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Interview with Kim Soom: From Girlhood to Old Age, From Seoul to Manchuria to Ussuriysk

by Cho Hae-jin March 10, 2022

Kim Soom

Kim Soom has published thirteen novels, most recently When Has a Soldier Wanted to Be an Angel? (2018) and Sublime is Looking Inward (2018), the third and fourth novels in her Comfort Women series, and six short story collections. She has received the Yi Sang Literary Award, Hyundae Literary Award, Daesan Literary Award, Heo Gyun Literary Award, and the Tong-ni Literature Prize. One Left (2016), the first novel in her Comfort Woman series, was translated and published in Japan in 2018. Her story “Divorce” is out from Strangers Press, UK as part of their Yeoyu Korean Literature series (2019)

The name Kim Soom brings to mind many keywords—grotesque, family, shipyard workers, history, comfort women, and diligence. I’d like to begin with the last keyword. The year 2022 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of your literary debut. You’ve lived more than half of your life as a writer, having published a total of twenty-three works, including seven short story collections and sixteen novels (ranging from novels in epistle form, literary retelling to Young Adult, and two written in the form of testimonies that seem to stand somewhere between the boundaries of poems, novels, and interviews). 

Your first collection of short stories, Fighting Dog, was published in 2005, eight years after you won your very first literary award for your debut short story. We can roughly calculate that you’ve published at least one book every year since 2005. Last year alone, you’ve published three works: Listening Time, Drifting Land, and A Swallow’s Heart. As a fellow writer living in the same age, your diligence is something I aspire to learn. Twenty-five years is a long time and not all writers are capable of persistently turning out books as you have. I’m curious, what is the source of your strength that has led you to write so tirelessly?


I don’t know where that strength comes from, either. And I believe “impulse” would be a better word for it. I’ll see, hear, read or think something and then, like a bolt of lightning flashing across the silent sky, the impulse to write will shoot up from within me. It’s this out-of-the-blue impulse that has led me to write these last twenty-five years.



I assume such an impulse will take different forms according to when it visits you. Your early works mainly deal with the absence of communication and the sheer solitude originating from severed relationships and the mood is quite grotesque. We can still find this worldview in your stories today. Can you explain how the words solitude and grotesque have come to define your works?


I’ve spent my childhood growing up in the countryside. When I look back on the landscape that used to surround me like a folding screen, such as anything from nature—a reservoir, mountain, rock, or tree—or animals, such as chicken, pigs or goats, or even humans, I think there has always been this strange, eerie aura about them. Nature in its pure form (and even the people who live within it), practically unaffected by civilization, will seem primitive and strange. Everything in it will be in perfect harmony and yet exposed to competition and the struggle to survive at each and every moment. And they’ll exist completely alone, in solitude. Nature’s solitude is so great that the solitude of human beings simply pales in comparison. I believe my emotional development took place in that world, and because of that, the foundation of the world I create cannot help but be grotesque and filled with solitude.



You’ve revised your first two short stories, “On Slowness” and “Time in the Middle Ages,” which launched your literary career, and used them to create “The Story of Roots” that went on to win the Yi Sang Literary Award in 2016 (included in the 2019 story collection Will I Be Able to Touch the tree?—Ed.). What thoughts passed your mind as you reworked your two early works for the first time in twenty years?


I tried to determine what belonged to me and what didn’t. It wasn’t easy removing or deleting the things that weren’t mine. Going back to my early works that I worked on during the eight years until the publication of my first short story collection was like pushing myself into the hardened ground that has become rock solid and forcing myself to come face-to-face with the roots, that is, the roots of my stories, hidden underneath. It was a gruesome and painful task but I was able to learn that the roots of the stories I write today come from those two early works.

I think one of those roots may refer to labor. Your novel Cheol (Iron) minutely details the horrific reality of laborers who are treated as consumables at a huge shipyard. The story deals with realistic issues and at the same time illustrates an absurd situation created by the characters’ blind faith in “iron.” Thirteen years later, in 2021, you published A Swallow’s Heart. I noticed there were fewer descriptions of the absurd but a noticeable increase in poetic language. What sort of change did you feel writing another story based in a shipyard thirteen years later?


As I continue to write, I feel my sympathy for my characters deepen. I especially felt that way as I wrote A Swallow’s Heart. It’s a novel I wrote with great satisfaction. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing process, although I had to deal with the painful personal history and sadness of each of the laborers who worked for the shipbuilder’s supply team (that is the so-called ghost workers of a secondary subcontractor, who not only work in the gray areas of safety but who are also stripped of their most basic rights).



©Ozak



Another area we cannot overlook when it comes to your novels is history. Your focus used to be on relationships, especially on the pain caused by families and disillusionment about family relationships. However, the focus shifted to history. Is there a special reason behind such change?


I don’t consider myself having more interest in history than other writers. And I don’t think of myself as someone who writes historical novels. When I wrote One Left, Drifting Land, and A Swallow’s Heart (they’re all full-length novels and each deals with a specific group of people), I rather felt I was focusing on the individual rather than the whole. What I mean is, I felt as though I was focusing on each and every person. I was treating “everyone” as the main character. Even if a person is completely alone in the world, that person still exists within history—the history of that person’s family and the history of the ethnic group or country that family belongs to.



Many would agree One Left (2016) is a milestone work in your literary career. The novel is considered monumental in the area of testimonial literature. And I personally believe publication of this work has provided the best possible consolation to those who have been victimized by history. What were your biggest concerns when writing One Left?


I wanted to depict the “typical day” of the main character. I wanted to show how this woman, who survived wartime sexual servitude, endured so many days thereafter and grew old, living her everyday life. I wanted to show how challenging, lonely and great her struggles were to live one day at a time. 

And I kept reminding myself, during and after the writing of the story and even today, that my novel should never harm or heroize any of the victims, and that I should never exaggerate the truth.



One Left has been translated into several languages and received rave reviews, and even won a translation award for fiction in Taiwan last year. What may be the reason behind the work receiving so much interest from foreign readers even though the story deals with history that is distinctive to Korea? 


The Japanese military’s “comfort women” are victims of wartime sexual violence and I think there is a consensus among people that such wartime atrocities are issues that have to do with all of us, regardless of our age or nationality.



One Left is a novel that is like a documentary, based on the recollections of the story’s narrator, an unknown survivor of Japan’s wartime sexual crimes, from the day she learns that only one former comfort woman remains alive, whereas Flowing Letter (2018) depicts the appalling reality of a fifteen-year-old girl who lives and works at a comfort station. What led you to write Flowing Letter after writing One Left?


After the publication of One Left, I always felt it was an unfinished work. I could picture the girls and the comfort station before my eyes, unlike when I wrote One Left, and that led me to write Flowing Letter. Although I wrote and published One Left first, Flowing Letter is a work that comes before it. I still think One Left is incomplete, and I believe that thought would have become even greater, like an outstanding debt, had I not written Flowing Letter.



The stories of the surviving comfort women continue on in your works in present tense. The voices of Kim Bok-dong, who passed away in 2019, and Gil Won-ok, who is currently in ill health, are rendered poetically in Nobleness Lies in Self-Examination (2018), Have You Ever Wished for a Soldier to Be an Angel? (2018), and a supposed prequel to these two works, Listening Time (2021). I caught a glimpse of your struggle to honor the people who testified their experience in Listening Time. I had the impression you were trying to listen to the “unspoken silence” of the surviving victims. I can imagine how close you must have become with them after writing a series of these works. Is there any special story you would like to share on how you came to build a close relationship with the surviving comfort women?


My relationship with them first began after I wrote One Left. I think they appreciated the fact that I had written a story about comfort women, and Kim Bok-dong and Gil Won-ok halmeonis (grandmothers) invited me to dinner. It was my first time actually meeting with former comfort women. I sat facing them before a table laid out with food they usually ate, finished my dinner and returned home. There wasn’t much talk. I normally enjoy speaking with the elderly, but I struggled talking with them that day. Even then, I had no idea I’d someday write about them. Several months later, I was given the opportunity to join the halmeonis at their own place and time and listen to their stories in their own voice. While working with them, I found myself thinking about relationships in general and came to the conclusion that relationships occur naturally, that they cannot be forced according to a certain plan.



So you were given the chance to share your life with them. I can imagine what a wonderful writing partner you must have been to them. Now, let’s turn to Drifting Land (2020), a novel which won the Dong-in Literary Award. This work introduces to the readers another story from our history, the forced migration of ethnic Koreans in Russia. I was surprised at the minute details you deployed in the train scenes. I’d like to know what caused you to develop an interest in this topic and how you conducted your research.


Forced migration of ethnic Koreans was always on my mind and I wanted to write a novel about the migration process even years before I’d written the first draft. I searched for whatever materials I could find and read them until the scenes inside the train and the ethnic Koreans therein came alive.



Your most recent work of publication is “The Man Who Touches Waves” [the January 2022 issue of Hyundae Munhak—Ed.]. It’s a story of a totally blind man who works as a special education teacher. The book reads like a monologue or even a long narrative poem. It also borrows some literary forms from plays. What led you to write it and will you continue to write about people with disabilities?


I’ve been meeting with four people (individually) who have visual impairments. Since last summer, I’ve been writing stories inspired by the conversations I had with them. The recently published work is the first among such stories. A thought came to me one day that I wanted to write about “someone who cannot see” given the chance “to see.” I was able to write “The Man Who Touches Waves” as I was introduced to someone who is totally blind and works as a special education teacher. I value each and every moment I meet with them. Conversations with them always bring me joy and fulfillment, and I hope it is the same for them as well when they talk with me. I don’t know where my work is currently headed, just as I had no clue before last summer that I’d be given the chance to work with visually impaired people.



“The Man Who Touches Waves” seems to mark the beginning of a long project. I look forward to the works that follow. Let me now turn to a personal question. I’ve been told you love animals. In your short stories “The Hole” and “My First Goat,” you illustrate horrifying scenes of pigs being buried alive after the outbreak of foot and mouth disease and other forms of animal cruelty. I’m curious about your thoughts on animals.


I pray for my dogs that have passed away after being at my side for more than ten years. I pray almost every day, asking for forgiveness for failing to do my best in looking after them while they were with me.



It is now 2022. What are your writing plans for this year and what kind of stories would you like to write from now on?


The revised edition of Noodles will come out soon. It’s a collection of short stories, including “The Hole,” published eight years ago. I began the first day of the New Year revising the stories in the collection and found myself really looking into the lives of my characters (even more so than when I first wrote them). It was a meaningful experience as I gained deeper understanding of their pain and sadness.



Translated by Juyeon Lee

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