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[Herald Interview] International Booker-shortlisted Hwang Sok-yong says literary journey continues

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : April 17, 2024 - 18:11

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Hwang Sok-yong speaks during a press conference in Seoul, Wednesday. (Changbi Publishers) Hwang Sok-yong speaks during a press conference in Seoul, Wednesday. (Changbi Publishers)

One of the finalists for this year’s International Booker Prize, Hwang Sok-yong has vowed to continue until the end, asserting his commitment to the art of writing.

Speaking at a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday, a week after named to the International Booker shortlist with his novel “Mater 2-10” on April 10, the 81-year-old writer revealed his plan to write three to four more novels by the time he turns 90, in addition to completing his book project of completing a 50-volume collection of Korean folktales for children.

He is currently working on his next full-length novel, centered on a 650-year-old hackberry tree, tentatively titled "Grandma."

When asked what drives him to keep writing, he said, “It’s my calling, I guess. It’s the pride and desire of wanting to produce something more extraordinary, and the belief that there’s still more I can accomplish.”

He acknowledged that as he ages, he finds himself burdened by new challenges and responsibilities. But he frankly expressed his desire to be recognized with the International Booker Prize this time around.

"I am already 82 years old (in Korean age). I've looked back on my life and felt as though it has slipped away; having spent over a decade in exile and imprisonment, I feel even more so. I think I deserve those lost years back. I believe I can still have another 10 years."

The writer was sentenced to seven years in prison for his 1989 visit to North Korea in violation of South Korea's national security law. Following this, he spent five years in exile in Berlin and New York, and served five years in prion before receiving a special pardon.

Hwang further expressed his desire to be recognized as a writer who has dedicated himself to the mission of "overcoming modernity," adding that many of his later works delve into this theme.

"While society appears to have entered a postmodern phase, internally, we remain entangled. We seem to have lost our bearings. And there's a pervasive sense of anxiety stemming from our uncertainty about the future. That is why so many literary works revisit the past century, globally. I believe this stems from a desire to reflect on our roots."

The Korean edition (left) and English edition of The Korean edition (left) and English edition of "Mater 2-10" by Hwang Sok-yong, translated by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae (Changbi Publishers, Scribe Publications)

Hwang, who debuted in 1962, is considered a doyen of the Korean literary scene, but he seemed to have a different perspective on the term.

"It does not necessarily indicate someone has reached literary mastery, but rather an artist in crisis who is stuck in inertia,'" he said, adding that what matters is progress.

“There’s a saying in Buddhism, ‘baekcheokgandu jinilbo,’ which means taking one more step forward even after you reach the hundred-foot pole,” he said. “Every artist, regardless of age, should approach new attempts with this mindset. You don’t know if you can keep going or fall, but it’s important to take one step further.”

Hwang’s epic, multigenerational novel “Mater 2-10” tells the story of three generations of a family of rail workers and a laid-off factory worker staging a high-altitude sit-in. The narrative depicts the lives of ordinary working-class Koreans from the Japanese colonial period through liberation and into the 21st century, spanning over 100 years.

Co-translated by Sora Kim-Russell and Youngjae Josephine Bae and published by Scribe Publications, the book is among six shortlisted for one of the world's most prestigious literary awards.

This is the second time Hwang has been nominated for the award. In 2019, “At Dusk,” also translated by Kim-Russell, secured a spot on the longlist.

The five other titles shortlisted are: “Not a River” by Selva Almada, translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott; “Kairos” by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from German by Michael Hofmann; “The Details” by Ia Genberg, translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson; “What I’d Rather Not Think About” by Jente Posthuma, translated from Dutch by Sarah Timmer Harvey; and “Crooked Plow” by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated from Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz.

The winning title is to be announced at a ceremony in London on May 21.