[INTERVIEW] Chung Bora puts unrepentant villains, empty vengeance together in sci-fi fiction - The Korea Times
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[INTERVIEW] Chung Bora puts unrepentant villains, empty vengeance together in sci-fi fiction

Author Chung Bora / Courtesy of Chung Bora
Author Chung Bora / Courtesy of Chung Bora

By Park Han-sol

Grandpa tells the story of how his friend who owned a premium brewery ended his life at a young age after he was victimized by a rival company in a smear campaign that ultimately put him out of business. The tragic fate of his friend motivates him to become a vigilante. Furious over the lack of justice, Grandpa decides to make a special bunny lamp ― adorable, living and cursed ― and gives it to the brewer whose business thrived after the death of his archrival. The bunny lamp self-replicates and every night, the army of bunnies start chewing through the company's documents and soon move on to something much bigger.

To author Chung Bora, these inexplicably frightening and bizarre elements in her iconic short story collection "Cursed Bunny" tell the necessary story of malediction, revenge and desire to remind the audience of the very real horror and cruelty that exists in the world.

"The world is inherently a foreign and strange place and I think it's a pure arrogance for humans to believe that they have figured it all out with their limited physical and psychological capabilities," she said in a recent e-mail interview with The Korea Times.

But along with a sense of perplexity also comes Chung's empathetic view towards those unjustly affected and struggling alone. Although revenge becomes necessary in certain circumstances, even after going through with it characters still feel hollow and lonesome. And through such narratives, she consoles readers in their own solitary fight against the world.

Chung, one of a group of emerging Korean authors who has begun to garner international attention for her works, wears many hats ― she's a writer, translator, lecturer and political activist.

Also going by the pen name Chung Do-gyeong, she has published three novels ― "Red Sword" (2019), "Dreams of the Dead" (2012) and "The Door Opened" (2010) ― and three collections of short stories ― "Cursed Bunny" (2017), "The King's Prostitute" (2013), "Seed" (2013) ― while contributing to many more anthologies in the span of a decade.

'Cursed Bunny' by Chung Bora / Courtesy of Arzak Livres
'Cursed Bunny' by Chung Bora / Courtesy of Arzak Livres
Many of her recent works can be defined as a gripping amalgamation of absurdist, unrealistic stories that draw on science fiction, horror and fantasy. In a strange sense, they are page-turners making readers anxious to know more about what's to come but at the same time dreading to see the end.

"Literary works that have impacted me the most are those written by Russian and Polish authors, including that of Soviet writer Andrei Platonov (1899-1951)," Chung recalled.

In Russia and Poland, works that could be identified as a blend of fantasy, horror and science fiction surfaced as early as the 1700s, she once wrote in a column. To this day, the fantastical and surreal elements remain a relatively natural part of those countries' literary world.

She added that Eastern European nations faced a series of significant historical changes in the modern era including World War I, World War II, the rise of communism and the Cold War, which, in turn, could have developed people's acute awareness of the absurd and the unusual within reality. Against such a backdrop, a unique literary trend was born that is bold, peculiar and sometimes downright nonsensical.

Chung first encountered Platonov's "Chevengur," which was his only novel he completed in his lifetime, in college. A massive series set in the 1920s during the Lenin era, the book was known for its innovative yet eccentric qualities, making it very difficult to read. She ended up writing her thesis on the novel as part of her Master's degree in Russian and Eastern European Studies at Yale University and then as part of her Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature at Indiana University.

The influence of Eastern European literature carried on to her translation works. For two decades, she has translated more than a dozen modern literary works from Russian and Polish into Korean.

"I usually select works by Russian and Polish authors who are loved in their homeland but are largely unknown in Korea," she said. "As I translate them, I think about how I want to write similarly good stories and become motivated. But the more I do it, the more I realize that translation and writing are two vastly different areas."

With the English version of "Cursed Bunny" slated for publication this July by the British company Honford Star, she felt strange yet amazed to be on the other side of the translation process. She said she came to concur literary translation is another creation that deserves recognition.

"As a translator myself, I am fully aware of how the original and the translated version differ from each other and what happens throughout the process, so I believe that the English version is the translator Anton Hur's work rather than mine."

Compared to the relatively restrained tone and language adopted in "Cursed Bunny," her most recent novel "Red Sword" is a much more spectacular and dreamy war story. The heavily action-based narrative takes place in outer space and centers on the prisoners of an empire who are thrown into a war as cannon fodder against white, never-before-seen aliens.

The novel is based on the 17th century Sino-Russian border conflicts, in which the Qing dynasty sought reinforcements from the Joseon dynasty to combat the Russians. For the 200 Joseon gunmen who have never even heard of the northern country, witnessing the Russian troops' different race, language, culture, attire, weaponry and combat style must have been like seeing aliens, Chung said.

The author asks the true meaning of struggle as the protagonists continue the bloody, savage battles against the unknown without knowing why but still attempting to maintain their dignity.

"The heroes I know in this turbulent age are not generals commanding thousands of men under arms but those ordinary yet brave folks who jump into a seemingly endless struggle and never let go of the hands of the person next to them," she writes in the author's notes.

The story is also reminiscent of her experience as a political activist. Describing herself as "the pro demonstrator," Chung took part in protests with parents of the victims who were killed when passenger ferry Sewol sank in the waters off the southwestern port city of Jindo, as a course of events unfolded that saw attention focus on now-imprisoned former-President Park Geun-hye's crimes. Recently, one of the primary causes she is fighting for is a halt to indiscriminate cohort isolation in nursing homes, where a group of patients exposed to or infected by COVID-19 are isolated together in the same room or ward, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Those unfamiliar with science fiction still tend to consider the genre as a male-dominated realm ― evidenced in the popularity of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," George Orwell's "1984," Frank Herbert's "Dune" and Dmitry Glukhovsky's "Metro 2033." However, Chung stresses that science fiction is a perfect medium to reflect the voices of the underrepresented, whether they be women, LGBTQ people, racial minorities, or people with disabilities, with its transcendent narrative.

"The story that revolves around the white male protagonist discovering a certain truth only applicable to white men or that simply ends with their victory has become outdated," she said. "We need to focus on areas that have been overlooked by these stories, even it is for the purpose of creating a new narrative."

Since the late 20th century, more and more prominent science fiction writers have begun to concentrate on the lives and the worlds of minorities, Chung explained, represented by works of Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler as well as Korea's Jeong So-yeon, Jeon Sam-hye, Cheon Seon-ran, Lee Jong-san and Kim Cho-yeop.

She added that science fiction could be an effective genre to introduce Korean literature to global audience as its avid readers "are especially fond of and are always looking for new ideas, are more open and feel less restricted by linguistic or cultural barriers."

However, because science fiction is not highly represented in Korean literature, its authors or publishing houses should not be bound by the duty of introducing Korea to the international literary scene, she cautioned.

Her life interlaced with writing and activism is likely to continue in 2021.

"I have decided to contribute to an anthology that looks upon modern history from a new perspective and am also writing a story about the entanglement of agony and painkiller," she said. "I will also carry on taking part in protests."


Author Chung Bora / Courtesy of Chung Bora
Author Chung Bora / Courtesy of Chung Bora

By Park Han-sol

Grandpa tells the story of how his friend who owned a premium brewery ended his life at a young age after he was victimized by a rival company in a smear campaign that ultimately put him out of business. The tragic fate of his friend motivates him to become a vigilante. Furious over the lack of justice, Grandpa decides to make a special bunny lamp ― adorable, living and cursed ― and gives it to the brewer whose business thrived after the death of his archrival. The bunny lamp self-replicates and every night, the army of bunnies start chewing through the company's documents and soon move on to something much bigger.

To author Chung Bora, these inexplicably frightening and bizarre elements in her iconic short story collection "Cursed Bunny" tell the necessary story of malediction, revenge and desire to remind the audience of the very real horror and cruelty that exists in the world.

"The world is inherently a foreign and strange place and I think it's a pure arrogance for humans to believe that they have figured it all out with their limited physical and psychological capabilities," she said in a recent e-mail interview with The Korea Times.

But along with a sense of perplexity also comes Chung's empathetic view towards those unjustly affected and struggling alone. Although revenge becomes necessary in certain circumstances, even after going through with it characters still feel hollow and lonesome. And through such narratives, she consoles readers in their own solitary fight against the world.

Chung, one of a group of emerging Korean authors who has begun to garner international attention for her works, wears many hats ― she's a writer, translator, lecturer and political activist.

Also going by the pen name Chung Do-gyeong, she has published three novels ― "Red Sword" (2019), "Dreams of the Dead" (2012) and "The Door Opened" (2010) ― and three collections of short stories ― "Cursed Bunny" (2017), "The King's Prostitute" (2013), "Seed" (2013) ― while contributing to many more anthologies in the span of a decade.

'Cursed Bunny' by Chung Bora / Courtesy of Arzak Livres
'Cursed Bunny' by Chung Bora / Courtesy of Arzak Livres
Many of her recent works can be defined as a gripping amalgamation of absurdist, unrealistic stories that draw on science fiction, horror and fantasy. In a strange sense, they are page-turners making readers anxious to know more about what's to come but at the same time dreading to see the end.

"Literary works that have impacted me the most are those written by Russian and Polish authors, including that of Soviet writer Andrei Platonov (1899-1951)," Chung recalled.

In Russia and Poland, works that could be identified as a blend of fantasy, horror and science fiction surfaced as early as the 1700s, she once wrote in a column. To this day, the fantastical and surreal elements remain a relatively natural part of those countries' literary world.

She added that Eastern European nations faced a series of significant historical changes in the modern era including World War I, World War II, the rise of communism and the Cold War, which, in turn, could have developed people's acute awareness of the absurd and the unusual within reality. Against such a backdrop, a unique literary trend was born that is bold, peculiar and sometimes downright nonsensical.

Chung first encountered Platonov's "Chevengur," which was his only novel he completed in his lifetime, in college. A massive series set in the 1920s during the Lenin era, the book was known for its innovative yet eccentric qualities, making it very difficult to read. She ended up writing her thesis on the novel as part of her Master's degree in Russian and Eastern European Studies at Yale University and then as part of her Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literature at Indiana University.

The influence of Eastern European literature carried on to her translation works. For two decades, she has translated more than a dozen modern literary works from Russian and Polish into Korean.

"I usually select works by Russian and Polish authors who are loved in their homeland but are largely unknown in Korea," she said. "As I translate them, I think about how I want to write similarly good stories and become motivated. But the more I do it, the more I realize that translation and writing are two vastly different areas."

With the English version of "Cursed Bunny" slated for publication this July by the British company Honford Star, she felt strange yet amazed to be on the other side of the translation process. She said she came to concur literary translation is another creation that deserves recognition.

"As a translator myself, I am fully aware of how the original and the translated version differ from each other and what happens throughout the process, so I believe that the English version is the translator Anton Hur's work rather than mine."

Compared to the relatively restrained tone and language adopted in "Cursed Bunny," her most recent novel "Red Sword" is a much more spectacular and dreamy war story. The heavily action-based narrative takes place in outer space and centers on the prisoners of an empire who are thrown into a war as cannon fodder against white, never-before-seen aliens.

The novel is based on the 17th century Sino-Russian border conflicts, in which the Qing dynasty sought reinforcements from the Joseon dynasty to combat the Russians. For the 200 Joseon gunmen who have never even heard of the northern country, witnessing the Russian troops' different race, language, culture, attire, weaponry and combat style must have been like seeing aliens, Chung said.

The author asks the true meaning of struggle as the protagonists continue the bloody, savage battles against the unknown without knowing why but still attempting to maintain their dignity.

"The heroes I know in this turbulent age are not generals commanding thousands of men under arms but those ordinary yet brave folks who jump into a seemingly endless struggle and never let go of the hands of the person next to them," she writes in the author's notes.

The story is also reminiscent of her experience as a political activist. Describing herself as "the pro demonstrator," Chung took part in protests with parents of the victims who were killed when passenger ferry Sewol sank in the waters off the southwestern port city of Jindo, as a course of events unfolded that saw attention focus on now-imprisoned former-President Park Geun-hye's crimes. Recently, one of the primary causes she is fighting for is a halt to indiscriminate cohort isolation in nursing homes, where a group of patients exposed to or infected by COVID-19 are isolated together in the same room or ward, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Those unfamiliar with science fiction still tend to consider the genre as a male-dominated realm ― evidenced in the popularity of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," George Orwell's "1984," Frank Herbert's "Dune" and Dmitry Glukhovsky's "Metro 2033." However, Chung stresses that science fiction is a perfect medium to reflect the voices of the underrepresented, whether they be women, LGBTQ people, racial minorities, or people with disabilities, with its transcendent narrative.

"The story that revolves around the white male protagonist discovering a certain truth only applicable to white men or that simply ends with their victory has become outdated," she said. "We need to focus on areas that have been overlooked by these stories, even it is for the purpose of creating a new narrative."

Since the late 20th century, more and more prominent science fiction writers have begun to concentrate on the lives and the worlds of minorities, Chung explained, represented by works of Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler as well as Korea's Jeong So-yeon, Jeon Sam-hye, Cheon Seon-ran, Lee Jong-san and Kim Cho-yeop.

She added that science fiction could be an effective genre to introduce Korean literature to global audience as its avid readers "are especially fond of and are always looking for new ideas, are more open and feel less restricted by linguistic or cultural barriers."

However, because science fiction is not highly represented in Korean literature, its authors or publishing houses should not be bound by the duty of introducing Korea to the international literary scene, she cautioned.

Her life interlaced with writing and activism is likely to continue in 2021.

"I have decided to contribute to an anthology that looks upon modern history from a new perspective and am also writing a story about the entanglement of agony and painkiller," she said. "I will also carry on taking part in protests."


박한솔 hansolp@koreatimes.co.kr

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