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Bora Chung on her collection of short stories 'Cursed Bunny'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A girl whose brother feeds on her blood, robots that take revenge on their owner and a bunny lamp with a deadly curse. Those are some of the bizarre, twisted plot lines in "Cursed Bunny," Bora Chung's first collection of short stories to appear in English, which was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. It was translated from Korean by Anton Hur. Author Bora Chung joins us now to talk about her collection. Welcome to the show.

BORA CHUNG: Hello. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: Thank you for joining us. So you've described these stories as, quote, "like a fairy tale but with a little bit of a Korean twist." Can you talk about what that means? They definitely felt like fairy tales to me.

CHUNG: Fairy tales - usually, the European ones that we are kind of used to in the English-speaking world has a certain way of plot development. And I really love that structure, so I try to use it whenever it seems fun. And I add a Korean reality, the things that I see or the things that I heard from somebody else and wed that kind of magical twist to it. And I hope that adds some fresh elements to the familiar structure.

RASCOE: One of your stories also deals with, like, robots and artificial intelligence, which everyone is talking about these days. And, you know, AI is advancing so quickly. Like, do you think that society is too dependent on technology. And also, do we mistreat the technology as we give it more and more lifelike responsibilities?

CHUNG: From what I read, human beings really don't understand what we created, and artificial intelligence and deep learning, machine learning, all these things are structured so that the machine would accumulate experience and data and information and analyze them and draw conclusions more like human beings do. So that means our prejudices, our misconceptions, our own hate and misunderstanding and discrimination is part of the data human beings created. So technology is not impartial. Information is not neutral. And that is backfiring. And that will backfire. But probably engineers don't agree with me. So yeah, I'm afraid of machines.

RASCOE: Well, I mean, it's pretty much - it's the Frankenstein issue, right? Or Frankenstein's monster, right? Like, you create something that you don't have any understanding of, and then it terrorizes you because it's dangerous to create things you don't understand - right? - or to play God.

CHUNG: It's less dangerous if you are aware that you're never going to understand this. I think Isaac Asimov said something to that effect. But as long as we believe that we are gods, that we've created this, so this thing will always listen to me and do as I say, then we are walking into deeper trouble.

RASCOE: Yeah. Well, that definitely happened in that story. You know, in a lot of your stories, I found a theme of women and the autonomy over their bodies and kind of, like, the horror and the tension that can come from not only just, like, what your body creates, intentionally or unintentionally, and the way society reacts to it. Like, what were you trying to get at with some of those stories?

CHUNG: Well, I guess we're talking about the embodiment...

RASCOE: And I found the head, too. So "The Head" is about creations, and then "Embodiment" is about a girl who gets pregnant through her birth control somehow. She gets pregnant, and then it goes from there.

CHUNG: For the record, contraceptive pills do not make you pregnant. Contraceptive pills are safe.

RASCOE: Yes (laughter).

CHUNG: They're good things.

RASCOE: And I would say they're good things, but in this book...

CHUNG: Yeah, it's just in my particularly perverted story, the person gets pregnant. So yeah, listen to your doctor.

RASCOE: Yes.

CHUNG: Well, when I was 28, I had an ovarian cyst, and my period wouldn't stop. And I went to see a gynecologist. Well, I told my mom, and the first thing my mom said was, you're not married. You're not going to go see a gynecologist by yourself.

RASCOE: Oh, wow.

CHUNG: I was 28, and I was bleeding for two weeks. I couldn't stand up. And the first thing my mom said was, no, you're not going to go see a doctor because you're not married. So that felt really strange, but that was very Asian. That was very, very Korean. And I think that stigma is still very well alive to this day, unfortunately. And my own doctor was very kind. She was very friendly, for the record, and I got a prescription. And my ovarian cysts went away with time. But if you just refuse to go see a doctor, it could be very, very catastrophic. So this is something that is happening to your body. And it's like having a toothache. Nobody tells you, you can't go see a dentist because you're not married. If you are alive and have functioning organs, then you should take care of that. It should be very simple. But because the question of pregnancy is attached to it, society just dumps all kinds of weird meanings to your organs. And I thought, well, I'm going to write a story about it.

RASCOE: But the thing I also thought was that men could decide whether they wanted to be a father or not, whereas the woman in this case who was pregnant just had to deal with it. I mean, obviously, can get an abortion or whatever, but in this case, the woman was having the baby, and she didn't have a choice in that. She couldn't decide whether she wanted to be pregnant or not in this story, right? Whereas the men were able to say, I don't know what I want to do. Right?

CHUNG: Yeah. And I wanted to skip that part about deciding whether to keep the baby or not because I wanted to talk about a woman having a baby alone. And in South Korea, there's a ridiculous amount of stigma attached to it, and the baby is discriminated the moment they're born. Their birth certificate has to say whether the parents are married or not. So I wanted to address that, too. And that problem is very particular to Korea and only Korea, I really hope.

RASCOE: Yeah, I think it's probably more than just Korea, but it is a big issue. Like, being a single mother is a big issue all over. Well, I mean, what do you hope that English readers will get from this book? You have a beautiful story in there called "The Reunion," where you talk about, you know, what ties us to this world. What do you hope will tie readers to this book?

CHUNG: I have no idea. I never imagined my book would reach anywhere outside Korea. So this is all very unreal to me. I feel like I'm in the middle of my own story, and my own stories don't really have a happy ending, so I'm probably in trouble. I don't know.

RASCOE: But this one will have a happy ending because this is a great book. This is a beautiful book, and I don't say that lightly. So this will have a good ending.

CHUNG: Thank you.

RASCOE: That was Bora Chung, author of the short story collection "Cursed Bunny." Thank you so much for joining us.

CHUNG: Thank you. And have fun with my bunny.

RASCOE: Oh, I know. That bunny is - whew, that bunny. I said - I mean, when he started chomping on the brain, I was like, yes (laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.