An Interview with Bae Suah

23 Apr
Bae Suah is a Korean writer living in Germany whose books set in South Korea are finally being translated for English-language audiences.

Bae Suah is a Korean writer living in Germany whose books set in South Korea are finally being translated for English-language audiences.

Bae Suah was born in Seoul and has published seven books in Korean, three of which have been translated into English: the novellas Highway with Green ApplesTime in Gray, and, most recently, Nowhere to Be Found. She currently lives in Berlin and translates German literature into Korean, including Martin Walser’s Angstblute and two works by W. G. Sebald. She is currently translating the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

To read an exercise on characterizing an entire society and Bae’s novella, Nowhere to Be Foundclick here. The following interview was translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

Michael Noll

The narrator in this novella—as well the narrator in your story “Highway with Green Apples”—seems to be struggling with what it means to be a young, single woman in a place where the expectation of marriage is quite strong. Given that expectation, I was sometimes surprised at how “liberated” she sometimes sounded. For instance, in a passage about what makes a relationship special, she casually mentions watching porn. Even in the present American culture of TV shows with strong, sexually independent female characters like Girls and Broad City, this reference to porn still took me by surprise. Is it something that would have surprised Korean readers in 1998 when it was first published?

Bae Suah

Well, in that particular passage, the viewer of porn isn’t specified as either male or female, but I do think women watch porn. Of course, men probably watch it for different reasons… In this case, some readers may wonder why the act of watching porn in particular would remind a person (male or female) of someone. It’s not about porn, per se, but about the way a certain someone can suddenly come to mind when you’re busy doing something. I think most of the Korean readers of this novella have been young women, and they didn’t seem put off by this passage. Or at least, I don’t think they were. I don’t think they were surprised by it either.

Michael Noll

Near the end of the novella, there’s a jump in time. You write:

“That year was my beginning and my end. It was one year of my life that was neither particularly unhappy nor particularly happy. It wasn’t so different from 1978, and it wasn’t any more or less memorable in comparison to 1998. The things that happened in 1988 had also happened in 1978 and would happen again in 1998.”

The passage continues on that way. It’s a bleak sense of an absence of logic and progress that you end up calling “third person random.” It’s something that appears in “Highway with Green Apples” as well, a sense of disorientation and disconnectedness, not just between the narrator and her life but among almost all aspects of life. There’s a kind of cruel senselessness at work. It makes me wonder at the reception of these stories in Korea when they were first written. Did readers say, “Oh yeah! This is how it is.” Or did they bristle at the portrayal of their world and the people in it?

Bae Suah

As with the first question, I think that young female readers responded positively to this novella. I guess you could say that what I portrayed in this novella is a kind of volcano inside women’s hearts—volcanoes that threaten to, but never actually, erupt. However, older readers and male readers reacted differently. Male readers bristled at this book, and specifically said that they felt put off by the narrator. The female protagonist is not very nice to the male protagonist; she throws his food in a latrine just to dramatically demonstrate how she is feeling (one younger male reader told me that chicken was highly prized in the army back in the ‘80s); and she has a brusque way of speaking (in fact, she tends to be curt, unfriendly, and rude with others). In other words, she’s the opposite of what’s expected of a woman in Korean society, and that made older readers and male readers uncomfortable. Plus, the novella doesn’t take a delicate approach to emotion and makes no attempt to appeal to universal sentiments. It tosses out unfamiliar and idiosyncratic words and expressions without pampering the reader, and it offers no cause-and-effect explanation in a way that could be understood by anyone and everyone, and I think that is why Korean (male) critics weren’t too happy with this book.

Michael Noll

The novella contains a Kafka-esque moment when the narrator visits Kim Cheolsu at the army base. She ends up running around, being misinformed about his whereabouts, being told that there is more than one person by that name. Was it difficult to find scenes or actions that would convey that sense of “third person random” that is subtly present in so much of the novella?

Bae Suah

The events in the story are all based in reality: the fear a young woman feels as she’s on her way to visit a boyfriend in the army, the anxiety of an uncertain future, the terror of love, and so on. That fear and anxiety is not something that can be overcome simply by escaping poverty. As soon as one insecurity dissipates, another drops before us like a curtain. The young woman on her way to meet her boyfriend doesn’t know this yet, but the older woman narrating the story does. She’s no longer troubled by the pain and uneasiness that follows love (i.e. relationships with men), and she doesn’t regard it as the source of her misfortune. She accepts this anxiety as part and parcel of life and love. While writing this novella, I recalled how I felt back in my twenties, so it really wasn’t that difficult to follow the narrator’s emotional trajectory.

April 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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6 Responses to “An Interview with Bae Suah”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Writing Exercise Inspired by Bae Suah’s Nowhere To Be Found | subject object verb - April 27, 2015

    […] Interview with Bae Suah […]

  2. How Amazon came to dominate fiction in translation – The Guardian | Books Smart Outlet - December 10, 2015

    […] from the German, has enjoyed similar success, according to Gunter, as well as Korean author Bae Suah’s novella Nowhere to Be Found, and Turkish author Ayşe Kulin’s Kindle bestseller Last Train to […]

  3. How Amazon came to dominate fiction in translation – The Guardian | Great books outlet - December 10, 2015

    […] from the German, has enjoyed similar success, according to Gunter, as well as Korean author Bae Suah’s novella Nowhere to Be Found, and Turkish author Ayşe Kulin’s Kindle bestseller Last Train to […]

  4. How Amazon came to dominate fiction in translation – The Guardian | Book Supreme Depot - December 10, 2015

    […] from the German, has enjoyed similar success, according to Gunter, as well as Korean author Bae Suah’s novella Nowhere to Be Found, and Turkish author Ayşe Kulin’s Kindle bestseller Last Train to […]

  5. 亚马逊是如何在小说翻译领域独占鳌头的 | 书页传媒-图书传播价值 - December 27, 2015

    […] Gunter表示,这些书“囊括了不同种类”。穿越亚马逊出版的“最出名的畅销书”就是德国作家奥利弗·珀奇(Oliver Pötzsch)的《刽子手的女儿》系列,她表示该译本的销量超过了100万。Petra Durst-Benning的The Glassblower 系列也是译自德语,Gunter表示该系列的销量也相当可观,另外畅销的还有韩国作家Bae Suah的中篇小说Nowhere to Be Found、土耳其作家艾雪·库林(Ayşe Kulin)在kindle上推出的《开往伊斯坦布尔的最后列车》,这本小说讲述的是一个土耳其犹太人在二战期间从巴黎逃往伊斯坦布尔的故事。“可能我们都没有听说过这个故事,因为这并不是我们这些以英语为母语的人的历史……但这真的是一个引人入胜的故事,”Gunter说道。 […]

  6. How Amazon came to dominate fiction in translation - BOOKCASH: Write and Sell Ebooks Tips - January 2, 2016

    […] from the German, has enjoyed similar success, according to Gunter, as well as Korean author Bae Suah’s novella Nowhere to Be Found, and Turkish author Ayşe Kulin’s Kindle bestseller Last Train to […]

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