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Interview with author Soon-won Lee

Pure Korean Literature, Shining Lyricism

 

2017.11.01

 

Works by novelist Soon-won Lee are pure, traditional and nature-centric. He has lived some 30 years as a novelist and his writing at times has been published in textbooks or produced into short television films. His works, known for their deep Korean narratives, are now garnering attention overseas. There is a saying that the most traditional things are usually the most global, which would explain why his pure, Korean writing has been gaining interest outside of the country. We spoke to the novelist on his recently exported the whale who returned to the sea, where he gets his inspiration from, what Korean literature needs now and going forward among other things.

 

KPIPA

We are delighted to feature you on our webzine. Could you introduce yourself for our readers?

 

Soon-won Lee

Hello, I am Korean novelist Soon-won Lee. I am 60 years old and I have been writing novels from when I was a young man. I only think of Korean readers and have been writing in only Korean, so when my novels are introduced overseas I think to myself that mankind uses quite a diverse number of languages. I also think the numerous fairy tales and classic novels I read from a young age was all thanks to the efforts made by foreign publishers.

 

KPIPA

The work of Korean authors is becoming more well-known outside the country. Recently, your novel the whale who returned to the sea was sold into Germany. What sort of meaning does news like this have for you?

 

 

△ Cover art for the Korean version of The Whale Who Returned to the Sea

 

Lee

Half of the books I read from a young age were foreign fairy tales or classics. Even after I became an adult, I continued to read books by overseas authors introduced in South Korea. However, I never thought deeply of myself being in their shoes after I became an author and started writing my own stories. This was because the themes or elements in my novels usually incorporate old traditions or customs that are becoming forgotten. And my novels also carry many stories introducing the traditional Korean way of life and longing for that sort of living.
When my novels are introduced abroad I always wonder how globalized my novels are, as they are often written with Confucian backdrops and values. Of course, inside my mind I believe South Korean values and emotions could become the world's most globalized values and emotions but I cannot guarantee this. Even in South Korea, my works were often adapted into short television films for their traditional and nature-friendly stories.
In The Whale Who Returned to the Sea, the boulder that appears in the novel was the biggest boulder seen near my childhood neighborhood and it looked like a whale. I recall thinking that boulder probably wished to return to the sea and if it did, the ways it could pursue in order to achieve that dream. These thoughts returned every time I saw the boulder.
After I became an adult and returned to see the boulder again, I was overwhelmed with a sense of fondness, for my childhood thoughts on the whale boulder and how it wished to return to the sea and ended up penning my thoughts in the form of a fable.

 

 

△ Photograph of the actual 'whale' boulder referenced in Lee's novel

 

While I was writing The Whale Who Returned to the Sea I thought it could spur global interest beyond language or cultural differences. There are boulders and rocks everywhere in the world and whales live in every ocean. Also, I thought people would think the same as my childhood self if they ever saw a whale-like boulder. It made me quite happy when I heard my novel had been exported to Vietnam, and later Germany. It is because I am certain there are people like me who see nature as I do and have spent their childhoods as I have.

 

KPIPA

You have been living as a writer for some 30 years. Your recent novels seem to highlight nature, growth, purity and lyricism. We are curious as to where you get your inspirations.

 

Lee

My hometown is a traditional village even for Korean standards where residents stick to old Confucian customs and rules. In the village, we have our leader, who is traditionally the eldest member of the village, and every Lunar New Year all the village people go and pay their respects to the leader. I currently live in the city but every time I head back to my hometown, I am immersed in this culture again. Also, we didn't have electricity in my hometown until around the time I went to university and we lit our houses with lamps and lanterns. Naturally, this gave me an upbringing more closely knit to nature than city-raised writers.
Even today I can't easily tell car models apart when they are on the road. But when I'm inside one, riding from Seoul to Gangneung, I can tell most trees apart as they pass by me on the side of the road. I believe this nature-centric knowledge was instilled in me from a young age. Also, my unique upbringing in that sort of environment, as well as the traditional surroundings I experienced have all contributed to the worlds I create inside my stories.

 

KPIPA

We are aware you are mentoring young authors through your creative writing classes. Where do you see the future of South Korean literature headed?

 

Lee

My works are nature-centric and they are directed towards purity and lyricism but my classes do not force my students to write as I do, but rather aim to guide them to their own style. Korean literature should not stray too far from foreign literature. I tell my students and younger authors their works are all individual governments, nations and independent worlds. Many young authors yearn for their works to become globalized, but they should look back on themselves to see whether they have lost their own world in that process. I am concerned Korean literature today is geared excessively towards short novels. At times I wonder whether this is because they do not have the ability to write full-length novels, rather than because they believe short novels are truly important. Short, detailed writing is important, but I would like to see more stories in our lives that have more expansive sagas.

 

 

△ At an elementary school in Lee's hometown with students from the Literature Translation Institute of Korea

 

KPIPA

What are some of your novels you would like to see introduced abroad?

 

Lee

As of now, Susaek, the Pattern of That Shade, Meditation on Jellyfish, El Camino Andado Con Mi Hijo and Tree have been translated into English, German, Spanish and Chinese. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like for Eunbiryeong to be published abroad. It is a special book, as this book prompted a new street name and also changed the name of an entire village.

 

△ Cover art for the Korean version of Eunbiryeong

 

△ The entrance to Eunbiryeong village after its name was changed

 

 


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