These days, I call myself a young writer. Not only because I am determined to break away from my past works but also because I stopped writing and spent 15 years doing social works, being imprisoned, or in exile after I published The Shadow of Arms. I finally re-debuted as an enthusiastic writer in 1998. So, I’m a young writer!

In November of 1989, at the scene of the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany where I was in exile, I made up my mind to reform my literary blueprint, which needed 10 years to come true. The notes I jotted down at that time say as following.

The ‘realistic’ narrative form of the past needs to be broken down and reconstructed into a bolder, richer style. It is the moments we let slip by and the traces of those moments that have accumulated that take part in history itself and, like a dream, drift past in our daily lives. History and the individual dreamlike day-to-day existence are joined. I believe they must be linked together in the realm of reality. Subjectivity and objectivity should not be separated from each other, and the narrator should not be limited to one perspective, not to the first, second, or third person. A narrative voice that travels between the perspectives of each of the characters, intersecting each other, is likely to be more effective at conveying the essence of reality. Even with one character and one event, the diverse thoughts and perspectives of all the other characters could be employed to illustrate the scene, akin to an elaborate embroidery technique involving many different colors of thread. Though an objective narrative voice can give a plausible depiction of events, reproducing a slice of life and its condition of reality is impossible. If prose is unable to reproduce life, might it be possible to restore prose to a position close to the flow of life? This is my main concern with form.

In The Old Garden, I newly tried a kind of dissolution of prose that crosses over the person and the tense. As a matter of fact, the name of the book The Old Garden is a paradox of a utopia. It was named after a hidden garden in a valley in an oriental world that exists in a fable of a dreamlike island. I whispered to myself witnessing the changes that occur all around the world, “The revolution came to an end.”

By the time I was released from prison, a department store building in a rich district of Seoul collapsed to the ground. This was a symbolic incident which marked the end of the Korean development period under dictatorship. The financial crisis followed, and we had to ask for aid from the IMF. The destruction of the ecosystem was getting worse. Local and civil wars broke out due to racial and religious conflicts, even after the turn of the century, while hegemonic wars in the name of counterterrorism swiped all over the world. The so-called peripheral world is still undergoing civil conflicts and dictatorship, and civil resistance and its frustration. Many people are still suffering from poverty and famine. The capitalism which won over the socialism betrays the sheer absurdity itself and leads to precarious symptoms of economic downfall, expecting an uncertain future.

Furthermore, the generation which had risen up against the military dictatorship of the South Korean regime and eventually achieved democracy, suffered, in whatever form, the discrepancies between their passion, ideals, and reality when it came to the 1990s. Such crisis of the subject aggravated as they pondered over what had been lost along with the ‘death of ideology’ caused by the downfall of the socialist regimes.

The Old Garden is a narrative about ‘the untimely love and history.’ The love affair between two lovers who live separated is an appropriate frame to reflect my ideas above. They narrate in monologue about their inner selves in the lapse of their life. Each narration cuts the organic flow of the plot describing reality from different points of view. The two chronological axes go in a parallel track till the end in the first person narrating. This expresses the isolation and severance of time and space. The man served 18 years in prison which relives in the woman’s notes, and he got her letters and diaries in his hand only after her death. Yet, readers with the third person’s view unite their love. By the act of reading, it is possible to connect the crossed times ‘here and now.’ The internal limitations of narrative forms cause conflicts as his experiences in prison and her troublesome life outside are described separately. It is gradually revealed that the complications of separation were triggered by historical frustration. The subjects of the revolutionary movement now cannot help but admit their failure. The progress of historical truth which makes our lives worthwhile always comes to light late due to the time limit in reality, unlike signs given a meaning. All progressive plans which do not take the individual who has to bear his destiny embodied in his life into consideration are doomed because of the time difference. Learning comes late. However, power of memory, it is by no means weak, since it survives the ephemeral of time.

The Old Garden was the first book that I wrote after bidding adieu to the 20th century and it helped me get out of my own cell and revive as a writer.

I started to write The Guest in 2000, the 50th anniversary of the Korean War. North Korea was unveiled as an “Axis of Evil” and given the threat of war soon after the September 11th attacks. It was a gruesome event which reminded me of the fact that the Korean Peninsula is still vulnerable to a war despite the collapse of the Cold War, which had persisted since the Korean War.

I paid attention to the massacre of civilians in a small village of North Korea during the Korean War.

People in pre-modern Chosun thought smallpox was introduced from the west and so they called it ‘guest.’ They created ‘a guest ritual,’ a new type of shamanism to dispel the disease. I got an idea from this and defined Christianity and Marxism as ‘guest.’ The novel The Guest is like a round of ritual to soothe the scourge by describing 50 days of such nightmare. Its format was basically borrowed from 12 rounds of Hwanghae-do Jinogui ritual which is for soothing those who had an undeserved death. The living and the dead appear in this novel at the same time, crossing over the past and the present, telling their own reflections and stories just like in a ritual. The writer himself becomes a shaman who connects the living with the dead. I wove a roll of hemp cloth with a weft thread which is ‘time travel’ to the past and a meridian thread which is 다중화자의 colloquy by word of mouth that integrate the events as a whole into a fresco through characters’ respective situations and experiences. It was my intention to erase the still aching scars from the war and to drive away the remaining ghosts of the Cold War and start a new century of reconciliation and harmony.

Shim Chung, published in 2003, was adapted from a pansori, the traditional Korean mono-opera, based on an old Taoism tale. I wrote about prostitution and the change of East Asia in the 19th century seen at a market in modern times. In the pansori Shim Chung-ga, Chung is sold to Chinese merchants at the expense of making her blind widowed father open his eyes. She is offered as a sacrifice for the sake of the safe voyage by being thrown deep into the sea. Here I decided to remove the factor of the laudable virtue of Loyalty to Kind and Commitment to Parents, the fundamental ideology that upheld the social system in those times. I think it was a gadget to maintain the feudal social system. We can easily imagine what happened to those young girls after they were sold for a large sum of money to foreign merchants from the nature of worldly affairs to pursue interest. I found out that there are many stories about the girls who were sold abroad across the sea. In most places, their names have been handed down in their memorial tablets in the temple. They never came back home. More historical backups can be found in Japan. I sought some similarity between these girls and women workers of South Korea who went up to Seoul to seek jobs in factories to end up eventually ruining themselves during the period of modernization in the 1970s. Their parents and siblings might have enshrined the tablets for their sisters who didn’t come back even long after they sent money to them for the last time.

The modernization of East Asia is represented by free trade and market share. Modern cities and streets were built and labor products in every country evolved into new types: wage labor and prostitution. I did not examine this trend in a historical context in the novel. Rather, I try to focus on how the body and soul of a woman change in such an environment. It was like the life of a lotus flower that opens its bud with the morning dew, gets troubled with the scorching sun and the storm, meets and sends away passersby, and spends day and night throughout the year. Thus, such historical events as the Opium War, the turmoil in India and Vietnam, the East India Company, the fall of Okinawa, the Meiji Restoration and civil riots in Japan, the Sino-Japanese and the Russo-Japanese Wars, and the colonization of Chosun were dealt with like a small thunderstorm heard far away. Most of the sources I collected were about the daily lives of ordinary people. It was prostitution and lewd relationships between men and women that genuinely represented everyday life of scoundrels from the back streets.

By the time Chung finally returns home after wandering all over East Asia, what went wrong in the past has come to the surface one by one. While the Western Powers were marching toward the East, the corrupted feudal kingdoms in East Asia were about to collapse. There were movements from both the top and the bottom, but all failed. The social experiment of East Asia is still underway.

I made up my mind to see the world in my own way in the framework of reality in East Asia when I got out of prison. In this context, I wrote Princess Bari in 2007.

Princess Bari is a story of migration and harmony like Shim Chung. The former is set today in the 20th century while the latter in the 19th century. The imperialism of the 19th century and the neoliberalism of the 20th century can be juxtaposed.

The book is about a North Korean girl who lost her family when young, crossed the border, wandered all over China, crossed the ocean again to reach London, and eventually met a Muslim man to marry.

I put this story line into the form and plot of the Korean ancient shamanism myth Princess Bari.” Many myths or legendary tales from all over the world have the moment when reality turns into surreality. Surreality is the metaphor or distortion of reality like a dream. Fantasy, a shadow of reality, is not only functioning as an artistic technique, but also enables us to capture reality more profoundly than anything logical does. The scene where Old Lady Bari the Mother of shamans appears was borrowed from a dream I had when I was writing this book in Paris.

The story of Princess Bari is handed down by word of mouth in Siberia, Northern Manchuria and all over places in the Korean Peninsula, with 47 kinds of unwritten records left. In this shamanism epic, the protagonist goes to the world of the dead for the salvation of human beings like Orpheus of Greece and Odin of Northern Europe. Princess Bari was born with a destiny to go to the end of the world of the dead to get the waters of life to save the world from deadly disease. Shamans regard the story of Princess Bari as their archetype myth and Old Lady Bari as their ancestor. But they don’t know why the story is inserted as a part of all of their rituals. I guess it is because a shaman sets herself up as a ‘distressed healer who heals the distressed’ or ‘troubled settler who settle the troubled’ by reciting the story of Princess Bari’s distresses and troubles. It is the oral tradition of Bari that enabled shamanism to survive in the Korean Peninsula where the outer religions and cultures have made inroads considerably and consistently.

Princess Bari has a theme of ‘movement’ which is a new phenomenon. I wanted to seek the possibility of the peace and harmony of the pluralistic world overcoming the ideology of disparity of cultures, religions, rich, and poor in this new century when wars and conflicts still remain.

The peripheral world which couldn’t adjust to the new world system plunged into new disputes and famines, getting lost in the middle of worldwide polarization. And North Korea is one of them. According to the U.N., the number of people starving to death peaked in the mid ‘90s at over 3 million, due to severe famine which had lasted more than 10 years since the fall of Eastern Europe. Such tragedy happened right above South Korea enjoying its prosperity and affluence. Several times I blamed the North Korean regime for its irresponsibility and criticized the hypocrisy of the human rights logic of the Great Powers who have manipulated the divided state of the Korean Peninsula. The acute situation of North Korea was neglected due to the ideological and strategic point to induce the fall of the North Korean regime, which is unrealistic, and is taken advantage of only to propagandize the dishumanitarian aspects of the regime. I regard North Korean refugees as the shadow of the Neoliberal World. Other parts of the peripheral world suffer from similar disasters as well.

Everyone may have seen a group of migratory birds flying away to somewhere in the field when the season changes. The birds fly in a group and land on branches of the woods grown up to similar height, or on the cables bridging the electric poles lined at regular intervals. When a larger group of birds come near, there arises a commotion. Then the former group of birds moves aside to give room to those newcomers, or rise in the air all at once. Without flying away to other places, they swirl around in the air along with the new group of birds rearranging the rank, and then all of them land to sit together at a proper interval.

If someone asked me what the world looks like, I would say that it is like a group of birds rising and spinning around in the air and I hope my writing would do good for the birds to land again.