Interview / March 2012 (Issue 16)

An Interview with Alzo David-West, Author of "The Pen"

by Nahyun Sohn

"The Pen" is a short story, first published in the November 2011 issue of Cha, written by Alzo David-West, the newsbriefs editor for North Korean Review. It combines realism, non-linear storytelling, dreams and framed narratives, to relate the story of a female toilet paper factory worker during the North Korean famine of the mid-1990s and her attempts to publish fiction in the factory's literary journal.

I took the opportunity to interview David-West about his background, interest in North Korean studies and "The Pen."


Personal Background

Nahyun Sohn: Thank you for accepting this interview.

Alzo David-West: You're welcome.

NS: Please tell me about yourself.

AD: What would you like to know?

NS: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

AD: I was born in the city of Port Harcourt in Nigeria. My parents, sisters and I moved to New York City when I was eleven.

NS: Would that make you Nigerian or American?

AD: I'm both. My father is Nigerian American, and my late mother was Slovakian American.

NS: What was it like growing up with your family in Nigeria?

AD: It was very nice. I grew up with an international and non-racialised view of the world.

NS: Where did you go to school in your childhood?

AD: I attended international schools in Nigeria. In New York, I attended a progressive school for a year and then a public junior high school and a specialised arts high school.

NS: Did your parents have a decisive impact on your interests?

AD: In visual art and my broad humanistic interests, yes. My parents were professional graphic designers. My father is an art professor. We also had a library in our home and many films as well.

NS: What did you study after high school?

AD: I planned to be a visual artist, and I was going to study medical illustration in Cleveland, Ohio, but I ended up in a pre-med program in North Carolina for a year. I eventually earned my bachelor's and master's in English. I'm now writing my PhD dissertation in communication and media philosophy at a school in Switzerland.

NS: How long did you live in Switzerland?

AD: The program is through distance education. There were two summer residencies.


North Korean Studies

NS: Have you been to North Korea before?

AD: No, but I lived and worked in South Korea for four years. That was after I earned my master's. I taught there.

NS: Is that where you became interested in North Korean studies?

AD: That happened when I was an undergraduate in North Carolina. I saw a CNN newscast on the inter-Korean summit in 2000, and I wanted to know more about North Korea. AP news reports in 1999 on the No Gun Ri Massacre during the Korean War had already drawn my attention to the Korean peninsula. I also saw an international women's marathon on TV in the summer that year, and it was impressive how the North Korean runner Jong Song Ok took gold. I heard about the missile launch over Japan in 1998, but I really didn't know anything about North Korea in the 1990s, except that there were two Koreas.

NS: Did you study North Korea formally?

AD: I mostly learned about it on my own—academic books, essays, dissertations, North Korean publications, picture albums, videos, websites. I did audit an online extension course with Leonid Petrov on North-South conflict and cooperation when I was earning my master's.

NS: How did you become the newsbriefs editor for North Korean Review?

AD: That was by invitation. I published two revised chapters of my master's thesis in the journal, and Suk Hi Kim, the NKR founder, was looking for a newsbriefs editor. I'm not a journalist, though.

NS: What was your master's thesis about?

AD: It was about North Korean literary doctrine and literature in translation.

NS: I presume then that you taught North Korean literary studies in South Korea.

AD: That requires a PhD. I only had the master's. I taught EFL (English as a Foreign Language) at a public school and university there.

NS: I see that you have published broadly on North Korea: commentary, creative writing, literary studies, newsbriefs, philosophy, political science and psychoanalysis.

AD: Yes.

NS: How are you able to write and publish in different fields?

AD: I have several interests. My approach is interdisciplinary.

NS: What motivates you?

AD: My initial interest from when I was an undergraduate. Still very little is known about North Korea and its complexities.

NS: May I ask if you support the North Korean government?

AD: I don't support them, and I've never supported them.


"The Pen"

NS: The original purpose of this interview was to discuss your short story about North Korea, "The Pen."

AD: Okay.

NS: Why did you decide to write a work of literature and not an essay?

AD: I see literature as another way of making sense of the world. Art is thinking and feeling in images. The images and feelings in artistic and literary works are more direct than in essays.

NS: What experience do you have as a creative writer?

AD: I've been writing seriously since I was thirteen. I took a creative writing class when I was seventeen. But I lost a lot of my work on the computer—stories, poetry, meditations, short plays. I may have some handwritten drafts or printouts somewhere.

NS: What was your first story?

AD: It was called "Time Warp." It was about two junior high school friends in Manhattan who get caught in a time whirlwind and struggle to survive in the Mesozoic Era. They eventually return home through the time warp but fade away. My English teacher told our class it was the "best story." I never thought about publishing it.

NS: Why do you write creatively?

AD: There are many reasons. Writing is thinking and feeling. It engages me with the world—nature, society, emotions. There is something fulfilling about that. I would be sick if I didn't write or make art.

NS: Who are the writers that have influenced you the most?

AD: I'm not really sure. My father, certainly, and different teachers and professors have had an influence on me, and I'm always reading something: prose, poetry, philosophy, academic writing, students' writing, journalism, email. I also listen to the words people use. If I had to list five writers, I might have to say Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Whitman, Mayakovsky and Hemingway.

NS: How about critics?

AD: It's hard to say. I've read some Bakhtin, Cassirer, Fletcher, Forester, Fromm, Frye, Iser, Memmi, Ngũgĩ and Wimsatt and Beardsley, for example. I also studied some Marx, Engels and Plekhanov, Trotsky and Voronsky, too. I've looked at Lukács and Brecht as well. There are a few things by the film critic David Walsh that I've also read. This group has taught me not to neglect individuality, the world of three dimensions and the inner life. I think all these critics have influenced me.

NS: Did you read them in school?

AD: I read them on my own. I wasn't assigned to read them.

NS: What type of style do you try to write in?

AD: Nothing ornate. A simple style, a style most people can understand.

NS: Let's look at "The Pen."

AD: Sure.

NS: Was the story planned, or was it a work of inspiration?

AD: Most of it came to me spontaneously, but after many years of studying and writing about North Korea and just experiencing life around me and interacting with people. My time in South Korea helped as well.

NS: How did the story come to you?

AD: I was just walking to my office one Saturday morning in April, interestingly enough, and the story started unfolding. It's partly a response to the North Korean short story "First Meeting" by Kim Hyeyong and Hwang Gon's "The Island in Flames."

NS: Did you write "The Pen" in one sitting?

AD: I wrote it in one week. Sometimes the flow would stop, so I would wait. Other times, I had to consult references or observe things and people around me or just take a rest.

NS: The story is about a female toilet paper factory worker who gets a pen from a soldier, and she writes a story about the Korean War that is rejected by a writing committee.

AD: One story is accepted. That one is rejected. The stories she writes are interwoven into the narrative.

NS: Is "The Pen" a work of social criticism?

AD: It's a story about individuals and appearances. I tried to tell it from the point of view of a regular person living her day-to-day life somewhere in her country during a difficult time. I wanted to write a story with real characters with real life circumstances.

NS: Why are the depictions of American soldiers so unreal, though, like caricatures and monsters?

AD: Those are the images in the story the main character writes. It's the sort of thing I've read about and seen in North Korean literature. It would make sense for the character to follow the literary conventions in her country.

NS: I noticed that the main story is set during the famine years of the mid-1990s and that the characters cope with food and electrical shortages. They even say people died.

AD: That's right.

NS: Why didn't you write a story about the starvation victims?

AD: What I wrote is what came to me at the time. I didn't have any control over it.

NS: There is a scene in the story when the main character and her friends are talking critically about the famine.

AD: Yes.

NS: One of them insists that the party says everything will be okay, and everyone suddenly becomes quiet. Why did you include that scene?

AD: It's really about the characters. But there are people who support the party and believe in the party in North Korea. There is also a public surveillance system. The scholarship I'm reading now says it's eroding.

NS: How do you think "The Pen" would be officially received in North Korea?

AD: I suspect it would be criticised as demoralising and offensive.

NS: Why do you say that?

AD: It's not like the North Korean short stories I've read.

NS: Would the honorific references the characters make to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il not count for something?

AD: That's not enough. "The Pen" does not follow the genre conventions of North Korean socialist realism, Juche realism, now Songun realism. These are national-Stalinist policy methods for doing and criticizing literature. Juche means "subject" and refers to the "Korean revolution." There was no workers' revolution, though. North Korea is a product of Soviet Army reforms during the postwar occupation. Songun means "military first." It was introduced in 1998 during the post-Soviet great famine of 1996 to 1999.

NS: So the story might be seen as a parody?

AD: Maybe. I wouldn't have been able to write it without reading North Korean literature and studying the role of the allegorical, epic, heroic, romantic, sentimental and tragic in it.

NS: "The Pen" seems to manipulate those things.

AD: It does. I write outside the strictures of North Korean nationalist allegory. The stories the main character writes operate successfully and unsuccessfully within those strictures.

NS: What are some North Korean works you have read?

AD: Some works I've read and written about are the "revolutionary opera" Sea of Blood, Chon Sebong's The People of the Fighting Village and Han Solya's Wolves. The last two are novelettes. I've also read short story collections and illustrated storybooks, but I've not worked too far into novels yet. These days, I'm making an effort to read the serialised stories in Korea Today. I'm also looking at how language and imagery are used in North Korean poetry. There is a symbolic world, psychology and politics in all these works.

NS: I wonder what other works you have been reading besides North Korean literature.

AD: Over the summer, I read J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Paul Levitz's Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Pak Chiwon's The Story of a Yangban. I also read Jack Kirby's Machine Man. In November, I picked up Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of X after I learned it was published in North Korea in 1987. I'm reading it now. I just finished reading Brecht's He Who Says Yes and He Who Says No and Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.

NS: Is that what you typically like to read?

AD: I read different things. Some novels I like are Orwell's Animal Farm, Dickens' Hard Times and Tolstoy's Hadji Murat. I also like Abani's Graceland and Vizenor's Hiroshima Bugi. Mishima's The Sound of Waves, too. Animal Farm is my favourite novel. I read it in school in Nigeria when I was eleven, just before my family moved to New York, and I've reread it several times since. This is a work of realism despite the fable form.

NS: How about short stories?

AD: I liked Gilman's "The Yellow Wall Paper" in high school. There's a lot I read as an undergraduate that I still like: Howells' "A Romance of Real Life," James's "The Real Thing," Kafka's "The Bucket Rider," Baxter's "Gryphon." There are other stories. When I was earning my master's, I read Yi Injik's "Tears of Blood" on my own time. I read Hemingway's "A Very Short Story" and the first version of Uchida's "The Bracelet" when I was in South Korea. They're pretty good. These days, I'm trying to read more Hemingway, along with more recent prose writers and comics and graphic novels. Morales and Baker's Truth and Windsor-Smith's Weapon X aren't bad for their genre.

NS: Do you put the classics and popular literature on the same level?

AD: No, and I don't think that's a good idea. The classics, like Homer, Shakespeare and the nineteenth-century realists, are still around for a reason. They set precedents in storytelling and genre form, and they're still captivating. Popular literature works within certain traditions, but there're limitations, formulas and commercial pressures. Of course, that doesn't mean readers won't like it or find it entertaining. I read popular literature because I like some of it and because it helps me understand the different kinds of writing and reading conventions of my time. But what I write isn't popular literature. I don't write as a trade either.

NS: Would you close with some words for those who might want to write fiction about North Korea?

AD: Don't confuse yourself with your characters when you do research for a story and especially when you use material from your own life. That's very important. The characters must experience their own life in their own world whatever your opinion is of that world. Approach the subject broadmindedly, avoid stereotypes and write freely.

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