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Interview: Minsoo Kang on “Lord Elgin at the Acropolis”

Minsoo Kang and his translation of The Story of Hong GildongTell us a bit about “Lord Elgin at the Acropolis.”

The story takes place near Seoul, South Korea, possibly in the near future, and is told through a conversation between two life-long friends who are a police detective and a writer.  The former was involved in a case that turned out to be so baffling that he feels compelled to seek the help of his friend’s imagination to figure it out.  Since the writer has been dabbling in science fiction recently, he utilized tropes from the genre to offer possible, albeit fantastic, solutions to the detective’s conundrum.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

In a course on ancient history, I was lecturing to my students about the significance of the Rosetta Stone, when I suddenly remembered visiting the British Museum for the first time when I was teenager.  At the time, I had been awed by the sheer amount of great artifacts that the institution had on display, but I had also been appalled at how much was stolen from all over the world.  That got me thinking about the controversy over the actions of Lord Elgin in the Ottoman-dominated Greece in the early nineteenth century, and the role of art and artifacts in modern imperialism.  All that eventually coalesced into this story which, in a historical reversal, centers around a Western work of art that has ended up in a museum in East Asia.


Was this story personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I am a Korean writer and historian who teaches at a university in a Midwestern state in the US, who specializes in European history and translates classic Korean novels (the Penguin Classic The Story of Hong Gildong, and the upcoming Record of the Virtue of Queen Inhyeon, Lady Min) into English.  So I cannot help but think a lot about intercultural issues between the Western World and East Asia both in my scholarship and my imaginative writings.  In the first draft, the story took place in an unnamed American city, but at some point I felt a deep unexplained compulsion to move it to Korea.  Once I did so, I felt that infused it with an extra layer of significance.


What would you want a reader to take away from “Lord Elgin at the Acropolis”?

First and foremost, I want the reader to enjoy the story for its narrative qualities, as the kind of multiple tellings of a single theme that Borges and Calvino were so good at.  But beyond that, I hope it provides people with a new way of looking at art in a historical way, as a contentious place of intercultural conflict as well as exchange.  For those who want to follow up on some of the story’s ideas, they could learn about the historical circumstances under which the so-called Elgin marbles ended up in England.  Also, I think some readers would be amused to see how I made use of Émile Zola’s 1886 novel The Masterpiece (L’Œuvre) and Somerset Maugham’s 1919 The Moon and Sixpence.


Sublime Dreams of Living MachinesWhat are you working on now?

I have recently completed what I call an anti-fantasy novel that takes place in a reimagined Joseon dynasty Korea and Ming dynasty China, entitled Against the Tyranny of Fathers.  It seems beyond the imagination of most Western science fiction and fantasy writers to think of an East Asian civilization that is anything but autocratic and strictly tradition-bound.  Having experienced both the economic miracle of South Korea as well as the democratic revolution of 1987-1988, I wanted to tell an epic story of great progressive change that occurs in an Asian setting that defies the Orientalist stereotype of the ‘Far East’ as having an inherently conservative, conformist, and despotic culture.


“Lord Elgin at the Acropolis” appears in the November/December 2016 issue of F&SF.

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If you click on the pictures in the interview, you’ll be taken to pages where you can buy a copy of Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination and Minsoo Kang’s translation of the classic Korean tale, The Story of Hong Gildong.


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