Unearthing the Truth Behind a Korean Tragedy
Hannah Michell’s novel "Excavations" mines the fraught relationship between motherhood and activism in a society dominated by patriarchal corruption
Hannah Michell’s Excavations begins with tragedy. A skyscraper suddenly collapses in 1990s Seoul, killing hundreds and leaving devastation in its wake. Sae, the mother of two young boys, is at home when she learns her husband is missing; he has been working on a project in the recently-collapsed Aspiration Tower. Drawing on her past as a former journalist and fervent anti-government student protestor, she attempts to find out what happened to him in Aspiration Tower—stumbling upon tangled truths that shake her entire worldview.
Michell’s debut novel is a propulsive thriller, grounded in its psychological drama and real-life tragedy. While Aspiration Tower is fictional, its demise mirrors the Sampoong department store collapse in 1995, which killed over 500 people and wounded over 900. Excavations to rescue the living continued for weeks, and the collapse remains the largest peacetime disaster in South Korean history. Michell skillfully teases out the historical resonances between the turbulent 1980s of student activism and labor rights movements; the economic boom of the 1990s and the building’s collapse; and the 2010s, with the Sewol ferry sinking—another tragedy that seemingly could have been prevented. Threaded throughout are the questions: can we love someone that we did not truly know? What value does truth hold, in a society dominated by patriarchal corruption and power?
Jaeyeon Yoo: What inspired you to write Excavations?
Hannah Mitchell: Originally, it was purely an intellectual project. I wanted to write the story of an unreliable narrator who was a chairman of a company, someone who paralleled the growth of the Korean economy. And I wanted his story to be unreliable. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World? These are novels that have at their center an unreliable narrator who reflects on their many achievements, but by the end of the novel, you start to suspect that maybe their achievements aren’t viewed in the same way [by others]. I also read this autobiography of the founder of Daewoo Motors, and was really compelled by this arresting and charming voice. There were these wonderful anecdotes about how he had triumphed over adversity and pulled himself up by the bootstraps. All this entrepreneurial mythology was evident there. But I looked him up—I’d heard of Daewoo Motors while growing up—and it turned out he had embezzled millions of dollars. I liked the gap between the way someone talks about their life and achievements, versus the reality.
I started writing but I had a hard time, because I couldn’t get beyond a certain point with this chairman character. His life was so radically different from where I was; in my own life, I had two young children. I had four hours to write every day, while I put my children in the care of another caregiver. It struck me that my chairman character never had to worry about these things. I felt very stuck until I thought about the tension between motherhood and one’s commitment to one’s work—in particular, one’s commitment to one’s community. I teach at [UC] Berkeley, and I took some time out to go to a rally supporting undocumented students. I was really upset by the end of it, because I realized I just didn’t have the capacity to do more. This was during the Trump presidency and I wanted to do more as an activist—but I also very much had a responsibility to my own children, who I’d brought into the world. Once I started to mine the tension between one’s political ideals and one’s status as a mother, the novel really took off. I discovered the real novel that I was trying to write.
I also always knew there was going to be a relationship that was going to challenge the chairman’s story. I was trying to evaluate and answer, as I was writing, this question of: “Can two people coming from two very different political backgrounds be in a happy marriage or relationship?” Then, the 1980s—the student movements, those kinds of political ideals—came to mind, and that’s how I integrated [the protagonist’s marriage] into the story.
JY: While I can think of popular depictions of the 1980s in South Korean literature/media (I’m thinking of the film 1987, for example), that history remains unknown in the US literature I’ve encountered. Why did you think this time period was perfect to elaborate on a marriage between two ideologically opposed people?
HM: During the 1980s, we had these elite, high-achieving students who had fulfilled their parents’ wishes, with their path towards a more stable career. But [many] used their position of privilege to campaign against dictatorship, human rights abuses, torture—overall, they were campaigning for democracy. And on the other side, there was a sentiment that democracy and human rights were secondary to economic progress and stability. Those two kinds of ideological positions are very much at war with each other.
JY: I’d heard my parents’ stories of the 80s, because they were also college students in Seoul at the time. It was a strange experience, on my end, to read (in English) about some of the stories I’d only learned about orally (in Korean). You said you grew up in Seoul; was this history something that you grew up with hearing or experiencing secondhand?
HM: You mentioned the film 1987, which is actually one of my favorite films. I was incredibly emotionally affected by 1987. If you get to the end, there is a section with rolling credits, where there’s real footage of Lee Han-yeol’s [a student activist’s] funeral. That always gets to me, because I was a young child in Seoul at the time those funerals were happening. I think this might add another layer to the excavation [process of this novel], because I was a spectator to this massive social upheaval, but had no real language to understand what was really happening. There was a part of me that just really wanted to understand—all I had was this feeling that something horrible and huge had happened, with a strong desire to understand the full picture.
JY: Does this mean you were also there when the Sampoong department store collapsed?
HM: Yes. You know, I was reflecting on that. The thing is, the year before, there was a whole section of a bridge that had also collapsed. I feel like there was just so much upheaval in Korea in the ’80s and ’90s that it just felt like another event, even though it was probably the worst kind of civilian disaster. I was also young, but I don’t think I really internalized the full enormity of what happened in that incident.
JY: I was way too young to learn about the Sampoong department store collapse when it happened but, when the Sewol ferry sank in 2014, I think that was when I heard people bring up the Sampoong department store again.
HM: Yes, there was a feeling of “this has all happened before.” The cheapness of life—or, rather, the cheap regard for human life—hasn’t changed in some ways. It was astounding to me that there were these untruths circulating about the Sewol ferry sinking, such as the navy being deployed. It’s such an emotional thought for me to imagine the parents waiting for the rescue effort to happen, and then realize that nothing was being done.
JY: In Excavations, there’s a strong focus on female narrators within this politicized landscape and what they can accomplish, such as Sae’s journalism. Yet, as Sae notes in her college days, feminism isn’t always a priority in the fight for democracy. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the role of women within anti-authoritarian movements, and perhaps the decision to center female perspectives.
HM: When I started writing this novel, I centered it on the monologue of this unreliable patriarch, as I mentioned. As I continued writing, I realized that it was a mistake just to privilege only his point of view, because Korean patriarchy has meant that economic development has only been associated with men’s work. Women’s contributions to politics and the economy have been totally invisibilized. So, I wanted to bring their experiences to the fore. I also wanted to show the struggle in critiquing patriarchy because, in writing these women’s stories, it became so stark to me that patriarchy really forces women, especially single mothers, to make impossible choices. I also wanted to include a non-judgmental depiction of sex work, because Korean patriarchal views of sexuality are so damning to women who have sex outside of marriage and sex work. It was important that Myunghee [a character who is a single mother and runs a nightclub] is not judged for being a prostitute in her relationship with other characters, such as Sae.
This book is about Korea, but I wrote it while living in the States in a kind of lockdown; I couldn’t leave the country due to my green card process. It was awful and really gloomy, because I couldn’t escape the Trump presidency. I had a hard time imagining a happy ending for these female characters, because this was also the time of #metoo and it felt like Trump himself represented the setbacks of women. But by the end of the novel, I wanted to take some liberties with the reality of how much women might have power. I just wanted to give them more agency, because I wanted to show that maybe when women really work together, they can have more power also.
JY: Speaking of Trump, what does it mean for you to release Excavations in 2023—with another extremely conservative South Korean president? And what does it mean to release it in the U.S.?
HM: This book feels very specific to Korea; even in Korea, I think that the ’80s student movement is not necessarily well understood by younger generations. And, as you said, it remains invisible in U.S. literature—but I felt like it was such an important period of history to keep in mind at this moment of real fragility, where democracy feels like it’s really constantly being challenged. I think there are echoes and parallels between America and Korea, in terms of how fragile democracy is in both countries. I was hoping that the reader would also make some connections between this unreliable and corrupt chairman and this era that we are living through. The Trump presidency is over, but not this Trumpian era of fake news. So in that way, I do feel like it’s not just the story of Korea, but about a fragile democracy and the need to really excavate: to be clear about our history and the stories that we tell about our history.
JY: I really appreciate the parallel you drew between the US and Korea about their shared fragile democracy, because I think something the US likes to gloss over is how complicit it was in shaping the South Korean government and its “democracy.”
HM: Yes—I’m going off on a bit of a tangent going back to motherhood. An interviewer recently asked me about my thoughts on international adoption; I think some people at the time thought that this was a humanitarian gesture to export Korean children around the world. But what doesn’t get talked about enough is how, in a way, the need for international adoption was a problem created by American militarism. I didn’t really go deeply into adoption in the book but, yeah, there is this history of US involvement. It fits into the invisible story of Korean economic development, where it really was an economic exchange. The more children the orphanages had, the more international aid was given. By the ’70s, transnational adoption had unfortunately become a huge business, which brought in foreign currency that helped this so-called “miraculous” growth of the Korean economy. That was a part of the story of South Korea that I wanted to include. I also did go more into this in previous drafts, talking about the anti-American sentiment amongst the student protesters, but it got edited out in the process.
JY: I wanted to circle back to your desire to understand the full picture of the past; the novel’s depiction of truth was very poignant—of how truth may destroy and hurt, even as we generally associate truth with morality and justice.
HM: The truth is more complex and multidimensional than we would like, and I think most people prefer that these complex truths are distilled into simpler stories. We can see how so many of these stories get co-opted by power, mythologized into history to serve a political agenda. This tension between embodied memory and recorded history—that sort of question came to me when I was teaching a module on Japanese American internment during the Second World War, and how that is not a history that is taught nationwide. Then, I turned my attention to Korean history and questioned, “What is the official narrative? What is it that people remember?” That helped form my fiction.
In the contemporary Korean context, I think the myth that gets talked about most often is how Korea has experienced miraculous economic development, going from the second poorest country in the world to becoming the 10th largest economy. But, of course, this mythology is really selective in its facts, because it ignores the reality of almost slave labor, and the abuse of human rights under a dictatorship. I wanted to expose this selective narrative development.