide, but had found redemption by visiting a death row inmate. The story has touched people around the world and won Gong an award from Amnesty International.
Two of Gong’s recent novels have been turned into films – Our Happy Time (the film, directed by Song Hae-seong (2006) is sometimes known as Maundy Thursday) and The Crucible (Hwang Dong-hyeok, 2011), which was controversial for its subject matter of the sexual abuse of disabled pupils at a special school. “I found the film Our Happy Time quite disappointing,” she said, “though the actor [Kang Dong-won] was quite handsome. But at the screening of The Crucible I cried.”
Gong takes a pragmatic approach to the translations of her work. As noted above, she likes the translation of Our Happy Time, but recognises that things inevitably get lost on the way, particularly when a work is translated into a third language from an English or other bridge version. Gong herself knows the challenges of translating, having done a Korean translation of Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution. “It was like manual labour,” she laughed.
Thanks to SOAS (Grace Koh), the British Council (Rebecca Hart) and interpreter Eugene for a stimulating evening.
And also thanks to Diya for taking the above photo with my camera from her superior vantage point.