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Writing Outside the Mainstream: An Interview with Jeon Sam-hye

By Anton Hur

Image: Anton Hur and Jeon Sam-hye at Seoul Pride, 2016.

Anton Hur’s translaton of Jeon Sam-hye’s story “Genesis” appears in the June 2016 issue of Words without Borders: “The Queer Issue VII.

Anton Hur (AH): How did you come to write “Genesis”?

Jeon Sam-hye (JSH)
: To be honest, this story ended up making trouble for a lot of people. “Genesis” was not a queer narrative to begin with. It started off with the idea that because the Moon’s rotation time and orbiting time happen to be the same, the Moon’s year is the same length as its day. This story was submitted to a writing competition, and won. I didn’t expect it to, but it actually won the Grand Prize. But it had been published before, and I had submitted it thinking it wouldn’t win. I had to tell the judges and tell them I hadn’t read the rules properly, and so the story was disqualified. This was the first year of that competition, and the hosts ended up having to change their first Grand Prize winner. But basically, I was interested in the fact that a day on the Moon is a year, and about a month on Earth, and that was what I began with.

AH: Was there also an image that you worked off of in the beginning?

: There was a novel or some book I read a long time ago—I don’t quite remember the title now—that talked about how the patterns we see on the surface of the Moon are different according to culture. Koreans say, we see a rabbit, the Chinese say, a woman’s face. Each country has its own image. I think that was my initial image, but it was really the idea of the rotation and orbit of the Moon being the same.

AH: You mentioned that the work didn’t start off as a queer narrative. How did Lia become a queer character?

: I don’t know that myself, actually. I don’t even remember any point where I thought of making her queer. The child—I mean, the character—just turned out to be queer on her own.

I don’t like writing about perfectly finished utopias or dystopias, but about worlds and characters that are on their way to becoming something. 

AH: The second-person perspective is fascinating to me as a translator. What was your reason for choosing it?

: The biggest reason for the perspective is that it’s an epistolary narrative. I wanted the reader to get the feeling of reading a letter. Which is why I put in lines like, You are like this and You would do this. But as to categorizing stories by different perspectives, I majored in fiction writing in college and I've written fiction for about thirteen years now, but I find it less meaningful to distinguish narratives in terms of perspective. In every novel there is usually a main character who leads the events of the story. The reader immerses herself in this character, and whether the perspective is first person or third person or omniscient, it doesn’t really change the fact that the reader follows the main character’s perspective. 

AH: We follow Lia, then. In a sense, Lia isn’t the main character because she talks about Saeun and erases her own story, but it’s clear she’s the main character. Why does Lia erase her story?

: One of the main themes of queer narratives is that the main character finds herself in a situation where she doesn’t realize she is queer. Because of her upbringing, she feels that only heterosexual love is true love, and she questions herself as to whether what she feels is true love. This love is often unrequited and hidden. When you search for my name and the word “genesis” together, you’ll come across many fan-created images of pop idols framed with words from my story. The most used lines are, “Here, where everyone obsessed over their work because they were lonely . . . The word on my mind. That word was you,” and the final line, “You were my world, and so I give you, too, a world.” These lines represent for them the love a fan has for a celebrity, a love that cannot be realized. I think this unrequited love is similar to certain queer narrative motifs. 

AH: While as a reader I found the story easy to read, I realized while translating it that a lot of care had gone into choosing the words. What were your thoughts regarding language when you were writing the story?

: The reason for the surface simplicity of the language is that its first publisher was the YA division of Munhakdongnae. There was an unspoken rule that the language had to be easy enough for a sixth grader to understand. Also, whenever I read translated science fiction from the US and the UK, I got into a habit of looking at the sentences and thinking about how they might sound in their original English. Simple expressions were easy to imagine in English, but difficult expressions were, of course, impossible. When I write, I sometimes find myself thinking, What would this sound like in English? English also happens to be the one foreign language that I can at least understand on a middle-school level. So I deliberately tried to write in sentences that would be easy to translate. The editors also cut down a lot of the longer sentences.

AH: That’s amazing. So on some level, you always had the idea that this work would be translated?

: Oh yes. I did think about how nice it would be if the story left the confines of Korea, but that was just a daydream. I didn’t expect it to actually happen. 

Image: Jeon Sam-hye and Anton Hur.

AH: So how did you feel when I first contacted you about the translation rights?

: I was very surprised. For one thing, your email came out of the blue—I’ve worked at a publishing house before, so I know it’s usually an agent who contacts the publisher, but this was basically an email from one individual to another. Your résumé was in English. But when I read it, I noticed that you’d translated Kim Yeonsu’s Whoever You Are, No Matter How Lonely. I’ve really liked his work ever since university. I thought, if he’s worked on Kim Yeonsu, I’d like him to work on my writing, too. So I was surprised when you contacted me, but I was pleased, too.

AH: What works inspired you to write science fiction?

: Thinking back, they were works recently introduced to Korea, for the most part. I would say Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark and Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book were the most influential in terms of my writing science fiction. In Doomsday Book, there are scenes where the time-traveling main character, despite his travel taking place within England, experiences difficulty in understanding the way English is spoken in different eras. I liked that, and, of course, I love all of Connie Willis’s other works. In The Speed of Dark, the narrator is autistic, and this is reflected in the sentences in which the narrator takes metaphors literally and makes the reader think about the difference between the literal meaning of an expression and its social meaning. I would find myself wondering how the autistic character’s language and the original expressions would’ve looked in the untranslated work. 

AH: “Genesis” is a queer narrative, and you just mentioned an autistic character in another author’s work. When I look at your work, I see that you tend to focus on people in the periphery, outside of the mainstream. Is this deliberate?

: I’ve never been part of any mainstream in my life. Stories about people in the mainstream already exist, and there are many who write them better than I ever could. I’m a believer in writing stories that only I can write. That’s what’s best for both me and the reader. In my work, I talk about single-parent families a lot, or orphans. This is outside the mainstream. But I want to show that these people exist, that they’re sitting right next to you. I myself was a single-parent child. 

AH: What were your reasons for writing in the YA genre?

: When I studied creative writing in college, we had to do critical workshops, and come up with an anthology of short stories at the end. I would read through them and get the feeling that the stories were all somewhat similar. It got a bit tiresome after four years, and I thought about what else I could write that would be different. Looking back, I had entered a lot of baekiljang [writing competitions for young writers], and I wondered if someone had told a story about kids who enter writing competitions. No one had. So I did what a lot of creative people do—I wrote a story no one else was writing. At the time I was also in a writing group with some college students who were younger than me. By then I had graduated from university. I told them I would write for them as my audience. And that’s what I did.

AH: How did you come to combine YA and SF?

: If you look at my work, you’ll notice that I don’t like writing about perfectly finished utopias or dystopias, but about worlds and characters that are on their way to becoming something. This has some risks. Time-travel narratives usually deal with events that happen when the main character goes to the future or the past, and it’s harder to make the narrative come back to the present. This middle process of becoming is always difficult and tedious, but without someone to endure that process, none of us can have anything in life. And because I tend to portray the growth of a world, I naturally found myself combining SF with YA, the latter of which deals with the growth of characters.

AH: What has the response been like to “Genesis”?

: With Boy Girl Evolution [the book “Genesis” was published in], the response has been mostly from SF writers who say things like, This is fun and different. As for the pop idol fans that I mentioned earlier, I’m not sure if they love my story or just the lines that I mentioned. (Grins.) I know I said I write things because no one else wrote them first, but I feel consoled when people say they read and sympathize with my works, when they say they’ve had the same thoughts as me and had always wanted to read this kind of story. 

I’m a believer in writing stories that only I can write. . . . In my work, I talk about single-parent families a lot, or orphans. This is outside the mainstream. But I want to show that these people exist, that they’re sitting right next to you. 

AH: You’ve mentioned in our emails that you planned to expand on the story of “Genesis.” What is the direction you’re thinking of, and is there anything else in the works?

: I wouldn’t expand “Genesis” into a full-length novel, but I do want to tell more stories about the children of the Genesis Corporation. The Corporation has different divisions, and I’m thinking of one or two more stories based on these divisions. Since there isn’t much of a publishing environment for science fiction in Korea, I don’t know when or where they would be released. But you’ve got to do what you want to do. I’ve also planned two novels, but I haven’t had the time to work on them. The last story in Boy Girl Evolution is a Victorian steampunk story, similar to some of Connie Willis’s work, and I want to expand it. I also want to write about children who were born through artificial wombs, and their relationship with their parents. That’s also science fiction. It takes at least four months for me to write a full-length novel while working a day job. That’s about twenty pages a day without weekends. I wrote International Date Line in three months. I didn’t have a job then, so I just wrote all day.

AH: How did you become a writer?

: I’m the youngest in my family, with two older sisters. My parents really wanted their children to read, so they would get my sisters books. These books weren’t targeted for my age, but I ended up reading them more than my sisters did. My sisters would be at school and I would have lots of time on my own, and nothing is better for being on one’s own than reading books. As I read, I would think how nice it would be if certain stories existed, and this later became motivation to write these stories myself. I started with fan fiction actually, that particular subculture that has to do with games and movies. In high school, there was a particular game I was into (Mabinogi: Fantasy Life) and I would write stories based on that world. I wrote quite a few stories like that. I began to think I should major in creative writing for university, and looked up schools. A friend I met in the game recommended his school, which had a creative writing department, and he said that it was in Seoul so I wouldn’t have to move. I applied, not thinking I would get in, but I was accepted.

AH: What was your fan fiction like?

: They were what are called “tutorial stories.” Backstories of different characters. Sometimes I would think about what it would be like if certain characters went out with each other. I wrote mostly about the characters.

AH: Would you say they were your education in a way?

: Pretty much. During evening study hall I’d procrastinate by writing them, instead of studying. 

AH: There’s something of a cross-cultural renaissance going on in Korean literature. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian just won the Man Booker International, for example. “Genesis” is also your debut in translation. This is something of a nationalist question, but what are your thoughts on Korean literature as it enters the outside world?

: Koreans love to talk about the Nobel Prize, and whenever we approach October for the announcement, there is a resurgence of interest in Ko Eun, upon whom the media set their sights. Ko Eun is an eminent poet who lived through a lot of Korean history. His literature is very Korean. But I write science fiction, so I’ve never really thought too much about national themes, although they’re important, of course, and interesting as background material occasionally. This is a little cynical, but I don’t think Han Kang winning the Man Booker International is about the greatness of Korean literature. I mean, what has Korean literature ever done for Han Kang? That was my reaction. I’ve been reading her for over a decade and basically bought all of her work, despite my running out of shelf space at home. That old saying that the most Korean thing is the most global, I think it’s meaningless now. Sure, it’s important to maintain your own identity, but it’s more important to keep trying to communicate with the outside world.

Conducted June 6, 2016, at Noh PD’s Bean Roasting Café in Hapjeong, Seoul. 

Published Jun 16, 2016   Copyright 2016 Anton Hur

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