The price of expressionIt’s hard to imagine Ma Kwang-soo as an academic star. Thin, hoary and frail, the 52-year-old lights another cigarette in his Yonsei University office ― these days, he says, he needs two packs of cigarettes to get through a day ― and begins to talk about his past.
In the 1980s, his classes in Korean literature at Yonsei used to attract as many as 1,500 students. He used to drink the nights away with his students.
But all that changed in 1992, after he published a sexually explicit novel called “Jeulgeo-un Sarah” (Happy Sarah).
Prosecutors deemed the book immoral, and Mr. Ma became the first Korean novelist arrested for obscenity. He says nothing has been the same since.
In his Yonsei office, two tall bookshelves stand practically empty. A thick layer of dust covers the floor.
Once known for his dauntless attitude, Mr. Ma looks tired and fatigued now. To a request to audit his class, he replies, “Please don’t. I don’t make a good teacher anymore.”
“Happy Sarah” was the story of a Korean woman who has affairs with a number of men, from a professor to a friend’s boyfriend, without feeling guilty about any of them. Its explicit sex scenes caused public controversy; Mr. Ma was attacked (and defended) in newspaper editorials and public protests.
Prosecutors banned the sale of the book, and confiscated existing copies. In defiance, Mr. Ma found another publisher that was willing to take it. “I was angry,” he says now.
“When it comes to so-called ‘obscenity,’ my 1979 novel, ‘Gwontae’ (Ennui), was more provocative,” he says. “The funny thing is, nobody cared then. For ‘Happy Sarah,’ the whole country was in a bustle. I guess it’s because I was a professor, thus an easy target for the prosecutors.”
Mr. Ma’s defiance seemed to make his situation worse. He was arrested and jailed for “creating indecent cultural products,” and lost his post at Yonsei. He says his only pleasure then was reading letters from fans in Japan, where “Happy Sarah” had been translated into Japanese and sold more than 100,000 copies.
After two months in jail, Mr. Ma was convicted in a 1993 trial. He appealed twice; the Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 1995, and placed him on probation.
In February 1998, Mr. Ma was among the five million people ― from political prisoners to traffic law offenders ― included in a sweeping clemency granted by Kim Dae-jung when he became president. He went back to Yonsei three months later.
But his troubles weren’t over. In 2000, a Yonsei faculty committee recommended that he not be retained in his post. Lack of academic achievements was the stated reason. “We hired Mr. Ma as a researcher, not as a writer,” the committee stated.
Mr. Ma says this was a bigger shock than being arrested. “I could not believe that my colleagues would do such thing,” he says after a long silence.
For the next three years, Mr. Ma says, he suffered from depression, locking himself in his room. “I did not even turn on the television,” he says. “I simply did not bother to know what was happening in the world.”
Last fall, however, he was invited back to Yonsei, where he has been teaching since. In December, a friend and a former student published “Surviving Ma Kwang-soo,” a book defending him and his work. But it was little consolation.
One of the judges who reviewed Mr. Ma’s case had said that in 10 years, the prosecution would be laughed at. But to Mr. Ma, society today looks much the same as it did then. He says he encountered censorship pressure over his latest novel, “Byeolgeotdo Anin Insaeng-i” (Life Is Nothing Special), which he wrote in serial form for a local newspaper.
“The Publication Ethics Commission gave me a warning, and the chief editor of the newspaper got a phone call from prosecutors,” Mr. Ma says. “Nothing has changed. People used to say that 10 years would change things. Well, they were wrong. The censorship still goes on, whenever the authorities feel like it.”
But it’s not the authorities who repulse him the most.
“The worst censorship comes from myself,” he says. “I find myself taking a step back from writing what I really want to. Like, ‘Well, I guess this would be not proper.’ This brings me frustration and anger that I cannot stand.”
He says he found himself holding back when writing the sex scenes in “Life Is Nothing Special.” And after a warning from the committee, he killed one of the lead characters, a male transvestite. Because of this, he has delayed its publication in book form. “The book falls flat after all those changes,” he says. “I have to reorganize it all the way through before publication, hopefully within the year.”
Mr. Ma doesn’t pretend to deal with the sacred. In a book of essays, “Naneun Yahan Yeojaga Jota” (I Like Provocative Women), he frankly identified himself as a fetishist for long, manicured women’s nails. He calls himself “Gwangma,” or “Crazy Horse,” a nickname from his teens. But he refuses to be called “pervert,” the word he was branded with during the “Happy Sarah” controversy.
“There is no such thing as ‘pervert.’ There’s only a variety of sexual tastes,” he says. “Sexual fantasy is a part of literature. I don’t know why the local literary circle does not open itself up to this fact.”
The key words in Mr. Ma’s literary philosophy are “hybrid” and “open.” “To me, the local literature scene is too closed,” he says. “Its obsession with nationalism especially rubs me the wrong way. I want something hybrid, and I strive for an open attitude. That’s why I enjoy giving English names to my lead characters, like Sarah and Laura.”
But he says he has no plans to cause more controversy. “I was young and brave back then. Now I’ve become a coward. I have no strength left whatsoever,” he says with a faint smile.
“Those 10 years after ‘Happy Sarah’ were too much. I sometimes think how my life would be different without ‘Happy Sarah.’ I would be a respected novelist and professor, free from all this suffering.”
Mr. Ma lives with his 81-year-old mother in a small house in central Seoul. He says he gets lonely. “Then I just drink like a fish to soothe my loneliness,” he says, crushing out his seventh cigarette in an hour. “Now all I want is a peaceful life. I need a break.”
by Chun Su-jin