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.

이 소설에 등장하는 전자상가의 배경은 두 개의 공간이다.

서울 중심부인 용산에 큰 전자상가가 있다. 이 지역의 재개발 과정에서 다섯 명의 철거민과 무장한 경찰 한 명이 사망한 사건이 있었다. 2009년 1월 20일 오전이었다. 재개발 공사의 주체인 대기업은 ‘용역 깡패’라고 불리는 민간인들을 고용했다. 그들은 철거민들이 시위하고 있던 철거 건물로 무리하게 들어갔다. 철거민들이 옥상에 갇힌 상황에서 그들은 1층에 불을 피웠고 물대포를 쏘았다. 한국 정부의 경찰력이 수백 명 그 자리에 있었지만 그들은 용역들을 보호했고, 용역들이 저지르는 불법적인 행위를 적극적으로 부추겼다. 마지막 순간에 그들은 ‘트로이 목마 작전’이라고 불리는 진압 작전에 들어갔다. 철거민들이 옥상에 설치한 망루를 크레인과 컨테이너를 이용해 부수는 작전이었다. 무장한 경찰들이 옥상에 진입한 순간 망루에 큰 화재가 일어났다. 망루에서 빠져나오지 못한 여섯 명의 사람이 죽었다. 이 상황은 뉴스로 중계되었고 많은 사람들이 화재가 일어나는 순간을 실시간으로 목격했다. 나도 그 중 한 사람이었다.

사건 이후 그 장소는 ‘남일당’이라고 불렸다. 나는 이 소설을 2009년 여름부터 가을까지 썼다. 해지기

전에는 이 소설을 썼고, 해질 무렵엔 남일당 앞에서 시위를 했다. 화재 이후 유가족들이 그 건물에 머물고 있었고, 거의 매일, 경찰력에 의해 폭력적인 상황이 벌어졌다. 그 장소와 거기서 벌어지는 일들이 너무 참담해서, 뭔가 따뜻한 것을 만들고 싶었다. 내가 할 수 있는 유일한 일이라고 나는 생각했다. 그래서 이 이야기를 썼다.

두 번째로, 서울의 오랜 도심이자 현재의 도심이기도 한 종로엔 ‘세운전자상가’라는 공간이 있다. 여덟 개의 길쭉한 건물들로, 1968년에 완공되었고, 종로에서 퇴계로까지 이어져 있으며, 그 중에 첫 번째 건물인 현대상가가 2008년에 철거된 상태다. 2009년 용산에서 참사가 벌어졌을 때도 철거가 진행 중이었다. 내 아버지는 그 중 두 번째 건물인 세운상가에서 40년째 오디오를 수리하고 있다. 소설에 등장하는 여씨의 수리실이나 오무사, 무재가 일하는 트랜스 공방을 비롯해 전자상가 주변의 풍경은 그곳에 있었거나 지금도 있는 공간의 묘사이다.

MRB: For me, the novel is full of irresistible moments of literary gastronomy. Eating and cooking noodles—or planning to do either—populates much of the action of the story. In two different instances, hot and cold noodles are juxtaposed: in the first, Eungyo chooses to eat a hot noodle soup, regrets not having ordered the cold, and feels ill; in another, she eats a cold noodle soup, and again, begins to feel unwell, preferring a ‘a different kind of soup, not cold like this, something hot and clear and refreshing that heats you up from the inside, and lots of it.’ How does food—specifically, the consumption of noodles—serve a larger function in the novel? 

HJ: Thank you for this enjoyable question. As you say, at the beginning of the novel Eungyo wants cold noodles instead of hot soup, and in the latter part she wants to eat hot soup instead of cold noodles. But actually, galbitang—beef rib soup—doesn’t contain noodles. In some cases a handful of clear, sweet potato starch noodles can be added, but it’s mainly just a very hot soup of rib meat, with or without the bones. For me, having people I don’t know watch me eat isn’t a very comfortable experience. It’s difficult to eat something very hot, and if I do end up eating extremely sweat-inducing soup, I get extremely flustered. Galbitang is served in a particular kind of earthenware dish, and the dish itself is hot. Eungyo would have had a very difficult time of it.

In the second half of the book, Eungyo is eating cold noodles with Mujae when she witnesses his shadow and her body grows cold. She would have quailed in fear and broken out in a cold sweat. So I thought that she would want to eat hot soup.

Compared with my other books, descriptions of food are quite frequent in One Hundred Shadows. This book was a novel of pale colours, and I wanted temperature and taste and scent to be given off through food. I think that soup in particular has an aura about it. But more than the food itself, the important thing is who eats it and how.

재미있는 질문을 해줘서 고맙다. 당신의 말처럼, 소설 초반에 은교는 뜨거운 수프가 아닌 차가운 면을 원하고, 후반엔 차가운 면이 아닌 뜨거운 수프를 먹고 싶어한다. 그런데 우선, 갈비탕은 누들이 아니다. 약간의 당면이 들어가는 경우도 있지만, 아주 뜨거운 뼈/고기 국물이다. 나에게는, 낯선 사람에게 먹는 모습을 보이는 것이 그다지 기분 좋은 일은 아니다. 그것도 이제 막 특별한 감정이 생기려는 순간에, 너무 뜨거워 먹기가 어렵고 먹으면 몹시 땀이 나는 국물을 먹게 된다면, 나는 대단히 당황스러울 것이다. 갈비탕은 특별한 도기에 담기는데, 이 그릇 자체가 뜨겁다. 은교는 아주 곤란했을 것이다.

소설 후반에 은교는 무재와 차가운 면을 먹다가 무재의 그림자를 목격하고 몸이 차가워진다. 공포로 위축되고 식은땀이 났을 것이다. 그녀가 따뜻한 국물을 먹고 싶을 거라고 나는 생각했다.

백의 그림자는 (나의) 다른 소설에 비해 음식 묘사가 잦은 편이다. 이 소설은 무채색 계열의 소설이었고 음식으로 온도와 맛과 향을 내고 싶었다. 특히 국물 요리가 가지는 아우라가 있다고 나는 생각한다. 그러나 음식 자체보다는 그것을 누구와 어떻게 먹느냐가 중요했다.

MRB: In her introduction, Han Kang says, ‘In this dark and dangerous world, a man and a woman are just beginning to love each other. This love, which is so delicate and subtle a thing that at times it seems trembling on the point of shattering, comes to be felt as almost an ethical force, a moral necessity set against the leaden weight of violence of the world which hems these two young people in.’ Throughout One Hundred Shadows, and even at the very end, I found myself constantly second-guessing: Is this really a love story, or am I merely projecting my desire for one? Certainly, Mujae seems to exhibit classic characteristics of ‘boy meets girl,’ and Eungyo is the rather confused and inexperienced girl. The delicate ambiguity of their dynamics is beautiful. But their relationship, romantic or not, is the impetus for the entire narrative. Is the portrayal of their relationship potentially revolutionary: Is it an argument for a more utopic world, other than the one given? Almost every commentary on the novel describes it as an ‘offbeat romance.’ But is a conception of romantic love, offbeat or otherwise, necessary for our understanding? 

HJ: Compared with how things were in the past, I think that there are more and more different mediums through which stories can be told, and demands about narrative are being fulfilled through other genres, as well. Films and television dramas are the most overwhelming in number and popularity, and there is also narrative to be found in manhwa, graphic novels, even adverts. Of course, as well as in many other literary works. What remains when you take out the parts that are common to each of these genres is that genre’s special characteristic, and I think that for literature this is language, or vocabulary. And so I believe that the context for each item of vocabulary is extremely important. There is a current produced by these contexts taken together, and that current is narrative.

In South Korea as well, many people read this book as a love story. But I never thought of it as a love story while I was writing it. I only thought that it was a novel about shadows. A story related to death and despair and helplessness. In a place where there are people being beaten and crying every day, each time I thought that I had to write something, each time I wanted to write something or did in fact produce a single line, I did so with the sincere desire that it would cast a handful of light; at the end, having written the final sentence, I saw that what I had written was love and was a song. I surprised even myself. These are not my ‘usual’ concerns, though not so unusual to be called ‘offbeat’ either. After the book came out, I was again surprised to hear people say that Eungyo and Mujae’s love was something special. It seemed something rare enough to be called special. Utopia is not something I’m concerned with either. As I mentioned in an afterword to the Korean edition, it is only two people, going down a dark night road at the end of the novel, who wish that they will meet someone.

과거에 비해 이야기를 표현하는 매체가 늘었고 서사에 대한 욕구는 다른 장르로도 상당히 충족되고 있다고 나는 생각한다. 영화와 드라마가 가장 압도적이고 만화, 그래픽 노블, 심지어 광고에도 서사는 있다. 물론 다른 많은 문학 작품들에도 있다. 각 장르에서 공통된 부분을 걸러내고 남는 것이 그 장르의 특징이라고 나는 생각하는데, 문학에서는 그것이 ‘말(어휘)’이다. 그래서 나는 각 어휘가 지니는 맥락을 대단히 중요하게 생각한다. 그 맥락들이 만들어내는 흐름이 있고 그것 역시 서사라고 나는 생각한다.

한국에서도 많은 독자들이 이 소설을 러브스토리로 읽는다. 그러나 나는 이 소설을 쓰는 동안에 러브스토리라고 생각해본 적은 없다. 나는 이 소설이 그림자에 관한 소설이라고 생각했다. 죽음과 절망과 무기력에 관한 이야기. 매일 얻어맞고 우는 사람들이 있는 장소에서, 뭔가를 써야 한다고 생각했고, 쓰고 싶었고, 문장 한 줄을 쓸 때마다 한 줌의 빛을 바라는 간절한 마음이 있었는데, 마지막 문장까지 쓰고 보니 그것이 사랑이고 노래였다. 스스로도 놀랐다. 이들이 ‘보통’인지 보통이 아닌지는 내 관심사가 아니다. 책이 출간된 뒤, 사람들이 이들의 사랑을 특별하다고 말해 다시 놀랐다. 특별하다고 말할 정도로 드문 일인가 싶었다. 유토피아도 내 관심사가 아니다. 한국어판 후기에 언급했듯, 소설 마지막에 어두운 밤 길을 가는 두 사람이, 그 길에서 누군가 만났기를 바랄 뿐이다.

MRB: One Hundred Shadows is your debut novel. How has the kind of writing that you’re drawn to, and aim to develop in your own style, changed since the novel was published in 2010? 

HJ: My manner of speaking tends to be strongly reflected in my writing. I have experienced both slight loss of speech (aphasia) and excessive speech (logorrhea) in succession, and after these I acquired the habit of repeating myself. At the time when I was writing One Hundred Shadows, this habit was strongly reflected in my text, and I enjoyed writing that way. Recently, I have enjoyed writing sentences in which repetition is radically reduced.

In South Korea, things don’t get verbalised properly or are distorted linguistically. In the place I am living now, when speech is rough or not precise, its strength is amplified, and this is having a concrete, negative influence on people, animals, objects, and spaces which really exist. I think that precise language is becoming gradually more important. And so each time I write a sentence, I make an effort to select ever more precise vocabulary. But making these efforts, the number of swear words in my writing is increasing. (In one of my recently published books, Barbaric Mr. Alice, the swear word sshi-bal appears 116 times.)

말버릇이 글쓰기에 많이 반영되는 편이다. 약간의 실어증과 다어증을 번갈아 겪은 적이 있고 그 뒤로 말을 반복하는 버릇이 생겼다. 백의 그림자를 쓸 당시 그 말버릇이 많이 반영되었고 그렇게 쓰면서 즐거웠다. 최근엔 반복을 가급적 줄이는 재미로 문장을 쓰기도 한다.

한국에서는 제대로 언어화되지 못하거나 언어적으로 왜곡되는 것들이 있다. 내가 지금 사는 곳에서, 말은 난폭하거나 정확하지 않을 때 증폭된 힘을 얻고, 그것이 실재하는 사람이나 생물, 사물이나 공간에 구체적이고도 부정적인 영향을 주고 있다. 그 밖의 말들은 아무런 힘이 없다. 정확한 말이 점점 더 중요해지고 있다고 나는 생각한다. 그래서 문장을 쓸 때마다, 보다 더 정확한 어휘를 선택하려고 노력한다. 그런데 이 노력을 하다 보니 문장에 욕이 늘고 있다. (최근작 중 하나인 ‘야만적인 앨리스씨 Mr. Alice’에는 ‘씨발’이라는 욕이 116번 등장한다.)

MRB: For our readers who are less familiar with Korean literature: Do you have major domestic influences, in terms of authors or literary movements? 

HJ: In terms of writers or literary currents, I love the simple, lucid sentences of Jo Se-hui’s A Dwarf Launches a Small Ball, and I also like the short stories of Oh Chung-hee and Kim Seung-ok. Recently, I’m re-reading Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building, a book about the theory of architecture that was published in 1979.

작가나 문학적 흐름이라면, 조세희 선생의 ‘난장이가 쏘아올린 작은 공’에 등장하는 간단하고 명료한 문장들을 무척 좋아했고, 오정희 선생과 김승옥 선생의 단편들을 좋아했다. 최근엔 크리스토퍼 알렉산더의 ‘영원의 건축 The Timeless way of Building을 반복해서 읽고 있다.

그러나 내게 가장 중요하게 영향을 미치는 것은 결국 한국, 그리고 내가 사랑하는 사람들이다.

MRB: Ahead of your UK tour with Tilted Axis, what are you most looking forward to sharing with English-speaking audiences? 

HJ: Eungyo and Mujae’s conversations. I want to share their speed. In South Korea there are many readers who consider their method of repeating each other’s words, their slow speed, to be abnormal. Each time I received such a response I was sad, and if the same thing were to happen again in the UK I will be said again. Because I know that conversation like theirs really existed.

은교와 무재의 대화. 이들의 속도를 나누고 싶다. 서로의 말을 반복하는 이들의 대화법, 느린 속도를 비정상이며 세상에 없는 대화법이라고 여기는 독자들이 한국에 더러 있었다. 그런 반응을 접할 때마다 슬펐고, 같은 일이 벌어진다면 다시 슬플 것이다. 나는 이들의 대화가 실재했다는 것을 알기 때문이다.

Hwang Jungeun (b. 1976) is one of the bright young writers of Korean literature, having published two collections of short stories and three novels to date. One Hundred Shadows (2010), her first novel, was both a critical and commercial success; its mix of oblique fantasy, hard-edge social critique, and offbeat romance garnered the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award and the Korean Booksellers’ Award.

Deborah Smith is the founder of Tilted Axis Press, a not-for-profit press focusing on contemporary fiction from Asia. Her translations from the Korean include four novels: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Human Acts, and Bae Suah’s A Greater Music and Recitation. Han and Deborah were awarded the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian. In October 2016, Tilted Axis published Korean writer Hwang Jungeun’s One Hundred Shadows, translated by Jung Yewon. She tweets as @londonkoreanist.

M. René Bradshaw is a California-born writer, translator, and culture critic based in London. She is the Editor-at-large, UK at Asymptote.


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