Interview with Gu Byeong-mo: The Rejection of Stereotypes
by Chi-Young Kim July 5, 2021
Your work moves fluidly among many topics and genres, from fantasy to realism. Where do you get inspiration for your stories?
Because my characters and fictional worlds involve an elderly woman assassin, a wizard’s bakery, a fish-human, bird-humans, and AI robots, many people think I come up with topics in a variety of ways. To be honest, that’s sort of an illusion, owing to the fact that I wrote a number of books over a short period of twelve years. My interests generally span many areas and topics and I don’t do anything special to find something to write about. I might be inspired by something small I come across in my day-to-day life, or I might be reading a poem and get sucked in by a single word that then expands into an imaginary world that has nothing to do with the poem itself. It could be that my ability to find things to write about in ordinary day-to-day life is a little more honed, but it’s not something that comes with practice; I had an active imagination as a child and it just became a part of me. I don’t think that subject matter is the most important element in fiction. Students who begin to write often worry about “what” to write, but in my view the “how” is more critical than the “what.”
Your works have unique titles, with Pagwa deriving from Chinese characters, Bird Strike from English, and other novels from Korean. In the US, Pagwa is being published as The Old Woman with the Knife. How do you come up with your titles?
I mull them over until the perfect title, the most symbolic and meaningful, the most beautiful, comes to me. There’s no one way I come up with a title. I decide on the title once I have a rough outline of a novel, before I begin writing. Some writers start with a working title and change it later, but for me it’s hard to write if I don’t definitively decide on one from the beginning, so I tend to think about it for a long time. So it’s exceedingly rare for a title to change during the editing process for publication. The title for the American edition of Pagwa was changed into something more intuitive and intriguing, but the original title has an ambiguity to it—it’s a Chinese homonym that means “bruised fruit” and “peak of youth” or “the flower of life.”
Your characters’ names are also unique. How do you come up with names in your fiction?
My characters have names that aren’t too hard to say in Korean, and which also reflect their personalities and temperaments. Depending on the atmosphere of the novel, sometimes they don’t have names at all and are only referred to by pronouns, or in my more realistic novels, they have names you could easily find in contemporary Korean society, while in worlds that contain imaginary elements, as in Pagwa, I try to find names that are comparatively rare. In an entirely fantastical world like in Bird Strike, I try to come up with ambiguous names that aren’t familiar in Korean but aren’t English either, names that don’t point to any specific country. For all novels I use a Hanja [Sino-Korean] dictionary, which I find very useful when naming characters, since a single pronunciation can contain multiple meanings.
In Pagwa (The Old Woman with the Knife), the main character, Jogak (Hornclaw in the English version), is a woman in her sixties, and weaponizes the invisibility of her age and gender to carry out her work as an assassin. How did you land on that premise?
Around 2010, I was planning out several stories, and I vaguely thought that I wanted to write about a killer for one of them. But there are so many movies and novels and comics about killers so I kept it in the back of my mind, knowing that a misstep could make the book feel tired and clichéd. One day, I found rotten peaches in the crisper when I was cleaning out my fridge; I’d received them as a gift and forgotten about them. I wiped up the mess and thought, That’s going to be me soon. That was when the story came to me—of someone who’s become like those peaches, of an over-the-hill senior citizen assassin. Around that time an excellent novel had been published in Korea: Kim Un-su’s The Plotters. The main character in that work is a young man who’s smart, cynical, and strong, and I thought I would take an entirely different path. Seniors are considered weak and burdensome in our society, people who should be quickly pushed aside, and older women are particularly mistreated. And so I thought a mature woman, someone who nobody considers important or even notices, should pick up a weapon.
For the English edition, you requested that Haeu (Worryfixer in the English version) use non-binary pronouns. Of course, in Korean, gender is often less obvious due to the language structure. Why was that important to you?
In 2013, when the book was first published in Korea, Haeu was written as a woman. This character has a small but clear role in the novel, and she’s a bit of a trickster. With the revised edition coming out in 2018, I thought, Isn’t it a stereotype that someone who wears large earrings and likes jewelry has to be a woman? So I didn’t refer to Haeu as “her.” I asked you to use non-binary pronouns for the English translation, but I’m not sure that this was reflected in all foreign-language editions. Some might think that depicting a man who wears earrings and is fond of jewelry could be prejudicial toward certain groups, but I wanted to acknowledge to myself that someone’s preferences have nothing to do with their gender.
Your work has been translated into many languages. Do you have a favorite and least favorite part about the process of translation? With English-language readers being exposed to fewer works in translation than the rest of the world, have there been different challenges with the translation process into English?
It’s hard to offer examples, but I’m sure there are Korea-specific emotions, habits, relationships, family lines, objects, and more that I write without thinking twice about and that other Koreans intuitively understand. There might be some parts that are harder for English readers to comprehend, but I think most of these issues would have been solved by your work and mediation during the translation process. And I think this is something that often happens when literature crosses borders, regardless of countries; there are many cases where a book translated into Korean includes a translator’s note since there are, for example, medieval customs or jokes or characteristics specific to that culture that Korean readers may not fully get.
I’m especially excited about introducing a prickly, multilayered woman to an English-language readership. In many cultures, elderly women are rarely depicted as having three dimensionality, much less as people with ambition and dedication to craft. In the US, Asian women in particular are even more rarely seen that way. Can you talk about what you had in mind as you were developing the character of Hornclaw?
It never occurred to me when I was writing this novel that it would go to the US, and I’m not that familiar with how Americans perceive older Asian women. But regardless of country or culture, assuming that older women are looked down upon and discriminated against in general, I think the only difference would be their relative social standing and economic power. As you mention, it does seem that older Asian women are seen that way by non-Asian people. It could be that those views unconsciously impacted me, as the older woman assassin I created is a small, shabby, easily forgettable person.
There is only a brief mention of a baby that Hornclaw sends away for adoption. Hornclaw is matter of fact about maternal roles and that experience doesn’t define her. Our culture defines women so much by motherhood that this felt fresh and groundbreaking. When you were writing about Hornclaw, were you including criticism of the roles or expectations of women?
It wasn’t my intention to critique when I was writing the book; rather, I intuitively thought that these attitudes and feelings would make sense for this character. I wrote certain parts without precisely mapping out each and every intention and behavior, instead writing in ways that felt right, and this is an example of that. But afterward, I did think that I wrote it with the intention you mention. There’s a time gap between the act of writing a sentence and the act of interpreting its meaning. In other words, what I wrote reflects my own thoughts about maternal love. Maternal love isn’t essential or innate to women, but our society stipulates that it is and pressures women, and that would be especially so for a woman old enough to be considered a grandmother. I think I was revealing my rejection of that stereotype, my rejection of those types of demands on women, without necessarily being cognizant of it.
There is warmth and kindness in your work, in that each character, no matter how flawed or unlikeable, is seen in their full humanity. Can you talk about your affinity for outsiders who populate works like Wizard Bakery, Pagwa, Agami (Gills), and Bird Strike?
I don’t believe that literature needs to shine a spotlight on people who are appreciated in society and live nice lives, though of course they have their own challenges. There are also writers who truly dedicate themselves to illuminating the shadows, examining poor and disadvantaged communities, and depicting abjection, the rejected, and the precariat, so I don’t think it’s quite right to say that I write specifically about outsiders that frequently.
While Hornclaw sees her declining physical ability and growing empathy to be weaknesses, it could be said that she’s growing as a person. Many people believe that there is tension between objective excellence and developing and maturing as a well-rounded person. What kind of commentary did you want to make about aging?
I was thirty-six when I completed this novel. I wasn’t acutely feeling what it was like to age, and you could say I was at the peak of my youth, especially by today’s standards. I understood old age only intellectually, so I do think that the details of aging as I wrote them are not as accurate. While it can be desirable as a human being to sympathize with others, to be compassionate, and to actively intervene and help others, those qualities remind me of the virtues of care work that are often only demanded of women. That’s why for Hornclaw they are signs of weakness and why she feels disinclined toward them.
This novel doesn’t promote an idea of what people become as they age or what people should be like as they grow older. It merely shows what it’s like to be old. It shows that when a thousand young people get old, each of those thousand people grows old differently. If someone reads this novel and thinks, This doesn’t make any sense, there’s nobody like this in the world, I would say that I’m not telling a story about all “typical” old people in the world (or what people want to believe is typical), but about this specific old person, this one woman.
Translated and Interviewed by Chi-Young Kim
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