1. I’m curious why you’ve written a story about the life of an LGBT+ person. This could have been motivated by a personal reason or by social activism. Can you tell me a little bit about the background of writing this story?
Kim Bi: I had a gender affirmation surgery in October of 2001. I was already over 30 at the time, and I shared everything from the surgical process to my personal story by showing my journey on a documentary called “Hospital 24” on the public television channel KBS. So I think I wanted to change society, even if by a little bit. But it took me 16 years to finally write a story about the surgery. It wasn’t that I stopped writing fiction. I continued to publish my stories, but it wasn’t easy to talk about the surgery as a guiding theme. I knew how to compose and technically place the narrative about the surgery within a story, yet my view on what had happened in 2001—the gender affirmation surgery—was constantly changing. I tried to write a short story because of my compulsion to write down what was happening, but I eventually gave up. I wanted the surgery to be a cornerstone for somebody in the story as it was for myself, but my writing wasn’t sufficient enough. I wanted to lift up the “me” who was crouching in the corner; I wanted to lift up the life of a person; I wanted to lift up LGBT+ people who were facing the same circumstances, but I couldn’t write a story that met all these expectations. Only after a long time since what was a “revolutionary” journey to me had passed, could I do it. You said the story is about the life of an LGBT+ person, but I wish people would understand it more as the story of “transition”—regardless of the lives they are living, every person experiences transitional periods, whether it be divorce, love, or surgery. If we perceive human society as a humongous “basketball club,” then we surely have to pass the ball to one another. So we will have to play “the game” over and over, notwithstanding the life story we have, the love we have experienced, or the surgery we have received.
2. Since a gender affirmative surgery alleviates gender dysphoria, this surgery is often portrayed as the closure of a painful past and the start of a new life. Even so, gender affirmative surgery is narrated with a tone of indifference in your story. For example, when the main character is discharged from the hospital, she says, “It was not a rebirth, and it was not a new life.” That being said, as a transgender person, what does it mean to you get a gender affirmative surgery and live as the gender you identify with?
As I elaborated in the previous answer, the story would’ve been much more exciting if I had written it shortly after the surgery, not 16 years later. But if that had happened, I’m sure I would’ve wanted to change the story at some point in the future. For me, gender dysphoria was very painful. However, looking back now after 20 years, I think the way I perceive my body has constantly changed: from a gendered object to a tool for survival. For example, instead of musing on what kind of man or woman I will become, I ruminate on what kind of body will let me survive. I’m not denying the painful memories from before the surgery, but now that there are so many different types of queer people choosing how to live their lives, a gender reassignment surgery no longer has to be the “absolute” goal and meaning for transgender people. I also think that choosing what people need for their own bodies and for being accepted is the ideal way to respect human life. Just like anyone who lacks something in life, transgender people often fantasize about life after the surgery, but this is not a great way to prepare for the future. It’s simply a surgery that’s necessary for some people, and whether one gets the surgery or not, one should get ready for another round of the game. And this is what human life is, in my opinion.
3. In a society where LGBT+ people are unwelcome, it’s inevitable that many of them will live with emotional scars. The main character impressed me because she accepts and even confronts the things that embody emotional scars, such as basketball games or her genitals that look like “a wound hastily stitched up after being mutilated.” That being said, I want to hear how an individual, especially an LGBT+ person, can live and thrive while carrying these scars.
I think that’s the fate of people who live as a “minority,” but I too was afraid of other people and the world. I feared people shielded by the armor of “ordinariness,” and I lived with remorse thinking that I shouldn’t become a part of their world. But if you change your perspective, you will easily notice that being a minority is just a part of being “ordinary.” By doing so myself, I realized that I didn’t fear the existence of the “ordinary,” but rather sharply sensed the uneasy gaze of those who had noticed my fear. Being proud as a minority gives a much bigger sense of existence than being comfortable as someone who is “ordinary,” which is a concept constructed through the collusion of the social majority. Nonetheless, while they need to belong to a group to feel comforted as “ordinary,” people who are proud of themselves don’t feel shaken by where they are and who they’re with. They’re unswerving by virtue of their existence. It’s not that they become a part of the world, but the world becomes a part of them. And that’s how they make their own universe in which they’re free, not lonely, and unshakable. They can also invite other people into their world as often as they like. Perhaps being a minority is a precious opportunity to take ownership of one’s life earlier than everyone else.
4. In the throwback to her school days and during her recovery period, the main character says things like, “Please let me live” and “I was not human.” What do you think “living” as a “human” means for the people who are being excluded from society or enduring physical pain?
I used to ruminate on how to write metaphorically and stylishly. I tried to convey what I wanted to say more powerfully while not expressing it explicitly. But now, instead of finding a word that is similar to what I want to say, I’ve realized that professing what I want to say is the most powerful way to construct a sentence. Even the most powerful, technical, and objective illustration isn’t as powerful as the cry of a person. Similarly, even the most logical and shining figure of speech is not as compelling as a curse or a shriek. I think the more narratives become intelligent and the more literature becomes gaudy, an artless “cry” or “shriek” will become more powerful.
I have pondered over which words might be the most appropriate to describe a revolutionary transition in one’s life, such as describing a gender affirmation surgery, but only the simplest sentences survived in the end. Refusing to identify with (or even erasing the identity of) “human” as a reproductive creature is not a process of gaining human identity and surviving, but rather a process of appealing and pleading for survival. So the life of a transgender, which seems to be defined by erasing the purpose of human existence in order to survive, is perhaps the ragged state of a human who is pushed toward extremity. If I was younger, I wouldn’t have been able to put it this way, but it’s still true. Someone may counter by saying, “But reproduction isn’t the only mode of human life.” Yet, reproduction is the natural course of life for all living creatures. Disobeying nature and life while yearning for life, our “longing” appears to be groundless and unfair, but that’s why we are more “human”—just like how choosing to exist feels more human than choosing to reproduce.
So I want to tell people this: if you’re pushed into a corner, confront what you’re lacking and leave a record of it. Don’t fear and don’t shrink back. Shout loudly again and again, because it’s okay to do so. Whatever you do, you’re a valuable human that deserves to be respected.
5. What will your next novel’s venture be like?
I recently finished a novel. But now that I’m done with it, I feel like I’m still groping for something too distant. Maybe it was supposed to be this way, since I had to create “my own world.” To create the world that belongs to me, not them, I had to talk about the downfalls and the end of the world. Or at least that’s how I think to console myself.
So now I want to write a piece that corresponds more closely to reality than before. I want to share the story of people who are around me and to leave a record of the world we’re living in. Looking back, I wrote about LGBT+ people more often at the start of my career, and I became more detached from problems in the real world as time passed by. But I think it’s time for me to go back. Recently, I fell seriously ill, and I felt a sense of crisis—there might be much less time left in my life than I originally thought. So publishing more works before going to my last resting place has become my goal for the second half of my life.
As a result, I’m planning to write a love story. That is, a love story based on parting. “Love” is also one of the most fundamental questions of humankind. Of course, I’m not going to write an answer to this question in my novel. Instead, just like all other pieces that talk about love, I might end up adding yet another question. But apart from that, I’m thinking I’m just going to write about love.
Read Kim Bi’s
“Transgender Basketball Club” here
Portrait by Kim Min-yeong (김민영)