Remember Mark Sampson and his novel about comfort women in Korea, Sad Peninsula? He agreed to interview writer Ron Schafrick, whose first collection of short stories, Interpreters (Oberon 2013), is also set in Korea. According to Mark, “These seven tales take a fresh, unique approach to the standard expatriate narrative, told mostly from the perspective of gay men trying to find a sense of self and of belonging in a foreign country.”
After completing an MA in English Literature at Concordia University in Montreal, Ron Schafrick taught English as a Second Language for nine years at a South Korean university. During that time he visited Japan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau. Since returning to Canada in 2006, his stories have appeared in Antigonish Review, Asia Literary Review, The New Quarterly, and The Toronto Quarterly, among others. He now teaches in Toronto. This interview with Ron Schafrick was conducted by novelist Mark Sampson in August 2014 in Ron’s Toronto home.
Extreme Emotions in Life Abroad: An Interview with Ron Schafrick
by Mark Sampson
Mark Sampson: How long were you in Korea before it became a place you wanted to write about? What were some of its aspects that sparked your imagination early on?
Ron Schafrick: Actually, I didn’t know I wanted to write about Korea until I came back to Canada. I really had no intention of writing at all. I’d pretty much given it up. When I was at Concordia, doing my MA, I had this dream of becoming a writer, and I sent out some stories that I thought were pretty good, but they were rejected, and I realized how difficult it was to seriously pursue writing and that my dream was maybe a little foolish and naïve. I also had to face reality. Like one of my characters, I had this huge student loan and I needed to figure out a way to pay it back, so I went to Korea to teach English.
MS: So you didn’t really think of Korea as a subject until you got back? When did that shift happen? When did you realize that fiction was something you wanted to get back into?
RS: My first year back was very tough. I had a bad case of reverse culture shock and I was having trouble making ends meet, too. I kept thinking about Korea, where life, for me, was pretty easy — although I didn’t realize it at the time. It wasn’t until I came back to Canada that I understood how deeply mixed my emotions about Korea were. It was a place I both loved and hated at the same time. I don’t want to suggest “writing is therapy,” but that’s kind of what happened. I wanted to make sense of my experience in Korea, and writing was how I did that.
MS: Let’s talk about those two mixed emotions. What did you love about Korea?
RS: I always felt like I was deeply alive when I was there, and a witness to a place that is very rapidly changing and developing. And I loved the opportunities that were given to me as a foreigner — the opportunity to work on radio and television, to write articles for newspapers and magazines in Korean and English, to travel around the country to interview people for those publications. The teaching was also a pleasure. And Koreans of course can be wonderfully warm-hearted and generous.
MS: So what did you hate about it?
RS: The fact that after a while you begin to consider this place your home, but no one allows you to think that way. You’re always going to be the foreigner; you’re always a tourist. And people always assume that you don’t know things, that you can’t speak the language, can’t use chopsticks, can’t handle the food, that you don’t know the history. And you’re always trying to inform people of the opposite.
MS: Because you’re fluent in the language, right?
RS: No, no, not fluent. I would say definitely intermediate. But regardless of how immersed I was in the language and culture, people would snicker and laugh and often say, “Oh, you speak Korean very well,” but they would say it in English.
MS: You play out some of these emotions in your fiction, in particular your story “Don’t You Know Me Yet?” It really is the inverse of the traditional Canadian immigrant story, because you’re the Canadian who is the foreigner and trying to build relationships and a place for yourself in that new home, and finding it difficult. Can you talk a bit about that story, how you decided to frame it as a young Canadian in a feud with a Korean selling salt noisily out of his truck?
RS: That’s pretty easy — that story actually happened. When I got back to Canada, I spent six months just writing. But for the first while nothing at all was coming out. Either that or I was just writing garbage. I didn’t know where to begin. But then one day I went out with some friends who had also taught in Korea and I just happened to tell a story about this guy who was selling salt out of a truck that would go by, and how it would make all this racket, and how in the end I realized that maybe this guy wasn’t so bad after all. And in the telling of the story I thought, hey, there’s conflict, there’s a narrative arc, there’s resolution. So that became my first story.
MS: One of other things that unifies this book is that many of the protagonists are, like you, Canadians teaching over there, but they are also gay, and navigating gay relationships in a foreign country. How did you find Korea as a gay man and your acceptance in the gay community there?
RS: Yeah, I was definitely in the closet. And it feels very shameful to admit that, especially after living in a place like Montreal. But you know, now that I look back, the fear seemed almost imaginary in a way. I came out to a few friends I’d gotten close to in my first year there, and then I never heard from them again. So I stopped coming out to people who I knew weren’t gay. But I never felt physically threatened or in danger. Mostly, it’s the threat of being ostracized or potentially losing my job. That’s part of the reason why I left. I wrote about this in one of the stories, how the Koreans you encounter in your day-to-day life will often ask how old are you, are you married, and if not, do you have a girlfriend, why not, do you plan on getting married? I was 36 when I left Korea, and I was tired of telling lies and making up stories. If I stayed any longer it just would have been more and more awkward and difficult.
MS: Because the presumption is you’re heterosexual.
RS: Yes, and that being gay is unknown in Korea. During the time I was there — I don’t know if it’s the same now — I don’t think people would necessarily have read me as gay, not in the same quick, deductive way people in the West do. Many people, I found, older people especially, looked at me with pity, or as if I were a problem to be solved or even developmentally delayed when they learned I was in my mid-thirties and unmarried and without a girlfriend. They didn’t seem to jump to the obvious conclusion.
MS: How did you find homosexuality treated among Koreans themselves — because you were obviously dating Korean men there. Did you find an ingrained homophobia?
RS: Oh yes, very much so. Koreans had to be a lot more careful, especially in regards to their workplace and keeping it hidden from their families. To me, it seemed that even if people had their suspicions, the important thing was to keep your mouth shut and never admit you’re gay.
MS: Were you tempted to give the characters in your book different experiences than yours? Or did you want their perspective on being gay the same as yours?
RS: The stories are based on things I experienced and witnessed and understood, so I guess you could say they’re the same as mine.
MS: Well one story that isn’t is the last one, “Refugees,” where you write about a North Korean family who has fled the country and has now settled in Canada. Can you talk about your decision to write that story, the research involved, and getting into the right headspace for doing that?
RS: That is by far the most difficult story I’ve ever written. Much like the story in the book, I met a North Korean couple who lived down the street from me in Toronto. The circumstances behind how I met them is a bit complicated, but they told me their story the first time I met them. It was also videotaped and I typed out the transcript. I was fascinated by what they told me and I knew right away I had to write their story. But whenever I did attempt to write it, just their story, I couldn’t understand why it seemed so terribly boring. But as you know, every story needs to have at least one other storyline interwoven into it. Although I didn’t want to at first, I realized I had to include myself in the story, which provided a kind of framework for it in the end. At first, I wanted it to be a bookended story. I was reading a lot of Borges at the time, and he does that a lot. But that didn’t exactly work here either, and I discovered what worked better was to give it a back-and-forth structure that alternated between the first person and their story, between Canada and North Korea.
Now for research, I’ve always had a long-time interest in North Korea and I continue to follow whatever news stories come out of that country, especially those related to refugees. Whenever any kind of documentary about North Korea came out, I was sure to see it, like Seoul Train, which was hugely informative about the refugee situation. But serious research began with re-reading The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, Barbara Demick’s amazing book Nothing to Envy, Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden, and The World Is Smaller Now by Euna Lee. I also downloaded a number of research papers from the Web, and I was very surprised by some of the things I learned. I knew, for example, that refugees often carry rat poison in case they get arrested so they can commit suicide. But what I didn’t know was that a lot of them also carry knives for defence. And that blew my mind. When I came across that in the research, it was hugely epiphanic because it suddenly answered a question I had: how did the North Korean couple I’d met defend themselves when they were attacked by the wild boar, something they quickly passed over when recounting their story. I really wanted to carry that sense of discovery into my story. Also hugely revelatory was discovering news stories online stating that many of these North Korean refugees in Canada were telling identical stories to Canadian officials and claiming that they had flown here directly from China, something that many now regard as suspect. When I read that, suddenly their story, which I had believed and assumed to be the truth, was cast into doubt, and that, too, became another important element in the story I wrote.
MS: Obviously, living abroad affects your creativity. Did you find yourself looking at other expat writers as an influence? Do you have some favourite books from the genre?
RS: One writer I love is Mavis Gallant. She’s a big influence, even before I went to Korea. And also Paul Theroux. I read World’s End, which is a great collection of stories of life abroad. Steven Heighton’s Flight Paths of the Emperor, which is set in Japan, is another great book. Also Deborah Eisenberg: her Latin America stories are just fantastic. Oh, and Karen Connelly’s Touch the Dragon, which is a great portrait of being young and Canadian and living in Thailand. And I know you read it — although it’s not expat — but one book that provides a good picture of Korea is Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller.
MS: So what’s next for you? What are you working on now?
RS: I’ll keep it brief: I’m interested in childhood and family.
MS: Are you done with Korea?
RS: No. I actually recently wrote a story about Korea. I think a lot of the stories in Interpreters were written to make sense of certain events, and there are things about Korea I still want to make sense of. It’s like that Flannery O’Connor expression: “I write to find out what I already know.”
Mark Sampson’s novel Sad Peninsula, also set in Korea, has recently been published by Dundurn Press.
South Korea’s Gay March Forward by Dave Hazzan (Daily Extra 30 August 2014) dailyxtra.com