Interview

Discover the shortlist: Bora Chung, ‘This is the nicest dream I ever had'

Shortlisted for the 2022 Booker International Prize, Bora Chung is the author of Cursed Bunny.

Here, she discusses how she uses the fantastical to address the horrors and cruelties of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society.

Bora Chung

Written by Bora Chung

How does it feel to be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize?

Shocked. It feels like a dream. But this is definitely the nicest dream I ever had. Especially to see my name right next to Ms. Olga Tokarczuk. I am a great fan of hers and this is such a great honour.

What first inspired you to write Cursed Bunny? 

Mirror webzine is one of the oldest and best-run Korean web magazines specializing in speculative fiction. In late 2016 they decided to do an Asian-zodiac-themed anthology. It was like Black Friday: as soon as the theme was decided, all the authors jumped in and in the first few seconds they took the glamorous animals: dragon, tiger, horse and snake. Then the next moment the familiar animals, dog, rooster, pig, rat, etc were taken. All I had left to choose from was either sheep or bunny. As for sheep, I could only think of “Mary had a little lamb” and that was about it. I couldn’t make a story out of it, so I had to go with bunny. And since rabbits are cute and fuzzy and lovely, I decided to go the opposite direction and make them as scary as possible.

What’s your earliest reading memory?

This layout of the human mouth was hanging on the wall. I remember the five basic tastes that the human tongue can discern, written around the picture of the tongue. I was maybe five or six.

What authors have made the biggest impact to your work?

Among Korean authors, Park Wan-Suh (also transliterated as Park Wan-So or Park Wan-Seo, 1931-2011). She showed me how to write about womanhood in modern society. She has a way of expressing the richness of human emotion, intricately woven into a powerful story of modern Korean history, war, loss and love.

Among non-Korean writers, Polish writers Bruno Schulz (1892-1942), Bruno Jasienski (1901-1938 or 1940), and Russian writers Andrei Platonov (1899-1951) and Lyudmila Petrushevskaya (1938-). Jasienski and Platonov were both revolutionaries, in reality and in art, who focused on the human experience of pain, suffering and loss. Bruno Schulz is magical; he paints delicate and dream-like pictures in words and his stories read like a beautiful labyrinth. Petrushevskaya shows how women struggle in an unjust society, how women are human beings with all our strength and weakness and flaws and hopes and despairs, and how women live and survive. Her stories are breathtaking.

How does it feel to have your work translated for people in the English-speaking world to read?

It is a dream come true. I spent a total of 8 years in the US as a student and my friends and professors from school had a vague idea that I wrote fiction in my own language. When my book was translated into English a lot of them asked me how they could get a copy. I was very flattered and honoured and, of course, slightly embarrassed, it’s always embarrassing to show your own stories to people you know, but Anton Hur did such a superb job that I’m sure they will enjoy my book. Beyond my immediate acquaintances I was (still am) slightly intimidated to think about the vast English-speaking world as my readership. The Booker longlist nomination is a great encouragement in that sense, to keep writing and keep seeking new audiences.

Bora Chung

Since rabbits are cute and fuzzy and lovely, I decided to go the opposite direction and make them as scary as possible

What other books would you like to see Cursed Bunny sit beside on a bookshelf?

I shall take this opportunity to be ridiculously ambitious and say: Octavia Butler. A girl can dream.

Tell us a lesser-known (fun) fact about you.

I grew up in a dental clinic. My parents were both dentists (now retired) and our home was the back room of my mother’s clinic. We lived there until I was about 9 or 10. We had a model human skull in the living room (for my mom’s research and stuff). I thought everybody had one of those at home.

And an interesting fact about the book.

The first Korean speculative fiction to be longlisted for the Booker Prize, Cursed Bunny was first published by a tiny independent Korean publisher specializing in SF and then the English translation was published by a tiny independent British publisher and I am so very proud of Arzak and Honford Star. And I am eternally grateful to Anton Hur for all his efforts and achievements.

Tell us about a book that changed your life.

Primary Chronicles. It is often known as the Russian Primary Chronicles but it is mainly centred in Kyiv and is in fact the history of all the East Slavs (modern-day Ukraine, Russia and Belarus). I especially love the figure of Princess Olga of Kyiv. She is depicted in the Chronicles first and foremost as an outstanding military leader who successfully defeated invading foreign forces. (Kyivan ladies are not to be messed with). By reading her story I learned how to describe fierce female characters who are formidable warriors and great leaders at the same time.

The Chronicles is also full of actual historical events and magical stories that may or may not have been true but are still absolutely fascinating. For me it is the Chronical of Imaginations. I sucked at medieval Russian language in grad school but learned to open my eyes to different worldviews.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

‘This is boring.’

‘The Head’ was the first story I ever wrote. I had a clear idea about the beginning, about the head coming out of the toilet, but had no idea how to proceed from there. So I wrote an entire page, describing a very realistic scene of the protagonist being shocked and terrified of this head. I showed it to my sister and she flat-out declared it was boring. So I decided to go the opposite direction and make the protagonist’s reaction not realistic and not emotional at all. I still apply this principle a lot of times when I write: when in doubt, go against logic and/or common sense. Interesting stories tend to come out easier that way.

What book haven’t you finished?

Haven’t finished writing or reading?

Haven’t finished reading: Janusz Zajdel was a Polish nuclear physicist and a SF writer with an amazing dystopian vision. I started reading his novel entitled Van Troff’s Cylinder (Cylinder Van Troffa, 1980) but then I started translating other Polish books at the same time and got busy with deadline etc and had to stop reading and focus on the translation first. This happens all the time. But I was translating Polish books at the time so Zajdel would’ve understood, I hope. Should really finish the Cylinder though.

Haven’t finished writing: oh goodness HELP