In the Absence of Guidelines or Censorship: An Interview with Bo-Young Kim
Bo-Young Kim is one of the luminaries of Korean-language science fiction. After studying psychology in university and a stint as a scenario/script writer for a computer games company, she debuted as an SF author to great effect: her first published work, “The Experience of Touch,” won the best novella award in the inaugural 2002 round of the Korea Science & Technology Creative Writing Award.
In the years since, she has unleashed a flood of highly regarded works that have helped inspire the younger generation of SF authors in Korea, including many short stories. Many of these stories were released in a pair of short story collections, The Story Goes So Far and An Evolutionary Myth, published by Happy Books in 2010, as well as a shorter collection of linked stories titled “The Prophet of Corruption” in 2017.
In recent years, she has won the South Korea SF Award twice, for her novel The Seven Executioners (2014) and again in 2018 for her novella, “How Alike Are We,” which appeared in English translation in Clarkesworld 157.
In addition to her fiction writing, Kim has been active in other areas: she contributed in an advisory capacity to screenplay development for the film Snowpiercer (directed by Bong Joon-Ho) and also has published several nonfiction essays.
She lives with her family in Gangwon Province, South Korea.
You have a lot of work coming out in English translation in 2021—two books! Can you tell us more about what’s being released?
In English translation in the US, Harper Voyager is publishing I’m Waiting For You: and Other Stories. Kaya Press published On the Origin of Species and Other Stories in late March.
I’m Waiting for You is a book that combines two separate series, “The Prophet of Corruption” and “The Stellar Odyssey.” On the Origin of Species and Other Stories is a collection of works selected by the editor, Professor Sunyoung Park, mainly including my earlier short stories. The Kaya project began earlier than the Harper one, but as it turns out, they happen to be coming out around the same time.
Several Korean authors have expressed concern about how people reading their work in translation might take that work as “representative of Korean SF,” when in fact they’re writers doing their own thing within a Korean context—not “representatives” in any sense. To flip the idea on its head: within the context of Korean SF, what is the most unusual or unique feature of your work?
Yes, each Korean science fiction writer occupies a unique position in Korean science fiction, and I think I do so too! However, I’m not sure I can really explain the position I occupy myself.
The collection On the Origin of Species and Other Stories opens with a nonfiction essay, “A Brief Reflection on Breasts.” You suggest that just as some people mistakenly think of breasts as the definitive characteristic of the female form, some people mistakenly believe science is what makes a given story part of the SF genre. Are you suggesting either that there is something else, more fundamental, that is the defining characteristic of SF . . . or perhaps that there isn’t a single defining characteristic, but something more holistic and fuzzy?
Well, that essay was included in the collection because the editor, Professor Sunyoung Park, liked it. But personally, I’m not sure how convinced I am by the analogy.
Often, when people who are members of a majority look at members of any minority, they focus on how the people in the minority are different from those in the majority, and this “difference” determines their overall disposition toward any given individual who is a member of a minority. This is a common cognitive illusion that has been defined in psychological theory. However, that difference itself is only a small fraction of a person in their entirety.
Meanwhile, there are some scientists who, because they know about science and are “the best of humanity,” seem to think that they somehow can writer “better” SF than some other writer lacking a PhD. This is a delusion that results from overestimating the importance of the “science” in SF as its distinguishing characteristic. However, I think this idea is no less ridiculous than someone believing he could direct Star Wars films because he has a PhD in engineering.
I am not really trying to suggest something about other crucial features of SF. Of course, there are characteristics that distinguish science fiction from other genres, but my point is that the more important part of the creation—the part that we think more about—is not about difference but about what’s universal, just like with human beings.
The same essay included a comment about being surprised when some people considered your work SF at all. Yet your stories tend to be very obviously SF! It’s an interesting contradiction: I feel like you consciously engage with SF as a genre and literary tradition, but also seem maybe a bit ambivalent about genre labels at the same time. I wonder if you could say more about that.
Actually, I’ve been thinking about the answer to this question ever since I became a writer. When I was first published, there were very few active creators of science fiction in Korea, so I was constantly asked questions about why I would choose to write SF. At the time, this question itself seemed reasonable, because obviously, choosing to write science fiction in Korea meant walking a difficult road: Not many opportunities existed for publication, and there were relatively few readers. It seemed like choosing SF required a special kind of conviction.
My answer was always that I’d written the kind of stories I wanted to write, but that it was mainly SF readers who embraced my work.
Looking back, I wrote a lot of stories as a child. Even since becoming a professional writer, I still can’t write as much fiction as I did back then. Those stories usually never got read by anyone, or were read only by one or two close friends. For me, writing was just a kind of fun pastime, like watching TV, and it never really occurred to me to show my writing to anyone else. That meant I never got much guidance about writing, but nobody ever tried to censor me, either, and I wrote so much that my approach to writing solidifiedand took on the form it has now.
Because of this, I feel like if one sets out to write something in the absence of any guidelines that must be followed or censorship rules, the story naturally comes out in the form of a fantasy or SF story. When the Internet first got established in Korea and people started publishing stories online for fun, almost all the fiction that poured out onto the web consisted of fantasy novels, even though at the time the literary publishing world in Korea was so strictly focused on realistic (“mainstream”) fiction. At that time, fantasy happened to become fashionable a lot more quickly than SF, but I think the same thing could just as easily have happened with SF instead.
I think the fact that I don’t read a lot of mainstream literature might be why I end up writing science fiction, more than out of any special consciousness of the SF genre. Actually, I really don’t know, exactly. But personally, I feel like when writing SF, I’m actually working in the mode that is really the “mainstream” mode, whereas realist (or so-called “mainstream”) literature is the “subgenre” in which authors require a special sensibility and writing techniques.
English-language science fiction only began to get actively translated to Korean after I was older, and I didn’t see much of the children’s science fiction that was translated. Of course, after I started publishing, I often was put in the position of answering questions about science fiction, so I read a lot more of it then. But I think my own approach to fiction grew more out of combining different types of media that were accessible to South Koreans at the time.
It also brings me to the question of what inspires you now. Often when writers talk about great works in their genre, they mention unexpected books. What would you say have become the most important in your personal “canon” right now?
Personally, I don’t know yet about science fiction greater than Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa—both the anime and the comic books. The characters, plots, the underlying worldview, and messages in them are all ideal to me. Every time I see them, I am amazed and impressed. It feels more prescient with each passing year: these days, I’m also wearing a mask like the characters in the film.
I’m also still a big fan of the Korean manhwa (manga) artists Kim Jin and Go Yusung.
When I return to a project for the final edit, I often pause to look at Park Wan-suh’s short stories before refining my sentences. Not that I can even imitate her, but I think that she writes the most beautiful prose of any Korean writer.
Oh, and I really admire Tezuka Osamu’s manga series Phoenix: it’s such mythic science fiction!
Some of the comments you’ve made on your own work made me curious about your writing process, especially in terms of research. I’m especially curious about the role that ancient texts and narratives played in the formulation of several of your stories: were they a source of inspiration as you started out, or did you turn to them as research sources in the process of writing?
When I think back about writing both those pieces, myths and classics are what I originally liked and knew, and it is more like revisiting the fundamental scientific theory anew, adapting those old tales into a modern style.
I remember that the first inkling of “An Evolutionary Myth” occurred to me when I read a passage from Hermann Hesse’s preface to his novel Demian: “Many a one never becomes a human-being, but remains a frog, lizard, or ant. Many a one is a human-being above and a fish below.” [Ernst] Haeckel’s phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” also stimulated my imagination. When I saw that phrase, I imagined a person going through the entire evolutionary process in a single lifetime.
My interest in ancient Korean history stems from a Korean comic book series by Jin Kim, titled Kingdom of the Winds. I was impressed by how a seemingly limitless unfolding of imagination was possibly based on just a few lines in ancient texts. I also tried to imagine what story could be read between the lines of ancient annals like the Samguk Sagi. (An ancient Korean text, known in English as the History of the Three Kingdoms.) What I brought anew to the story was related to ideas in the science of biological evolution.
There are many different things that inspired “The Prophet of Corruption.” I remember that the first spark of inspiration came from Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, but a number of other myths and scriptures influenced it. When it was introduced in Korean publication, it was described as expressing a Buddhist worldview, but in fact, I think that’s just because it’s easier for Koreans to understand that: I wasn’t particularly conscious of Buddhism while writing it.
In fact, it is interesting to say this, but it was from Native American mythology and philosophy that I first and most deeply learned the idea that we’re all connected and share one life. At one point, I traveled in the United States alone: at the time, I felt incredibly lonely, but I found comfort in the Native American messages I encountered all over the United States. To me, it feels like Native American mythology and philosophy resembles Eastern philosophy in some ideal era. When I encountered familiar ideas and philosophy from different cultures in such a distant country, I was able to understand and accept this idea that “we are all connected.”
Basically, the core idea in “The Prophet of Corruption” is the conflict between collectivism and individualism that exists in almost every society. When it goes wrong, collectivism ends up becoming totalitarianism, whereas when it goes right you end up with solidarity and socialism; likewise, when individualism goes wrong, you end up with egotism, whereas when it goes right you get freedom.
The idea in this novel is that there is nothing inherently right or wrong, only excess or lack, must have originated from the Confucian text, Doctrine of the Mean. That said, I didn’t consciously study that text, it’s just something I’m familiar with.
Between On the Origin of Species and Other Stories and I’m Waiting for You: and Other Stories, I count three pairs of stories: linked stories that have shared characters or settings, where the later story somehow expands on or connects to the earlier one or recontextualizes it. Is there something attractive to you about that approach?
“The Origin of Species” is a story that was originally conceived of as a feature film. However, at the time, I didn’t have the time and energy to write a feature script, so I ended the growing story in the middle, and then later wrote a sequel. The reason why “I’m Waiting for You” got a paired story is simple: it was about an engaged couple, and I’d written the man’s side of the story, so I had to write the woman’s side as well.
In fact, for the sequel to “I’m Waiting for You,”—it’s titled “On My Way to You”—the publication of the original Korean version of the story was constantly delayed, and the situation for that story was really unclear for a long time. However, when Harper decided to publish the book, one of the conditions of the contract was that I write the sequel to “I’m Waiting For You.” Therefore, I was able to write it, and it turned out that “On My Way to You” got translated to English almost simultaneously to its being written in Korean.
Personally, I prefer longer works of fiction, but when I started out, the Korean science fiction market was focused on short stories, and still seems to have a preference for them. That’s why I’ve ended up writing a number of short story series.
The title story in I’m Waiting for You: and Other Stories is a story in a surprising genre I’d never heard about before: a “marriage proposal” novel, as in, a novel—or, in this case, a novella—written to be given as a gift from someone who is proposing marriage. Are there any other examples of this kind of text in Korean literature and/or in Korean SF?
The world is a big place, so such a genre might exist somewhere, but I haven’t seen it yet. I would like to express my infinite gratitude to my friends for this, for the wonderful idea of giving me the opportunity to write this story, so that it could be given as part of the act proposing marriage.
A lot of great things have happened because of it. The couple whose marriage it helped bring about attended both a reading and a play based on the book, but I hope that good things will continue to happen after that, so I can continue to share these gifts with them.
I asked, “Is it okay to keep coming back to the same work, over and over like this?” and the answer I got was, “I’ll being doing that all my life.”
There was a striking image in your story “Between 0 and 1,” in On the Origin of Species and Other Stories: the windows are open on these apartment buildings, and kids are releasing paper airplanes from their windows, while a banner protesting “outdated education” unfurls down the wall of a high-rise building. The story explores a surprising intersection: the issues of intergenerational tension and academic stress, and the idea of time travel. Did you have this juxtaposition in mind when you sat down to write the story, or did it emerge as you were writing?
The paper plane demonstration was in fact a real act of protest that many Korean students performed when I was in school. It was the easiest way to engage in a peaceful protest, where many students are gathered in a small building and it was forbidden to go outside of the classroom or engage in other outdoor activities. As far as I know, this method of protest continues among students even today.
When I was in high school, a teacher’s union had just formed in Korea. What happened was that young teachers who had joined the union hoping for a positive change in the education system were suddenly kicked out of public schools en masse. After that, conservative and authoritarian teachers filled the vacancies they left behind. This happened around the end of the military government here.
So throughout my school days, I thought I was learning from the ghost of a past that had already disappeared. Which is to say that the idea at the core of that story was in my mind for a long time. But when I started writing, I studied quantum mechanics anew to make it a little more believable.
Honestly, when I was writing that story, I worried because I was thinking about the past, but the good thing about SF seems to be that even if you’re writing about the past, you still can create a story that’s relevant to the present. Well, and of course the same hypercompetitive pressure still exists in schools here today.
What are you working on now?
My writing schedule is really tight this year! Still, I think I will get as much done as I can. That said, basically I prefer to write slowly. When things are a little more stable, all I want to do is slow down in my writing.
Gord Sellar was born in Malawi, raised in Canada, and has lived in South Korea since 2002, where he has taught at universities, played saxophone in an indie-rock band, and worked as a writer, editor, and co-translator. He attended Clarion West in 2006, was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2009, and his fiction has appeared in Asimov's SF, Analog, Interzone, Clarkesworld, and several best of the year anthologies.
Jihyun Park is a translator and filmmaker whose debut outing, the award-winning "The Music of Jo Hyeja" (2012) was the first Korean-language film adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story. You can learn more about it, and her other film work, at brutalrice.com.