1. Having been born in the year of the 1988 Olympics and now having turned 30 years old, it seems like you’re at a really uncertain age. Though, of course, things aren’t perfect now, we think of the ‘88 Olympics as the symbolic time when the democracy in South Korea got started. It’s also the time that Korea started to get more international recognition. In that respect, there would be many common denominators with the generation born after the ‘88 Olympics. But at the same time, it is also the last generation to attend elementary school as “gukchoding” and pay tuition for middle school. In conclusion, I would say it feels like your generation ambiguously spans between the current and the older generations. So I’m curious how you, as someone born in 1988, perceive the lives of young people and the current times in which we live. Also, if these phases of the times are reflected in your works, how so?
Lee Jong San: I think that compared to the older generation, I spent my school days in a free atmosphere. I remember there used to be a lot of debate classes in elementary school. In middle and high school, the dress code was relaxed and nighttime self-study wasn’t compulsory, so when afternoon class ended we were able to freely spend our time.
When I was in elementary school the first computer lab appeared, and I remember going to see it. I think it was a thrilling time with a sense that a new era was approaching because it was the millennium generation. We got a computer at our house when I was in 5th grade. We only used it to play games, but we were happy. When I was young, I didn’t really know about politics, but learning about concepts like globalization, democracy, and citizenship, through school, I had a vague sense that I was living in new times. I could also feel that the adults were proud that they were opening up an age of democracy through the power of the citizens. I also felt like an open future lay ahead of us that couldn’t have been imagined by previous generations.
The mid-90s also happened to be a shift into a rapid digital era, so the word “Gukmin Hakgyo” carries nostalgia for many people. While lives and memories of “Choding” are inseparable from a computer, as they commonly had one at school and home, “Gukding” experienced a relatively analog childhood. People who were born in 1988 are the last age group to go through this transition, so, in a way, they are stuck in the middle of the symbolic shift in Korean society.
In contrast, my twenties was a dark time. We witnessed the collapse of systems everywhere. The Sewol ferry incident became our generation’s trauma. The incident wasn’t merely a tragic event, but it seemed like the anxiety of our generation that “things are falling apart” came to the surface.
In my early twenties, I worked for a long time at a convenience store as a part-timer. There was a time when my boss put up a notice that he was looking for workers to fill shifts other than mine. Within only a few days, nearly 70 resumes came in. It was a position that didn’t even pay the minimum hourly wage.
The number of jobs decreased quantitatively, but the quality of jobs also got worse. The lives of young people became more unstable as small businesses, large companies, and the even the public business sector came to prefer using contract workers over permanent employees. In my second novel, Lazy Life, the main character and narrator “Raccoon” keeps feeling an unknowable anxiety and the contradictory emotion of “wandering whilst being tied.” And I think the cause of it is the backdrop of the times. It wasn’t intended, but I think the anxiety I feel living in this time is naturally reflected.
But there is also a positive side. During the collapse of the system, living according to the pre-existing ways of life became impossible for millennials like me, and we don’t even hope for it anymore. Instead, we came to hope for change. I think we could pull off a change in government through candlelight protests because of the strength constituted of our desire for change. I think it’s from the same context that the voices wanting the advancement of human rights, like in feminism and the LGBT movement, grew stronger. My third novel, Customer, is about people who overcome things they were born with, such as physical limitations or their assigned gender, by deciding to mutate their genes. I am certain that I came to write this story in part due to the influence I received from the generational atmosphere.
2. Your friends who don’t write literature are managing ordinary life as thirty-year-olds. I’m curious as to what kind of differences you feel between yourself, managing life as a thirty-year-old novelist, and your friends.
I can’t help but laugh while giving the answer to this question. If you tell me to speak honestly, I usually don’t feel like I’m not living an ordinary life because, for the most part, my friends are living like me. It seems like I’m in big trouble since I don’t have a sense of crisis. But I love my life so much!
3. It seems like you’ve thought a lot about a state of lacking. In the story, things appear that are absent or disappearing repeatedly—main characters and cafe customers who seem to live lives that are missing something, the street where stores are closing one by one, the subway station where the number of passengers is diminishing, and the blaze that devours the street. What is a deficiency to you, and what is its meaning in the society in which we live?
To be honest, I’m not sure what the meaning of deficiency is for the society in which we live. The deficiency I think of is loneliness. You talked about “things disappearing,” and it surprised me a little that you tied it up in that way. The Snow and Leaf cafe is a place where lonely people gather. In my story, the reason people are lonely is that certain things keep vanishing. Willing or not, they have to keep sending things away.
For the last several years, the gentrification happening in various places in the world has been an important issue, and it is for me as well. At times, it feels unbearably painful that, due to a huge force that I can’t stop, precious places are being forced out from their original space. It’s not just places, but people too are being pushed out to places that aren’t visible.
This story was reproduced in the literary magazine Essence and Phenomenon, and at the back of the story a critic added commentary. The critic connected this story of mine with Hyun-gyung Kim’s, “Person, Place, Hospitality,” and I was grateful for their seeing accurately. “Person, Place, Hospitality” tosses us the question, “in this world now where there is no choice but to go along with the continuous migration between nations, how are we to receive foreigners?” It’s a story about hospitality, and about the attitude of accepting strangers.
The Snow and Leaf cafe is a place of hospitality. It’s a place where people who are missing something receive warmth and go back. Eun is also a character with a deficiency, but she fills what is lacking in herself while showing hospitality to the customers. That’s because hospitality warms minds in a two-way street. Eun waits for others at the Snow and Leaf cafe. It’s for the sake of sharing the experience of hospitality with people who have a shortage, in a world where things often go missing. In the world where things keep disappearing, being squeezed out little by little, and where one’s heart gets injured, I feel that the hospitality that people show one another is “proof that they are protecting the world.”
4. I’m curious about the character of Jiwan. In spite of an extremely small appearance, he seems to hold an important position for the theme by starting and ending the story. What kind of role does Jiwan play for Eun and for the story? What would be the proof that he has been protecting the world all along? Or is the word “you” directed not only toward Jiwan, but also toward all the other characters that appear in the story?
This also connects to my answer to the third question, and it is correct that the “you” in “Proof You Were Protecting the World All Along” is applicable not only to Jiwan but to all the other characters in the story. However, if we focus in on Eun, the thing protecting her world is the existence of Jiwan. The people who come to the cafe fill some of what is missing for Eun, but in the end, they are not people who stay. The person who stays by her side is Jiwan. For me, the scene where the two are holding hands in a world where things keep disappearing was important. You know, when something has a large deficiency, it can crumble away. Eun and Jiwan are people with big deficiencies, and in order to keep from collapsing, they grab one another’s hand. Because of that, Jiwan becomes the “proof of protecting the world” for Eun. On the other hand, I think I wrote this story thinking that those kinds of relationships together are protecting the world.
5. What will your next novel’s venture be like?
My third novel is still to be published (Customer, expected to be published in September through Munhakdongne Publishing Group). Would it be alright to introduce it? In short, this is a story about a world that has developed the technique to correct genes. People decide to become their “transcendental being” through body modification. It’s also a story about a 17-year-old girl, “Suni,” falling in love with “Ahn,” an adult intersex person who has both a male and female body. It is planned to be a trilogy.
Read Lee Jong San’s
“Proof You Were Protecting The World All Along” here