Quitting the politics and getting back to writing

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Quitting the politics and getting back to writing

As a writer, Yi Mun-yeol was discontent with the political climate of his time.
Or at least that’s why many people think he decided to leave Korea for the United States two years ago to write.
In 1979, Yi published his first novel “Son of Man,” an instant hit. By the time his later novels “Portrait of Young Days” and “Our Twisted Hero” were published in the 1980s, Yi was already enjoying a modest dose of fame in the local literary scene.
At the time, his writings gave the impression that Yi was an intellectual who refused to belong to one political side.
His writings were based on historical nihilism, which is perhaps why he couldn’t agree with the militants among the country’s “386 generation,” those that fought for democracy under the Korean military regime.
Now that those former activists have entered mainstream politics, Yi’s writing has also changed.
Yi stopped being subtle about his politics, defending conservatism and attacking feminism.
The political dilemma deepened for Yi when his opponents held a funeral for the writer’s books near his office in Gyeonggi in protest against his raw distaste for the 386 generation.
In 2005, Yi left Korea. He continued to write while he studied at the Harvard Korean Institute, but his reputation as a writer was damaged because he was seen as a symbolic advocate for Korean rightists.
He stayed clear of the press for the two years he studied in the United States and led a quiet life.
The JoongAng Ilbo recently interviewed Yi when he visited Korea.

What was your response to the presidential election?
Personally, I’m grateful that Lee Myung-bak has been elected. I’m thankful because I don’t have to act as a supporter for the Korean rightists or an advocate for conservative intellectuals anymore. I can return to my writer’s task. I was shocked and frightened to find that there was such a vast gap between the votes (for Lee Myung-bak and Chung Dong-young).
The civic sentiment has changed sharply. It made me question whether our social and political judgment would actually lead us to a safer society.
But if our politics change dramatically once again, it would not only mean the collapse of our political administration, it would change Korea for good.

Your historical novels are still popular.
That’s probably because I deal with grand themes in my historical novels, which is what readers want. Such books have a narrative that can carry the weight of heavy ideas. When a novel is seen as intricate, delving into an internalized view of life, readers say it’s well written, but many don’t bother buying the book.
I find that when I promote my novels overseas, Korean history is regarded as an interesting element. Two of my most translated novels are “Poet” and “Our Twisted Hero,” which depict historical subjects.

Do you have any regrets as an author?
I left Korea out of such fear. I worried that I was wasting my life there as a writer. Leaving was a way of creating distance.

Has your life in the United States helped your writing career?
It’s not been a complete waste. I’ve developed a certain feel for American society.

We’re close to the year end. Do you have any words of comfort?
What better words are there but to encourage people to be hopeful. There’s not much to say other than to believe that tomorrow will be brighter than yesterday.


By Bae Young-dae JoongAng Ilbo [myfeast@joongang.co.kr]
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