At the beginning of May I was in Toronto shedding hard-won grams on the long subway trip to the archives at York University, and at my sister’s memorial, and happily being a mother, and catching up with friends. While in Toronto, I had some interesting talks with writers. This interview with Mark Sampson was on May 1 at the offices of Dundurn Press. Born and raised in Prince Edward Island, Mark Sampson lived in Korea from 2003-2005. His first novel, Off Book, came out in 2007 with the now defunct Norwood Publishing in Halifax. In September Dundurn will publish his novel Sad Peninsula (about an ESL teacher, Michael, and a “comfort woman,” Eun-young, in Korea). His collection of stories, The Secrets Men Keep, will be published in Vancouver in 2015.
DM: This isn’t your first novel, but are you excited about this one?
MS: It is very exciting to have this come out. It’s been a long long road. The genesis of this book started around 2005-2006. I’d left Korea in 2005 and was living in Australia. I’d been thinking about a disgraced journalist who ends up teaching English in South Korea at the same time that I was learning about this history of sexual violence, and this legacy of oppression on the Korean peninsula from the Japanese during the pre-War period. Making connections. But I thought I wasn’t going to write that book because it was too difficult, there were too many parts. It was going to take a toll on me emotionally to get inside the head of one of the comfort women. There was about a year where I was convincing myself that I wasn’t going to write it and then slowly it became harder not to work on it than to work on it. Around 2006-2007, I started to do some preliminary research and some character sketching and that kind of took off.
DM: Was some of the delay because of the question of cultural appropriation?
MS: That never really crossed my mind. There’s different takes on appropriation of voice and I’ve always been a firm believer that there’s a possibility through fiction to capture many voices. And I think all fiction to a certain degree is a kind of voice appropriation. So I never really had an ethical issue with it. I think it was more of a technical issue, an issue of craft, of getting inside Eun-young’s mind, of seeing the world through her experiences and trying to be true to that vision. I’m a firm believer in writing the most difficult book possible. I mean Eun-young was as challenging a creation as I could imagine. So different from my own experience. Through years of spending time with that character and reworking her voice and trying to capture her inner world, I came to a point where I was able to write effectively through her.
DM: I find it interesting that you chose that topic from Korea or her point of view.
MS: Part of it came out of what I was seeing while I was there as an expatriate teacher teaching in the private academy system with so many other teachers from around the world. The underbelly of the expatriate community, perhaps behaving in ways that they wouldn’t necessarily if they were back home. I saw a very sexualized culture. That always sat in the back of my mind as something I thought would be interesting to write about. Sexual addiction is an interesting subject in and of itself. Then when I learned about the comfort women, that history, that legacy of violence, that Korea endured, I began to see how those two things could be connected. I really wanted to write a book that explored the issues of coercion versus seduction. I do see Korea as a country that — both North and South — have been victims of cultural rape at the hands of the Japanese.
DM: What took you to Korea?
MS: For me a lot of it was financial. But I think too I wanted to experience a different part of the world and know what it was like to be the foreigner, to live abroad and be in a culture that I wasn’t familiar with, and just take away from that what I could in terms of different experiences. Korea is a tremendously warm and generous country. I was very impressed with the way Seoul, an amazing city with about 11 million people, melded its traditions and its history and its cultural identity with its place in the broader world.
DM: Was there a difficult moment when you were in Korea?
MS: Personally there were a number of issues going on in my life, especially at the tail end of my time there, so I’ve always been cognizant of its impact on my experience there, but I have to say being an expatriate in Korea is very easy. In fact it’s too easy. This is, I think, the trap that a lot of ESL teachers fall into — go over there with the exact same idea that I had, I’m gonna go over there for two three years max and then pay off my student loans. The money is very easy, the nightlife is very vibrant. You’re away from your family, you’re away from your other life. I refer to it as a life of very little expectation on yourself. In Sad Peninsula, Michael encounters some of this with his cohort over there, who put their lives on hold and as a result put their morals on hold and judgment on hold. But then … I’ve known teachers who come for a couple of years and stay. They get wrapped up in it, in the ease of it, it becomes very hard to leave. Saying, “What else would I do? I can’t really leave.” I think the expat community in Seoul is not necessarily the most nurturing or healthy of communities.
DM: It sounds a lot like the expat community in Kenya between the wars when it was still a colony.
MS: I explore this idea that Korea is still a colony in this time of global English. Korea is a country that has benefitted greatly from its adoption of English. But I am cognizant of the selling of English, the commodification of it. In Sad Peninsula, there are subtle connections between English as a commodity and that colonial past. Parts of the novel on Michael’s side are meant to mirror the Japanese colonialism experienced by Eun-young. There’s a scene when she’s a young girl going to school, not allowed to speak Korean, and she has to sing the Japanese anthem and bow to the picture of the emperor; in the next chapter Michael is punishing a student of his who’s been speaking Korean in class. He’s standing in the corner and right over his head is the Canadian flag, which Michael tacked up to remind him of home.
DM: How has living abroad affected your work?
MS: I think it’s really important to make the point that when you write, you’re part of a larger picture. Your work fits in to not just your region’s literature or your country’s literature but really the literature of the world. I think living abroad makes you realize that there is a whole world out there that your work can be a part of. And you shouldn’t be afraid to branch out and allow your vision to be expanded by what you are seeing out there. I think it can only benefit you even if what you really want to write about is lobster fisherman in Cape Breton. You can be rooted in a place but also allow other experiences to help shape that work. If you ask, what writers would you cite as an influence on Sad Peninsula, I would mention non-Canadian writers: Graham Greene’s The Quiet American or Anthony Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy or various short stories by Somerset Maugham.
…It’s funny, you mentioned Margaret Laurence earlier. She had a huge impact on me when I was starting out. I loved her work. She saw many troubling aspects of colonialism, and she had to be doubly or triply courageous in order to write about that in her African writing. She was writing at a time when there was no such thing really as Canadian writing or Canadian literature. When I look back at The Tomorrow-Tamer or her first novel This Side Jordan, if nothing else it just inspires one to write the most difficult thing you can, and to not be afraid of that or to shirk that experience. -Mark Sampson
DM: What is your book of short stories about?
MS: The Secrets Men Keep is a suite of stories that look at the lies men tell themselves in order to keep their self-image afloat. Again looking at themes of self-sabotage and self-exile. Really about the picture you present to the outside world versus the image of yourself on the inside and the disconnect between them.