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Interview with Bak Solmay: A Moment Allowing Other Moments to Pass By

by Bo-Won Kang December 07, 2021

Bak Solmay

Bak Solmay embarked on her literary career in 2009 with her debut novel Eul, which won Jaeum & Moeum’s inaugural New Writer’s Award. She has since authored the novels I Want to Write a Hundred Lines, Time in the City, Slowly Head First, and the short story collections Then What Shall We Sing?, Winter’s Gaze, Beloved Dog, and International Night. Her latest novel is Future Walking Rehearsals. She has received the Moonji Literary Award, Kim Seungok Literary Award, and Kim Hyeon Prize.

You’ve been writing fiction for a long time, and recently, Minumsa publishers re-issued your first collection of stories, Then What Shall We Sing? How do you feel you’ve changed since publishing your first collection, and what have you been focusing on in your recent works compared to the past?


I’ve only been writing for a little over ten years now, so I wouldn’t necessarily call that “a long time.” Early this year, I became conscious of how I’ve been feeling a little lighter, of how I’ve been moving in a way that was different from how I moved in the past. It was a very liberating feeling. I felt I could accomplish many different things. I came to the realization that it’s meaningless to distinguish between what I’m supposed to be doing versus what I shouldn’t do because it would be unlike me to do so. I’m not quite sure what kind of bearing this realization will have on my fiction, but earlier this year, I definitely felt caught in a particularly strong moment. The feelings from that moment have mostly faded away, but I would still like to hold on to that moment somehow. 

I find it difficult to focus when I’m asked questions about my earlier works or when I’m put in a situation where I have to think about my past works. The old me and my old works are still contained within me, and I can summon them if I have to; but I simply don’t feel compelled to do so when asked (as I’m being asked now). Besides, my earlier works and my current works are ultimately similar to one another; I feel any distinctions between them are largely meaningless.


Since early on in your career, you have consistently confronted macro and historical issues, such as the May 18 Gwangju Uprising, nuclear power plants, and most recently in Future Walking Rehearsals, the arson attack on the American Cultural Service building in Busan, while at the same time managing to maintain your own perspectives and pace instead of becoming overwhelmed by the weight of such issues. What are some of the things you consider when approaching historic events in your fiction?


One of the things that came to my mind while writing some of my novels is that there is no one who isn’t related to particular historic events. But if I were to assume that there are some people with little to no connection to an event in history, how would that person be swayed by that history? I don’t know if “swayed” would be the right expression here. Perhaps “influenced” would be the better word.

This might sound like a strange assumption, but the deeper belief that underlies this assumption is that there isn’t anyone who isn’t affected by historic events. With that in mind, I start focusing on how someone, who may not be directly connected to a historic event, is nevertheless brought into its sphere of influence and made to interact with the repercussions of the event. But again, this is different from stating that everyone somehow has a relationship to history and that we all impact history as it impacts us. 


The title, Future Walking Rehearsals, seems to represent the key themes that you explore in your fiction—the future, the act of walking, and rehearsing. What comes to your mind when you hear these three words?


Walking makes the future and rehearsal possible. Simply by sitting in your seat and thinking about going for a walk can carry you to new inspirations.


When we think of your fiction, one of the first things that comes to mind is food and the activity of eating. Many of your characters seem to approach their contexts and even the strangers in their lives through the medium of food. For instance, in “On My Way to Eat Meat,” you list various chicken recipes, the names of which sound endearing, but there was also a slight tension in those descriptions. Can you tell us more about this tension that seems to come with the act of eating?


It’s interesting to hear that you felt a sense of tension. I happen to love to eat, so I try to create food-related moments that are sweet and as you say, endearing. I find joy in sharing a meal with others. But the act of eating can also be ruthless; for instance, when I’m starving for something to eat, I reach out and grab anything that I can shove down my throat. It’s perhaps that merciless aspect of eating that gives rise to the tension that you’ve felt.



©Ozak


Since we’re on the topic, I have to ask, do you watch any of the mukbang [eating show] content that’s on YouTube?


I did in the past, but I have trouble concentrating on long YouTube videos. These days I typically watch shorter videos of cats eating random stuff.


Along with eating, another charming aspect in your novels is the attention given to sleep and the act of sleeping. Recently, you began releasing a series of works under the theme “hibernation series.” Traditionally, literature has paid much attention to dreams. But in your fiction, you seem to be less interested in dreams than you are in the physical act of sleeping. For some reason, when you write about sleep in your fiction, it seems irrelevant to dreams, whereas when your characters are wide awake and moving about in their realities, it seems as if they are living in a dreamworld. Is there a difference in your approach to dreams and sleep, as represented in your fiction? 


I’m not sure. I love to eat and I love to sleep, which is why I visit them often in my writing. This might sound repetitive, but I feel that when a character in a story falls asleep, then another, similar character is somewhere doing something else, in a slightly different yet very similar context. So if a person A is sleeping in a place B, then A’ would be working at a place called B’. Sleep is our way of getting rest, but it also represents a small gap in our lives and a moment that allows other moments to pass by.



©Ozak


Reading your recent “The Extremely High-Spec Machine That Only Works in This Room,” I got the impression it contains moments of very direct, very immediate connections although the characters couldn’t physically meet or see each other in person. What are your thoughts on the concept of “directness”?


I find this to be an interesting question, since I’ve never given it any thought. At the same time, I feel that your description accurately captures the essence of the story. Whenever I’m writing fiction, even if it’s not this particular story that you mentioned, I have the sense that I’m chasing something that exists far away and only vaguely. At the same time, though, the existences feel very clear and real to me. Ideally, I would like to capture both sensations and write about them persuasively enough in my works. I’m struggling to provide a clear definition of “directness” but it might have something to do with my attempt not to lose any tension when I’m writing fiction.


Your works have a characteristic aura of fantasy surrounding them. But this aura is peculiar in that the fantasy is not presented as something that is completely separate from reality, but rather as an element that is situated inside (or perhaps placed on top of) a very real and ordinary—and simultaneously historic—space. For instance, in “With the Twelve, Already-Dead Women,” you incorporate ghost stories, yet they don’t necessarily seem to have a worldview that is different from our own realities. What are your thoughts on the relationship between reality and fantasy?


That’s is a difficult question. I’m afraid I don’t know. When I’m writing, I try to concentrate on where I’ve been, where I want to be, the places I’ve seen, and the places I want to see. Sometimes, the world I write about can be similar to our world now, but strictly speaking, it can also be a place we’ve never seen before.


You mentioned in another interview that you’d like to try your hand at writing detective fiction or mystery novels. You also told the story of the detective cat Chami in Silence Animal. Do you still want to write mystery fiction, and if so, what is it about mysteries that appeal to you most? 


I do like mystery fiction, but I’m drawn to a particular type of detective stories. I wrote a review of Ryo Hara’s Sore made no ashita in the magazine Littor (Issue 30), and I’d like to quote from the text: “I remember reading somewhere, although I forget where, that people find themselves fascinated by the profession of detectives because they feel that detectives exist somewhere in a halfway zone, in a no man’s land. Detectives prowl darkly lit, dangerous alleyways, yet they aren’t criminals. They solve problems and help their clients, but they aren’t members of law enforcement. Each time, they do things that neither the police nor criminals can do.” One other thing that appeals to me about detective fiction is that the stories are almost always set in the context of big cities. These stories inevitably offer up a close reveal of the cities.


If we move past the genre of fiction and look at writing as a whole, what are some of the strengths and appealing elements of writing that you can’t find elsewhere in other media, say in videos or music?


Well, I may not write or think about fiction every single day, but to me, writing is so much a part of my life now that it’s difficult to provide a straight answer regarding its strengths and power, especially when compared against something else. Rather than comparing writing to other media, I would say that anything—whether it be music or videos or writing—that can help me enter a whole new world is what brings me joy.


Are there any books you would like to read or any interests you would like to research for your next book or maybe even a personal project? 


I would like to devote more time to studying modern and contemporary Korean history. I would also like to learn more about some of the detailed footnotes in our history, for instance, how religion was first accepted in Korea and how movie theaters and hospitals were built and then demolished. I would also like to find out more about the film industry. I’m curious to know more about the people who worked in the theaters, who perhaps had as much of a contribution to filmmaking as the film directors and actors, and I would also like to know more about the theater industry.


I’d also like to ask you about translation. You like to play around with the register in your narrative structures and make liberal use of suffixes and other word endings in a rather unique way. Have you given any thought as to the implications your narrative structure might have on the translations of your works? 


I often hear that my works would not be easy to translate, for the same reasons you gave. When I think about translation though, I still hold out vague hope that somehow the translations will magically fall into place and work themselves out. But of course, I say that from the perspective of the author of the original work. From the reader’s perspective, it’s a great thing to be able to have access to many more translated versions than before. For translators, however, I feel that their working environment and their treatment are still far below what they are entitled to.


I would like to end the interview on a light note. The illustration on the front cover of The Dog I Love is that of a dog, while the cover of Silence Animal features an illustration of a cat. Are you a dog person or a cat person?


I recently saw the film The Tsugua Diaries at the Busan International Film Festival. There are about four dogs that appear in the movie, and when I saw them on the screen, I felt my heart leap with joy. But then I thought that if the movie had featured cats instead of dogs, then maybe the theater would have erupted in cheers. (In reality, the audience was very quiet.) I can’t choose which I like better, and so I want them both, but I don’t have either a cat or a dog, yet I still want them both, but then . . . I guess . . . a cat?


Interviewed by Bo-Won Kang

Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim

 


Bo-Won Kang writes poetry and literary criticism. His poetry collections include The Perfect Set of Poems to Congratulate a New Business and the co-authored work, Gathering of over Three Persons

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