Western audiences have grown increasingly fascinated with South Korean culture in recent years, and not just on account of Parasite. Authors Han Kang (The Vegetarian) and Shin Kyung-sook (Please Look After Mother) have won a slew of international accolades while thousands of visitors recently piled into the Tate Modern to see the work of video artist, Nam June Paik. But with the positive attention come unhelpful stereotypes too, particularly with regards to Korean sex workers and the plastic surgery industry. In her debut novel If I Had Your Face, author Frances Cha challenges these perceptions, injecting the discourse with a much-needed dose of feeling and poignancy to paint a picture of a country at the cutting edge of many global and socioeconomic trends.
Following the lives of four female friends in Seoul, Cha sensitively traces the financial pressures and social obligations facing the country’s youth to reveal many truths that are universally relevant in a world of casualised work, growing pressure from social media and financial insecurity. If I Had Your Face is a testament to the power of never judging those you love and to the wisdom that can be found in preserving bonds with people who’ve always known you and will always have your best interests at heart, regardless of their own choices. I read it in a night and relished every second, which is why it was such a privilege to catch up with Cha during a recent visit to London.
I saw online that you previously worked as a journalist. How did you come to be writing fiction?
I worked for CNN in New York and because news tends to favour extremes, I found myself covering some of the more superlative aspects of South Korean culture. It was a difficult thing because certain aspects of the country are unusual and newsworthy but I didn’t want to report on them in a way that exacerbated false stereotypes either.
A lot of what’s unique about the country stems from the overemphasis on education. There are three top schools and if you go to them you’re in with a shot of having a good career. But if you don’t, you’re kind of screwed. Historically, South Korea has had one of the highest levels of household debt because parents want to supplement the school education with private tutoring. South Korea also has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, because the expense associated with having a child is just too much. Younger people are choosing not to have them.
Anyway, my bosses at CNN always seemed very shocked by these stories, and they were also shocked by how interested Western audiences seemed to be with them. Fiction gave me a more nuanced way of exploring these themes, but I was always a fiction writer at heart. And journalism gives you the best training at the end of the day, because you’re used to working to deadlines and you have to get used to slashing much of your work. So I’m not too precious about my work.
The book deals in the subject of plastic surgery a lot. Did you always know this was something you wanted to write about?
I think the Western world tends to view plastic surgery in a very judgmental way. I cringe sometimes when I hear people describe my book as dealing with a society in which women get plastic surgery just like they’re getting a haircut. It sounds really bad if you put it like that. But I wanted to explore why women choose to undergo these extreme procedures and the answer is often very practical. In the Western world it's associated with being vain, and you hear lots of people saying that you should be happy with who you are. Now of course [that's] very good. But I feel uncomfortable with judging people who make these choices, because the reasons are often economic. It’s a complicated choice and it’s a choice that’s not without cost. It’s actually so painful. Physically it changes your life in terms of living with daily pain.
There’s a lot of female solidarity and mutual support in the book. Do you think of it as a work of feminism?
I do think of it as a feminist book. In Korea, feminism developed a very negative connotation. There’s an extreme feminist group called Megalia and they go on these rants about wanting to kill all men, which has created an anti-feminist backlash. But I think of the book as being feminist in the more Western tradition.
You also write about the room salon culture in Korea. Do you think of this as a feminist issue?
The room salon culture is unfair to women in lots of ways. For women in business it’s unfair because a large portion of meetings and deals are conducted in these spaces. It’s unfair for the wives who are being cheated on. And then of course it’s really unfair for the women in the industry. There’s a horrible, dismissive attitude that seems to believe that women working in room salons are doing it for easy money, as if it’s a choice or a luxury. There are a few who use it in that way, such as college students who do it for money. But many are victims of a perpetual cycle and they’re sort of chained to it because they become so in debt to the people who run the salon.
Have you worried about a potential backlash to the book?
I really don’t want this book to be viewed as an indictment of South Korea. I love it so much, it’s my home, I grew up there and I still go back there. I spend many months of the year there every year. It’s a very complicated thing. I am a little worried. I always tell my mum that if she ever feels the urge to brag about it, to remember that it’s about room salons. And she says, "Okay, I won’t."
Did you spend any time in the room salons?
I did. It was a fascinating experience. It was not for the express purpose of writing a book, I just chanced to go there. The very first time [that I went to a room salon] I actually did fictionalise in the book though. A male friend called me drunk and wanted to talk about his girlfriend. So I walked in and no one noticed me at first, but when we started talking English – that was the indicator that I was not one of the girls. The girls immediately stopped talking and the men got very angry with their friend for inviting me there. But I was so fascinated that I didn’t leave. I was like, no one is going to make me leave. The second time I went with another friend of mine who invited me with a very famous actor. I went a few times after that, too. But it was never with the idea of writing fiction. During the fact-checking I watched a lot of documentaries and read a lot of blogs about them, too.
How did you research the cosmetic surgery industry?
I did a lot of firsthand research by going to plastic surgery clinics and getting recommendations from them and having X-rays taken all over my body and that was a very crazy experience. The most fascinating part of it was that the clinic managers, who do the initial consultations, have always undergone every type of surgery and they always tell you, "I have undergone everything, you can ask me anything, and I will give you all the answers and I will be very honest with you." So that was just mind-blowing.
This is a very personal question and please feel free not to answer but I wondered whether you had ever undergone plastic surgery?
I have not. But that’s because I’m a real wimp about pain. The thing is, I feel like in the Western world, people are quick to judge but everyone gets braces, right? That’s a comparison I like to bring up. If you can change something about you that helps you in your job, or in your love life, a lot of people will do it. Korea is just more direct about it.
The most common surgery is the double eyelid. I don’t have them and that’s usually the first indicator of whether someone has had plastic surgery or not. I don’t know what proportion of the population has them, but it is usually the first procedure someone has done.
Doing this research must have come with its own set of challenges. It can’t have been nice, for example, having someone critique your appearance?
Oh that happens all the time. It’s part of the culture and almost a greeting. When I land every year, I’m just bracing myself. Because instead of saying hi, my family will say things like, "Oh you got fat!" I struggle because I’m coming from a Western lifestyle now in New York and all the connotations of that not being PC. But over time I’ve come to realise that it’s actually a very intimate way of expressing the fact that you know someone so well, you can see the difference.
Ha, okay. And finally, are you working on anything new at the moment?
My second book is due in November. It’s more of a horror. I’m drawing on Korean folklore, but written in a modern spirit. My uncle is a nuclear scientist in Korea and he started telling my mum about a family who grew up on the same street as them, who had all these horrifying things happen to them. Both he and my mother are very practical people, so hearing them talk about it was very interesting. But that comes with its own pressures, because of course Korea has such a rich tradition of horror.