By Lee Hwan-hee
Who would you say is the greatest living Korean writer? Some would say Ko Un or Kim Chi-ha. Or maybe Park Kyong-ni, Choi In-hoon or Yi Cheong-jun. Another writer who would figure prominently in that discussion would have to be novelist Hwang Seok-young; a critical favorite since the 1970s and now in his 60s, he is perhaps alone among the select group mentioned above in that he is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity too. His new novel "Baridegi", is doing well on the best sellers lists.
The renewed awareness of his works is probably attributable to his interesting life as well. And it was one of the topics that he delved into when he gave an informal talk Friday at the Lotte Cinema near Konkuk University in Seoul. The event was sponsored by the Internet bookseller Yes24.com and it was a fascinating sight as the audience of nearly 250 consisted mainly of college-age people.
Hwang is known as a raconteur, and he moved effortlessly between topics as seemingly disparate as his own life, the present state of literary fiction, in Korea and in the world, and his evolving approach to writing prose.
Still, none who has read his bio could accuse him of being just a writer or a talker; Hwang fought in the Vietnam War, witnessed first-hand the Gwangju Uprising and was forced to live in exile in the U.S. and Germany as he violated the National Security Law by visiting North Korea. He eventually returned to Korea, and served time in prison.
He recalled the prison term in solitary confinement as "an occasion to rediscover the minutiae of everyday life all over again", and said "Initially, in an environment of complete isolation from the world even reading was meaningless, and books contained nothing but the replicas of ideas".
Being engaged with the world is something Hwang believes is a prerequisite to becoming a writer. During the talk, he memorably defined art as "details to be found in life", not subjective experiences or abstract ideas. He also admitted his experiences in foreign lands as conducive to overcoming whatever nationalistic tendencies he may have had, and he said "my identity as a Korean writer is determined ultimately by the language I use to write, not any other things".
Commenting on the often made diagnosis, in Korea as well as around the world, that literary writing as an art form is on irreversible decline, Hwang sees that there is at least some hope of renewal in Korean literature. Korean literature has not experienced a complete separation of literary writing and popular writing, where literary writing is often reduced to obscure postmodern nihilism and has little to do with reality.
Nor has it experienced a complete breakdown of the barrier, where everything is on equal footing. He believes his own style is evolving as well.
For instance, he described the prose of "Baridegi", as being closer to poetry, as the sentences are shorter and more evocative, and less descriptive. Hwang claimed, much to the delight of the audience, "Baridegi", a single-volume book, could've been written in the style of a multi-volume epic, such as his 12-volume "Jang Gil-san".
Hwang concluded the talk by advising writing students to study all humanities subjects thoroughly and not just take creative writings courses, as it is most important for writers to experience the world thoroughly.