Gong Ji-Young: ‘Being near death motivates life’

The South Korean novelist on her visits to death row, exposing sex offenders, and the dread march of materialism: The Guardian

Gong Ji Young

Photograph: Dahuim Paik (The Guardian)

In South Korea, Gong Ji-Young is a bestselling novelist. Her hallmark is her moral acuity, her desire to make the world a better place. In a recent poll of female Korean university students, she was voted their most popular role model (beating, to her amazement, showbiz celebrities). Her fiction is opinion-forming. One of her books even changed Korean legislation (see below). Her thriller Our Happy Time – so far, her only book published in the UK in a satisfactory translation – is an astonishing read about the relationship between a suicidal woman from a privileged background and a man on death row.

Your concern with the criminal psyche – and with shared humanity – is unusually pronounced…

I began to write the novel at a difficult time – I had been feeling suicidal myself. That is what prompted me to visit prisoners on death row. Their crimes are partly society’s responsibility. If I had been as poor as these prisoners, or suffered the same abuse, I might have become a criminal. Anyone could. They wanted to live and I couldn’t die. I put myself in their place and am still visiting them – this is my 12th year of visiting.

Your book says: “We are all on death row; none of us knows when we are going to die.” Why remind us of our mortality?

After 9/11, I remember some of the victims’ last text messages were publicised, saying things like “I love you”, or “Thank you”, or “Sorry”. They made a huge impression. When people face their last moments, being near death motivates life.

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