A Queer Novel About Falling In and Out of Love in Seoul

Author Sang Young Park and translator Anton Hur on writing "Love in the Big City" and queer Korean literature in translation

Photo by Yu Kato on Unsplash

Smoke a frozen Marlboro Red with your best friend. Fall in love (stupidly). Dance in a sweaty gay club in Itaewon. Go on vacation. Fall in love, again (perhaps even more stupidly). Eat frozen blueberries alone. These are some of the many things Love in the Big City makes you want to do, inducing nostalgia for things you may or may not have experienced. Sang Young Park’s English debut novel depicts the life of a lonely gay man in Seoul with verve, vulnerability, and a hearty dose of ironic humor.

Like the flashing 24-hour neon lights of Seoul, the prose is filled with exuberance and brilliance; simultaneously, it also illuminates those seemingly insignificant, quieter details, the overlooked corners of life. Young, the first-person narrator of the novel, meanders through jobs, relationships, and life goals. The novel is divided into four sections, loosely centered on Young’s relationships with four different people. Given the title, I was expecting the book to be an exploration of modern urban romance. What I wasn’t quite expecting was how Park also probes at different ways of loving (like the narrator’s friendship with Jaehee) or lack thereof (his tenuous relationship with his ailing mother). Ultimately, for me, Love in the City is about both the absurd comedy and aching tragedy of growing up; more accurately, of growing up and then realizing there’s not really anywhere left to go.

I corresponded with author Sang Young Park and translator Anton Hur over email, where we chatted about the role of humor in Park’s work, the ecology of Seoul, and the current-day movement of queer Korean literature in translation. 

Translations from Korean to English in this interview are done by Anton Hur, the translator for Love in the Big City. This interview was produced with support from the Literary Translation Institute of Korea.

Jaeyeon Yoo: How did you decide on the structure of the novel? Could you speak more about the title idea of “love,” and how it’s explored in the different sections?

Sang Young Park: As you mentioned, this novel is a kind of exploration of the different kinds of love that happens in a city. I wanted to cover friendship and maternal instinct and love between lovers, which includes sexual love as well. We often put all of these emotions under the umbrella of the word “love.” As a writer who enjoys exploring emotions, I wanted to show all the facets of an emotion that is so often reduced to a single word. I think the word “love” is often used in a positive sense, but the love that I’ve experienced hasn’t been unambiguously positive so much as complicated and sometimes even violent. I wanted the main character Young to show the reader the A to Z about love, which is what drew me to the structure I ended up with. It’s because I wanted to show a different kind of love in every chapter that I ended up with four interconnected stories, a composite novel.

JY: The narrator of this book has an irresistible way of talking. I admire the dexterity of your prose, how he’s able to shift between varying moods even within a paragraph; ironic, vulnerable, crass, wistful—he’s got it all. Were there any particular inspirations for his voice?

We often put all of these emotions under the umbrella of the word ‘love.’ I wanted to show all the facets of an emotion that is so often reduced to a single word.

SYP: To be honest, the narrator’s voice includes a lot of my own values and tone. I have what’s basically a cynical worldview but at the same time, I try every day to overcome such cynicism with laughter. I think this attitude comes through in my style. 

JY: Yes, I was struck by how the narrator uses dark humor and irony as a coping mechanism, not only for dealing with his medical condition but also for heartbreak, mother-son issues, and financial troubles. Could you talk more about the role of humor in your writing?

SYP: I think life is basically tragic. Everyone has their cross to bear, and it’s how you accept this fact that’s just about the only thing we get to choose. I’ve always thought laughter and humor was my defense mechanism and only weapon. Which is why the characters in my work also have no choice but to laugh in the face of sadness. I may write a bit differently in the future, however.

JY: Speaking of the narrator, I noticed that there are some clear similarities between the main narrator and what we learn of you, Sang Young Park the author. The narrator is referred to as “Young-ah,” studied French, and is an aspiring author, constantly scribbling stories. I read this as intentional emphasis on the act of self-creation/representation—could you speak more about these choices? 

SYP: For some novels, making assumptions about the distance between narrator and author takes on a literary and political meaning. I thought about this distance a lot while writing Love in the Big City. This novel is and always will be a work of fiction, and the “Young” in the novel isn’t me. But by adding certain details that I, the writer, happen to be familiar with, I hoped the novel would read with more verisimilitude.

JY: You state in your wonderful essay on K-pop that “the ecology of cities has shaped every aspect of my thinking, writing, and way of living.” Many Anglophone readers won’t be as familiar with Seoul, and I wonder: how would you describe the “ecology” of Seoul, and how has it shaped your fiction? Perhaps a different way of framing this question is: what drew you to write about this city, which is as much of a character in the novel?

In Seoul, the neon signs are on 24 hours a day, you can get a drink at any time of the night, things change very quickly, and you meet all sorts of passionate people.

SYP: Seoul is one of the world’s largest, most populous, and most dynamic cities in the world. I’ve traveled to many cities during my twenties and thirties, mostly to those places referred to as metropolises, and of those, I still found Seoul the most fun. The neon signs are on 24 hours a day, you can get a drink at any time of the night, things change very quickly and it’s always the state of the art, and you meet all sorts of passionate people. I think that’s the Seoul that shines through in my work. Moreover, Seoul is a place where minorities can maintain their anonymity, which makes it extra meaningful in the particular context of my narrative. All these thoughts coalesced to create the city in my novel.

JY: This book also got me thinking about the expectations around growing old(er). Could you talk more about these societal pressures of aging in Korea, which surface throughout the novel, and how these pressures might operate differently for queer people like the novel’s narrator—who already don’t fit into the heteronormative “get married and have a nuclear family” model?

SYP: Things are different now, but just a few years ago, we were very much in the thrall of “nuclear family romanticism.” There was this belief in a “normal family,” and a young man and woman coming together to have babies was considered the ultimate answer to the question of life. This ideology enabled all sorts of violence against anyone who attempted to break the mold of the “normal family,” a violence against not just queer folk like the ones in my book but all individuals.

JY: I’ve been very excited to see more queer South Korean literature surface in the Anglophone world! Do you think it’s a growing movement, or simply that readers are now more aware of the Korean authors that are writing queer literature? 

There has always been queer literature in contemporary Korean literature—the first modern Korean short story is a queer story.

Anton Hur: If you’re asking about Korean queer literature in general, I think it’s a combination of both. There has always been queer literature in contemporary Korean literature—the first modern Korean short story is a queer story, and I’ve talked about queer Korean literature at length elsewhere.

But if you’re asking about Korean queer literature in translation, that’s a different story altogether. This latest plethora of queer Korean translations is definitely a deliberate movement on the part of certain Korean translators including Soje, Victoria Caudle, Paige Aniyah Morris, me, and a few others working very much in concert and as a movement. We very deliberately set out to translate outside of mainstream Korean literature and to bring out queer representation into translation. “What gets translated into English” is an extremely political question; note that the generation of translators before us are mostly missionaries or old white academics translating middle-aged cishet Korean men. We basically took out a legal pad, wrote “What would really piss off these dinosaurs?” at the top, and began listing them one by one.

JY: I know you previously translated a short story by Sang Young; what drew you to his writing?

AH: Basically what it came down to was, I read his sentences and thought, “This would lend itself really well to English translation.” Because some authors really don’t, and that’s fine, but Sang Young’s prose was very translation-ready. I asked him no questions during the translation, except one, which turned out to be a minor error that was corrected in printings later than the edition I owned. Because I have a certain style, the author I’m translating has to have a style that combines well with mine. (Translators who don’t think they have a style are either delusional or lifelessly flat.) It’s alchemical, and I know it when I see it. My mind immediately begins to translate the sentences as I read them, and that’s when I know I have a winner.

JY: You did such an amazing job at crafting a distinct Anglophone voice for this narrator! What were some distinguishing characteristics about Sang Young’s prose in Korean, and how did you try to convey these in English?

AH: Thank you! Sang Young’s prose is very Anglo-Saxon. It drips with irony and humor. My instinct was to play this up and almost exaggerate it. I think the book in Korean is more chill than my translation, but I require a work to approach me as much as I approach it. I don’t want my translation to read like an academic exercise, I want it to “work” in English as well. My authors have been very generous in this regard when it comes to translating them. They’re much more interested in what I come up with than me mindlessly adhering to some polite idea of what a  translation ought to be.

JY: Love in the Big City is deeply rooted in Seoul, scattered throughout with many local references; how did you choose what to contextualize?

‘What gets translated into English’ is an extremely political question; note that the generation of translators before us are mostly missionaries or old white academics translating middle-aged cishet Korean men.

AH: I feel like Sang Young does extremely well in contextualizing the different places. I recall that whole thing in the book where the horrible pseudo-progressive straight couple thinks Young lives in Apgujeong, and you don’t need a footnote or whatever to explain what Apgujeong means to Korean readers because Sang Young’s contextualization is so clear. So this wasn’t really an issue in this translation, or really any of my translations as I recall. I think we should give readers more credit. I don’t think any reader steps into the world of a book and expects to understand every single nuance of every single thing. We should help the reader, and I feel like I help the reader a lot—some have said I help them to a fault—but readers, on the whole, have been extremely generous in their readings of my translations, especially for Love in the Big City.

JY: What are you most excited for Anglophone readers to encounter in this book?

AH: I just want them to know that queer Korean culture exists. I used to have, say, Korean Americans come up to me and go, my parents say there are no gay people in Korea, and I’d be like, your parents when they lived here were obviously not very observant because there have always been queer people in Korea. There are queers in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty for effing sake, give them a copy. But now, instead of the Annals, everyone can read Love in the Big City and have a lovely dinnertime book club chat about the topic. I am invested in the narratives that surround Korea and its literature. I think we have a really dynamic and incredible literary culture and it has been my mission as a translator to showcase that and change the colonialist and racist discourse around Korean literature to something that actually matches my lived experience as a Korean reader.

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