The title story of Sang Young Park’s debut collection, Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta (Munhakdongne, 2018), is serialized in Words Without Borders in Anton Hur’s translation.
Sang Young Park, now in his early thirties, was born in Daegu, a city in southeastern Korea, where redevelopment has rendered his childhood neighborhood completely unrecognizable. He attended college and graduate school in Seoul, where he earned degrees in French, journalism, and creative writing, and where he worked in various day jobs before recently quitting to write full time and teach at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.
In person, Park is solid, bright, and handsome, and he speaks without a trace of a Daegu accent (his mother is from Seoul). Unusually for a Korean man, he also sports a beard. We met a few times to discuss his work but I got so carried away by our conversation that I forgot to record an interview. Consequently, the following interview was conducted over email.
Anton Hur (AH): So how did you get the idea to write a story about a Korean gay romance and friendship set in Iraq during the war?
Sang Young Park (SYP): The Zaytun Division and Korea’s participation in the Iraq War was something I always had in my arsenal to write about. There’s a complicated story behind it that I’m sure not everyone is interested in—feel free to scroll!
I lived in New York City for a year in 2007 and happened to go by Ground Zero one day. I hadn’t planned to go there—I was actually on my way to a nearby Century 21 outlet to buy a bag. The whole block was under construction and it was all steel fences and detour signs. I wasn’t paying much attention because my energy was concentrated on shopping and I was going up the steel-grate steps toward retail glory.
At the top of the flight, which was almost two stories tall, I saw a huge and very deep pit over the construction fence below. There was also a sign there, standing like a monument, proclaiming this was Ground Zero. It felt weird to see such a sign amidst my determination to buy some bag at an off-season discount. I couldn’t stay there long, because you had to make it in early for the good stuff, but I felt like a pit had formed in the back of my mind. I thought, I would like to write about that pit someday.
The second inspiration for this story had to do with an art piece. Like other pretentiously artsy young people, I love going to art galleries. I never miss a Seoul Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art exhibition on the annual Today’s Artists Award. At the 2015 edition, I was watching Oh Inhwan’s “Looking for the Blind Spot” installation with particular interest. The screens on the wall were showing interviews with military conscripts who had looked for blind spots around their postings where they could masturbate. I was obviously watching this with great concentration when a familiar face appeared on the screen, an upperclassman I knew but hadn’t kept in contact with. Normally he was a man of frustratingly few words, but his slow and monotonous voice in the video was actually very evocative of the desert in Iraq where he had served. I didn’t have much of a choice—I called him up and we had pork bossam wraps at a place near Anguk Station and I got him to talk about the Zaytun Division, Korea’s troop deployment in Iraq during the war. He gave me precious firsthand content on Erbil and a subdivision in charge of drawing murals for public spaces. I kept thinking, this is so great, this would make good fiction, and I jotted down notes with his permission. I bought the bossam that day.
Since I had invested time, effort, and money in the story, I thought that I would write it as a full-length novel, once I developed better chops as a novelist. But I ended up writing this short story in 2017, my debut year as a novelist, because of the Captain A Incident (a witch hunt of gay conscripts carried out by a homophobic officer).
In all the noise of the controversy surrounding the Incident, I began thinking that I needed my own interpretation of the event. And so, two springs ago, I decided I should write about two men who end up fooling around in the middle of a war zone. I didn’t have as much time as I thought I would to prepare, so I ended up rushing through it. The commission I had received from a magazine was also for a short story, not a novella, which is what the story became. I think I just had too much accumulated inside me and I had to let it all out, which then made me pressed for time. I couldn’t see where the story was going, which made me suffer the whole time I was writing it. Even now, after it’s been published and the reviews have been good, I still think of it with shame and despair because I did not take “Zaytun Pasta” as far as I’d hoped it could go.
I guess it’s not that obvious how my story connects to the Captain A Incident. But still, when I read it now, I’m reminded of how I felt I needed to work this out for myself more than anyone else. Because that was how I felt after I finished. I’m really grateful to this story.
AH: As a translator, I’m always curious about how writers develop their style. Your usage of postpositions is very precise and leaves no room for foggy ambiguity, and while translating it I kept thinking that you have a very Anglo-Saxon sense of prose. How did you develop your style? What books, education, and epiphanies went into it?
SYP: My favorite writers as a kid were Agatha Christie and J. K. Rowling. I’ve read all of the approximately eighty Agatha Christie books that have been translated into Korean. I used to collect them when I was in elementary school. I also spent my teenage years with Harry Potter. You could say those two authors were my literary foundation growing up.
If I were to think about it more, maybe I had an Anglo-Saxonish education. My mom was a teacher and she had me read Disney books in English as a child—My favorite was a warm fairy tale entitled Button Soup—and I learned alphabet phonics along with Korean hangul. We had all the Disney movies at home and I watched one every day, Peter Pan the most. My dad loved English pop songs so I grew up listening to Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey, and Sarah Brightman more than any Korean artist. In high school I was in the English theater club and wrote plays. I was active in extracurriculars, unlike most kids who were more focused on the college entrance exams, and I was into things like studying the French baccalaureate philosophy questions and generally having a well-rounded high school experience that, compared to most Korean kids, was closer to the model they have in the States or the UK, which trained me in terms of critical thinking.
In terms of prose style, I wasn’t really conscious of influences from English literature. Someone did comment during a workshop that my style reminded them of Chuck Palahniuk or David Sedaris, and so when I read their work, I thought, Perhaps they had a similar sentiment and perspective as I did? It could just be my own ego talking. Korean literature tends to allow you to take a lot of poetic license and to use a loose and ambiguous sentence style that stands in for emotional expression, whereas I tend to go for a logically coherent, direct, and concise style. Maybe that reads a bit Anglo-Saxon.
I like to capture the most detailed emotions that others may easily overlook, insignificant things that I might feel in very ordinary moments.
AH: Could you describe your creative process? How do you choose your material, get inspired, and do the writing?
SYP: I jot down notes about funny scenes or hilarious stuff my friends say in real life. I have a lot of weird friends whose heads aren’t quite screwed on right. They’re terrible drinkers and even worse at life. And they’re my muses. Once I have enough incidents and one-liners, I can set up an outline and begin writing. Sometimes it’s social issues or the news that inspires me. The spark is different for every story. “Zaytun Pasta,” as you’ve seen, took a few different sparks.
The process itself is very simple. I get commissioned by a literary magazine to write a story, I select an episode from my notes that seems right for the amount of manuscript pages of that commission, and I try my best to keep to the deadline. Normally I wake up at dawn to write, drinking lots of coffee on an otherwise empty stomach, which gives me constant ulcers. Once the story is completed, I’m happy for about two days before I sink into the meaninglessness of the daily grind, trying to put together a new story. I think I’m trapped in the net of fiction.
AH: There are many moments reading your work where I marvel at how satisfyingly you manage to turn minor experiences, which I thought were too obscure to express, into literature. How did you think to put down these experiences, feelings, time, and space into words?
SYP: I’ve had a great desire to express myself since I was little. In my neighborhood growing up, I was always called “the child who talks like an adult” or “the kid with the loud mouth.” A child that acts older than his peers is bound to be lonely. I began writing when I really began to wish that someone would understand the emotions or the unbearableness I was feeling in the moment. That’s why I like to capture the most detailed emotions that others may easily overlook, insignificant things that I might feel in very ordinary moments. That actually may be why I became a writer and why I write. I really want to use that “unbearableness” as an energy to imbue the insignificant aspects of the ordinary with power in my work.
AH: It’s common practice in Korean publishing to debut an author through a short-story collection rather than a novel, but reading your works gives me the impression that you prefer long form. How do you feel about novels vs. short stories?
SYP: In Korea, a writer usually debuts through one of the big short-story contests before being commissioned to write full-length novels. I also had to write short stories in order to find a publisher to publish my work, and I was lucky to win a big competition hosted by a major publisher, but I’ve always wanted to write long narratives like novels. Most of the time I write two to three times more than my allotted number of words whenever I’m commissioned for a short story, which means I have to cut a lot, and that often makes me feel the Korean writing market just isn’t a good fit for me. That’s why I write a lot of novellas and why about half the pages of my book are of some novella or other. My second book will be a novel, and I have a few more novels already planned out after that. I’m a believer in the power of sheer narrative.
AH: You don’t use quotation marks in your dialogue. Despite this, I have no problem figuring out who is saying what, and the whole feeling is like that of a fragment of unified memory, not one of a scene being played out before me like in a movie. Is there a particular reason you’re not using quotation marks?
SYP: The narrator’s voice is colloquial so I wanted the divide between narration and dialogue to blur. Maybe I wanted the reader to immerse themselves more in the narrator’s storytelling? I wanted them to read quickly and I thought quotation marks would slow them down. Although I have no idea if I achieved that.
AH: I saw your friend “Wangsha” pop up on your Instagram recently, and I understand he’s the person who inspired the name for your character. Is the real Wangsha very different from the one in your story or did you just use his name? Is there a reason you use the names of the people around you? How do they feel about their names appearing in your work?
SYP: I like to use the physical attributes, accents, drinking habits, and nicknames of my acquaintances in my stories. That helps me immerse myself more in the story, and the details of the characters come to life. Of course, the characters are nowhere near the same as the people in real life, and my characters are completely new combinations and creations. My friends love attention, so they love it when I use their names or nicknames in my work. They even brag about it. They’re like the mean girls in Mean Girls, and it’s really thanks to them that I have my writing career.
I got to meet a diversity of people from different classes and sectors . . . Perhaps this variety itself is the source of my narratives and is what sets me apart.
AH: You’ve started a column in Hankyeoreh Daily, and I really liked the first installment about going to work in an office. The Shirley Jackson Award-winner Pyun Hye-young, when asked a weird question about what distinguished her from another famous suspense writer, answered that the fact that she had been an office worker made her different from him. Writers from Yeonsu Kim to Toni Morrison have certain ideas about the relationship between day jobs and writing. What do you think was the influence of your own job on your work?
SYP: I had a huge desire to write when I was in my early twenties but I had no experience to work from and that was frustrating. I recently quit full-time office work to write my novel, but throughout my twenties I worked at all sorts of offices and managed to gather a variety of episodes and characters to use later on. For the past six years, I’ve worked at an ad agency, as a manager at a college dormitory, as a management consultant, as a reporter at a culture magazine, and as a buyer at a start-up promotion center. I got to meet a diversity of people from different classes and sectors, and thanks to this, my head is full of good writing material. Perhaps this variety itself is the source of my narratives and is what sets me apart from writers who are more known for being beautiful stylists or for writing about things like the secret cracks forming inside the fragile shell of the self.
But the thing about those jobs is that you just have no time to write. I was at a nine-to-six full-time job while I was completing my first short-story collection and I had to sleep a lot less because of this. I don’t think I’ve slept more than five hours these past two years since my debut. My health is at a low ebb and I’ve gained 45 pounds, which is why I’ve quit my job and am building up my strength before writing my next novel.
AH: Have you thought of writing nonfiction other than your column, or perhaps even movie scripts or other genres?
SYP: I like essays, and the column right now is a prelude to a book of essays. The title of the column is “I Better Not Eat Before Bed Tonight” and it’s about the tragedy of an overweight writer who is juggling a full-time job. I’m interested in visual narrative mediums. Like any other writer, I watch Netflix like a maniac. Especially sitcoms. Recently I was into Sex Education, Pose, One Day at a Time, and Russian Doll. I watch all the Cannes and Berlin film festival laureates. I like documentaries, too. I have a friend who studied film, and he said I watched more films than most film students. Incidentally, he reads more literature than I do.
Oh, and that very friend told me there was a film director who made movies that were really similar to my writing, so I watched a couple on my own and ended up bawling my eyes out. They were Sean Baker’s Tangerine and The Florida Project. Tangerine is a masterpiece that shows exactly what I wanted to show with my short story “Knockoff Chinese Viagra and Jeje, a Short Joke on Piss that Doesn’t Pool Anywhere,” and the last scene of The Florida Project made me do the ugly cry. I think that Mr. Baker is a man who really knows what life is all about. I can’t wait for his next movie.
I’m all for commissions coming from other genres. I’ve actually won a prize in a web drama screenwriting competition run by the Korea Creative Content Agency. I signed a contract with them and got paid and everything, but the project fizzled in pre-production. I’m still sad about that. I don’t really think of my work being turned into movies when I write but I’m more than open to the idea, and I’m always ready to delve into whatever form of writing that will take.
AH: Your next book is going to be a novel. How is that going, what’s it about, and when is it coming out?
SYP: I’ve actually just finished writing it. It’s what we call an “omnibus novel” in Korea, where a set of short stories are loosely connected to each other to form a larger narrative. You know, like The Vegetarian. I’m trimming away at the four large chapters that create a complete picture at the very end.
As to what it’s about . . . if I may be a bit pretentious here again, the key words would basically be queers and Catholicism, women, abortion, STDs, and economic class. I guess it’s about the emptiness that anyone living in a big city these days feels in their everyday lives, written in a very detailed and funny string of love stories. I’m calling it How to Love in the Big City for now, after one of the chapters. I may change the title to Late Rainy Season Vacation. We’re going to try to put it out this summer. I hope you enjoy it!
Translated by Anton Hur.
Sang Young Park was born in Daegu in 1988. He studied French and journalism at Sungkyunkwan University and attended the creative writing master's program at Dongguk University. He began his career by winning the 2016 Munhakdongne New Writers Award for “Searching for Paris Hilton” and he published his short story collection The Tears of an Unknown Artist, or Zaytun Pasta in 2018.