Kim Bi is one of South Korea's most prominent queer writers. She has published eight books, though only two of her stories, “Tree of Kisses” and “Transgender Basketball Club,” have been translated into English. Earlier this month, she spoke with translator Victoria Caudle about her trajectory as a writer, her portrayal of LGBTQ characters, and how queer Korean literature has changed in recent years.
Victoria Caudle (VC): First of all, I’d like to say that I think of you as one of the pioneers of queer Korean literature. Through your work, you often show the everyday lives and private thoughts and feelings of transgender people. When did you first take an interest in writing? Were you given a specific opportunity, or do you have a particular reason?
Kim Bi (KB): I’m no pioneer, but I think I appear to be one because as a queer person I am visibly standing right at the front. If we look back, we can see Yi Kwangsu’s short story “Yoon Kwangho,” published in 1917, so perhaps it could be said that the annals of “queer literature” run the same course as those of modern Korean literature. Which is, of course, inevitable. The “queer” would have always been extant throughout human history but was just erased or not shown. In actuality, I don’t set out to write works that show the “queerness” of being transgender; rather, such aspects naturally appear in my stories because I am living a life that is labeled “transgender.” “Queerness” is only what is seen as queer through the eyes of another, and I think that, for me, it is the largest well that exists in my life. And besides being the wellspring that relieves my thirst and makes my life livable, it can also become fear or terror because of its dizzying, unfathomable depths. And thus writing became a way for me to crawl into that well and survive. Outside of the well, there is nothing that can quench my thirst, so there is nothing to do but enter that frightening place of my own volition. Even so, “queerness” in my work is not a light or enjoyable exploration of the personal, but rather a place where horror exists. The two works of mine that have been translated into English, “Tree of Kisses” and “Transgender Basketball Club,” are works that look out of that well and therefore show some scenes of light, but my other novels are mostly dark.
VC: In 1998 you made your literary debut in the magazine Buddy1. How was that first short story received? Before the publication of Buddy, was there any way to access LGBTQ stories or literature? How much awareness was there about the LGBTQ community in Korea during the nineties?
KB: At that time, “queer literature” was extremely rare. The first piece I published was titled “He Was Sixty-Four” and told the story of an old gay man’s longing. The story itself was ambiguous and was written in a hazy, mysterious way to reflect “old age.” When I look back on it now, I want to fix almost all of the sentences—it’s like a photo from my childhood where I am an “immature me”—but I have decided to let it be. I didn’t create the energy of my short story by way of any other queer literary work; it happened to grow like moss inside of me. I can’t remember having read any works of queer literature before that. In the nineties, the perception of the LGBTQ community in Korea was atrocious. Transgender people were reduced to a spectacle and had to live alienated from everyday life. It was also a time when homosexuals were called “perverts” without question. I often wonder if it was because of this atmosphere of oppression that I tried for so long to live my life in the physical gender of “male” that I was assigned. At the time, it seemed that this was the only possible path in life, the only way to survive, and even I was incapable of breaking free of such beliefs. I think that my writing may have started when a crack began forming in those convictions and what was inside came bursting out.
“Queer people continue to be ‘erased existences’ in Korea.”
VC: In “Tree of Kisses,” you tell the story of Ran, a child who is trying to understand her father, who dresses in women’s clothing. What inspired you to write about a parent-child relationship in this piece?
KB: Hmm, more than a story about a father and daughter, a father and son, or a mother and daughter, I think of this as a story about a “protector” and “protected,” and a story about growing up. There is no label put on the relationship between two people trying to protect one another, and I hoped that by disposing of labels I would be able to create an even stronger story of growth. In my stories, children are always like fireworks, which are something that can create ruptures. Children can also witness ruptures, or even be harbingers of rupture. I don’t know why I keep putting child characters in my stories, though. I can’t even tell you where I got my belief that a child can provide the clearest declarations from within all that is hazy and mysterious. Perhaps it’s because a child is the one being who can say the most impactful words, words that are beyond reason and analysis? Or at least that’s what I make of it. It’s clear to me, seeing how much I rely on these characters, that children protect my stories.
VC: The image of the red skirt is particularly strong in this story, and the symbolism of both the skirt and the color red seems to change as Ran grows to accept her father’s true self. What do you think the color red means to Ran and her father? Does the color red hold particular meaning for you?
KB: It wasn’t difficult to choose red. It is a color that embraces dual meanings, life and death, creation and destruction, so I believe it was the color best suited to reflect the uncertain figures of Ran’s father and Ran herself, who wants to believe in her father but can’t quite do it. Red is the most appropriate color because it is so intense that it can evoke feelings of repulsion but cannot be repulsed; it is something that they may want to break free from, but they must not. Personally, I have no memories that concern the color red in particular. The most obvious thing is that while I perceive red as a difficult or uncomfortable color, I know that it is always inextricably coursing through my body and cannot be denied. I find it impossible to discuss the growth of a living, moving being without mentioning the color red.
VC: Ran’s father is shown to be hiding difficult issues (the fact that they are trans, the loss of their job, the truth about Ran’s mother, etc.) from their daughter. What consequences do you believe this has on their relationship? It seems that Ran's father is trying to protect the person they love, but this attempt is having adverse effects.
KB: “Tree of Kisses” is written with an omniscient narrator, but it follows the mind of Ran, an elementary school student. There may be some who believe that in order to protect someone they must share everything, but I think that when people want to protect someone, the things that aren’t said inevitably begin to pile up. Few people would share the fact that they’ve been hurt, that they have injuries, or that they are anxious and insecure, with the person they are trying to keep safe. Because they know that the anxiety and the injuries cannot be fixed (or at the very least they have to believe that this is true). Furthermore—and this is a reflection of Korean society at the time—Ran’s father believes that revealing their identity as part of a marginalized queer community would be of no help in raising their child. And you know, even now in Korea, there aren’t many who would agree with the idea that an LGBTQ guardian should share their identity and their anxieties with their developing child.
“Humanity needs to broaden its understanding of what family is.”
VC: After meeting her “mother,” Ran comes to realize the importance of “chosen family” and how strong her father has been. What does the word “family” mean to you?
KB: Hmm . . . This is probably the most difficult question to answer. For me, family has not been a “shining” thing. Unfortunately, I think my family may have been a mixture of all possible despair, be it ruined people, hurt people, discarded people, or people sacrificed to the violence of the state. My father was injured during the Korean War and was in pain until the day he died. My mother, who bore the brunt of my father’s violence when he drank away his pain, left, leaving behind us three kids. And because of this trauma, my brother became an alcoholic too. My younger sister was probably the greatest casualty: she not only bore all of this despair but also, on top of that, had me, a “transgender” older brother. Of course, I don’t believe that my identity is in any way tied to the ruination of my family life. I believe that we are “born this way,” but it seems that the apriority of being transgender is still the subject of much debate, isn’t it? But is it really important if you are transgender from the moment of birth or not? Isn’t it enough to take responsibility for yourself and your own happiness by changing the way your life might be going for the better? Anyway, “family” always played the role of chaos and more chaos for me. That’s why I don’t know how to write a family that longs for and cares for one another. Since I’m writing works of fiction, I can, of course, write a loving family from my imagination, but if I do, I always feel empty. Since it is something that I was never able to have, I should be able to write what I want, but because my stories are always expressing deeper thoughts, I can’t just write something flippantly. I may already think that that kind of family is unnecessary, which may be why I tend to depict “chosen families” as something far warmer and more comforting. I am also of the belief that humanity needs to broaden its understanding of what family is. We’ve come to an age where we need love for humankind more than familial love, and following this path going forward, rather than limiting “family” to those of the same name or bloodline, I will continue to write stories that center people who are looking out for those closest to them, trying their best for them, and growing.
VC: At the end of the story, we see Ran heading to Gangneung to enact revenge on the man who assaulted her father. What were you trying to convey by flipping the roles of parent and child in this way?
KB: The ending provoked a lot of mixed reactions from readers. In fact, the editor of this short story collection flat out demanded that I take this part out. I think they thought it would be good enough if there was a happy ending in which everyone got along. However, I felt that there was no way this desire to protect could end with just “security” and “dreams.” I thought that any such desire or growth could only carry on through the act of fighting, and that, much as love doesn’t fade over time, the desire to protect someone doesn’t fade and instead feeds growth and can be fulfilled through fighting. Of course, we don’t actually know if Ran fought the man or not, but I think that her desire to show that she is no longer the child who couldn’t protect someone she loved, that she is now capable of protecting those who are precious to her, is integral to the story’s theme of growth. That’s why it is ultimately so important to show her desire for revenge. There will be people who are uncomfortable with how the story ends on revenge, but I think this scene shows the greatest image of growth.
“When I made my debut in the nineties, queer literature was nothing more than a curiosity.”
VC: Could you tell us more about what you are currently working on? I heard that you recently made your debut as a playwright with the play To Die as a Fish (mulgogi-ro chukki). How did it feel to see your work take on a physical form?
KB: I was able to take part in To Die as a Fish thanks to the famous artist and writer Jung Eun-young and the theater producer Koh Jooyoung. As incidents of hate toward transgender people materialized in Korea, these two feminists thought, We can’t just sit by and watch this happen, and they discussed putting the life of an “elder(ly) transgender person” on the stage. While talking about this, they came across my column, “Onward Sweet Fifties!”, which is serialized in The Hankyoreh [a major Korean newspaper], and contacted me about writing a script. They asked me not to stick to fiction, but to write the truth of a transgender person, and I wrote what may be seen as a last will and testament for my future self in her eighties who has lived a long, happy life before leaving this earth, and that’s what made it to the stage. I wrote it with the stage in mind, but I don’t think of myself as a playwright. I don’t even think of it as my having “debuted”—that’s not a term I’d like to use for what I’ve done in front of people who have spent years studying and working in theater. I am simply a writer who wrote what was needed for the stage, and collaborating with the talented director and producer, as well as the other artists, musicians, and choreographers, plus the stage manager, lighting director, sound designer, and more, we created a wonderful piece for the stage. It was truly a special day for me, and a really happy time. Coincidentally, around that time I received the terrible news that three members of our Korean transgender community had passed away one after the other, which was deeply upsetting, so seeing this play performed live was a very special, unforgettable moment for me. It was so incredible and surreal to see my work brought to life—I truly was bewitched by the magic of the stage. Due to COVID-19 precautions, there was limited seating and only ten performances, but the tickets sold out in five hours. I wish more people could have seen it, but I will remember how this performance gave me some of the greatest comfort of my life.
VC: If you were to compare the Korean literary scene from when you debuted to how it is now, has the reception of or attitude toward LGBTQ authors or LGBTQ-centered stories changed at all? How do you think it might change over the coming years? In what ways would you like to see it change?
KB: I don’t think I am in a position to make any broad statements about the literary world, but as a member of the LGBTQ community and as a writer, I’ve felt joy in seeing that queerness and queer stories are no longer estranged from Korean literature. When I made my debut in the nineties, queer literature was nothing more than a curiosity, but nowadays I see more queer love stories and narratives about young lives. Hmm . . . Because I grew up in a time when being queer brought me a lot of pain, my stories contain a lot of depressing and miserable elements, but these young authors’ queer narratives aren’t like that, which I find quite surprising. Sometimes I think the times really have changed, and sometimes I am a little embarrassed to be the only one writing stories of pain. Since, in the end, writing fiction is a process of melting down your personal perspective to create a world, there’s no avoiding the things that have caused me pain, but one day I’d very much like to write a story that breaks free of all of that. Because this is a painful time, I don’t want to see only painful stories, and I don’t think portrayals of queer life should be totally consumed by this one aspect. Queer people continue to be “erased existences” in Korea, which is to say that having society see queer people and consume queer stories in only this one light is another way of potentially erasing us. I think that these young authors writing queer stories might also be thinking about this. We’ve got to write people’s stories, but we must make sure that “queer” is not erased by “human,” and at the same time we must make sure that we write narratives that make people realize we are “human.” Well, I’m not really someone who tries to read trends in the literary world or spends a lot of time trying to decipher what’s next, so when asked how queer literature might change in the future, I can’t really make a prediction, but what I sincerely hope is that what is “queer” continues to be beautiful. I hope that it continues to have the narrative energy to open people’s eyes to the beauty of humanity. Thank you.
Kim Bi was born in 1971 in Gyeonggi-do, South Korea. From a young age, she questioned her gender identity, and in 2000, she was reborn as a woman through sex reassignment surgery. That same year, she shared the process of her surgery in a TV documentary in an effort to break down prejudice against transgender people in Korea. Her writing career began in 1998, when she published a short story, “His Age, Sixty-Four,” about older gay men, in the LGBTQ magazine Buddy. In 2007, she won a fiction award from the periodical Women’s Donga for her novel Plastic Woman. Her published works include Kim Bi: The Story of an Ugly Transgender (2000), The Likes of You and Me (2006), and Wear a Flower in Your Hair (2012).
1. The first issue of Buddy was published in March 1998 and became the first LGBTQ publication to be published through a registered publisher and sold in bookstores throughout the country. Both the publishing house and the magazine itself were founded by members of the LGBTQ group “Another Love” (tto hana ŭi sarang / 또 하나의 사랑). The magazine covered all gender and sexual identities and ran from 1998 to 2003. ↩