Author expounds on ‘Hell Joseon’

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Author expounds on ‘Hell Joseon’

Jang Kang-myung, 40, is the author of a book titled “Because I Hate Korea.”

The novel, which revolves around a young woman who immigrates to Australia over disgruntlement with her homeland, was published in May but has continued to dominate best-seller lists in local bookstores.

That’s mostly thanks to young Koreans, who have begun to frequently refer to the book whenever they talk about “Hell Joseon,” a popular neologism that has emerged online.

Hell Joseon refers to Korea by its former moniker Joseon, the dynasty that wielded power over the peninsula from 1392 to 1910, and is indicative of the loathing and despair they feel for Korea. The expression essentially rags on the current reality in which the economically weak are neglected and the misconception that they should simply “try harder.”

Indeed, it wasn’t this book that helped Jang make a name for himself as a novelist. He has received a number of literary awards and stands firmly in the center of the country’s literary circle.

Since his book “Bleach” won the Hankyoreh Literature Prize in 2011, he went on to receive the Soorim Culture Award last year for “No Enthusiasm, Eva Road,” as well as the Jeju April 3rd Peace Literary Award for an upcoming novel tentatively titled “Second Generation Comment Corps,” set to be published in November.

His subject matter primarily deals with the issues that the country’s young generation faces, and past novels have touched on immigration, school violence and suicide.

The JoongAng Ilbo sat down with the novelist last month to hear more about his thoughts regarding the frustration and angst felt by Korea’s youth. The following are edited excerpts.

Q. Why do you think your novel “Because I Hate Korea” has gained so much attention?

A. Perhaps it’s because most people are stressed out by Korean society. They have all been waiting for somebody to bluntly criticize it. ... There’s this atmosphere where we feel like we can’t really acknowledge what we don’t like about our country. So I guess the book gave them some sort of catharsis or satisfaction.

Recently, neologisms like Hell Joseon, Jiok Bulbando (hellfire peninsula) and Heulksujeo (which translates to “earthen spoon,” a reference to being born into a poor household) have emerged and spread among young Koreans.

I guess it’s a reflection of young Koreans thinking their country isn’t a land of opportunity but rather a society of frustration. When the older generation tells them to “try harder” or “make more of an effort,” it just doesn’t appeal to them anymore. Instead, they just think, “It won’t work anyway,” and don’t listen. They’ve been discouraged by reality and insulted by society, so they seem to want to reverse that insult on society. I see it that way.

What do you think is the biggest problem facing Korean society?

I think the slowdown in economic growth is not really Korea’s problem by itself. I don’t think the phenomenon of young Koreans dividing classes into “golden spoons” and “earthen spoons” is that serious compared to other countries. The problem with Korean society is that people don’t treat people in lower positions well. The feeling of humiliation these people suffer is immense. They don’t starve to death from not graduating from a prestigious university or working at a major conglomerate, but they still toil to achieve that goal. That’s because society humiliates the people who can’t reach that ideal. It’s too much; that’s the problem with this society.

Is there a solution?

I believe if our society adopts a culture of mutual respect, it can solve problems even without economic growth. It can get rid of a great portion of stress in Korean society. People are insulted for being too young or being women, or get treated like a servant just because they work in the service sector. The Korean language has what we call an honorific form of language. Usually, young people use it when speaking to those who are older than them. But I think we can start this mutual respect by using the honorific form of language for one another regardless of age. This is one of my creeds.

Why do you touch upon issues faced by young Koreans in this book?

It wasn’t intentional. I just wrote about my concerns. I want to live an honest and meaningful life but always find myself not knowing what to do.

I think young Koreans in their 20s and 30s are in a similar situation. One literary magazine called me the “spokesman for youth,” and I was quite embarrassed. Of course, I can’t deny that I’m interested in that generation compared to the others. They are the generation that came after industrialization and democratization, and the generation without any social responsibilities. However, I don’t want to speak for any specific generation. I will just continue to write about my concerns, and one day those concerns will speak for those in their 40s and 50s.

You used to be a journalist at the Dong-A Ilbo but became a full-time writer in 2013.

It was difficult to write novels while working as a journalist. I was thinking about freelancing when I wrote “Bleach” and “Lumiere People.” But I also thought it would be difficult to make a living as a full-time writer. But as I got more responsibilities at work and ... got older, I realized that I couldn’t juggle two things at once. I discussed with my wife my decision to resign from work. I promised her I would try to earn nearly as much as a writer, which was about half the annual salary I earned as a journalist. If I couldn’t keep that promise, I told her I would stop working as a writer and find another job.

To keep that promise, I’ve been writing like crazy. I’ve managed to reach that goal this year, but I don’t know what will happen next year. Every year, new writers appear and they receive a lot of the attention, so I don’t really know what will happen. That’s why I will keep on writing.

What is your next step?

My next work will be on North and South Korea. Those issues have interested me since I was a journalist. It will be about 2,000 pages long.

Some readers said the depth of “Because I Hate Korea” was too shallow, and I agree. It was difficult to write an in-depth story in 500 pages. This time, I want to grab readers with a deeper story.

Moreover, I want to write non-fiction, something like journalism, one day. I was a long-time local news and political reporter, and I have a lot of opinions on current events.

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