The bi-annual literary festival Passa Porta in Brussels invited Sang Young Park to talk about his previous book ‘Love in the Big City‘ and his new book ‘Make Me One Dimensional‘. Being gay, he is one of the, if not the, first authors in South Korea to write novels with homosexuality as a theme. As Oriol and I plan to travel to the Republic of Korea in 2024 and I enjoyed his first book, I decided to go and have a listen.
Sang Young Park, born in 1988, is one of South Korea’s most high-profile young writers. He grew up in the conservative city of Daegu, before moving to Seoul in his twenties and studying French and journalism.
In 2016 he won the New Writers Award for his first story and subsequently published a successful collection of short stories. His debut novel, ‘Love in the Big City’ translated into in English in 2021, became an unstoppable bestseller and was nominated for the Booker International Prize.
The stories explore the lives and relationships of young people in the city, touching on themes such as love, sex, and identity.
‘Make Me One Dimensional’ is Sang Young Park’s first traditional novel. One day, a star psychologist receives an anonymous message about a body found at the bottom of a lake in Daegu, the conservative city where he grew up. He immediately knows whose body it is and in a way seems to be to blame for the fact that the corpse is there.
The news makes the main character (who remains nameless throughout the novel) think back to his troubled teenage years for the first time in a long time. The energy-laden summer of 2002, when South Korea and Japan hosted the Football World Cup. The years he spent studying for his entrance exams under immense pressure, as his destitute family hoped he could go to a leading university. The evening classes where he struggled to make friends and where he fell in love with another man for the first time.
“This book gave many Korean readers nightmares about their own secondary-school days and the internalized self-hatred and homophobia they experienced at the time”, the official introduction says.
(Un)easy on interview
Sang Young Park was interviewed on stage by Angelo Tijssens (° 1986), who studied theatre in Antwerp. He has written several short films and is a joint screenwriter of ‘Girl‘ and ‘Close‘, two multi-award-winning films by Lukas Dhont. He has also been part of the artistic core of the internationally renowned company ‘Ontroerend Goed’ for over a decade. His debut novel, ‘De randen‘, was published in 2022.
Sang Young Park answered in English and in Korean. More mundane questions he answered in English. More deep, technical and high-brow topics he tackled in Korean. An interpreter translated for him. He expressed his gratitude and admiration for her work.
On Instagram, Sang Young Park posted about the event. “Since it was a paid event with a fairly high ticket price, I was prepared to have a chat with three or four people like elementary school students… Tears welled up at the sight of the audience sitting so tightly packed that it was hard to see the end.”
“Everyone was folding their arms and glaring dryly, but it looked like they were filming a guerrilla concert by themselves. When the host asked if I could ever imagine being loved by so many foreigners, I swallowed my tears and said ‘Finally, I’m rich’.”
Host Angelo Tijssens wrote the screenplay for ‘Close’, which was nominated for an Academy Award this year. It will be released in Korea in May, so make sure to go see it! A gag battle started with him from the waiting room. As soon as I got on stage, I felt like I was part of the Korean national team, so I did my best not to lose.”
“It was a move worthy of a person who is fighting a battle that no one knows about every day. Today, we are fighting a great war of stomachs because of the breakfast we ate too much. But really, why do Dutch (Belgian) people speak English so well.”
During the interview, Sang Young Park sometimes looked puzzled by the academic questions. He was witty and deconstructed the ‘high-brow-ness’ of the event.
I feel like here in Belgium we love to cherish queerness and we tend to look at queer creators as their product being by definition intentionally gay, queer, LGBTQIA+.
“It was not a target for ‘Love in the Big City’ queer”, Sang Young Park said on the subject’. “I’m just trying to find my voice and I think I did. I’m evolving towards a comfortable place.”
Moderator Angelo Tijssens wanted to discuss three topics with his guest: queerness, being Korean and being a writer.
“The book feels Korean-ish”, Thijssen stated. “What is ‘Korean-ish’?”, Sang Young Park replied.
“It’s not Korean-ish. Because Korean [culture] is conservative and boring”, the author laughed. “The Korean way to talk is conservative
“It is quite universally queer to move to a big city. The main character just tells his experiences.”
As a writer
Why did Sang Young Park started to publish “to earn money and make a fortune”, he quipped. He will not become rich from his books.
“I wanted people to hear my voice. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell things to friends, so I decided to write about it and have my voice heard by strangers. That seemed somehow easier. There will be no judgement.”
“So shut up and listen!” Sang Young Park masters the art of self-reflection.
“I wanted the ‘Love in the Big City’ to be more than a personal journal so I did apply some literary structure to the story. I’m a well-educated person and I find that important.”
“So I included lovey-dovey elements and the hurting moments”. Sang Young Park also said he drew inspiration from western queer stories such as ‘Diary of a Wallflower‘ and ‘Love, Simon‘.
Park is now working on a tv version of the book, which he is adapting himself. Why? “No comment!”. So a potential adaptor clearly wasn’t on the same page.
Love and Law
Is ‘Love in the Big City’ a coming-f-age story, Tijssens asked. Not really. There’s something lost in translation.
The Korean title is a play on words on the words for love and law. ‘대도시의사랑법’ or ‘Daedosiuisalangbeob‘ is literally ‘Big City Love/Law’. The ‘법’ or ‘beob‘ means law. So the book is about conforming or not to the laws of love, also in regard of the acceptance of homosexuality.
Sang Young Park may now be celebrated, but when his novel was published in 2006, reviewers willingly gave to book low, one-star ratings. Because they thought it was not okay to write about gay sex and love. But that tactic didn’t work.
“Ho I coped? I had to be strong and funnier than I am. Humour as a shield. You can only laugh it off”, Park said.
Did Sang Young Park felt the pressure associated with a second novel? “No. Yes, there was a deadline, but it didn’t prevent me to put words on paper. It’s a different stories. I delve into my teen years.”
“I love young adult stories. In this book, I go back to Daegu where I grew up. It’s a very conservative place. So this book is partly a healing process.”
We also learn Park was – “perhaps surprisingly” – good at sports. He was a good swimmer. And during his military service he was a sniper.
Questions from the audience
As it was time for questions from the audience, one asked how his friends reacted to being portrayed in ‘Love in the Big City’.
‘The characters are not one on one adaptions of real life. But friends love it. They take selfies at places described in the book and claim characters are based on them.”
Another interesting question was about Koreans not being able to say no.
“I can”, Park laughed. “I’m rude to Korean standards. There, I’m an aggressive person and I have difficulties with the prevalent culture. But I can see times are changing. Gen Z is doing things differently now.
I’m curious. Last time I was in Korea was in 2014. Next year, it will be ten years ago. Will things have changed?
- Gyeongbokgung Palace and National Folk Museum.
- Deoksugung Palace by night.
- Changdeokgung Palace.
- War Memorial of Korea.
- PHOTOS | Korea’s DMZ and Joint Security Area (JSA) up close and personal.
- Dongdaemun Design Plaza.
- N Seoul Tower / Namsam Tower, the realm of couples.
- Impressions of Seoul.
- Lessons learned from travelling solo to Seoul.
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