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Leaving Behind the Self to Understand the Other: An Interview with Novelist Oh Junghee

by Lee Hye-kyung December 22, 2015

Oh Junghee

Oh Junghee’s career as a writer began in 1968 with the publication of the short story “The Toy Store Lady.” In this debut work, a young elementary-school-aged girl feels abandoned by the world, and her aimless wanderings and sense of loss give shape to the story. For a while, images of lost souls such as this recurred in various forms throughout Oh’s work. Oh used the expression “a self-portrait of youthful misery” to describe the fiction from her early period that was published in her first story collection, The River of Fire (1977). The narrative situations show the distinctive flow of consciousness of lost souls. Oh chose disordered femininity as her subject matter, and used memorable images to foreground aspects such as grotesque bodies, perverse sexuality, sterility, and abortion. In Oh’s second story collection, Garden of Childhood (1981), the years around the time of the Korean War serve as the setting for the author’s depiction of a young girl gradually coming of age. Oh’s protagonist in the title story, “Garden of Childhood,” is a young girl who shows signs of psychological deviance, raised in a family adversely affected by the war. Oh uses this character to question the prevailing sexual ideology, even as she presents us with a picture postcard of a turbulent age. This period is remembered as a time when the girl cried with “shame and sorrow.” Likewise, an atmosphere of horror, pity, shame, and sorrow pervades the story “Chinatown.” A young girl in the slums of Chinatown reaches a new level of maturity as she adopts new views and grows in experience. This work demonstrates Oh’s unique use of symbols and serves as a model of well-crafted short fiction. In Spirit on the Wind (1986), Oh concentrates on middle-aged female protagonists, writing about their anxiety and identity confusion. With this approach, she explores the melancholy and sadness that has been an inescapable part of Korean women’s lot. Tackling the stories of the sick and the elderly in “Evening Game,” “Bronze Mirror,” and other stories, Oh’s investigations into femininity culminate in “The Old Well” (1994). Through made up memories of an old well, and longing for it, Oh reflects on where feminine depths really lie. In conclusion, during the war and modernization, men and the world inflicted wounds on women that they could not help but internalize. In her fiction, Oh looks in anguish at these wounds from the abyss where they were sustained, but even so, she tentatively makes her way towards the horizon of healing through her distinctive way of writing as a woman.

Autumn was in full swing as writer Oh Junghee and I strolled in the grounds of Sungkyunkwan University’s Myeongnyundang Lecture Hall. In that beautiful setting, amidst trees that were shedding their leaves in preparation for winter, Oh shared her candid thoughts in her soft voice. I felt her passion for literature burn bright on that afternoon.


Lee Hye-kyung: When I think of you I always recall the time you and I were returning from an event in Washington DC. You treated me to a meal at Incheon Airport and later had the remaining food packed so you could take it with you to feed the stray dogs in your neighborhood. That side of you—uncluttered and earnest—remains a prized memory. How do you balance your life and identity as a writer and as a homemaker, wife, and mother?

Oh Junghee: To tell you the truth, finding a balance isn’t easy. Measuring literature and maternal instinct, two desires of entirely different natures, on the same scale is, in a way, illogical, but regardless of the sense of achievement involved, I feel that motherhood is in my blood and so is writing. I mean this in the sense that I’ve never found myself free of the influence of literature ever since I took it up, nor have I ever forgotten I’m a mother, or resisted that fact, after having children of my own. But I do feel wary about the myth of the writer and the myth of motherhood. Securing a creative space for myself, which required freedom, solitude and even isolation, without denying the value and virtue of everyday life was hard. I can empathize with something poet Hwang Tong-gyu said a long time ago: “Art drowns on treading too deep into the water of ethics, but if it jumps out of it, it becomes ontologically bankrupt.” The liveliness of poetry lies not in an ambiguous middle but rather in the struggle between living with ethics and escaping its constraints. This is the power and life force of aesthetics.

Lee: You once said, “After a certain time, one’s family history can become an obstacle as well as an irresistible temptation.” After reading about your account of running away from home when you lived in Incheon, I felt a little less guilty about having run away from home a few times when I was in elementary school. Edward Said remarked that exile means keeping “a critical distance from all cultural identities,” while Theodor Adorno said that “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” I feel you’ve put down your roots in the reality of the home but at the same time have remained constantly alert to preserve the point of view of a refugee. What is home to you?

Oh: Even as I raised a family of my own, I didn’t want to be sucked into the myth of the family. Familial solidarity and affection can take on a nature of violence in its own way in the prejudice and exclusion we display towards those that exist outside our family. A family is the smallest communal unit bound by blood, but I feel it is important to be determined not to be confined by one’s family even as you belong to it. I’ve lived in Chuncheon for more than forty years but I’m not comfortable calling it my hometown. I don’t call the place I was born my hometown, either. I simply differentiate between the two as my place of birth and my place of residence. This is a result of my resolve not to become habituated to something, whether family or land, even as I dwell within it. It’s also a reflection of my desire to free myself of everything in which I received a literary initiation early on in life.

Lee: In your account of the two years you spent in America long ago, you said you didn’t wish to look back at that time. The reasons could be many, but if I were to hazard a guess I’d say the sense of loss you felt on being distanced from your mother tongue would’ve played a big part. Today, writers tend to spend long stretches of time outside their native country. What do you think are the merits and demerits of a writer staying away from his or her native land for a long time?

Oh: I was in my thirties at the time and writing had become dreary and difficult. Living and writing felt like hitting my head against the wall, so I decided to head for foreign shores in search of a breakthrough, an escape. I once expressed my state of mind at the time as being full of the “illusion and expectation of freedom, poverty, solitude, and isolation.” I was looking forward to having new experiences in an unfamiliar place but instead I seemed to sink deeper into a pit. Leaving my mother tongue behind made me feel as though I’d lost touch with reality, and I became caught up in the anxiety that I’d be regarded as a substance-less shadow. It might’ve not been entirely a problem of language. Looking back, I think that it could’ve easily been a slump experienced by a writer or it could’ve been one of the various problems you face in life once you cross thirty, but I justified it by saying that it was caused by the “loss of language.”

Lee: I can relate to what you once said about children being a subject of timeless, unchanging fascination, that the children of this world are potential before it becomes regulated, and are like “little seeds that harbor the cosmos.” But even before our children sprout and grow branches, society forces them into frames as though they were bonsai plants, twisting and pruning them to fit into those frames. As part of the older generation and as someone who writes, I feel guilty and helpless when I see the youngsters of today who endure and survive this process only to have to cope with a sense of powerlessness. Can literature shake this monstrous and rigid system even a little? What use do you think literature has in this day and age?

Oh: I think eighty percent of what made me the person I am today is literature, especially the novels I read indiscriminately whenever I could lay my hands on them, whether they were classics or folk stories. This will be true for most writers. Writers develop their knowledge and understanding of their and other people’s lives, and nurture their sensitivity towards suffering and sadness through literature. Somerset Maugham said that to become writers we need to understand our relationship with the world, with our surroundings, and with ourselves. His words hold true not just for aspiring writers but for anybody who wants to mature into a sound human being and not an insensitive animal. In today’s world, literature can’t be the catalyst of a revolution for justice or bring about immediate reform of an irrational system. However, the sensitivity towards suffering and sadness, and the compassion and understanding towards the Other engendered by literature will help us tear down the framework of prejudices and stereotypes that has us in its shackles. This may seem like a lot of talk but this is the only way we can resolve the hatred, violence, and tragedy that is rampant in today’s world.

Lee: In hard times, I occupy myself with sitcoms that take away life’s burdens, if only for a while, or bury myself in books that resound with me on a deep level. But when I try to write, I find myself going back into “serious” mode. Even as it occurs to me that I’m unnecessarily making it harder for myself by reading when just living is so tough, I find it difficult to go against my constitution.

Oh: Isn’t it because all writers have an innate literary constitution? I don’t think writers are keenly conscious of the reader when they write. No matter what their process is, writers write as a response to the needs of their inner self and in accordance with their literary point of view, so naturally what they like to write and what they like to read can be different. And the assessment of what makes for “good literature” can be different depending on the class of readers. When something stirs me and makes me want to write about it, forcing me to take great pains in finding the precise word and to carefully trim out bits that don’t feel right, within that vague and ambiguous emotion and feeling is the pleasure of creation. In fact, that is all of the reward I get.

Lee: I once read somewhere that those who fail to become priests become artists. When you wrote your book about the Bible you said that writing is similar to reading the Bible. It occurs to me sometimes that a certain religious part of me becomes an obstacle to writing. And yet, I’m but a frail human being, so I tend to rely on religion. What influence does your religion have on your writing?

Oh: I’m not sure of the reason, but I seem to have had an original sense of guilt. My education at a Christian secondary school might’ve had something to do with it, but from an early age I dreamt of a life of purity devoted to a higher value and beauty. Haven’t we all thought about becoming ascetics some time or the other when we were young? I remember reading somewhere that we human beings ponder over God so much and yet when we open our mouths to speak about Him, we have nothing to say. It’s the same with me. I’m Catholic but I’m not sure if the God that Catholic doctrine speaks of and the God I believe in are one and the same. Someone even told me that what I have isn’t religion but religious sentiment. But it is undeniable that what my writing aims for is the pinnacle of ethics whether it is that of a particular faith or just general religious sentiment.

Lee: I feel grateful and proud when youngsters tell me they want to write but at the same time for some reason I feel a little sad. Why would they choose to become a writer of all things? Yet, I comfort myself that they’re following their will; that literature has taken their fancy, and they’ll find it difficult to escape its pull. I know there was a time when you found it difficult to write. Do you have any plans to write another novel?

Oh: Whenever a writer passes away, without exception, I hear of the deceased’s regrets about an unfinished work, of the writing materials they used to write with even as they lay on their deathbed, or of their last words. Writers are people who can’t rid themselves of this fascination with writing. If we’re not writing, we’re assailed by the insecurity that our lives have stopped progressing, that we’ve stopped living, that we’ve ceased to grow or evolve. This is a trap that people who’ve chosen a life that internalizes writing, living, and reasoning all together have put themselves into. I don’t remember who wrote these lines but I bear them in mind and encourage myself by repeating them: “However much you wander, doing something, somewhere, a song awaits you at the end. Whatever you do, no matter where, the world offers itself up to your imagination.” I have to begin again on a novel I set aside, and also start writing my family history, which I’ve always been meaning to write, starting from the time of my grandfather who became an orphan during the First Sino-Japanese War.

Lee: You’ve been to many parts of the world to give book readings. Meeting with foreign readers seems help us view Korean literature from the eyes of others. Can you share your thoughts on this?

Oh: I started participating in book readings abroad from the mid-nineties. Audiences at that time were chiefly interested in the Korean War, the issue of division, and the oppressive lives of women in a society steeped in Confucianism, a culture that was unfamiliar and unique to them. But I could feel the atmosphere changing with each year. Now we discuss broader, universal issues, such as solitude and alienation in a modern society that’s gradually becoming more dehumanized, or violence, hatred, poverty, and human rights. The window of literature seems to have become much wider, so that we can show the world a more diverse spectrum of Korean culture and society and our lives, allowing us to understand and empathize with one another. I experience joy and pride when foreigners hear my native tongue as I read (most of them hear Korean for the first in their lives during my readings) but also the anxiety of having to properly pass on the essence of Korean literature to them.

Lee: I asked a writer friend whom I met recently if she’d like me to ask you anything and she told me to ask you about what you’re reading these days. I know you’re constantly studying, so I’m curious too.

Oh: I’m reading To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History by Edmund Wilson. The blurb describes the book as an exploration of people who’ve written history and those who’ve lived it, from the French Revolution through the Russian Revolution.

Lee: Can you say something to the readers of _list and to foreigners who read Korean literature?

Oh: Only that I hope their interest in Korean literature grows and they read lots of Korean works that are being introduced overseas. 


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