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At Dusk interview

At Dusk interview

In this Man Booker International Prize 2019 longlist interview Hwang Sok-yong tells us how "the day the Berlin Wall fell, I sensed that the style and form of my writing was about to change completely" while translator Sora Kim-Russell, tells us why she’s happy for Hwang to get the recognition he deserves.

 

Hwang Sok-yong, author of At Dusk

What has it been like to be longlisted?

To be honest, I guess you could say I feel nonchalant about it. Maybe it’s because I don’t have much luck at winning prizes, but I’m not used to receiving praise. So it’s sort of like being a genie that’s been trapped in a bottle forever hearing that someone will let them out now. But at any rate, Korean literature has definitely taken its seat at the table of world literature.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted book At Dusk?

In every country, modernization has caused social distortion. The West transitioned to capitalist modernization over a long period of time and was able to formulate values like freedom, equality, human rights, and democracy. But for South Korea, modernization was pushed through during three decades of military dictatorship, which left the country heavily scarred. Democracy, despite being part of the ideology of modernism, was suppressed by a developmental dictatorship. As individuals and society as a whole tried to move towards their goals, they hit one roadblock after another. But after time passes, you have to turn around and gaze into the dark abyss of those failures.

At Dusk is the story of a man looking back on that darkness. The novel takes the form of a love story, “chasing the shadow of the one who got away.” Broken hearts from the past get passed down to the ruined lives of contemporary youth and are left incomplete. Modernity is a clash between remembering and forgetting.

How has your personal experience of exile influenced what you write about?

In 2017 I published my autobiography, The Prisoner. The last line reads, “How fragile was that freedom I longed for: freedom from the prison of time, the prison of language, the prison of our divided peninsula that stands like a museum of the Cold War.” When I was flung from divided Korea to divided Berlin, I witnessed the global system of cold war. I knew, too, that my path to joining the rest of the world would require me to go through the obstacle of North Korea. The day the Berlin Wall fell, I sensed that the style and form of my writing was about to change completely. Exile taught me all of that. 

 

Sora Kim-Russell, translator of At Dusk

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It was a nice surprise! It’s a huge honour to find myself on the same list with such talented translators and writers, and I’m very excited to see Hwang Sok-yong’s work getting recognition.

What did you most like about translating At Dusk?

My favourite thing about translating At Dusk was actually pointed out in The Guardian review: the spare prose, the layering of anecdote and memory to build to a quiet, yet profound revelation. It’s the third novel by Hwang that I’ve translated, but it’s quite different from the first two. Princess Bari and Familiar Things were both based on folklore, and maybe for that reason they have more of a bouncy, higher energy pace, whereas At Dusk felt more like taking a peaceful stroll.

How does your experience of growing up in the U.S. and now living in South Korea feed into your translation practice?

Growing up in the US, I was thirsty for literature from Korea. I grew up listening to my mother’s tales of life in the Korean countryside, and maybe that fed my curiosity. But I didn’t really have access to translated literature until college, as the university library naturally had a broader collection than the city library where I grew up. Now, living in South Korea and working as a translator, I ironically find myself turning back to literature from the Anglophone world so that I won’t lose my ear for English prose, not to mention envying all of the literary events that take place in cities like London, New York, Sydney, and so on. Maybe that’s something central to the translator life—always wanting to be in that other place.