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Face to Face with Choi Eunmi

by Jung Yong-jun Translated by Sean Lin Halbert March 1, 2024

I’d like to start by asking you a question about your recently published novel Face to Face. This work captures the period when COVID-19 dominated our lives. It also serves as a record of individual narratives and emotions, invisible and undetectable. About halfway through the book, I was reminded of a conversation we had together at a writers’ forum last summer titled “Life (Post-)COVID-19: Connection and Severance.” As I think you remember, you described the pandemic as “a time we experienced together but had to go through alone.” You seemed frustrated that a national crisis was left to individual responsibility, that it was “every person for themselves.” I deeply sympathized with that feeling of isolation, of having to go through the pandemic by oneself.


I remember that conversation now that you mention it. In addition to that, I also said that while I was comforted by the fact that I wasn’t the only one going through the “Corona blues,” I also hated that my thoughts and emotions were not the result of my own experiences and stories. I was in the throes of writing Face to Face when I attended that forum, and I remember feeling both motivated and burdened by the task of finishing my novel after the conversations I had with writers and readers that day.



A sigh escaped me when I finished reading the last page of Face to Face. Nari, Sumi, and Manjo. The workshop, the hospital, and the apple orchard in Ttan mountain. I was deeply immersed in the characters and the story, my heart was seeped in the emotions of the novel; so, when it ended, my heart was heavy and even trembling. You’ve said that during the pandemic, our trust in blood relations increased while trust in strangers decreased, and that societal incidents and issues are more difficult to write about when they are immediate. What experience during the pandemic motivated you to write this novel?


While experiencing the pandemic, I realized firsthand that the greater the disaster, the more issues converge in the family unit instead of in the individual or the community. I think I was quoting a survey conducted in Korea during the pandemic when I made that comment about trusting blood relations and family members. The article I read expressed it as “trust in kin,” and I interpreted this as meaning that the destinies of family members become interwoven during great crises, and this in turn isolates the family unit. And when a family becomes a community of shared destiny, problems arise around the issues of responsibility, caretaking, control, and oppression, according to each family’s unique circumstances. Within this environment, the individual becomes lonely. I wanted the isolated characters of my book to live outside of the family, to experience new forms of relationships. I felt that the most important thing to do during a crisis was to open a door, escape from the isolation of the family unity, and become connected with others, people who aren’t your blood relations. That’s what I wanted to write about.



Face to Face focuses on isolated individuals, but it also shows us the potential of “community in the individual.” In other words, it depicts a sense of solidarity that never gives up, always trying to connect with neighbors and strangers. How can we imagine community in a world as cold-hearted, harsh, and individualized as our own?


Face to Face begins with the line, “I once tried putting my feet into someone else’s shoes.” After the book was published, I came to think about the three years between when I wrote that first sentence in the winter of 2020 and when I submitted the manuscript in the early summer of 2023. I thought about the motivation or reasons behind the elements of the novel, things I only came to understand after I finished writing.
     When you try to walk in someone else’s shoes, you immediately realize how different they are from you. I wanted to write about that strangeness and unfamiliarity, as well as the sense of connection, that encompasses it. While writing about characters who experience the pandemic for two, three years, I was able to think more about the idiom “to walk in someone else’s shoes” and what it reveals about our attitude toward the Other, about how Rebecca Solnit said that “some empathy must be learned,” that empathy doesn’t come naturally, that it requires constant effort and practice.
     When I finished the book, I realized that this first sentence, which I wrote with the desire to express our unfamiliarity with the Other, actually encompasses the idea that the characters of the book need most to break through their isolation and to connect with others. Walking in someone else’s shoes, and making the effort to do this—is this not the mindset we need most when imagining the possibilities of community?



I also want to ask you about The Ninth Wave. Lime mines, nuclear power plants, pseudo-religions—real social problems appear in your books and sometimes serve as the backdrop for the story’s events. But what’s unusual is that the characters are treated on a personal and introspective level. I wonder if you’re trying to say that individuals are connected with and deeply influenced by the conditions of the world at large. What is the reason for including current issues in your novels?


An incident happened around the time I got the idea for The Ninth Wave. Seeing the aftermath of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, especially the hysteria over food contamination after the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, I became acutely aware that disasters like this can deeply affect our daily lives. After that earthquake, I saw a small city on the eastern coast, where several people close to me live, shaken to its core over plans to build a nuclear powerplant there. I tried depicting the daily routine, relationships, and the emotions of an individual whose way of life is completely altered by a global crisis. Once I did this, I felt a strong energy begin to propel the story. I wrote the rest of The Ninth Wave with that energy and became more sensitive to individuals who must respond to the demands of society and the real world. Most importantly, the social situations that followed, such as the feminism reboot in Korea and the COVID-19 pandemic, influenced me greatly, and these were naturally reflected in my books.
     Compared to The Ninth Wave, the dynamics of Face to Face are much different because of the lack of distance between myself as someone experiencing those events and as someone writing about them. I don’t know if readers felt this difference, but I could feel it after I finished Face to Face. Even though I could approach the subject while achieving a certain amount of emotional and temporal distance from the pandemic, because I was living through it in real time while writing the novel, I wasn’t able to completely erase those traces of immediacy. Even in those moments when the novel needed to move organically, I sensed that issues important to me at the time were sneaking into the text against my will.



In many of your novels, such as A Person Made from Snow, Magnolia Sutra, and An Exceedingly Beautiful Dream, there are characters who go through horrible things, whose worlds are filled with fear and violence. As a writer myself, I sometimes am asked questions like: What’s the point of bringing such horrible things into a book? Why must you write this kind of literature? And each time, I say that it’s meaningful and worthwhile in itself to accurately depict the violence in the world and faithfully depict a single character. This might be a question that is asked too often, but what purpose and power do novels have in  this world?


In some ways, when it comes to writing novels, the most important thing is the internal motivation of the writer. After all, without that, the novel might not have even come into existence. There must be some reason why a specific writer chooses to write about a violent world and horrible events, reasons that she herself cannot completely understand. I think that when you write about the things that compel you to write, when you write differently, when you write again and again, eventually, a purpose is produced from within the work, much to the surprise of the writer and the reader alike. In all genres, there is nothing more enjoyable than reading a book that moves according to its own lifeforce, that exudes its own meaning. Understanding the Other, the world, and different points of view in a way you couldn’t have if you had not read that book—all of these are the perks of reading good books.



I’m enjoying following along as a reader as you serialize Mind Reading in the newspaper. Particularly memorable was your discussion of loneliness in the column, “A Day to Talk about Loneliness.” I think loneliness is at the center of all the various problems our society is dealing with right now. While I agree with you when you write that “Loneliness is an emotion that must be thought about on a social level,” I wonder if you could expand on what it means.


As a part of a short piece for the “This Year in Pictures” column of Sisain’s year-end issue, I asked the following question: “Can the loneliness of teachers, students, and parents ever meet?”  When I saw the colliding perspectives surrounding the news that a new elementary school teacher had committed suicide in the summer of 2023, the first word that came to mind was “loneliness.” It occurred to me that these three groups of people had been isolated from each other. Sometimes loneliness shifts the target of our anger, and sometimes loneliness fails to gain a voice and be heard. And while we’re busy hurting each other, guided by lost emotions, the structures and systems that lie at the heart of the problem take a step back, avoiding responsibility. During the pandemic, I saw loneliness everywhere taking shape, and so I thought I wanted to talk to someone, anyone, about how our “lonelinesses” can be connected.



As someone who has thought a lot about this issue of connecting “lonelinesses,” I can’t agree more. What comes to mind as a possible solution on a social level are things like clubs and hobby groups, where people can find like-minded individuals and a community for their interests. Book clubs and writing circles might be good methods, too. Could you share your opinion on methods to connect loneliness?


I think that book clubs and writing circles are a great choice. Perhaps we are biased as writers, but I truly think that there’s nothing better than reading and writing for connecting us not just with the people around us but with a whole range of other worlds. And, depending on your social concerns, if you read and write in various genres of non-fiction, not just literature, you can even practice a small form of political engagement. Just like how dog- and cat-lovers meet up with each other, I think that clubs and hobby groups provide a good opportunity for you to think and talk more about your passions.



I understand that after starting as a history major, you decided to double major in creative writing as well. What made you want to become a novelist? Also, you’ve been writing for almost sixteen years since your debut in 2008. Over that time, how have you most changed, and how have you not changed at all?


I’ve always liked writing since I was a child, and most of what I wrote turned out to be fiction. And while I liked telling stories, my dream was to become a historian or an anthropologist, not a writer. But now that I look back on it, one of the reasons I liked history was because to tell history, you need a story. I began to realize I could make a career out of writing novels when I took a creative writing class in college. I remember being nervous before getting peer reviews of my writing in college, and ever since graduating, no matter what I’ve done, I’ve never let go of my identity as a writer.
     I still think, just as I did when I debuted, that writing novels is difficult and lonely work. Although I feel slightly comforted by the fact that I can now at least sense the existence of my readers more than I did when I first started writing, the things that have had the greatest influence on my emotional state while writing are the events that happen inside the story. But when I feel that my book is becoming a novel, as opposed to feeling like I am making a novel, my heart rate and immersion changes, and even when I close my laptop, I continue to feel the emotions of the characters in my novel. Sometimes, everything I write completely engrosses me and raises my heart rate, but at other times, nothing I write feels like it is becoming a novel. Feeling my mind becoming flat, feeling like I have a plot only driven by simple cause and effect instead of a novel bursting with life, feeling like I’m simply making a novel—I wish that whenever I feel this way, I will recognize the situation before it is too late and have the energy to deal with it.



The title for this issue of KLN is Breath, Respite, and Emptiness. I interpret this as a call to think about the value of literature that allows us to catch our breath from the rapidly changing world, that gives us respite from our busy lives, that allows us to feel emptiness. Would you please share with us the ways in which these keywords apply to your work, or any related experiences.


One day when my child was in preschool, they stayed home with a fever and spent the day sleeping next to me, occasionally waking up to take their medicine. At the time, I was always busy running around, but that day was like a gift to me from my child, the gift of emptiness. Sitting next to them as they slept, their body hot with a fever, I picked out a book to read, a collection of works by this one author. The book contained several years of their writing. It wasn’t my first time reading them, and I thought I knew what kind of themes they liked to write about. But after reading until sunset, I finally felt like I understood what they were writing about, about their world. I also remember that I was able to let go of myself because I was immersed in that book. I think having a different world you can lose yourself in, especially when you’re exhausted from being preoccupied with yourself, can itself be breath and respite.



When I feel busy, I crave breath, respite, and emptiness. And here, by “busy” I don’t mean being busy with a world of my choosing, but with calls and requests from a world I haven’t chosen, that I don’t want. When life gets in the way of reading and writing, it’s not long before I need a rest. Do you have any advice for people who live busy lives and are feeling overwhelmed?


We’re all desperate for respite for similar reasons, but we also have our own unique circumstances. When I need respite, I simplify my thoughts as much as possible and try not to write at all, usually through sleeping or driving. I must make environments where, for just a moment, I can stop thinking about the things I (usually) want to think about. I read books that are as far away from the present as possible, recorded in the driest language. For example, I might open History of the Three Kingdoms to a random page and start reading. “In the second month of the fifth year of Beopheung of Silla’s reign, Jusanseong Fortress was built.” “On the fifth month, a dragon appeared from the well on the palace grounds. Clouds and mist gathered above, and the dragon flew away.” These are the kind of sentences I want to read.



What work and author has influenced you the most? I want to know about your literary experience as a reader.


There is a book that shakes me to the core every time I open it, that feels new with every read: Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The structure of that book makes the reader take a deep breath and prepares them so that they can’t enter this world easily. Every time I read that book, I am captivated by its nonlinear structure that is designed to get us to that task, that day, that existence. Names and voices overlap in the structure, creating so many different layers of meaning.  And with regard to my recent projects, I am particularly focused on unpacking the concept of “rememory.” To quote a favorite line from Beloved:

“I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened. […] Someday you be walking down the road and you hear something or see something going on. So clear. And you think it’s you thinking it up. A thought picture. But no. It’s when you bump into a rememory that belongs to somebody else. Where I was before I came here, that place is real. It’s never going away.”  



Is there any work of Korean literature that you would like to share with readers from other countries?


An Boyun’s recent collection of short stories I’ll Take the Night comes to mind. In fact, I think that An is one of those novelists who does what you mentioned earlier: accurately depict the violence of the world and faithfully depict a single character. I think this collection shows you how an author can create meaning by simply and carefully grappling with an issue for a long time.



I once asked you the following question at the same COVID forum we attended: “Is there any advice you can give to people who want to write about issues of representation or pain but are having a hard time doing so?” You answered: “Like many, I too went through a long period when I was a bit too strict with myself and practiced self-censorship. I also doubted my own credentials to write. But if you can acknowledge those limitations and capture them in the text, I think you enable yourself to write about things and people outside yourself.” I was hoping you could elaborate on this.


I think I’ve often projected my emotions and experiences onto my characters while writing my novels. I would think I understand a particular character well because their situation was similar to mine, and because of that I would feel very little resistance while writing. But conversely, I think I’ve been very afraid to write about characters who aren’t like me. Early on, I was worried about my qualifications as a writer, but with time, I’ve become less concerned about that and more concerned about the presence of my ego. I personally want to be careful about designing stories in which I project the writer’s ego onto characters in order to create empathy for the characters in the novel. I also think that objectification becomes a bigger risk the larger we allow the writer’s ego to become. I feel like I might be repeating my point earlier about walking in someone else’s shoes, but if you can clearly recognize your own position as the writer and be honest about distance when trying to understand the Other, I think you can work up the courage to take chances by interacting with more types of characters in your novels.



Ending with Face to Face, I’d like to quote you when you wrote in a column after finishing the book: “Now, I want to write something I can enjoy a bit more while writing. Goodbye, my ladies.” So, what kind of stories and characters do you want to write about in the future?


For the last several years, I think I’ve been writing mainly about female characters and with very little emotional distance. After finishing Face to Face, I felt like I needed my own form of social distancing, and so naturally, I got the itch to write about a character very far from my own personal situation. I also want to write about someone that I can’t project myself onto. Remembering that I thoroughly enjoyed writing the first time I let loose while writing a female narrator’s voice, I realize that the type of story that I enjoy writing changes depending on my own state of mind at the time. 
     I spent my entire childhood and teens near the border of Korea, so I’ve always known since I debuted that I wanted to write about that area. And while it has appeared periodically in my work, I have plans to focus more on it in the future. I continue to think about emotions and memory, memory and history, and I think that’s because recently, I’ve been reading again about the rememory of Beloved.



Translated by Sean Lin Halbert


•    Face to Face (Changbi, 2023)
    『마주』 (창비, 2023)
•    A Person Made from Snow (Munhakdongne, 2021)
    『눈으로 만든 사람』 (문학동네, 2021)
•    The Ninth Wave (Munhakdongne, 2017)
    『아홉번째 파도』 (문학동네, 2017)
•    Magnolia Sutra (Moonji, 2015)
    『목련정전』 (문학과 지성사, 2015)
•    An Exceedingly Beautiful Dream (Munhakdongne, 2013)
    『너무 아름다운 꿈』 (문학동네, 2013)


Choi Eunmi debuted in 2008 by publishing the short story “I Cry and Go” in Hyundae Munhak. Her short story collections include A Dream Too Beautiful, Magnolia Sutra, and A Person Made of Snow. She has also written the novella Last Night Was Spring and the novels The Ninth Wave and Face to Face. She has received the Daesan Literary Award, the Hyundae Munhak Literary Award, and the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award.



Jung Yong-jun is a novelist. His works include the collections We Are Not Flesh and Blood and A Walk Along Seolleung, the novels From Tonnio and I’m Speaking, and the book of essays Long Live the Novel. He is currently employed at the Department of Creative Writing at Seoul Institute of the Arts.

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