The voice of a florist in Seoul
“Memory is an unexpected visitor. It lies crumpled in a corner of the body, then suddenly knocks on the door of reality and makes you scream.
Thus states Kyung-sook Shin’s novel, violetstranslated by Anton Hur. violets centers on Oh San, a young woman struggling with her memories, desires, voice, and body amidst the indifferent world of 1990s Seoul.
Marked by a childhood intimacy gone wrong, San moves to Seoul and stumbles across a job at a florist. There, she begins to find stability through her friendship with a co-worker and a sense of peace in her budding relationship with plants. However, after an encounter with a flirtatious photographer, her life shatters and shatters. As San flips through an English-Korean dictionary, the word “purple” quickly turns to “violator.” violets likewise probes the painful cracks between the interior and the invasive, desire and violence, voice and silence. Hur’s translation is sparse but flowing, the prose evoking both the gritty loneliness of a big city and a timeless, almost surreal atmosphere.
The flowers burst into extravagant life all around me, as I read violets in March. I went for a walk in the rain after I finished. When I saw violets in the cracks of the sidewalk, petals torn apart by raindrops, I started crying and couldn’t stop. Months after March, the last image of Oh San’s novel still haunts me. Echoing what Kyung-sook Shin said in our email interview, I hope others will also take the time to listen to San’s voice.
Translations of this interview are by interviewer Jaeyeon Yoo with thanks to Incheol Kwag for editing and proofreading assistance.
Jaeyeon Yoo: What is the role of nature, both in violets and in your own writing in general?
Kyung-sook Shin: violets has a flower shop in the middle of town and a farm in the suburbs. These two spaces are nested one inside the other. Passing between the florist and the farm, the protagonist comes into contact with the plants. I hoped these plants would soothe the protagonist’s alienation and loneliness. To do this, I myself had to know the details of the farm and the florist; so I got hired and did some work, which helped me a lot. And because I grew up in the countryside, I tend to have an affinity for nature. These [experiences] became the basis for finishing violets.
JY: I still feel violets be just as relevant today as it was when it was originally published in 2001 and to Oh San’s life in the 1990s. Is there anything you would like to add, when exam violets in 2022?
KS: Since I wrote this book, many things have changed in Korean society, both economically and politically. The position of women has also changed, to some extent. Despite this, to live as a woman in Korean society is still to be exposed to so many forms of discrimination and violence. They say that, comparatively, we have improved a lot compared to the past. But I think society needs to change so that the everyday reality of being a woman – whether it’s female desire or parenthood – feels protected, instead of discriminated against.
I [also] think that sisterhood among women is extremely important. In particular in violets, solidarity between women is also the solidarity of the weak. They support each other and pull each other’s lives. Therefore, when this solidarity breaks down, the damage is immense. Traumatic events constantly happen to an individual, but they are quickly swept away unnoticed [as what happens to Oh San]. I think it’s the heartless life of modern people.
JY: In that context, I found Oh San’s desire to have a voice (through writing) all the more poignant. What do you think of the links between language and violence, and/or language and hope?
KS: Even if you’re not a writer, if you can express yourself in your own words, you begin to strive to protect your own language. There’s probably no one who hopes their own voice will be colored by violence. I see that, protecting your own voice, as a hope.
JY: violets also reminded me of how philosopher Susan Sontag posits photography as an inherently violent art form, in which “the camera is…a predatory weapon”. I was struck by how Oh San fell in love with a photographer, someone whose job is to observe and “capture” others in pictures. I wonder if you have more to say about the daily act of being observed, as a woman.
KS: violets is from the perspective of a camera looking down, taking a picture from above. It was an intentional move. The photographer’s appearance is an extension of this perspective, as is the gaze of the construction crew observing the women playing badminton. Even Oh San’s hidden love and desire is observed by someone and eventually leads to violence. In the first part of violets, I focused on the loneliness that occurs when an individual’s uniqueness is not preserved, but rather subjected to scrutiny and broken. Modern life is not made of intimacy, but of being observed by others.
JY: Memory is a visibly unreliable concept in violets, not only for Oh San as a narrator, but also in how verb tenses and viewpoints have changed throughout. Could you tell us more about the role of memory?
KS: Memories have the ability to be transformed at will, by the person who wants to remember them. Each person will remember differently, depending on the mood, time, place and position where the memory is formed. If three people have experienced an event together, their memories should be the same, but they are all different. Even though this liquidity causes countless misunderstandings, I believe that life is ultimately completed by our accumulation of memories. This is why memory is precious to me. Continuing to prove that my memory is close to the truth is perhaps also writing.
JY: I was struck by how you infused such a lively character into the environment of Oh San. The flowers and the minari field seemed alive, but so did Seoul – with the details of the Italian restaurant, the ‘long hall’, the crowds at night. Could you say more about the setting of Seoul in the novel?
KS: When I read Patrick Modiano in France or Haruki in Japan [Murakami], I have this desire to go and see the streets where their protagonists roam. The street presented in violets is the street I lived on in my twenties, and the street that leads from Samcheong-dong to Gwanghwamun [the largest gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace] Jung-dong. I wanted to make my readers want to walk this street, so I described the street that Oh San takes in great detail. Then, during that process, I started seeing the lives of people walking down that street again, and that heavily influenced the novel.
JY: The beginning of violets is almost surreal, like being told a fable we should already know. You also use the myth of Io in the novel, to describe how violets were created. And then there’s the foreshadowing throughout. Do you have anything else to say about the idea of destiny evoked by this tone of fable/myth?
KS: By borrowing the myth of Io, I hoped that the anonymous life of Oh San would be fleshed out with a different symbolism. I meant that this woman didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere, that it was passed down from generation to generation. “Destiny” or “destiny” is what we call things we can’t decipher. But even if it’s indecipherable, I think fate is ultimately what you decide in your subconscious.
JY: Do you have any other ideas to share?
KS: I wrote it in the author’s note, but a violet is a very small flower. It’s a flower that you won’t even know it’s blooming if you don’t look closely. The first sentence of this novel is: “A little girl”. I hope you’ll listen to this little girl’s dreams that couldn’t come true, and the shattered desire she held to herself.