Place: Seoul

Hwang Jungeun on Seoul, noodles, and gentrification

In South Korea, things don't get verbalised properly or are distorted linguistically.

One Hundred Shadows, the debut novel of Hwang Jungeun, is a tilt toward the borderlines of society, where the disconnected and the dispossessed attempt to make a home; it is a ferroconcrete dream version of Seoul with a wistful languor, desperate to prove that even in the murkiest crannies of the city, there are surges of fellow-feeling, or snatches of shared joy, that can suddenly break through the hard-bitten top layers and bloom.

Working as an assistant at a repair shop in a sprawling, cavernous electronics market, Eungyo finds herself drawn into an idiosyncratic community of Seoul’s twilight periphery. There is Mr. Yeo, her boss, who works until the crack of dawn and adores sweet red beans with shaved ice; there is the itinerant and rambling Yugon, who puts his faith in the lottery rather than in other people; and there is Mujae, who, like Eungyo, abandoned his formal education and also works as an assistant. Eungyo and Mujae meet occasionally to eat noodles and drink beer, and as the demolition of the electronics market looms alongside the regeneration of the neighborhood surrounding it, the two come to develop a timid intimacy which leans clumsily into a love formed from the outside looking in, and they discovered themselves synced into one orbit—and on the edges of observing their shadows rise.

Ahead of her UK tour, Hwang Jungeun sat down with Asymptote to discuss One Hundred Shadows, which was translated from the Korean by Jung Yewon and published by Tilted Axis Press on 3 October.

Hwang Jungeun’s replies appear below both in the Korean and in English translation by Deborah Smith.

Read an excerpt of the book here.

M. René Bradshaw (MRB): One Hundred Shadows takes place largely in an electronics market in central Seoul—an impoverished area targeted by rapid regeneration efforts. Which specific locations of the city inspired the novel’s settings? The electronics market is so pervasive, its function and internal dynamics so important to the main characters’ lives, that it almost acts as a character itself within the story. Is there a personal anecdote attached to a similar electronics market?

Hwang Jungeun (HJ): There are two locations which form the background to the electronics market which appears in this novel. One is a large electronics market in Yongsan, an area in central Seoul. In the process of this area’s redevelopment, there was an incident in which five evicted residents and one armed policeman were killed. This happened on the morning of January 20, 2009. The conglomerate that was heading the redevelopment construction employed civilians known as ‘construction thugs’. They entered the building earmarked for demolition, whose residents had been protesting their eviction, en masse. While the residents were trapped on the roof, they lit a fire on the ground floor and fired water cannons. Though the police of the South Korean government were there in the hundreds, they protected the ‘thugs’, and actively encouraged the illegal actions committed by them. In the final moments, they implemented something known as the ‘Trojan horse operation’, used to suppress protests. It was an operation which used a crane and container to demolish the lookout tower which the residents had constructed on the roof. The moment armed police swarmed onto the roof, a huge conflagration broke out in the tower. Six people who were unable to escape from the tower died. This was all broadcast on the news and many people witnessed the moment of the fire breaking out in real time. I was one of them.

After the incident, the place became known as Namildang. I wrote this novel from summer to autumn 2009. I wrote before the sun went down, then around sunset I went and held a protest in front of Namildang. After the fire, the bereaved families gathered at the building and almost every day a violent altercation occurred due to the use of police force. That place, and the things that happened there, were so miserable, I wanted to make something warm. I thought that it was the only thing I could do. And so I wrote this.

Secondly, there is a place called Sewoon Electronics Market in Jongno, which is both the old and current centre of Seoul. Its eight long buildings were completed in 1968, and stretch from Jongno to Toegye-ro, and the first of these buildings, which is the modern market, was demolished in 2008. Even when the disaster occurred in Yongsan in 2009, demolition was still going on. My father has been repairing audio equipment for forty years in the second of Sewoon Market’s buildings. The setting around the electronics market which appears in the novel, including Mr Oh’s repair shop, Omusa, and the transformer workshop where Mujae works, are all descriptions of places that were there or still are.

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Translation Tuesday: An excerpt from “One Hundred Shadows” by Hwang Jungeun

They were just pretending not to see what was clearly there, even when I pointed right at it and said, My shadow, that’s my shadow.

If this year’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, has whetted your appetite for Korean literature, we recommend that you check out Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows, an oblique, hard-edged novel forthcoming from Tilted Axis Press. Set in a slum’s rundown electronics market, One Hundred Shadows depicts the little-known underside of Seoul, complicating the shiny, ultra-modern face which South Korea presents to the world. Here is an excerpt.

I said goodbye to Mujae at the subway station, where we each took different trains. By the time I got back to the area where I lived it was noon and the sun was blazing down as I dragged myself down the street. My stumpy shadow slanted to the right, bulging like a soft-boiled egg, its movements mimicking my own. When I thought about how it had risen now and then, the familiar shops and familiar alley didn’t look familiar at all. I turned into the alley and heard the sound of television leaking out of a window. It sounded like a volleyball match, with a voice saying spike, very clearly enunciated, sounding more electronic than human. Spike, spike, spike, and I turned another corner. Fancy hearing a voice saying spike, I thought, then put my hands in my pocket, unable to recall what had come after. A sharp piece of paper pricked my finger. I pulled it out and saw that it was the wrapper from Mujae’s gum. I bent it with my thumb, and it rustled like a shriveled ear.

I took down the pizza and fried chicken flyers that had been stuck to the door and stepped into the house. Inside it was dark, and seemed exactly how I’d left it even though I’d been gone a whole day. I took off my clothes, which smelled of soil, and went into the bathroom. I positioned myself beneath the naked bulb that dangled from the high ceiling, and looked down at my shadow. It looks a little bigger, I thought, and more thinned-out. I lifted my left foot up for a moment, then set it back down. I raised my right foot this time, put it down and lifted my left once more, then jumped up lightly so both feet were off the ground. The shadow spread out, a little thinner and wider, and definitely touched my feet when I put them down on the floor. I did a couple of jumps in my bare feet, examined the light bulb, then turned on the hot water and washed my hair. Wiping the suds from my eyes, I thought to myself that even if my shadow had drawn me deep in the woods, so deep that I never returned, someone would still have stuck flyers on the door, and pizzas would still have been sold. I went back into the main room, lay down and pulled a blanket over myself. The weather was sultry, but my toes were cold. I wondered if this was because I had my feet pointing north, and shifted them a little to the east, my head a little to the west. But this didn’t feel comfortable so I kept on shifting, again and again. I moved around so much I ended up back in my original position, but something still wasn’t right. I felt as if my lower back had lifted up off the floor, the whole of me trembling like a compass needle. Falling in and out of sleep, haphazard thoughts flitted through my mind.

I worked at an electronics market, a ramshackle warren of tiny shops close to the heart of the city. The market had originally consisted of five separate buildings, labelled A, B, C, D and E, but had been altered and added to over a period of forty years so that it was now a single structure. You had to know where to look to spot the signs that it had ever been otherwise. The market was where I first met Mujae. I manned the customer desk and ran errands at Mr. Yeo’s repair shop, while Mujae was an apprentice at a transformer workshop. One day I went down there with an old transformer that needed its copper wire replaced. There in that cramped space was Mujae, wearing wrist guards and an apron. Next to him, Mr. Gong was spinning the wheel with the copper wire twined around it. I held out the old transformer, needing both hands to lift its weight. Mujae took it casually in one, put it down on the table among all the copper wires, and made a note of the shop’s name and phone number. The only remarkable thing about him was his beautiful handwriting. I’d seen him several times before, on my way in and out of the building or running errands to other workshops, but nothing had made those encounters stand out.

I nodded off, wondering whether I would see Mujae at work on Monday, since we said, See you on Monday? When I started awake, the sun was about to go down. The light of the setting sun filled the room. I realised that I’d left my packed lunch in the woods.

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