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23 November 2022

Cho Nam-joo Q&A: “I want to live without colliding with humans”

The South Korean novelist on K-pop, regretting the future and escaping to another planet.

By New Statesman

Cho Nam-joo was born in South Korea in 1978. She is best known for her 2016 novel Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, which has sold more than a million copies and is often credited with propelling a feminist movement in South Korea.

What’s your earliest memory?

When I was five, we moved from Bucheon to Seoul. I sat in a truck on my mother’s lap. She was holding a wall clock with a glass cover and the sunlight reflected off the glass, dazzling my eyes.

Who are your heroes?

I didn’t have a hero as a child but as an adult I admire the rapper Lee Young-ji, the producer and television presenter Jaejae, the writer Lee Seul-ah, and the comedian Song Eun-yi. They are people who build their own content in a way that has never existed before.

What book last changed your thinking?

Right now I’m reading I Met You by Kim Jong-woo. It talks about the production of a TV documentary in which people are invited to experience meeting their deceased families again through virtual reality (VR) technology. Though I still think that death is the end, I have come to think that the things that make me feel regretful are not in the past but in the future.

Which political figure do you look up to?

The former president of South Korea Kim Dae-jung and his wife Lee Hee-ho. I respect their belief in democracy, human rights and peace. Their government actively implemented women’s policies.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

K-pop. I’ve been a fan since the Nineties.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Earth in the very distant future, when human beings have disappeared, or another planet in a distant universe without human beings. There, I might no longer be human myself, but that’s fine. I want to live without colliding with humans.

[See also: Kamila Shamsie Q&A: “Ali Smith’s books force me out of pessimism”]

What TV show could you not live without?

Korean dramas. Recently, I enjoyed Little Women and now I am watching Glitch.

Who would paint your portrait?

Do-kyung, a character in my novel Saha. An illegal immigrant, he works as a portrait painter and really captures the essence of his subjects.

What’s your theme tune?

Lee Lang’s “Everyone in the World Started to Hate Me”. When I first heard it, I thought: “Oh, it’s like my situation right now!”

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

During the pandemic, my favourite band held an online concert. I hesitated because I wondered if there would be any sense of presence behind the screen. My daughter convinced me that it would be better than not seeing it at all. In the end, I bought a ticket and it was a lot of fun.

What’s currently bugging you?

Left wrist pain. I’ve been receiving treatment for over ten years, and it’s getting worse and worse these days. I still have my wrist straps on and am hitting the keyboard.

What single thing would make your life better?

Making the world a better place.

When were you happiest?

I am always equally happy and unhappy. (I can’t pick a time.)

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Singer, musical actor, or anything related to music.

Are we all doomed?

Yes. There is no hope for humans. Our only hope is cats.

“Saha” by Cho Nam-joo, translated by Jamie Chang, is published by Scribner

[See also: John Irving Q&A: “Kurt Vonnegut told me: ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind’”]

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This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette