Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio is a French writer and winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. He travels the world to write and research, and he has taught French language and literature at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, Korea. In 2011, he was made an honorary citizen of Jeju, and most recently, he published two novels, Bitna and Tempest, set in Seoul and Jeju, respectively. In celebration of its move to Jeju Island, the KF spoke with the acclaimed writer about his special connection to the island.
First of all, thank you for accepting our request for an interview. We understand you are constantly traveling around the world. Would you tell us about your latest project?
My pleasure. I am writing a novel and drafting an essay on art.
Having written two novels set in Korea, you are thought to have a special relationship with the country. What motivated you to choose the two contrasting places—the widely known international city of Seoul and the naturally beautiful Jeju Island—as settings for your novels? Were there any special reasons?
My first visit to Korea was in 2001, and I felt very attracted to the Korean way of life, their sense of humor, their polite manners, and of course the literature and cinema, so new and inventive. Then I had the opportunity to visit the provinces—Gangneung and the eastern coast, Gangwon-do and the mountains, and the beautiful southern coast at Mokpo. Jeju Island was especially interesting to me because I felt some similarities with my homeland, the isle of Mauritius: the volcanic landscape, luscious vegetation, and the beauty of the sea shore—notwithstanding the strong will of the inhabitants for autonomy and their assertive identity. I was especially moved by the role of women on the island, their courage and devotion, their extraordinary feats in the practice of diving to fish for abalone. It inspired me when describing the haenyeo (female divers) in Tempest, but also the character of Bitna, who is a girl from a family of fishermen.
Since you first visited Jeju Island in 2007, you have been back three or four times and have been named an honorary citizen. How do you feel about the place after all these years?
As I mentioned, I have a very special affection for Jeju Island, and each time I come to Korea I set aside time to visit Jeju, in a very private manner, to be able to meet people from the coast, in Seogwipo or Udo Island, and also people from the interior, on Hallasan Mountain and the forests. Those stays are always inspiring, emotional, and excellent for my peace of mind.
You have spoken of the natural beauty of Jeju, but the island is changing rapidly. How do you view the Jeju Island of today?
Of course Jeju is evolving, in its modernity, in the way tourism is influencing the daily life of the Jeju locals. Some places have been developing a lot, especially the Seogwipo and Jungmun areas. I feel the beauty of the tangerine orchards is under threat, due to the construction of pensions and hotels and great commercial centers. These ought to be scrutinized by the local authority in order to protect the unique harmony of the island. On the other hand, I feel there is a new self-confidence in the people of Jeju; the young people are more aware of the value of their island, and less attracted to migration for economic reasons. In fact it is quite interesting for me because I can relate the evolution of Jeju with that of my island of Mauritius. Nowadays, Mauritius has developed the best resorts in the world, which are a source of revenue for the state and provide jobs for the people. In Jeju there are now many resorts that can compete with the highest standards, with the advantage of maintaining the beautiful landscapes and creating marvelous gardens inhabited by local birds. Like in Mauritius, there is a need to keep a balance between modernity and nature. The prosperity of Jeju is also a key to the future of its youth. Art and literature are also very important in Jeju—indeed this island has an extremely high number of museums and cultural institutions per square mile!
You have shown keen interest in the “peace train” project initiated by Korean novelist Hwang Sok-yong. This year, inter-Korean summits have been held and we have seen growing dialogue between the leaders of North Korea and the United States. As you observe these latest developments, do you anticipate that the “peace train” may soon begin its long-awaited journey?
Let’s pray so.
You have often visited Korea over the past few years. When might we see you again in Korea? Would you say some words of greeting to the Korean readers looking forward to your next story?
I look forward to my next stay in Korea, and naturally, in Jeju Island, in summer. I am sure it will bring me even greater desire to write on the Korean “kibun,” that is, on the special humanism that is present in Korea. In spite of adversity, and due to the innate strength of the people, Korea will remain a great example to the world.
* Le Clézio had planned to visit Korea in June or July, but canceled his trip due to health reasons.