Baek Minseok, You Are Right Now and You Were Wrong Then
Interview with Analrealists.
July 8, 2015 6:00 PM – July 9 4:40 AM
Translated by Mattho Mandersloot & Shyun J. Ahn
2. “Now that’s what we call a ‘flashtard’”
Bak Solmay: So we actually divided the roles today. I was going to ask you about your personal life, and then (turning to Keum Jungyun and Jeong Jidon) about your writing.
Keum Jungyun: We’ve spent quite some time talking about personal life, haven’t we? I jotted down a few questions about your writing down, too. About eight A4s.
Bak Solmay: Eight pages?
Keum Jungyun: I didn’t bring them.
Jeong Jidon: You really are something else.
Bak Solmay: Come on. Try to remember some of it.
Keum Jungyun: Well, last year, I read all the short stories as soon as they came out seasonally. So I kept up with all of your writings, too. I don’t usually read quarterlies at all. But frankly, they weren’t very good at the time. It wasn’t as good as I expected, but it was really good when I was rereading it now. Because when I read it the first time, I just… I couldn’t stand stories about depressed middle-class women.
Bak Solmay: Like?
Keum Jungyun: Like… so many? Movies, novels, you name it.
Jeong Jidon: Yeah, quite a few.
Keum Jungyun: “Samurai and the Rain” is about the same thing. That’s why I hated it at first. But this time, it seemed like the four stories you wrote had a deeper meaning to them. For example, there’s a novelist who keeps gifting people Chet Baker CDs, which felt like a parallel universe to me. In “The Emoticons of Love and Hatred,” there is a line: “I killed the writer in me in order to survive.” Now here, it’s the opposite, hypothetically. Because it seems like it’s portraying the world where I killed myself as an ordinary person and as a writer. Also, the older brother of the novelist is the person who dies is in “Black Snow.” And to me, he seemed to represent Baek Minseok as an ordinary person. But questions like this, I can’t really end with “Is that correct?” so I’m just giving you my opinion.
Bak Solmay: He might say, “That’s correct.”
Baek Minseok: I’m just grateful you read it. Who still reads novels in this day and age?
Jeong Jidon: It’s a job.
Baek Minseok: A job, you say?
Keum Jungyun: Reading is, yes.
Baek Minseok: And you supposedly write 3,000 pages of prose per year. I can’t even write novels at that rate.
Bak Solmay: Who does?
Jeong Jidon: The writers specializing in martial arts novels do. Like Seo Hyo-won, who wrote The Sect of the Great Assassin.
Baek Minseok: Who’s Seo Hyo-won?
Jeong Jidon: He wrote martial arts novels, and they say he was quite good at it: when he would meet up with friends and play cards, he would excuse himself to go to the bathroom and return after 10 to 30 minutes with a freshly written novel under his arm. He’s a legend.
Keum Jungyun: Ah.
Baek Minseok: Does he still write?
Jeong Jidon: He died an early death. But he used to write about 80,000 pages per year or so.
Keum Jungyun: Oh, I have a question. What’s with all the oral sex in your novels?
Baek Minseok: Who? My novels?
Keum Jungyun: “Do you think the mouth is a urinal?” or “I did the nasty thing with her mouth.” I’d say one in two of your novels has a line like that. The ones post-comeback…
Baek Minseok: I think it’s just those two examples. Oh, there’s one in “The Forest,” too. Ah, well, I don’t know. Why did I do that?
Keum Jungyun: And also in The Century of Fear. There’s a suggestive scene where someone says, “I’ll show you the wolf, the red wolf…”
Baek Minseok: Hmm…
Jeong Jidon: Sounds suspenseful.
Baek Minseok: It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t write it because it meant anything in particular.
Jeong Jidon: If it wasn’t intentional, it’s even more worrying.
Bak Solmay: Oh, there’s something dangerous about oral.
Keum Jungyun: Can you do your own analysis once? We didn’t read it.
Baek Minseok: Aren’t the genitalia just a symbol for masculinity? There was this guy in my office. Whenever he got drunk after being scolded by our boss, he tried to take off his pants and put his junk on show.
Bak Solmay: Did he do that often?
Baek Minseok: A few times. He wanted to make sure others knew he was a man, too. I’ve been treated like that by our boss, but I’m a proud man. I still have that dangling between my legs. He wanted to prove that every time he was drunk.
Bak Solmay: Everybody thought he was weird, right? That’s not a natural thing, I suppose?
Baek Minseok: The penis is like a source of pride for men. They put on a Queer Festival recently and told my students about it: “If you look at the letters LGBT, there are four kinds of homosexuality. And it seemed you all think we should give support and solidarity equally, but in fact…” Is the first of four about male homosexuals?
Jeong Jidon: The second: gay.
Baek Minseok: Speaking of gays, they are penis enthusiasts. Men might become gay because they like the idea of the penis, and therefore they might come to resent women for not having one. They do come to resent women, and, in a way, may develop an inkling towards discrimination. That’s why it’s okay for men to be supportive of gay men as a sexual minority but it’s not okay for women to sympathize with or show solidarity to gay men. Because that might hurt a gay man’s pride. That’s Freudian theory. Got it from his book.
Bak Solmay: How did you that come up during your lecture? Did you just say, “Today there’s an event such and such going on?”
Baek Minseok: Because people bring so many different kinds of writing. One student really liked that topic.
Jeong Jidon: Gay men who feature in popular media are usually presented as “gay best friends,” right?
Baek Minseok: There are many kinds of homosexuals…
Jeong Jidon: That’s how male homosexuals, or gays, are portrayed. A lot of them work in fashion. In TV series, they willingly listen to women’s worries and give advice. But in my experience, they don’t all fall into that category. Some do, but others don’t. I’ve seen other kinds, too, because some of my friends are gay. A few of them see women as potential enemies or rivals. They’d get along with women if they are approached with good humor, but they’d try to compete with them otherwise. I found that interesting too.
Baek Minseok: Aren’t gay men repulsed by sex with women? Don’t they hate the thought of themselves having sex with someone who doesn’t have a penis? Why would a gay man only sleep with other men? Gay men simply like penises.
Bak Solmay: Is that what you really think?
Baek Minseok: It’s what Freud says in his book. And I agree with him.
Jeong Jidon: You could get in trouble if people heard you say that. There’s a chance you’ll be misunderstood.
Baek Minseok: Why’s that? Are people going to assault me?
Keum Jungyun: Well, you can’t really make generalizations like that. Of course, it might be the case for some gay men, but it’s not a universal truth.
Jeong Jidon: You’re right.
Baek Minseok: I don’t think I was making a generalization, actually. (Laughs)
Bak Solmay: I’m really against the idea of phallocentrism, but I think it’s possible to think like that. But if you think that their supporting one another with Queer Festival is laughable, that’s a little…
Baek Minseok: Even without the gays, there’s the other three. LBT. You can show solidarity to those three. That’s still a lot of people being a sexual minority, those three together.
Bak Solmay: But how have you ended up thinking that way? Did you read it somewhere and think Aha, that’s how it is?
Baek Minseok: Yes.
Bak Solmay: Still, you could’ve simply taken it on board after hearing from people around you or reading from somewhere else. Instead, if you took such a forceful stance in your lecture, so surely you must have been prompted some way or another?
Baek Minseok: I’ve seen many things over the course of my life. Let me give you an example. When The Candy I Loved came out, lots of people assumed I was homosexual. I was 27 at the time and pretty handsome (laughs), so once when we went drinking, a fellow writer—you all know him too—brought a friend with him. I think the friend had asked him to introduce us to each other because he himself wasn’t a writer. So we had a few drinks and then we shared a taxi. My grandmother was hospitalized in Cheonho-dong, and I wanted to pay her a visit. So it was after midnight already, but I still got off there. But then, this guy followed me out of the car though he’d said he needed to go further. When I turned around to say goodbye, there he was flashing his penis. Just pointing his thingy straight at me. And as he did so, his facial expression… I don’t quite know how to describe the smile on his face.
Jeong Jidon: Like, ecstatic?
Baek Minseok: No, his penis wasn’t even vaguely stiff. It was just flopping out there. Now that’s what we call a “flashtard.” I looked it up on the internet, and the youth call flashers like that. Anyway, I don’t know how to describe his face, as he was standing there snickering. “Show me yours, you like this too, don’t you?” Something along those lines. It was the first time that had ever happened to me, and I had never expected something like that to happen to me. So I didn’t know what to do, and hence I just turned around to walk into the hospital.
Keum Jungyun: Ah…
Baek Minseok: I’m still traumatized. Those petty little things pile up as you age. Penis-related stuff. Oh, about the oral sex in “Black Snow”… I just remembered why the guy loses his erection in the vagina but not when his penis is in the mouth: he was afraid of impregnating her. With penetration, there’s that risk. which subconsciously puts an end to his erection. And that’s why he couldn’t put it into the vagina. He was afraid he would end up like his brother, who died, leaving his children fatherless. Because of this fear, he subconsciously refrained from penetration.
Keum Jungyun: Do you have any thoughts on male genitalia, in general?
Baek Minseok: I don’t think about it. Why would I? It’s a filthy thing.
Bak Solmay: To think that it’s a filthy thing is a thought all the same.
Baek Minseok: I think Freud is right, perhaps. As far as my personal experience is concerned. But you said we shouldn’t generalize, so I won’t.
Keum Jungyun: These days, there are lots of debates around feminism, too. What do you think? In Yellow Sea Culture, there’s an episode that talks lightly about neo-feminism. And in “The Sea, The Moon,” you use a tiger’s butt to satirize neo-feminism, too. So what’s your take on the topic?
Baek Minseok: That was just for fun. I’ve got no serious thoughts at all about feminism.
Bak Solmay: That’s funny. He’s suddenly using polite speech.
Jeong Jidon: And he’s dodging the question.
Baek Minseok: If you want to know what I’ve always thought: I don’t think any man can be a feminist. I still see it that way. They just can’t. That’s what I keep telling my female students: if some guy tries to get close to you by pretending to be a feminist, he’s a fox. That’s how I tell them to think of guys like that. Because men don’t have the faintest idea about women. So how can they be feminist, to begin with? The most glorious thing a man can do is to be by women’s side, when they’re carrying out the feminist movement, wishing them the best. And not to interfere with their plans.
Jeong Jidon: And not to act like know-it-alls.
Baek Minseok: We shouldn’t butt in and try to take the lead. That’s the way I see it. Men don’t understand women so well. Freud said that, too. Just before Freud died, he said that women were still an enormous uncharted area in the field of psychology. He didn’t know much about them himself, he said. And there’s also the Electra Complex, which Jung invented, not Freud. Freud didn’t talk much about women at all.
Bak Solmay: That’s a funny story, really funny because it sounds nonsensical. Women are dark, so you don’t know them—it sounds like they’re seeing a witch. To me, in modern society, we should be able to talk about women in a sensical way without going that far. When you bring in Freud and say women are “dark,” you’re shoving a woman into unknown, mysterious territory. And doing that, it’s hard to move forward from here.
Baek Minseok: I’m just trying to say us men shouldn’t be too forward.
Bak Solmay: A lot of people say that.
Baek Minseok: You can’t mystify women. That’s sexism on a different level. I’m just saying don’t be forward when it’s not your place. That’s what Freud also meant. Freud did not mystify women, but he simply said there is a limit to how well men can understand women.
Bak Solmay: We’ve been talking about this a lot, but we haven’t really talked about the important stuff.
Baek Minseok: Oh, we have…
Bak Solmay: What about your writing?
Baek Minseok: We talked about The Candy I Loved. Didn’t you like that?
Jeong Jidon: It’s a masterpiece, that book.
Baek Minseok: Not the book. What I said about the flashtard. Normally, people go rolling over the floor when I tell them that story.
Bak Solmay: Did you get a lot of questions about being gay?
Baek Minseok: I did. Some people think I’m gay even after being away for 10 years. One time, an editor asked if I was gay.
Bak Solmay: How do you respond?
Baek Minseok: I ask them what they think is gay about me. I don’t look gay.
Jeong Jidon: Really, you think it’s about appearance? Gays can look all kinds of ways.
Bak Solmay: Have people never barked up the wrong tree with you, Jidon?
Jeong Jidon: I, uh, I’ve been hit on. But not too often. It’s more women who think I’m gay. Gay people don’t get it wrong, but some of them just gave it a shot.
Keum Jungyun: Do people ever tell you you look like Baek Hyun-Jin from Uhuhboo Project?
Baek Minseok: Never heard of that person.
Bak Solmay: You do look alike. Don’t pretend you don’t know him.
Baek Minseok: I honestly don’t.
Bak Solmay: What is the running theme of your upcoming art essay?
Baek Minseok: I don’t know. Disorganization? It’s a peculiar type of essay, but I don’t know what to tell you right now. Because it’s a writing format that’s rarely been used before. Originally, my intention was to look at modern Korean society through the lens of art, so there’s nothing new about that. But it’s the style of writing that’s unusual. It’ll make more sense when it’s published in a book.
Jeong Jidon: I don’t know if I can explain this well, but writers have always experimented within the realm of literature. In your novels, however, you seem to experiment with devices and motifs taken from the realm of art. That’s what I felt while looking at your art essays, too.
Baek Minseok: That’s probably true. But it’s not something I do on purpose. You all write novels so you’d already know, but don’t you think a novelist works 24 hours per day? Novels, you write in your dreams, too. Do you write book reviews in your dreams? I do. I work twenty-four hours per day. I’m drowning in work.
Bak Solmay: Do you still do photography these days?
Baek Minseok: Yes. Do you want me to take your picture? All the pictures in the art essays, I took myself.
Jeong Jidon: Towards the end, there’s this drawing of a mansion with a garden. And there are people drawing it, too. Were you inspired by some other painter?
Baek Minseok: I think I was. I can’t remember exactly, but I didn’t copy their painting as is and instead added my imagination. So I’d say I just borrowed a bit.
Keum Jeong-yeon: Why is there so much texting going on in your writing post-comeback?
Baek Minseok: I think it’s based on my real life. I actually text all the time.
Jeong Jidon: Let’s publish that in series… in our magazine, no?
3. “I’m well into my forties now, so I’ve probably fooled myself a lot, too?”
Keum Jungyun: In the 90’s, you wrote 16 Believe-It-or-Not Naturalis Historia, featuring the “natural history faction,” who are plotting a huge conspiracy. In Man on the Tip of the Tongue, there is also a series of short stories related to Naturalis Historia, where people from the faction are wiped out and modified. I think the four-part series that you wrote last year is a vignette of our time as well. But whereas the capitalist conspiracy at the end of the century worked in people’s imagination, your recent work, as you’ve said a few times yourself, delineates abnormal psychology in a way similar to Balzac’s The Human Comedy. I know there’s really no answer to this, but it’s just the way I see things… So what I wanted to ask you is this: “A great fear anchored the coastal village down.” Did you write this simply out of boredom? Out of frustration? Or, perhaps, was there some kind of political message there?
Baek Minseok: I think it was necessary to develop the plot of The Harrowing Monsoon. Just so the characters could overlap. The mom had to be featured this time.
Jeong Jidon: That’s a bit mental too, isn’t it?
Keum Jungyun: It seems you wrote it as if to say, “I’m not dead yet. I’m still good at this.”
Baek Minseok: I wrote it to continue the storyline.
Keum Jungyun: How long does the series continue, then?
Baek Minseok: It goes back to the very beginning, “The Harrowing Monsoon.” There’s a man in that story. It goes back to him. It’s spread across nine episodes, so there’s three more to come.
Keum Jungyun: So what’s the order? “The Harrowing Monsoon” first?
Baek Minseok: Correct.
Keum Jungyun: So is ‘“The Harrowing Monsoon” the very first? It came out in the Spring issue. Both “The Harrowing Monsoon” and “Rain and Samurai.”
Baek Minseok: Then “Black Snow,” “The Dead Child Goes Far,” “Fearful Coast,” and “The Adventures of a Languid Boy.”
Keum Jungyun: When did those come out?
Baek Minseok: “The Adventures of a Languid Boy” came out in Contemporary Literature.
Keum Jungyun: I haven’t read it.
Baek Minseok: Then don’t. What difference does it make?
Keum Jungyun: It’s also in The Century of Fear, but there’s a kind of narrative about the birth of the Anti-Christ, which I found very enjoyable.
Jeong Jidon: Moby?
Keum Jungyun: Moby. In “Diary of the Purgatory,” a man takes the role of a prophet. And you didn’t make it very explicit, but “Man on the Tip of the Tongue” seems to say that religion can arise from the tip of the tongue and that a god can be created by humans. Is there any reason you’ve become particularly interested in religion?
Baek Minseok: I’m actually not religious although I do remember going to a Protestant church as a child. I don’t know why, but the older I get, the more I’m drawn to religion, honestly. I want to go to church now. If I had been to a temple as a child, I might have wanted to go to a Buddhist temple. Anyway, when you put on a few years, religions naturally become more appealing.
Keum Jungyun: I see what you mean, but most people are headed in the direction of meditations or the New Age. But you don’t seem interested in that at all.
Baek Minseok: Let me tell you something. Last year, I went on a prison tour and the warden there told me something which relates to what you just asked me. “If you want to know why they’re in prison,” this warden said, “it’s because they all deceived themselves.” They were all full of confidence that they wouldn’t get caught, but they merely fooled themselves and ended up in prison anyway. He said that’s the reason why these people take to religion. They don’t trust themselves anymore. When they realized how worthless, how fallible, and how frail their own existence is, they created and embraced the existence of a hypothetical being called God. In other words, so many people find religion in prison because they were deceived by themselves and realized that they’re nobodies. So they want to create and own something greater than themselves, namely God. That’s how it goes. I’m well into my forties now, so I’ve probably fooled myself a lot, too. And now I’ve realized that I, too, am a nobody. What’s worse, I now know that when a sense of justice caught on to me, even that might be fake. So I’m searching for something greater than myself. And that’s what religion is to me. But I don’t believe in God nor do I go to church. Still, I’m aware that part of me is drawn to something religious. I feel drawn towards the idea of there being something greater than me.
Jeong Jidon: The most curious thing about this is that when you started writing again and wrote about religion, I felt very empathetic. Žižek once said that religion’s raison d’être is the fact that there is a void in this world which must be filled with faith. One must have faith as fiction regardless, and religion plays that role. And that’s how he thinks we should see things. Whether you believe in Christianity, whether you believe in literature as your religion, or whether you believe in yourself, it is through a belief that you fill the void in yourself. So it’s important to address things from this perspective, and I think we should believe at least in something. But this is also where violence comes in. Especially looking at “Century of Fear,” violence seems to be an important factor, and I’m curious as to what kind of relationship you think there is between religion and violence.
Baek Minseok: Religion is a lofty thing. The existence of God is an ideal that surpasses the earthly, and the connection with violence seems to arise when it is transferred to the earthly church. So I think the real-life version of God is violence. When religious ideals are applied to reality, violence ensues. If you look at the Old Testament, it is consistently intertwined with violence. It’s filled with stories of the Israeli people killing women, men, children, and even livestock in fits of rage. And that is violence. When the voice of God reaches the earth, violence ensues. This repeats itself throughout the Old Testament, to an atrocious extent. No slasher movie I have ever seen comes close to the constant horror scenes in the Old Testament. Violence and religion are inseparable. And then there’s ISIS. When the voice of Allah reaches the earth, violence ensues, too. So the relationship between religion and violence is one of reality and ideals. Religion is made of ideals, and violence is the real-life version of religion.
Keum Jungyun: I heard, this time, when you published your novel in the series, you focused on mental violence, not physical violence. However, so far, we’ve mostly seen physical violence. Is mental violence going to take over in the second half?
Baek Minseok: I tried to show it in the first half too, but it seems like it wasn’t clear enough.
Keum Jungyun: I can feel the components of mental violence from the relationship between Moby and his dad because Moby looks down on other people. So I can see that, but still, the physical violence in the story is too severe.
Jeong Jidon: Ah, and just by looking at the story, Moby seems to be a psychopath, sociopath, or someone like that. When I read Bizarre Story in Cotton Fields, I didn’t get the same feeling from Hang Changrim. This book laid out personal and social problems that allowed violence. Moby’s like a devil himself because his violence can’t be traced. So should I say he has a unique starting point? Other characters manifest their violence in relation to a social cause, but Moby seems to quite something else.
Baek Minseok: I tried to give him a superhuman character. His name comes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and “dick” means a man’s private part. So Moby himself is a penis. I used the name “Moby” for the first time in my novel Rusher, and I had taken it from Moby Dick, too. So the dick I removed is the signifié hidden under the name. So it’s Moby’s signifié, its origin being a penis—a very vigorous penis. I’m bringing up Freud again, but young boys sometimes mistakenly think that they’re omnipotent because they have a penis. Moby is like them. He’s a superhuman penis. A character distinct from others, a little crazy and has omnipotent phallic power.
Jeong Jidon: So should we say that he’s the very embodiment of a penis?
Keum Jungyun: The format of the novel is unique as well. It starts with Moby’s life story, and rare names like Sim, Gyeong, and Yeong appear. You had named characters differently in the past, like “wt” or “xd” in lowercase, so I found this interesting. But I also felt that you had chosen another way to construct time. To be specific, your other stories jump between points in time, but Moby’s story unfolds from his childhood to the turn of the millennium. So how will time be narrated later?
Baek Minseok: Other characters are in the same, present time period. Moby travels from the past and meets them later.
Jeong Jidon: Originally, you said they were going to meet in a prison.
Baek Minseok: I tried but it was too hard to write, so I changed my mind.
Bak Solmay: Which prison did you visit?
Baek Minseok: Yeoju Prison. It took three hours to take a look around.
Jeong Jidon: I’ve only been to Uijeongbu Detention Center and saw it from outside. I couldn’t get in, though.
Bak Solmay: So are we ending this interview with the conclusion, “Beware of strangers?”