Controversial writer is back from the brink

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Controversial writer is back from the brink

A dusty desk, endless cigarette smoke and unfocused eyes characterized former Yonsei University professor Ma Gwang-su in an interview with the JoongAng Daily last March. Looking too frail to be the professor and novelist at the epicenter of a controversy over freedom of expression, Mr. Ma then murmured in a trembling voice, “Now, all I want is a peaceful life. I need a break badly.”
Less than a year has passed, but now the professor, 53, looks ready to get back on his feet. In a phone interview yesterday, Mr. Ma sounded like a completely different man. “I’m ready to make a comeback,” he announced. In a voice full of vigor, Mr. Ma said that he was sorry, but he was too busy for a face-to-face interview.
Today, even over the telephone, you can sense traces of the star professor of literature whose classes once drew more than 1,000 students, and the author whose controversial books like “Happy Sarah” (1992) shocked society at the time by putting lurid depictions of sex on the page.
The tale of a sexually liberated woman, “Happy Sarah” was dubbed obscene, and its author ended up in the dock. He also suffered depression in 2000, after fellow professors at Yonsei demanded that he not be reappointed to the faculty. But that’s in the past, apparently. He even managed to laugh out loud during the phone interview.
He is now busy with an exhibition that starts today in Geoje, South Gyeongsang province, and runs until Feb. 20. In a joint exhibition with his longtime friend, the artist Lee Mok-il, Mr. Ma is showing five prints and 12 paintings.
One work features two Chinese characters, “yo” and “cheol” (“come in” and “go out”), to which are added the faces of a man with his eyes open and a woman with her eyes closed. Its title? “A Kiss.”
Remaining true to his foremost occupation, that of author, Mr. Ma in March is scheduled to release an anthology of cultural critiques and other essays. “I mostly wrote about my 20s, of course including a story about my first love,” Mr. Ma said.
After the anthology, he plans to publish his adaptations of folk tales about ghosts, as well as a book of poems, all within this year. And he’s full of ideas for more books.
Regarding the controversy over censorship and freedom of expression that engulfed him during the 1990s, Mr. Ma today considers himself simply to have been ahead of his time. Some people used to call him a pervert for his explicit descriptions of sex, in which he demonstrated a strong interest in, among other things, long, manicured nails. But the author ― who’s willing to be called by his long-standing nickname, “Crazy Horse” ―won’t accept the “pervert” label.
“For one thing, it’s now somewhat chic for a woman to have her nails done,” Mr. Ma said. “People even call it ‘nail art.’ I was never wrong. On the contrary, I was too far ahead.”
The art exhibition will come to Seoul in May, and later move on to Gwangju in South Jeolla province and Busan. For more information on the Geoje exhibition, call (055) 680-1000.

by Chun Su-jin
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