Bora Chung’s first work to be translated into English, Cursed Bunny (Algonquin, Dec.), has been dubbed genre bending for its blending of science fiction, magical realism, and horror. But none of these descriptions do justice to this remarkable collection, which was shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize. The 10 stories are beyond imagination: breathtaking, wild, crazy, the most original fiction I have ever encountered.
The first story, “The Head,” begins with a woman about to flush a toilet, when a head pops out of it and says, “Mother?” The woman flushes, but the head keeps appearing. The head tells the woman it is created with “the things you dumped down the toilet, like your fallen-out hair and feces and toilet paper you used to wipe your behind.” The woman is furious but helpless, and the head follows her throughout her life until… the very disturbing end.
The stories continue, each more astonishing than the last. In “The Embodiment,” when a woman becomes pregnant without a sexual partner, the doctor admonishes her: “You better find a father for that child fast. If you don’t, things will get really bad for you.”
“Scars” centers on a kidnapped boy who is chained and tortured in a dark cave, attacked by a nefarious monster; “Cursed Bunny,” the title story, is a tale told by Grandfather, who explains the family business of making cursed fetishes and the power of the pretty bunny lamp to wreak havoc on a greedy family that destroyed another family.
Chung, who was born and lives in Seoul and has written three novels and three story collections, tells me she was at the Seoul Wow Book Fair in 2018 selling books at her publisher’s booth when translator Anton Hur (who would translate Cursed Bunny from Korean to English) came by. She was trying to sell him a book when he picked her up. “I shut up and didn’t say anything,” she recalls. “Then in perfect Korean he asks if he could translate it. But I didn’t understand. Why would he want to translate my stories? I’m thinking. Another author was there watching. ‘Translate! He wants to translate your book!’ she says to me. Anton told me later that if I hadn’t shut up, he probably would have walked away.”
Of course, I ask Chung about the stories: Where do they come from? Are they social commentary? She smiles (we’re on Zoom). “I don’t think about a message,” she says. “People find social commentary, but for me it’s random. ‘The Head,’ the first story I ever wrote, was for a contest at school in 1998. I won $1,000 in prize money. I wasn’t thinking about a writing career. My only intention was to win the money.”
Chung might not set out with a message, but she does say that “The Head” is about the fact that “no one wants to listen to women. When the woman in the story tells her family about the head in the toilet, they all say, ‘Ignore it, it’s nothing.’ Everyone acts like it’s normal, but life is not normal.”
When she was a young girl, Chung says, she always felt like “the only weird one,” but she thinks that all outsiders feel the same way, and that they learn to pretend that there are no problems. Her stories, she says, mix “fairy tales, history, legends, and horror all together. If you go back to the Middle Ages, 1500 and before, there are recordings of things that do not seem real, but they are recorded as though they were real. The idea of people living with spirits and gods fascinates me. There are Korean chronicles from the sixth through 12th centuries. Russia has the same type of stories [Chung translates from Russian and Polish]- so much fun That’s what I am aiming at.”
Chung also gets ideas from scandals in Korean society. “Scars” was inspired by news stories of child abuse detailing deliberate mutilation for insurance money, or parents who abandon their children and appear again when they turn 18 to force them to take out loans on the parents’ behalf. “Cursed Bunny” sprang from a news report of a dumpling factory that was driven out of business by the malicious rumors of a powerful competitor. The owner killed himself after losing everything. Chung read an interview with the son and was heartbroken, she says. “What could I do but write a story about revenge?”
The UK house Honford Star published Cursed Bunny in July 2021, and shortly after publication, Jessica Friedman at Sterling Lord Literistic, who represents foreign rights for the publisher, began looking for deals. “I was in a good position, with a completely translated book,” she says. “I sent it out broadly in the US It had been longlisted for the Booker at that point and going into the auction, it was shortlisted, which added to it’s appeal.”
Algonquin closed the acquisition for North American rights in April 2022 with, Friedman says, “clear vision, strong marketing plans, and a strong offer.” About Cursed Bunny, she adds, “If you love it immediately”—as she did—“or are intrigued or curious, you’ve got a real treat in store. There’s humor, darkness, precision; it’s new and it’s smart. It’s an incredible and distinct collection that completely sucks you into its worlds.” In addition to the US and the UK, foreign rights have been sold in 16 territories to date.
Algonquin editor Madeline Jones was “knocked off her feet” by the book, calling Cursed Bunny speculative and magical. “It takes place on an alternate plane of reality,” she says. Jones sees the social commentary—on the environment, on late-stage capitalism—but notes that “it doesn’t hit you over the head. You can sit with the stories and have an ‘aha’ moment.”
I told Jones that I was eating lunch when I started reading but put my sandwich aside. “Funny you should say that—that it put you off your lunch,” she tells me. “I’m really squeamish about everything—horror, true crime—so when I brought this to the editorial meeting, everyone was shocked. But I love it, and if it doesn’t scare me, it should have broad appeal!”
A version of this article appeared in the 08/08/2022 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Things That Go Bump