Translated by Sharon Cho and Suhyun J. Ahn
1. I’d like to know what motivated you to write this story. You must have been thinking of feminism since you sent me this story upon request. I think you were probably also grappling with the issue of existence, as the story involves a deteriorating building and a swapped right hand. How did you piece these inspirations together in your story?
Choi Jung Wha: “Everything in Its Place” is a piece I came to write while participating in Dear Hyunnam, a feminist short story anthology. During my life as a woman, I have experienced hypocrisy and oppression, but once I was given a space to realize those experiences, I was struck by fear. I was afraid that my internalized misogyny would accidentally make an appearance somehow, and so I felt a lot of pressure. As a result, I did not feel as free writing this piece as when I was writing other works. Even as a woman, my viewpoint and voice occasionally reflect those of a chauvinistic man because of how deeply society has ingrained this habit of degrading and insulting women in me; I was anxious readers would see this. So I decided to focus on the situation I’m in and write about how women speak of and about other women.
2. It is often said that space-time is the basis for existence. It seems like you’ve given a lot of thought to “space,” specifically. For example, your story involves objects that are included in or left out of the abandoned building, the friends claim to “seize the space,” and everything returns to its place. I’d like to ask, what significance do the spaces—such as the abandoned building and “its place”—have in this novel?
The abandoned building serves as the artist’s workplace. It is both the place that is most actively connected to the world and also the place that is most cut off from it. It is also the inner space where the artist can discover herself. It is the place the artist is supposed to enter but feels reluctant to do so. It is the place the artist accepts and takes in her surroundings, but it also can be changed with a simple action. And, ultimately, it is the setting the protagonist is put into. It is the world.
When I came up with this abandoned building, I pictured a structure that was in the middle of being torn down. Similarly, I borrowed an image of gentrification, the phenomenon where a social minority loses its footing, when I included the line, “A group of workers wearing black jumpers with the large white words ‘Korea Construction’ on their backs would tear down a perfectly fine building and abandon the ruins in their desolate state.”
3. In the story, the acts of putting things in their places ironically displace objects from their places. Some examples are the skirt and hat that are taken in and out of the place; and the protagonist’s hand, which is swapped with a man’s hand, after putting everything in its place. I wonder how you interpret the act of putting “everything in its place?”
It is impossible to accept reality as it is. Even the things we see are the result of selection. For example, I once opened the door of a doctor’s office and walked right up to the front desk, and the nurse asked me to change into indoor shoes. When I turned around, I saw that there were indoor shoes by the entrance, but I hadn’t seen them as I walked into the office with my own shoes on. Therefore, one ends up making “a choice of what to keep and what to omit.”
And I admit that this is an extreme example, but we’re living in spaces that are restricted to our own cognition. Since the world the protagonist has to face is more than what she can accept, she then has no choice but to alter it. And aren’t we all doing this to ourselves? So it’s more appropriate to say that putting things in their places is the way humans live, rather than just a peculiarity of this particular protagonist.
4. Can you tell me what kind of significance the hand has in this story? The department head, who is the quintessential representation of Korean masculinity, habitually comments on his female employee’s hand. Moreover, as her eczema heals, a man’s hand is revealed. I can’t help but feel like feminism inspired the hand with eczema. What are your thoughts?
The eczema on her right hand is the site where the identity and physicality of her “I” collide. The protagonist’s hand violates her own identity because that hand is a part of her body that she cannot accept. In real life, a woman must face the internalized male point of view and voice that she’s acquired through her experiences. I used eczema, a physical condition, to represent an anomaly that is both a part of the body and something that cannot become part of the body. In other words, the eczema functions as a confession: that the anomaly that once impaired me is now a part of myself; a confession of the pain stemming from my realization that what I had once been unable to accept has now become a part of me.
So the discovery that her hand is not, in fact, her hand reflects her willingness to recognize the pain in this irony and to move on to fully reclaim her viewpoint and voice as a woman.
5. What are your plans for the future?
Since Everything in Its Right Place is published in May 2018, I’ve been working on my second novel, When One Meets Silence [고요를 만나면]. Right now, I am working on a short story that will be published alongside an essay, and I’m also planning out a novella, which will be published in 2019. In late 2018, I collaborated with an illustrator and we published a short story anthology, I Found a Bouquet. I’d thought of publishing the anthology as a graphic novel in the past, so I’d drawn six or seven panels, and, luckily, I had an opportunity to join Mimesis Publisher’s “Take Out” project around that time. I am still interested in different genres, so I want to continue applying literature to those fields.
Read Choi Jung Wha’s
“Everything in Its Place” here