“We’re All Freaking Out Together!”: An Interview with Hellen Jo

Yeon-sik Hong’s Uncomfortably Happily is a 592-page autobiographical look at life in South Korea’s countryside, away from the bustling city life of Seoul, which is a bit too crowded, and not the most affordable option for Hong and his wife Shomi Lee, both cartoonists trying to find the balance between staying creatively fulfilled and financially comfortable.

The story is set in a place that will be unfamiliar to many North American readers, but the themes are universal, and the book is a realistic and excruciatingly claustrophobic look at the reality behind the utopia that we often envision as adults for our relationship and our career goals.

Self-portrait by Hellen Jo
For Hong and Lee, the countryside is where they envision their utopia. The air is cleaner. The mind is clearer. Hong -- who is late delivering a manuscript to his editor on a project he cares little about -- soon finds that living in a house atop the mountains has its own challenges. Without a car, commuting into the city via public transit becomes a nightmare. Behind on his project, he has to work joylessly to make sure the bills are paid.

The ups and downs of life is illustrated through chapters that divide the four seasons. Putting together a coal-briquette heating system to save on energy costs for the winter months is a victory for Hong and Lee. The hours spent traveling into the city and limited resources for groceries are setbacks. The ledger is accounted for on both sides throughout the book.

The utopia is not as it seems. Hong has recurring nightmares that he is turning into a robot, illustrating the fears that he’s compromised his creative integrity for the chance at another paycheck. What Uncomfortably Happily doesn’t do is spend the entire narrative drowning in the negatives.

In one particular winter scene, the couple lie peacefully in the snow, away from their day-to-day stress, while Lee tells her husband, “Even though we don’t have a penny to our names and we worry about the rent every month, maybe we’re happy. We get to live in this wonderful place and do whatever we want. And we’re both healthy.” The two exchange a hug in the snow afterwards.

It’s a scene that perfectly captures the mood of the graphic novel. Life is challenging, but it’s also mundane. Happiness -- with your career, with your significant other -- is something we have to continuously work at. Maybe we’re happy. Uncomfortably even. Below is a Q&A with Korean-American cartoonist Hellen Jo, who translated the American version of Uncomfortably Happily.

Alex Wong: As a cartoonist yourself, how did you relate to Hong’s personal experiences?

Hellen Jo: I can’t tell you how many times I’d stop translating, simply to shiver in a moment of are you kidding me right now? The parallels between the book and my life were ridiculous and uncanny. I’d translate a page about the main character avoiding his editor’s pleading calls, and literally within the hour, I’d get an urgent email from an animation director where my revisions were, which I would then ignore. I’d spend a few hours having a spiraling panic attack, then attack the weeds in my yard to de-stress, and then I’d sit down to translate a chapter where Hong did the exact same thing.

Self-portrait by Hellen Jo
Hong and I also had similar reactions to stressful situations: panic, indignant anger, complete avoidance. The translation work ended up becoming a mental and emotional echo chamber as well, which I had never expected. As the first person to translate the book into English, I felt very much like Uncomfortably Happily was destined to land in my hands so that it could pat me on the back and say, “Hey, you’re not alone. We’re all freaking out together!”

Was there a particular scene that stood out to you the most?

My favorite ongoing scene is also a quiet and unresolved one: Hong and his wife spend a summer bathing in a nearby swimming hole, and eventually, he realizes that he's lost his wedding ring, probably while swimming. He continually returns and searches throughout, while his wife swims nearby, as the water level drops, and then finally when the hole has gone completely dry. He never finds it, and the storyline is never resolved. In a book full of tragedy and triumph and existential crises, this quiet storyline is contemplative and thoughtful.

Do you think, compared to other books, there was less of a risk of the original material being lost in translation in Uncomfortably Happily? Because of all the universal themes that are covered in the book?

I think that something may always be lost in translation. Translating from one language to the next is not mathematics. Even if you strip away all of the cultural context and stick to the academic bare bones of a language itself, you can't fit a Korean peg into an English hole. Each language is a system of words, connotations, innuendo, context, unspoken intentions, and none of it is exactly equal to its foreign counterparts.

I think a good translation is mindful of that fact, and tries to re-interpret the intent behind the words for the new audience. I may not have been able to provide an exact translation, because an exact translation cannot truly exist, but I did my best to bring the intention and meaning and context of each and every page to the English reader.

I do agree that Uncomfortably Happily, being a book that many Western readers will relate to, had less to lose in translation than say, a book about Korean shamanism or enduring Confucian customs, things that non-Koreans might find very foreign. Western readers will identify with the stresses of these characters because, doesn't everyone hate their job just a little bit?

This is a book about trying to survive with your partner in an expensive country while pursuing your creative goals. I wouldn't call that a universal theme, but I'm sure many Western readers will recognize those same experiences.

What were your main takeaways from the book about learning to understanding someone in a relationship and learning to live with them?

We may believe we know our life partners intimately, but we have to recognize that we also use them as mirrors for our own projections and insecurities. Your partner is their own person, with their own goals and ideals and abilities and mind, and we must always remember and respect that.

There is a moving scene where Lee learns that she has won an international grand prize award for two children's books she authored and illustrated, and Hong is suddenly surrounded by memories of himself discouraging her, giving her work hard criticism, wondering out loud if she's even ready for this. On the next page, he is holding her and crying.

This is the culmination of his own realization that his wife and her talents were beyond his own doubts and fears, and he finally regards her as a powerful talent in her own right. We tend to view our loved ones through our own smudged lenses, but they exist and thrive outside of us, and it's easy to forget that in a relationship.

And what about what it means to be happy and feeling fulfilled in life?

Tackle your problems head on. If you avoid them, they will fester and metastasize into bigger, uglier, more cancerous problems down the road. Deal with them immediately, and you will be free to breathe.

This is probably the biggest lesson I took away, not just from the story itself, but from the job of translating it as well. I struggled while working on it, because I am a chronic avoider and procrastinator, and in the end, it only made my task a hundred thousand times more difficult. Since the completion of this translation, I've tried my best to actually face hard tasks in the moment, and so far, I've been having a really killer year.