Kim Sagwa is one of South Korea’s most acclaimed young writers, brazenly unafraid of writing about typically taboo issues of emotional trauma and mental health. In her latest novel, Mina (Two Line Press) probes the relationship between the genuine existential angst of adolescents and the pressures of an increasingly globalized world. The story focuses on Crystal—whose life consists mainly of school, homework, and cram school—and her constant fraternization with boys, her theorizing about suicide, and her fantasizing about food, all in the backdrop of P City. Though vulnerable and young, the teenage protagonist is also sadistic and angry, her inner monologues articulating the dangerous line between apathy and violence, and the kind of fractured identity that results from the fragmented and deceptive rhetoric of the system she’s in. As the book vacillates between disturbing fantasy and absurd speculation, it’s also an unsettling and uncannily close depiction of our own world.
Janice LeeAs I was reading Mina, I couldn’t help but feel guided by Julia Kristeva’s theory of “abjection,” especially when she writes in Powers of Horror:
[The abject] is simply a frontier, a repulsive gift that the Other, having become alter ego, drops so that the “I” does not disappear in it but finds, in that sublime alienation, a forfeited existence. Hence a jouissance in which the subject is swallowed up but in which the Other, in return, keeps the subject from foundering by making it repugnant. One thus understands why so many victims of the abject are its fascinated victims—if not its submissive and willing ones.
You constantly break down the distinction between self and the other, both within the corporeal realm and with the characters themselves. How did you conceive of this existential and dreadful reality and did you think of Kristeva at all?
Kim SagwaI heard about her when I was interested in psychoanalysis theories. I was a college student at the time and very into Freud, Lacan and Zizek—although I didn’t understand them at all. Looking back, I realize that I was fascinated by them not because of the actual substance of the theories—because I didn’t really understand them—but because of the possibility of the total construction of psychological reality by pure language. Language is the most abstract and pure form of art that the human species has invented. It can’t represent reality. Rather it harms reality. The attempt to represent reality by language only results in the monstrous distortion of reality. I think most of the strange effects and the odd atmosphere in Mina are not consequences of what the main characters do or think but of the narrator’s compulsive desire to scan their brains and tell the readers everything that the narrator’s eyes see.
At the time, I liked this style of writing which, I believe, was hugely influenced by psychoanalysis. But I don’t like it anymore. I feel that there are some very sadistic and destructive elements in modern psychoanalytic theories. Maybe I’m too helplessly old-fashioned to embrace a secular world view.
JLThe very first word of the book is “Minho,” a character’s name, as Crystal says it out loud, and the second word is his utterance of her name. The exchange touches on the importance of being seen but not being seen, they are visible to each other, yet also part of the larger system. The name of the city is “P City,” which in Korean sounds like “Blood City.” I wonder about how you chose these names, and the importance of these labels.
KSThe secret behind that “saying names out loud” scene is actually a little silly, but I’ll reveal it. The name “Crystal”—“Su-jung” in Korean—came from the protagonist in the popular 2004 Korean TV show Something Happened in Bali. It was a very well-made “Cinderella story” with a sophisticated twist. Two protagonists both fell in love with Sujung and in many scenes they called her name out—sometimes desperately, hopelessly, sometimes happily, passionately. The sound of it was very interesting to me. Especially when there’s no hope of her hearing or answering back, they sounded surprisingly aimless, even comically absurd. So when I decided to use the name “Sujung” for the protagonist, I also wanted to offer a sort of homage to those scenes.
The name of the city actually came from Prague, where I started writing Mina. And you’re right; I liked that “P” sounded like blood in Korean. It gave a sinister touch to the story.
JLWhy is it important that the characters are teenagers and part of this particular economic class?
KSI wanted to write about middle school kids for a long time. Looking back on my adolescence, I found middle school to be the most dangerous period. I have a theory that at age twelve or thirteen, kids don’t really understand why they shouldn’t kill other people. So, originally the characters were about two years younger. But when I finished the very first version of the story, I felt these characters acted too mature for their age. So I decided to change their ages slightly.
There are several reasons that I wanted these kids to be from a privileged background. One of the reasons is that I resisted following the Korean (progressive) literary tradition of being concerned only about poverty and the despair of the poor. In Korea, I feel that people in the arts and media talk only about the victims of society. There is no reliable information about the predators, people who win all the time, who take advantage of the poor.
And personally, I like entertaining books. Peeking closely at young, amoral, privileged kids who have a flamboyant lifestyle is so much fun, isn’t it?
JLThough the lives of the main characters are so routine, filled with the repetition of school-home-homework-cram school over and over again, the mundanity comes with a perpetual air of danger. Suicides are common occurrences throughout the book, and the gesture of suicide as an escape is read differently by different characters. This reality is both normalized and terrifying, and the trauma is not passed down through any clear lineage. I thought of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, but the Western existentialists aren’t well-equipped to explain this particular brand of monotony, pressures of success, and inherited trauma. How do you see this particular situation in South Korea as unique but connected to the rest of the globalized economy?
KSIn his book America, Jean Baudrillard said that there is “a whole chasm” between Europe and America. Europe invented the concept of modernity but has never been modern and never will be because, “You are born modern, you do not become so.”
European existential philosophy doesn’t know how to capture the human condition in the twenty-first century’s highly modernized world.
What I tried to describe in Mina is the ultimate stage of modern life in South Korea, which has been predestined by postwar American power in terms of culture and economy. That sort of unbearable, perpetual dehumanizing force of modern life is the pure invention of American capitalism. Think about Edward Norton’s wearisome life before encountering Tyler Durden in the film Fight Club. Or Patrick Bateman’s intoxicated Manhattan life-style in American Psycho.
America’s notorious corporate culture is all about productivity and economic value. Crystal is the personification of this concept. I’ve been thinking more and more that globalization means simply Americanization. The global free market, in reality, is built on the absolute belief in the U.S. dollar. In this free market world, everything and everyone is measured by that metric. This system can’t go on forever but will endure for quite a while, from my observation, because the human species has this wonderful ability to adapt itself to the most extreme circumstances. Of course some people can’t adapt, but money doesn’t count losers.
JL I looked up a little bit of your biographical information on the internet and found out that we are the same age. So I feel this superficial connection to you in terms of gender, age, ethnicity, occupation. It’s funny, in the United States these kinds of details are happy coincidences, but as a child growing up with the particular opinions and insistences of my parents, I also know that to Koreans these kinds of biographical details are hugely important, can mean a lot and tie us together in ways that aren’t obvious. I’m excited to have read a book so overtly disturbing and unflinching in its depiction of these kinds of honesties and cruelties. As someone who was born in California, and who feels very far from the heritage of my parents sometimes, I want to ask you about the ways in which South Koreans think about trauma and mental health. To me, it seems that Koreans (at least my parents and others their age) are really resistant to articulating anything clear about depression or mental breakdowns. There is so much shame that stems from anything being “wrong,” and yet there are so many things wrong. I also think about han (which is described by Suh Nam-dong as a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined”). What is your experience in the discussion around these ideas and experiences? Is the trauma in Mina related to han in any way for you? Or is there something else?
KS I agree with you that there is dishonesty and shame in the air when South Koreans talk about mental health. What’s more, the enormous effort South Koreans put into being “right,” to fit perfectly into society, causes a lot of problems. It’s a huge pressure for us, including myself, I admit that. But are we really alone? Is it only the case for South Koreans?
As I grow older, I’ve been realizing that there is a very similar kind of social pressure everywhere, even outside of South Korea. Fitting into middle class society is getting harder and harder for the younger generation. But where else could they go? What else could they try? If you fail to fit into society, fail to live as an ordinary citizen, there’s absolutely no other way. This situation drives the younger generation to the mental edge. I agree with you that Americans more easily and openly discuss their emotional problems with their friends and family but is that any use? It’s a systemic issue, not a personal one. And it’s a global phenomenon. We can’t solve the issue on a personal level.
One of things that makes Mina interesting could be Crystal’s insane effort to have no han at all. She believes that negative feelings are for losers. She insists that she has no negative feelings, no dirty ideas, and that therefore she’s totally pure. But you can easily see that she is full of resentment, anger and jealousy. I think negative feelings like trauma, resentment, anger and han are very natural reactions and sometimes good for mental health. But in our heartless, polarized world, those human feelings are forbidden. So Crystal—who wants be the ultimate winner on the earth—tries to protect herself from feeling these natural emotions. That’s the reason she kills Mina. She asserts that she is completely pure now, but the consequence is the opposite. She is the survivor, full of anger and resentment.
JLAs a translator yourself, and understanding some of the challenges and nuances of translation, how do you feel about the translation of your work into English and its presentation to a new audience?
KS I remember the first book I read in translation. It was a love story of an Egyptian prince and an ordinary girl. I read it five times because I loved the story so much!
I read a lot of translated work because I love foreign literature. It usually has strange words and incorrect grammar, but that doesn’t matter to me. I even enjoy it because those wrong expressions seem to be lively and creative. I believe making mistakes is the only way to evolve, to create. I also believe great literature can endure bad translations. I want my work to have that strength.
JLFinally, I’m curious about your actual writing process. You seem to tackle really intense, probing material consistently, and write a lot about emotional trauma and mental health issues. I explore this difficult terrain in my own writing as well, and often find it’s hard to balance the real world with the fictional world, the constant bleed-through is sometimes really heavy and some of the emotions are contagious, so that I’m balancing my own emotional well-being with the writing itself. Do you face these challenges yourself? What does your writing process look like? Do you have coping mechanisms to “survive” your own writing? Or, how do you maintain a safe distance between yourself and the work?
KS Roughly around the time I wrote Mina, the question of balancing life and writing occurred to me as well. It was very serious, almost fatal. What I concluded was that if I was to live with this mode of writing, keep this lifestyle, suicide would be the only reasonable result. The thing is, I wasn’t romantic enough to love the consequence.
That’s how I gave up the idea of being a young genius or at least why I became a novelist and not a poet. I wanted to live long enough to write a great novel. And still I do.
To maintain a balance, I keep my life very simple. I try to avoid anything that requires lots of energy except reading and writing. I have very few friends. The friends I do have, I trust deeply enough so that I can relax with them. No all-night parties, no drugs. That may sound a bit boring, but I like my boring life.
When I write a novel, I spend two to four hours writing during the day, four to five times a week. I write very fast and I edit a lot while I’m writing, because I can only concentrate for a very short time. Usually, I finish a draft in two to three months. When I finish editing the draft, I show it to some friends and then I put it aside for a while because I need some distance. Later I come back to it, edit some more, and finally send it to my editor.