Current Issue Interviews Interviews Winter 2018

An Interview with Gu Byeongmo

Translated by Sharon Cho and Shyun J. Ahn

1. Your story is about someone experiencing discrimination after being turned into a woman due to bioterrorism, which I thought was unique. Also, you vividly portray the relationships made within the restraints of hierarchy, such as how it feels to have someone take credit for your own work or to lose your agency. As such, I am curious to know how you came to write a piece like this.

Gu Byeongmo: Ever since the start of humanity, there has always been discrimination against minorities. And since most of us have never been part of the dominant group, we have, over time, like the characters in the novel, been publicly robbed and swindled. And oftentimes, this has happened as naturally as breathing. In other words, my everyday experiences as a minority were the motivation behind writing this story.

However, people with even the slightest bit of privilege cannot understand others who do not have even that much privilegeuntil their own privilege is completely stripped away. Hence, the character in the novel believes he has lived productively as an ordinary person with low social status, and he realizes that his sex was a privilege only after losing it to terrorism. That is to say, a personwho has been excluded from society due to their biological conditionis taking revenge on the world by stripping their oppressors of their biological privilege.

2. You named your story “Mirrorism.” It seems to me that the story demonstrates mirroring in two ways: first, in that the protagonist, who used to be a man, experiences discrimination as a woman; and second, in that men, who are turned into women by bioterrorism, inject the drug into other men—like Mr. Kim. Nonetheless, rather than title the story “Mirroring,” you ultimately used the “-ism” suffix and named it “Mirrorism.” What exactly does “Mirrorism” mean to you?

There is no exact definition. I think the futility of trying to pin down an exact meaning for something in a literary work only speaks to how much literature itself is steeped in irony. Nonetheless, I have decided on something along the lines of: If mirroring is the act of reversing others by reflecting them through a mirror, the subjective interpretation of mirroringor the structure of thoughts behind mirroringcould be called “mirrorism.” That being said, when two mirrors face each other, their brightness and darkness will be reflected back and forth endlessly. And how readers interpret this phenomenon is up to them.

3. Currently, there are trans-exclusionary movements on Korean social media from certain feminist groups claiming that MTF transgender women “perpetuate gender stereotypes” and “reproduce misogyny.” So I found it interesting that you were tackling the topic of misogyny with a protagonist who has been forcibly turned into a “woman.” Is there any significance to the fact that the protagonist is a “mutant” rather than a biological woman?

It is impossible to be aware of every single discussion online, let alone the reasoning or proof behind certain arguments. Besides, this story was published in Korean in September 2016, at which the time I hadn’t considered—and couldn’t predict—the future movements on social media sites. To put it simply: while writing this, I wasn’t attempting to categorize women or draw a line between who counts as a woman and who does not. The main point of the story isn’t about whether the protagonist is biologically female, or to what degree she will turn into a woman, or if the change will ever stop, especially since transgender and intersexual people do exist. Rather, the point of the story is to explore the stripping away of male privilege, in whatever form it exists.

And outside the story, to put it quite simply, I personally don’t understand why people who have had been historically excluded from the society would ostracize other groups of people.

4. The protagonist identifies as a woman after her body changes to that of a female, and she consequently buys women’s clothes and styles her hair instead of cutting it. But even then, she feels no remorse for the way she used to discriminate against women. What does it mean to you to “become” a “woman” in Korean society?

There is certainly a difference between “becoming a woman” and “being a woman from the start,” but that is something I will be thinking more about in my own time.

The protagonist, at this point, is simply consumed by the fact that she is now ostracized and hasn’t reached the point where she reflects on or reinterprets the days when she herself ostracized women. A sudden shift in realization would not be realistic, and, even though the character is fictional, it would be too artificial and improbable to impose such a change on her in a story as short as this. Therefore, the decision she makes is merely to take revenge on the man who victimizes her by putting him in the same position as her.  Regardless of nationality, race, and spatiality, becoming a woman or being born as a woman—i.e., womanhood—carries much pain and intricate social undertones of exclusion, so it is hard to clarify what it means to be a woman in a concise or detailed way.

5. What are your plans moving forward?

Though I have not deliberately declared myself a feminist writer or written novels exclusively on feminism, as a woman myself, I have been aware of women’s struggles as instinctively as breathing. For that reason, these struggles were artlessly recounted in my stories, regardless of the genre. For example, in the past ten years, I’ve written across the whole spectrum of fantasy, science fiction, thriller, and noir. In doing so, I told stories of monsters within ourselves and stories of marginalized people who do not have a share in society or who have been cast away—like women.

“However, when I made my voice conspicuous and directly addressed the issue of women by writing realist novels that dealt with giving birth and raising a child as a woman, people started to say, “She was a fantasy novelist, but now she’s just jumping on the bandwagon late in the game,” and recently, many publishers are sending me new feminist books. And I think this indicates one of three things: people were not interested in what I had written before, they only saw a part of what I had written, or they’ve only now started labeling my works.

In spite of this shift, my goal is to be able to blend feminism so seamlessly into our daily lives that people don’t even have to label whether a novel is “feminist” or not. Because I have written novels on many themes and subject matters, I will continue to work on what I want to work on, just as I’ve done so far. And people will label my work accordingly, as “fantasy” or whatnot, then forget about what else I’ve written to date. Therefore, I don’t think there will be a decisive moment or turning point; I don’t have a grand goal in my plan moving forward.

 

Read Gu Byeongmo’s
“Mirrorism” here

 

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