Every year Desperate Literature runs a prize for short fiction, aiming both to celebrate the best of new short fiction and to give winners the most visibility possible for their writing. We offer two residencies, cash prizes, agency meetings, publishing and manuscript assessment.
We sat down with judge Anton Hur to about his work, having not one but two translations shortlisted for the International Booker, and what he looks for in a short story!
Interviewer – Emily Westmoreland, prize coordinator
“For a short story, by the time I get to the end of the short story, I want my entire life to have changed.”
Hi Anton, I just wanted to say thank you so much for joining me. I’m going to talk to you this evening about the Desperate Literature Prize, but before we even talk about the prize and your role judging it this year, I wanted to talk to you about the prizes that you’ve recently been shortlisted for. Congratulations! I know you’ve had two books on the International Booker longlist and now one on the shortlist. How are you finding it?
I’m finding it surreal. When I discovered I had a book on the longlist I was overjoyed. Then when I discovered I had two books on the longlist, because I found out not at the same time, I thought, “okay, now this is a COVID-fever dream that I’m having,” because I was isolating from COVID at the time… I was so happy. And the Korean press in particular kept asking me if I was going to get shortlisted, if I was gonna win, and I was like, really? I’m just so happy I made it to the longlist at all, and to be shortlisted is just… wow. This is a lot. So I’m extremely, extremely happy, and everything is still very surreal. I’m looking forward to the Booker ceremony and reading all my other shortlistee colleagues and authors. I’m just very, very stoked and very, very happy, just on cloud nine.
Has anything changed for you in the day to day? I mean, I imagine the book sales have increased.
The book sales have increased both here domestically and for the translated works, interestingly enough. Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park was a huge bestseller in Korea before, so it’s not so impressive that there’s been a bump from the Booker. But Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, that book was not a bestseller in Korea by any means. No one had really heard of Bora Chung. One newspaper article here in Korea said that she was an ‘unknown author’ and I thought that was so mean of them to say, because she has, I don’t know, five or six books out at this point. So to call her an unknown author… I hope they didn’t do that to her face! So sales have been very exciting to see. I’m just so happy that more people will have access to these two books, that they would consider them when they otherwise would not have. There are so many books that come out every year that any kind of publicity or any kind of validation, like a nomination like these, really helps to get our authors out there. So I’m totally thrilled.
Fabulous. I read this really beautiful piece that was in Asymptote that was about how you came to discover Cursed Bunny in the first place. Did you always know you wanted to translate Bora’s work?
Yes, from the first sentence that I ever read, I knew I wanted to translate Bora. It’s not always like that for all the authors. For example, with Sang Young Park, I really really like his work but I did not want to translate it.
For a very lazy reason. His short stories are very long and immediately I thought, wow, it’s going to be impossible to sell these short stories in translation to an anglophone market because for most magazines, their cut off is 5000 words and I think the first short story I ever translated by him came out at about 15,000 words. I could cut an 8,000 word down to 5000 but I cannot cut a 15,000 word story down to 5000. That’s just beyond my talents. So, out of pure laziness I thought, oh Sang Young, I hope that he finds a good translator that is willing to go to bat for him and really market his stuff. The leg work to find submission markets for authors is a lot of work that translators have to do that a lot of people don’t really talk about. So I was kind of reluctant to translate Sang Young Park but I’m kind of glad I got over my laziness and thought, oh what the heck, why not do it and see what happens, and here we are today.
So, I’m reading Love in the Big City right now but I’m reading it as a novel, not as short stories. Is that how you have presented it? Is it considered short stories in Korean?
So, you’re very astute. I had a whole argument about this with Sang Young Park in fact, where technically it’s called a composite novel, which as you know, is a novel made up of short stories – interconnected short stories. Like, Joy Luck Club or Cloud Atlas. I think it’s a very kind of Asian thing, I mean, Cloud Atlas is by David Mitchell but David Mitchell has lived for a long time in Asia. So I think I call it a novel because it’s called a composite novel. However the “composite novel” in Korean is yeon jak so seol which could mean interconnected short stories. So Sang Young Park kept saying, “it’s a short story collection,” and I would slap him in the face and be like, “this is a novel. Do not go around saying that this is a short story collection or I will not be able to sell this book in the anglo-sphere.”
So interesting! And so funny, because my next question, before I digressed, was going to be how do you approach working on projects that are psychologically different sizes, like short fiction vs a novel? But I guess if Love in the Big City is a long short story collection then maybe my question has been undermined, in a good way.
It’s a very good question because it just shows you how different the anglo-sphere, as I keep calling it, and Korea and Asia is different, really, because we write a lot more short stories and we also read a lot more short stories and short story collections. When we’re marketing for the anglo-sphere in the UK, or the US, or Australia or South Africa, we’re always being told, “oh our readers don’t like short story collections. We don’t like short stories.” Hence the subterfuge I had to go with with Sang Young.
I completely understand that. I work as a bookseller and I find it so difficult to hand-sell short story collections even though I think they are the best, because people have short attention spans now. I think that you need to use language better if you want to write a good short story. But I wanted to actually ask you what you look for in a short story? What you find its strengths are as a form vs a longer piece and whether or not you’ve always loved short fiction, or if it’s just the nature of the works you’ve been translating?
I wish more people would ask me these questions because they’re really, really important. I think one really big exception to “the West doesn’t read short stories” is science fiction. There are a lot of science fiction short stories and I kind of come from that background. I read a lot of science fiction and a lot of that science fiction is short stories. A lot of legendary science fiction narratives, like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, that became Bladerunner of course, started off as short stories.
So for me, I always associate short stories with that kind of experience where I don’t know what I like, but I know it when I see it. If I read a short story and my mind is blown, that’s what I’m looking for. With a novel it’s a little more difficult to get your mind blown. First of all, it’s kind of too long to get your mind blown constantly. That would be a very exhausting novel. But for the most part I want a novel to have some breathing space and then be very surprising and then have some breathing space. For a short story, by the time I get to the end of the short story, I want my entire life to have changed. I know this is a very tall order. But many, many short stories are like that and there are so many great short story writers in the English tradition, despite the fact that it’s very difficult to sell them, as you say. I’m very much looking forward to this competition and to reading the entries that, I’m sure, will just blow my mind. I’m really looking forward to that.
Did I read a rumour that you’re working on your own short story collection at the moment? One that you’re writing?
Well, I did write a novel and I’m currently in talks with an agent. As for short stories, I have published some and they are available online. Most recently I did something for the new Astra Magazine, the online edition. Although they’re calling it a speculative essay. I keep thinking that what I write is stories but then my publishers, the magazines that buy them, go, “oh, this is an essay.” And I’m like, okay, as long as you pay me I don’t care what you call me. I seem to fall between short fiction and essay— speculative essay, apparently that’s a genre. So I’m keen on exploring that space that is between fiction and essay.
I think that the Desperate Literature Prize is doing that too. It’s all a bit experimental. So what is it that you’re looking forward to most about judging the prize this year?
So I judged the National Translation Prize for Prose last year and I did it with Annie Janusch and Jennifer Croft who are both highly esteemed translators, and Jenny is also a novelist and a writer. What I loved most about that experience was the discussion with the judges. We had a real literary discussion and I really, really enjoyed that. Of course I’m going to enjoy reading all of the entries, I believe it’s the shortlisted stories that we’re going to be reading?
Yes, you’ll get eleven stories.
Right, but I’m very excited to be meeting our very prestigious co-judges, the other judges, who are so much more prestigious than I. To the point where I received the email and they gave me the list of other judges and I thought, “why am I being hired?” I kind of felt the same way with last years’ prize but Jenny and Annie were just so generous and accommodating they didn’t mind that I’m an idiot. It was a really great experience. I’m very apprehensive but also extremely looking forward to the discussions I’ll have with the judges and hear what their ideas are and what constitutes a good story, what constitutes good storytelling, what constitutes great narrative, great characterisation. All the really nitty gritty discussions that we don’t really get to have a lot of because most of the time when we discuss our works it has to be in promotional mode. We have to turn into Princess Caroline, we can’t really get into the nuts and bolts of it. So I’m really looking forward to that aspect. And of course, to reading all of the mind-blowing entries.
I don’t know if it’s my place to say this but I absolutely disagree with your assessment of your position on the judging panel. I’m so honestly stoked to have you because I think as a translator you bring something so discerning to the judging team. I was really nervous before I emailed you because I’ve been following your work for a little while and I think that as a translator you have the ability to assess the piece in front of you but you also have this creative element that is bringing something into a new language, and having both of those skills means that you’re much more of an asset than you give yourself credit for in this judging panel, and I think we’re really lucky to have you, actually.
Oh, thank you so much. I’ll try not to let the translator side down.
Well, we accept translations in the prize but we’ve never had a translator as a judge and I think that’s a massive omission on our part. So, I can’t believe we’re starting off with someone that is on the International Booker shortlist year one! I have one last question as part of the interview, it’s really simple, I just wanted to know what you’re reading at the moment?
Oh lordy, I am reading a bunch of stuff. So, the book that I’m carrying around in my bag is called Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades. It’s really fun. I love it. It’s this novel that is about a bunch of girls who are growing up in Queens New York, and I think they’re growing up around the time that I was growing up because we kind of have the same taste in music. Any novel that features Mariah Carey, please send my way. I’m all about that. I’m also reading, and this is the book that’s next to my computer, You are Eating an Orange. You are Naked. by Sheung-Kim, and I believe it’s a Canadian novel. Yes, because it’s been shortlisted for some Canadian prizes and it’s very experimental and it features a translator. So, any novel with main characters that are translators, send that my way too! The voices are both very young and fresh, and they’re not afraid to risk mistakes and I’m really just enjoying that energy. Nothing makes me happier as a reader than reading really, really good language because I feel that it doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing in. I always wanted to translate science fiction. I didn’t start off doing science fiction— although the first short story I ever published was a translation of a science fiction story— but I mostly did, for years, really long historical novels that were very difficult to translate, very historical, research-oriented books, and those were great. I really wanted to do something in a more modern and fresh genre, but when I looked at a bunch of science fiction books I was like, oh my god the language is so bad! Like, you know, I know you’re a nerd but it’s not an excuse to use bad language! As Bora Chung says, “science fiction is two words and the fiction part of that curve is really, really important. So, it just makes me so happy to be reading works that have really great language. I don’t even care if the plot isn’t super suspenseful if the language is good. I feel like that sustains the premise for me.
I agree with you. I am so fine to read a plotless novel, I almost enjoy things more if they’re aimless as long as they’re interesting.
Absolutely. The Japanese have a genre of novel that is essentially that is plotless, or conflictless, and those are beautiful novels and we love reading them.