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Interview with Ha Seong-nan: Looking Behind the Closed Door

by Yoon Chi Kyu Translated by Janet Hong September 5, 2023

Ha Seong-nan

Ha Seong-nan made her literary debut in 1996 when her short story “Grass” won the Seoul Shinmun New Writer’s Contest. Her works include the short story collections Rubin’s Vase, Flowers of Mold, Bluebeard’s First Wife, Wafers, and The Taste of Summer, the novels The Joy of Eating, A, and A Christmas Carol, and essay collections Hope, That Beautiful Strength (co-authored), and Things Still Excite Me.

The K-pop girl group Le Sserafim recently released a song titled “Eve, Psyche & the Bluebeard’s Wife.” It takes women who have broken taboos as its main concept, women who have opened forbidden doors. A new edition of your collection Bluebeard’s First Wife was published in Korea in 2021 and has been receiving renewed attention. What did you find most challenging when you first wrote the story “Bluebeard’s First Wife”?


The story of Bluebeard is one of the first fairy tales I encountered as a child. The book had pen illustrations, and a drawing showed the climax of the storythe moment when Bluebeard’s wife is at the top of the tower, waiting for her brothers to come rescue her, and Bluebeard is reaching out to grab her. I loved that tension. At the same time, I found it odd that the ones who save her are her brothers. You see, I didn’t have brothers. Angela Carter seemed to feel the same, because in her story “The Bloody Chamber,” which is also based on the Bluebeard fairy tale, it’s her mother who assumes this role. Bluebeard allows his wives to go anywhere in the castle, except for one forbidden room. This room contains the corpses of his previous wives, who had broken their promise by entering it. So, naturally, one can’t help but wonder why the first wife had to die if the room was empty to begin with and there was no reason to prohibit entry. This led me to ask: What is a story and how does it start?


Was there anything you were particularly mindful of as you prepared Bluebeard’s First Wife for the revised edition?


When I first wrote the title story, I didn’t find it particularly difficult to depict Jason, the narrator’s husband. However, I was so focused on the fact that this character had a secret that I failed to examine him with the depth he deserved. I neglected to understand his pain and identity as part of the LGBTQ+ community, choosing instead to use his situation as a mere source of conflict. The result left prejudices unexamined, a realization that fills me with remorse.

Thirty years have passed since I wrote that story. Although the world has changed in many ways, some things stubbornly persist. For instance, the mayor of Daegu recently opposed a long-promised queer festival, labeling it an illegal occupation of public roads. This illustrates how far we still must go.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to release a revised edition, and though I couldn’t rewrite the entire story, I was able to incorporate some updates, even if imperfectly. The first edition of “Bluebeard’s First Wife” ends with the statement: “I think long and hard, and wonder what on earth I ever did wrong.” The narrator thinks her personal misfortune is a kind of judgment, while her language (“what on earth I ever did wrong”) places herself outside the blame, since it suggests she cannot think of anything she did to deserve her fate. In the revised edition, the last sentence has been changed to: “I think long and hard, and wonder where my life went wrong.” I wanted to remove the sense of causality present in the first version, the idea that misfortune is connected to wrongdoing, as well as her sense of bewilderment over her misfortune. Instead I wanted to convey that sometimes marriages end. Sometimes, misfortunes happen and our lives don’t turn out the way we had hoped. I feel that this is a more compassionate and understanding view of life.

Bluebeard’s First Wife includes the short story “The Star-Shaped Stain,” which is based on the fire that killed nineteen children at the Sealand Youth Training Center in June 1999. This work sharply alternates between the perspectives of the victims’ families and third parties in social disasters, posing significant questions to readers. In South Korea, we keep seeing such tragedies. Are there points you specifically pondered when writing about social disasters? What can stories do in the face of such enormous tragedies?


I remembered an interview with a father who had lost his twins in the Sealand fire. I recalled his expression as he said, “Thinking that your child has died and knowing that your child has died are entirely different things.” I had to be careful. The children who died in the Sealand disaster would have been the same age as my eldest child, who turned thirty this year. As a result of that disaster, all kindergarten field trips that year were cancelled, but the fact that my child was spared brought no relief. Thinking about something is different from reality, but the only thing I could do was think. Since then, tragedies have continued. As I watched the frozen image of the sinking Sewol ferry on the screen in 2014, I felt utterly helpless. I despaired, realizing no amount of work that I’ve ever done or could do would lift the ferry out of the water. Many people who went to the Itaewon Halloween celebration last year did not return. I’ve known that alley where the crowd crush occurred since I was twenty years old. My child or I could have easily been there that night. We have no choice but to leave our lives to chance, and society can no longer be trusted. I channel my fears into my writing, striving to overcome the powerlessness I felt that day, unable to save anyone. Writing becomes a way of not forgetting.


This year, the movie Flowers of Mold, which is based on your story of the same title won awards in two categories at the 2023 Jeonju International Film Festival. The film is about a man who rummages through people’s garbage. How did you first conceive this story? Why do you think that even after twenty years, the story is still loved, reimagined in different genres, and reinterpreted in meaningful ways?


First, I would like to congratulate director Hye-jung Shim and express my admiration for the impressive acting of Kim Jae-kyung. Seeing how the symbol of garbage was transformed and represented differently in the film was a revelation to me.

When I wrote “Flowers of Mold” twenty-five years ago, I never thought that parts of the story could be read as stalking. Though these characters are fictional, their intense interest in others, and their yearning for connection and communication, can appear excessive in today’s context. This realization was surprising when I had the chance to re-examine the story. At the time when I wrote it, I was oblivious to that undertone, or how my characters could be perceived. I couldn’t sense this at all, and so wrote without any reservations. Of course, doubting the goodwill of my characters never crossed my mind.

The question might arise: “Do we need to go so far in order to understand others?” If I may defend myself, the cultural climate back then was quite different. I believed, and still do, that communication is essential, even though it can be difficult to truly connect with those around us. That belief led me to express a profound desire in my story, and I started digging through my own garbage. Amidst the mashed-up, rotten, and torn remnants, I discovered aspects of myself I hadn’t known before. That kind of exploration may have been possible only at that time. If I were to revisit the story now with my current “sensitivity” or understanding, the story would take on a very different shape.

Director Hye-jung Shim has approached this subject matter with a contemporary sensitivity, reflecting the shifts in societal understanding.


Flowers of Mold was translated into English and received great reviews in the US market after being introduced in 2019. In the following year, the translation of your third collection, Bluebeard’s First Wife, was selected as one of Publishers Weekly’s 10 Best Books of 2020. What are your thoughts on the recent success of K-literature, and on your work being translated into other languages and reaching new readers?


It all feels surreal, so I don’t really know how to respond. I was recently watching an American movie and saw the main character casually prepare Korean instant noodles by pouring hot water into the disposable container. It made me think of a future where reading the work of Korean writers might be just as commonplace and unremarkable.

I can’t help but think of Janet Hong, who first translated my work into English. After stumbling upon one of my short stories many years ago, she translated the collection and tried for a long time to find a publisher. Had it not been for her dedication, my work might never have reached an English-speaking audience.

The American publishing environment back then was strikingly different from what it is now, with presses offering far-from-ideal publishing conditions. Our pride was wounded, and we were forced to wait a long time for the right opportunity to present itself. Janet, however, never compromised. She labored for more than a decade to see the fruits of her work. And I must also acknowledge the work of other translators who endured even greater challenging conditions to bring Korean literature to the world. I’m grateful to them all.


There was a time when the peculiarities of the Korean language were cited as reasons why no Korean author had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Korean was deemed too subtle, too nuanced, to translate into English, for instance. Yet seeing your work, known for its delicate precision, achieve success in the US market, I feel we have moved into a new era. I’m also curious about your collaboration with other translators, and if there are specific aspects you consider when your work is translated into other languages.


As you know, a book is not the result of the author’s efforts alone. It takes a village to publish a book. In Korea, editors wield significant influence, an influence that seems to be growing. The role of a translator becomes even more crucial when a book is published in another language. Even with my limited grasp of English, I can appreciate Janet Hong’s immense skill in the English translation of my work. Janet is both a translator and a writer. She understood the tone and essence of my work, selecting just the right words to recreate it. I had very little to do with that process. Janet’s Korean is fluent, and we only occasionally discussed small details, like the size or shape of specific tools mentioned in a story.

I recall an instance when a piece of my writing was translated by someone else. And even though it was a good translation, I immediately knew it wasn’t Janet’s work. Somehow, I just knew.


Your early works are often lauded for their delicate, precise descriptions. This meticulous attention to detail, as if observing characters and scenes through a freeze-frame lens, has a mesmerizing effect on readers. In your opinion, what is the role of such description within the context of fiction?


I used to be severely nearsighted. I needed glasses, but didn’t tell my parents, because I didn’t want them to worry, and I also didn’t want to be teased for wearing glasses. For a long time, I lived without seeing clearly. Living in this blurry world required me to squint and study objects closely to discern their shape. This may have given my work a certain “myopic” quality. But it also taught me that true sight demands determination, that it takes a much stronger will to “see.” Not averting your gaze is a more active act than closing your eyes.

When I was studying poetry with the poet Oh Kyu Won, I learned that seeing wasn’t just about perception, but about finding deeper meaning. I began to infuse my prose with poetic descriptions, cutting back on the characters’ internal thoughts and instead speaking through surrounding objects. While there are no new stories under the sun, I believe that detailed, immersive descriptions of scenes can bring freshness and focus.


Your fourth collection, Wafers, opens with “Daydreams of a River,” which ambiguously intertwines the past and present of a woman who works at a trading company. What does this piece mean to you?


The title of this story eluded me until the very end when Federico García Lorca’s poem “Daydreams of a River” suddenly came to mind, and I didn’t hesitate to use it as the title. This story grew from an image of a woman who had weathered much of life without regret or fear. Now, upon reflection, I feel a greater connection with the final scene that I’d only guessed at earlier. Lorca’s poem whispers lines like: “(What a beautiful time!)” and “(What a sad little time!)”. The parentheses add a sense of secrecy. Whether I have become more like the character I’ve created or have come to comprehend my character a bit more, a beautiful, sad, and fleeting time has passed. Now I think I can understand that time a little better, as if I’ve lived through it myself.


In “Daydreams of a River,” the female protagonist is bitten on the wrist by a dying dog. This leads to a scene much later in her life where instead of fleeing from a street mugger, she charges at him and bites his wrist. Though severely injured and criticized by family and friends for not handing over her purse to protect her life, she remains unrepentant. In this way, your female characters have a certain unique charm. How have they evolved, and when, as the last sentence of the story states, is a woman “most beautiful”?


Your question made me realize something I’ve never truly considered before: when is a woman most beautiful? Growing up, the women I knew were always toiling. They worked relentlessly and didn’t care about looking nice. They just seemed to endure life’s hardships. So why did I write that she was the “most beautiful then” as the last sentence? Maybe I thought that period of innocence, a time when she didn’t know any better, was beautiful. We all have a time like that, don’t we?

I grew up with a lot of rules and expectations. I’m not just talking about curfews. There were things I heard so much from my mother that they felt like they were being drilled into me. I won’t mention them here. But as the eldest with no brothers, I had to be strong for my mother, especially since my father was often absent. I had to be two people: one who was shaped by my mother’s nagging, and another who stepped forward when necessary. With no brothers to come to my rescue, and with my mother who had to grit her teeth and work while raising children singlehandedly, I had to become my own savior, like the main character in “Bluebeard’s First Wife.” If my female characters are slightly unconventional, perhaps it stems from that period of my life. Some writers channel their unfulfilled desires into the characters they create. Because if your characters do things that you wouldn’t dare, that’s when a story really begins.


A literary critic once described your work as having “a special magic of unearthing a universe from a grain of sand.” He observed that you could depict the flow of twenty years from a single photograph like a daydream or reveal profound truths from a single, everyday moment. Can you talk about how you discover and shape the subjects and themes of your work?


I’m very fond of that phrase from critic Jeong Hongsu. When I encounter difficulties in writing, I often remind myself of his words as a form of encouragement. Even though we’re no longer as isolated as we were during the pandemic, I’ve come to realize that I’m quite accustomed to being alone. I often go days without calling or meeting anyone outside of my family. Before the pandemic, when I commuted to work, I had many chances to observe people. Sometimes, while having lunch at a restaurant, I would overhear conversations at nearby tables. I heard many interesting storiesnot that I used them directly in my work! I wouldn’t converse with anyone on my way home, even when I’d overhear a teenager spewing obscenities near me. I cherished that time. Now that I work from home, these opportunities have dwindled. I read novels by fellow writers. Some works inspire me to write. When a person comes to mind, I dwell on that person for a long time.


In your fifth collection, The Taste of Summer, you still delve into characters and events, offering a glimpse behind the scenes, but it seems that your perspective has shifted a little. You almost seem to have developed a greater compassion and understanding toward your characters. For instance, in “The Taste of Summer,” the protagonist mispronounces Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) as Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) and ends up at the latter. There, a stranger offers her a peach, a fruit she doesn’t particularly like, and this incident lingers in her mind for a long time, resurfacing at various points in her life. Can you discuss your thoughts when crafting this work, and how this work is perhaps different from your previous works?


I wanted to create a narrative that looped back on itself, beginning where it ended. This idea brought to mind a stranger I once glimpsed at a train station in a foreign country. This person was just getting off the train. Our eyes met for a second and I felt a connection. Soon the train departed and he disappeared from view. I knew we would never meet again. It was the start of a story that couldn’t progress. Yet this fleeting encounter stayed with me, inspiring a tale of growing yearning. Sure, I may write a story where a character is bitten by a dog and then bites a person, but I sometimes entertain romantic thoughts, too. Ultimately, though, I find myself dissatisfied and end up writing another story with the same “character gets bitten by a dog” motif.


In your author’s note for The Taste of Summer, you wrote: “I felt I could finally write what I’ve always wanted to write, that I’d been waiting for this moment for a long time.” This statement resonated with me and gave me a greater appreciation for the stories in this collection. What kind of stories are you hoping to create in the future?


I spent several summers in a dormitory at a university in Wonju. When the students returned home, the dormitory became eerily quiet, only to buzz with noise again when the summer term began. From my dorm window, I could see a reservoir in the distance. I longed to go, but I was a little nervous. One morning, while on a walk, I worked up the courage to go. From there, the window of my room looked so small. It had started raining, and the rising water level roared as it fell below the dam. The waves formed by the falling water were breathtakingly beautiful. Had I not ventured there, I would have missed that sight. The idea that there could be exciting things ahead sparked a thrill in me. It gave me confidence that I could write any story I wished. I was trying to explain this sense of excitement and anticipation in my author’s note. But as you know, our thoughts and feelings shift constantly. It’s not easy to write a story. Now, I find myself cowering before the blank page once again, as if what I’d felt at the reservoir was just a dream. I’m not sure what story I’ll end up writing. Just as how the story “Why Did She Go to Suncheon?” emerged when I happened to discover a Nike intersection on a map of Suncheon. My mind continues to change at every moment, and this transformation is part of what keeps the writing process so intriguing.


You made your debut over twenty-seven years ago, and your passion and dedication to your craft have not waned. What subjects are you interested in exploring in your future works? Your readers, both domestic and international, are eagerly awaiting your next creation.


Lately, I’ve been reading Philip Roth’s Why Write? and I exclaimed aloud at the phrase on the back cover: “Philip Roth, whose life was literature itself.” It led me to reflect on a time when writing was the same for me. Ironically, it was a time when I was exhausted from raising small children, sleep-deprived, yet always thinking about writing. This realization prompted me to reflect on my current state.

From the second grade, when I copied nursery rhymes from a book, writing has been a constant in my life. Even when I was supposed to be writing journal entries, I would create stories instead. Now, I plan to complete all the stories I’ve harbored in my heart for so long. Though I hesitate in the face of my limitations, I know I must write. I observe the world around me, keeping my eyes open even when I want to avert my gaze. I write about what I have seen, what I must see, without exaggeration or diminishment. I believe I can do this. I’d like nothing more than to keep writing until the very end.


Translated by Janet Hong




“Daydreams of a River,” Wafers (Munhakdongne, 2006)

강의 백일몽, 웨하스(문학동네, 2006)

“Flowers of Mold,” Flowers of Mold (tr. Janet Hong, Open Letter Books, 2019)

 곰팡이꽃, 옆집 여자(창비, 1999)

“Bluebeard’s First Wife,” “The Star-Shaped Stain,” Bluebeard’s First Wife (tr. Janet Hong, Open Letter Books, 2020)

푸른 수염의 첫 번째 아내, 별 모양의 얼룩, 푸른 수염의 첫 번째 아내(창비, 2002)

“The Taste of Summer,” “Why Did She Go to Suncheon?” The Taste of Summer (Moonji, 2013)

여름의 맛, 순천에 왜 간 걸까, 그녀는, 여름의 맛(문학과지성사, 2013)

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