Author Hwang Sun-mi's stories of life that are narrated in many different ways have been welcomed by readers around the world, going beyond generational and cultural divides. Her most famous work, <The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly (Sakyejul)>, which received much love from South Korean readers, has been translated and published in numerous countries globally, and recently, her <Miracle on Cherry Hill (Sakyejul)> was released in the United Kingdom. In the following interview, the author hoped she would be able to communicate with even more people through her books that warmly tell stories about universal values that all humans have, like love, happiness, dreams and hope.
The work you debuted with, <Flowers You Plant in Hearts (Sigongsa)> was newly re-published this year. You've written so many stories as a leading children's book author over the past 24 years. We would like to know if there was a special reason you came to focus on literature for children.
I was able to start my career as a writer after <Flowers You Plant in Hearts> won a Nong-min Literary Award. I wasn't even in first place but second. It was a clumsy beginning. It's interesting and thankful at the same time that the work I debuted with 24 years ago has now been newly re-published as a pretty book.
If I have to find a reason why I was drawn to writing children's books, I think it was because of my younger years, when I read books with the purest reasons. I wanted to become a person who wrote and read fun stories my entire life. Back then, I loved reading books more than eating, and I never felt lonely, even if I had no friends. I think I can say my experiences reading as a young girl saved me in my most vulnerable years.
After its publication, <The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly> was translated and released in different countries around the world and later adapted into works like animations and plays. ⓒ Sakyejul
<Miracle on Cherry Hill> ⓒ Sakyejul, <The Dog Who Dared to Dream> ⓒ Imazu
I think we all need to remind ourselves, like a magic spell,
that miracles can happen when we try our best.
You work is loved at both home and abroad. Why do you think that is? What has the response towards your books been like outside South Korea?
I actually don't know the exact reason, and even I would like to know. I'd like to ask my readers if I get the chance, but I am not good at speaking foreign languages. Perhaps it was because the readers were able to understand my books through universal humanism? A middle-aged woman I met in Brazil once told me, "A life like Sprout's is so unfortunate". One time I was passing by a bookstore in Sweden and I spotted a copy of <The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly>. I pulled it out and started reading it when a worker in the store hastily came up to me and started telling me about the book, saying "The main character of this book is a chicken, and you'll be able to find some respite in your daily life if you read this," not realizing the author was me.
Students at Stockholm University who read and discussed <The Dog Who Dared to Dream (Imazu)> with me told me the friendship between the old man and the dog in the story was heartbreaking. They also said they had never seen a Korean book before and there was even a young student who asked me a simple question - whether I had a dog at home.
In <The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly>, the reality that Sprout faces after escaping the hen house isn't great. The themes you deal with in the story like life, death and freedom run quite deep. Were there any messages you wanted to tell readers specifically through the book?
I wanted to tell readers they were the main characters in their respective lives, even if they felt they weren't worthy of much attention. I think we all need to remind ourselves, like a magic spell, that miracles can happen when we try our best.
For Korean literature to be introduced to readers outside South Korea, some localization or understanding of the local culture might be necessary. Considering this, the process of translating and publishing <The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly> must not have been easy. Is there anything that comes to your mind regarding this?
Getting the book translated in Japan was most difficult, from my recollection. There were errors in the translation itself, and in the process of getting those errors fixed, we ran into an emotional, nonsensical situation where someone said it reminded them of 'a modern version of Koreans being forced to change their last names to Japanese' (something that happened during the Japanese military occupation of the Korean peninsula). It was definitely an experience that led me to confirm translating should be done by literary experts.
The problems arose from free translation. There were several parts in the book that were problematic, and one of those was the translation of the name of the main character. There was some debate over whether the main character's name would be expressed by how it sounded in Korean, or choose a Japanese word that meant Sprout. During this time, the deadline for publishing the translated version of the book passed and things grew emotional. Eventually, we ended up with two translated versions of the book - one for sale and one for personal possession. There were only 10 copies made of the latter, which were divided between the Japanese publisher, the second translator and myself.
We should avoid trying to publish light stories, shallow books,
blaming children for their short attention spans.
As a writer, do you feel any issues should be addressed for more Korean literature to be exported overseas?
First and foremost, we need to nurture more literary translators. And bigger quantity doesn't necessarily mean better quality, but I do feel the shortening length of children's books is something to be pondered over. I've actually had foreign agencies tell me that they want stories that are longer in length. We should avoid trying to publish light stories, shallow books, blaming children for their short attention spans.
<The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly>, and <Miracle on Cherry Hill> published in the United Kingdom ⓒ Sakyejul
Recently your book <Miracle on Cherry Hill> was published in the United Kingdom. What has the reader response there been like so far? Also, tell us of any other books you might like published outside South Korea.
<Miracle on Cherry Hill> was published by Little, Brown in the United Kingdom in July this year. It hasn't been long since it was published, so I think it's a bit early to say what the exact response has been like. Right now, we are preparing to launch the book in the Netherlands. Before this book was published, Little, Brown also released my book, <The Dog Who Dared to Dream>, and some stores displayed these three books in a row together. The present a unified format as they all have the same translator, illustrator and cover concept.
If I am given the chance, I would like to introduce <Exit (BIR Publishing)>, which addresses single mothers and adoption, and <The Voice In the Gap (Moonji Publishing)> that deals with teen angst and their concerns.
<Exit> ⓒ BIR Publishing, <The Voice In the Gap> ⓒ Moonji Publishing
Could you tell us about your future plans? And if there is a message you'd like to tell readers both inside and outside South Korea, please tell us about that also.
A story about a single-parent household is currently in the works, and I've also been working on a story about teenage North Korean refugees for quite a long time. I've been meeting with some of these teenagers who are now living in South Korea, and they have been more cheerful than I thought and present much potential.
I want to track our problems and stories in diverse ways. Books are a wonderful way to connect writers to readers, and I wish to communicate with many people through my work.
Arranged by Hwang jina