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In One Long Breath: An Interview with Choi Jin-young

By So J. Lee


So J. Lee’s translation of Choi Jin-young’s “Dori and Jina,” from To the Warm Horizon, appears in this month’s Queer issue. The two sat down together at a cafe near Hapjeong Station on June 11 to talk about foregrounding queer characters, multiple narrators, happy endings, and love. This interview was conducted in Korean and has been edited, condensed, and translated by So J. Lee. (한국어 인터뷰 원문 링크)

 

So J. Lee (SJL): You mentioned in the author’s note that “This was a story that had to be written in one long breath.” Was there a reason why your approach had been different for To the Warm Horizon?

Choi Jin-young (CJY): Though I’d written about lesbians in several of my short stories and novels, I’d never presented it up front, made it the whole story. The lesbian couples in my novels never got the chance to properly love, either. Suseon from The Never-Ending Song (<끝나지 않는 노래>) is a lesbian, but that novel is about three generations of women, so it was hard to concentrate only on her love life. Suseon is from my mother’s generation. Our generation of queers experience much oppression and discrimination, so you can only imagine how it was for the generation before us. Homosexuality must’ve been nearly impossible to even mention. So I couldn’t present [a lesbian romance] up front in that novel, but I did want to write a whole novel centered around a lesbian couple before I retired.

 

SJL: You’re too young to mention retirement!

CJY: I always think about retirement. [laughs] I’m always thinking, This could be my last novel. Among the stories I really want to write before retiring, there was one about a lesbian couple.

 

SJL: I saw that you did a talk with Kim Hye-jin, the author of Regarding My Daughter, last fall. Regarding My Daughter is a very different novel from yours. But it’s a possible object of comparison because your novels are both about queer women. How do you feel about that?

CJY: Our books came out around the same time—as part of the same “Young Author Series” from Minumsa—and our subjects were similar, so the publisher had the two of us do a promotional event together. I felt very reassured. There’s a lesbian couple in Kim Hye-jin’s novel, too, but the tone of our books is different, as you said. I focused mainly on their love, while Regarding My Daughter almost feels like “How to survive in Korea as a lesbian couple.”

 

SJL: Descriptions of the house [shared between the mom, the daughter, and the daughter’s partner] and feeling trapped somehow—that’s what I remember most from it. And in your book, there’s barren land

CJY: I just send them to Russia. [laughs]

 

SJL: But they can still be categorized together as queer fiction.

CJY: Yes. I really welcome the creation of this kind of atmosphere. The fact that there’s another young woman writing and publishing at the same time, that I’m able to converse with her, and that there are readers interested in us—I welcome it all very much. I gain strength from it, too. If we were living in a time when these things could not be discussed, I don’t think my novel could’ve received this much love. Although the rights of queers and women are still very lacking, at least they’re becoming more of an issue now. When The Never-Ending Song came out in 2011, no one really paid attention [to its queer themes]. Instead, I was getting asked “Why don’t you write stories with male narrators?” and “Why do you only write about women?” because my first book was about a teenage girl, my second book was about three generations of women, and I had a lot of short stories with female narrators.

 

SJL: But they don’t ask male authors that.

CJY: That’s why this is a strange question. “Why do you write female protagonists?” That itself is a strange question, but I got it so often that I grew self-conscious. “Do I need to write more men? Do I need to write some proper men?” [laughs] Because there are no “proper” men in my novels. They always cause trouble in some way . . . [laughs]
 

I write to hear all of their stories. Instead of seeing them through someone else’s distorted perspective, I feel like I’m giving the cast of characters an equal chance to speak.


SJL: I think one of the defining features of Horizon is its multiple narrators. Dori and Jina speak for themselves as queer women, and this is where it contrasts with Regarding My Daughter, which is a first-person narrative from the heterosexual mom’s perspective. Did you have a specific reason for writing in multiple first persons and not third-person omniscient?

CJY: To give an extremely honest answer . . . I’m used to writing like that. If you look at my previous works, there are more instances where all the main characters appear in first person, rather than a single narrator leading the story. I write to hear all of their stories. Instead of seeing them through someone else’s distorted perspective, I feel like I’m giving the cast of characters an equal chance to speak. In my opinion, this also heightens the reader’s engagement with the work.

 

SJL: I can think of an exception. It’s a bit of a spoiler, so I’ll try to keep it vague. When Dori and Jina reunite, they each narrate a sentence and then the scene carries on from another character’s perspective. The whole process of their falling in love is all in first person, so the switch to another person at this emotional climax was unexpected. Voyeurism is especially a problem in lesbian films, but there was nothing like that here, and I really appreciated that the people around Dori and Jina never looked at them like that.

CJY: I mean, I don’t think I should write like that. [laughs] One of the things I set out to do while writing this novel was to make it happy. I’d written a lot of tragedies, and I felt deeply ashamed about that. The reality I saw didn’t have a happy ending, so forcing my fiction to have a happy ending felt like a lie. Like giving false hope. Just mentioning hope felt deceptive. At the same time, I wondered, “Why can’t I make some sort of a breakthrough within my own work?” I also felt guilty about dragging all my beloved characters to hell, making them unfortunate. So I was determined to keep all the characters, the ones people think could never survive in real life, alive through the very end.

 

SJL: I think traces of your concerns can be found in each character’s interiority, but ultimately the novel feels hopeful. I reflected a lot on my own life while reading it. [laughs]

CJY: Me too. One day it occurred to me that thinking, “This is impossible in real life!” was very much a contradiction. “I’m writing a novel—why do I keep getting caught up in reality? Can’t I just write the story I want?” But then I realized that writing this way does work out. I’m very grateful that readers find hope in my novel, and now I should go even further. I wish for society to change so that I can be less swept up in the agony of asking myself, “Does this make sense?” as I write these sorts of things and that readers can easily recognize the realism and hope in my novel.

 

SJL: In past interviews, you’ve cited Christophe Bataille’s Annam and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as inspirations for Horizon. Could you give a brief introduction?

CJY: Annam is about French Dominican missionaries who go to Vietnam. The novel is fast-paced and very beautiful. The characters are beautiful and noble, even under miserable circumstances. As you turn the pages, drunk on the sentences and the story and the vibe, what remains is the love of two people who you didn’t expect to fall in love. I wanted that love, what you can call the core of that novel, in my novel as well. With The Road, I borrowed what I wanted in my own apocalyptic narrative. Since The Road is, after all, about a father and his son, I was curious what would happen if the protagonists were women.

 

There’s no such thing as a love that doesn’t make sense. Priests can love; a man and a man can love; a woman and a woman can love; someone can love men and women without settling on a label.

 

SJL: When I searched the book online, I saw that the original title is Annam. But the Korean translation is titled The Unreachable Country, which is quite striking. Could you explain the translated title? What is the country that can’t be reached?

CJY: It feels a little ironic. The missionaries are in Vietnam, a land completely unfamiliar to them. Maybe it feels like Korea’s Gochang County or Punggi-eup in Yeongju City? The feeling that these places are clearly marked on a map, but we’ve never heard of them. I think that love is a similar feeling. It feels like we can’t reach it, but we can. Everyone loves but doubts and denies their own love. The characters in Annam begin as a priest and a nun but become lovers. In the world they come from, it makes no sense that they become a couple who engages in physical love, but is there anything that “doesn’t make sense” in love? There’s no such thing as a love that doesn’t make sense. Priests can love; a man and a man can love; a woman and a woman can love; someone can love men and women without settling on a label; people with twenty-, thirty-year age differences can love. Love is something you can do even the day before you die, but some people show extreme contempt for certain kinds of love, saying it doesn’t make sense and trying to exclude it from the category of love. But that’s all very unfair, no?

 

SJL: Toward the beginning of the novel, Gunji admits to feeling “relieved to live in the present, where . . . everyone was equally unfortunate.” After reading Jina’s description of Gunji’s family life before the disaster, I understood where he was coming from. But I think that the novel eventually demonstrates, through various incidents, that this lawless environment is not actually “equally” unfortunate. Women are targeted as victims of certain crimes, for instance.

CJY: I actually heard this sort of thing from teenagers. I’d worked briefly as a tutor, and these middle-school boys would get so stressed that they’d say, very earnestly, that it’d be nice for a war to break out.

 

SJL: Why?

CJY: Oh, because they don’t want to take their test tomorrow. [laughs]

 

SJL: That’s so extreme!

CJY: But I heard that in college, too. People say that kind of thing when they’re in pain, they don’t want tomorrow to come, they can’t see the future, and they’re extremely miserable.

There’s also something I hadn’t considered while writing the novel but remembered recently. It’s something that a student film director named Kim Ji-suk, currently at Korea National University of Arts, told me. The protagonist of her first short film is Deaf, and she told me that what hearing people think Deaf people wish for is the ability to hear. But it’s possible that Deaf people wish for everyone in the world to be Deaf. I was very convinced by this logic. If I’m already living in a silent world and I’m used to that world, I might prefer for everyone to not hear, rather than for me to suddenly hear . . .

Don’t a lot of people actually fight in order to achieve this? We struggle and work hard to improve ourselves, but the fight for the rights of women and disabled people isn’t focused on change on an individual level but seeks to make the world equal for everyone.

 

SJL: These current political conversations feel reflected in the male characters. Especially when Jina tells her dad, “Dad, I’m already a dog. I’m already a dog here,” and he doesn’t understand what she’s talking about. As someone who has these privileges [being a cisgender heterosexual man], he talks about “becoming the owners of a new nation” and whatnot, and he doesn’t understand why his own daughter doesn’t want that. It’s all too reminiscent of current South Korean politics . . .

CJY: We’re dying over here and they tell us to “hold it in,” you know? They say that it’s gotten much better, even as they continue to ignore certain rights to life. Demanding our sacrifice for “a world where we can all live well together,” which is a contradiction in and of itself. That’s the voice of Jina’s father.

 

SJL: The realism of it all. It’s a novel about a future Korea with everyone in Russia, but I think you did a great job capturing Korean society.

CJY: It’s because I live in our present reality.
 

You don’t need a reason for “why” Miso became Deaf, “why” Jina is mixed race, “why” a woman loves another woman. They’re just people living their lives. It seemed absurd to try to explain that.


SJL: Something I’ve been curious about is that Jina has red hair and gray eyes. Much later in the novel, Dori wonders why Jina’s hair is red, but it goes unanswered, right? How did it happen? Is it dyed? Is she not Korean?

CJY: I intended her to be mixed race. One of Jina’s grandparents or ancestors was a foreigner, but I didn’t explain that [in the novel]. The reason is . . . You know, there’s not a single person who thinks it’s weird for Jina and Dori to love each other. They just accept it. In the way that I simply presented queerness, I wanted to do the same for mixed-race identity and disability. I thought that the idea that this requires some kind of explanation was absurd.

 

SJL: It’s also Korea in the future. Who knows what kind of demographic changes would’ve occurred by the time of the apocalypse?

CJY: That’s why I figured it’d be better to just not explain. You don’t need a reason for “why” Miso became Deaf, “why” Jina is mixed race, “why” a woman loves another woman. They’re just people living their lives. It seemed absurd to try to explain that.

 

SJL: This is sort of a strange question to end on, but I listened to “Ma rendi pur contento” [a song referenced in the novel] this morning. Do you have a favorite version?

CJY: As I wrote in my author’s note, there’s a lot I didn’t write into the novel. Like what’s said in sign language or who sings the version of “Ma rendi pur contento” that Dori listens to—I redacted all that basic information. If I name the singer, people will go listen to that version, which then becomes the song. I’d like everyone to each have their own version instead. In that way, I’d like the Dori and Jina inside everyone’s minds to all be different.

 

Korean writer Choi Jin-young marked her literary debut by winning the 2006 Silcheon Munhak New Writer’s Award. Her works include the novels The Name of the Girl Who Brushed Past You Is . . ., The Never-Ending SongWhy Did I Not DieThe Proof of Ku, and To the Warm Horizonas well as the short-story collection A Spinning Top. She won the Hankyoreh Literary Award in 2010 and the Shin Dong-yup Literary Prize in 2014.

 

Read an excerpt from Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon, translated by So J. Lee


Published Jun 29, 2018   Copyright 2018 So J. Lee

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