A photo of Ha-Joon Chang next to the feature title, 21 Question

‘My passions? Economics and food’: 21 Questions with Ha-Joon Chang

The author of Edible Economics on tackling Tolstoy, bad book translations, and a love of milky British tea.

The idea for the latest book from economics expert and university professor Ha-Joon Chang came to him because he’d been thinking about some heavy subject matter – the fact that, as he says, “within a capitalist society, almost all decisions are bound up with money” – and realised that he could discuss his captivating, world-changing ideas via another subject that was just as close to his heart (and stomach): food.

Edible Economics, Chang says, “is an attempt to reach out as far as possible, to a general audience, to get people interested in economics”, but it’s explained using food analogies. What can chocolate, for example, tell us about post-industrial knowledge economies? Or okra, about capitalism's entangled relationship with human liberation?

We wanted to know more about the thinker behind these global, mind-expanding ideas, so we invited Chang to answer our 21 Questions about life and literature. What we found was a fun-loving, charismatic and deeply thoughtful conversationalist. Dig in below.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

This is a difficult question, but I think Primo Levi. He was an inmate in Auschwitz, so he went through one of the worst things that any human being could go through, but he didn't lose faith in humanity. That's very, very admirable. But also, he has such a unique kind of talent; he was a trained chemist and a writer, someone who could somehow combine science, high literature, philosophy, and mundane, everyday things to create beautiful literature. His most famous work, The Periodic Table, is one of the most wonderful and unique literary products ever. I really admire him for it.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

Definitely Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll. She has a lot of books, but at the time, when I was a child, that was the only Moomin book that was translated to Korean. I loved it. It was so quirky, so different, not like anything I had ever read. Still, it’s full of human warmth, about how you should relate to your family, your friends, strangers. It was just such a wonderful book; I must have read it 20, 30 times.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

As a teenager – as I still am, actually – I was a big fan of murder mysteries and science fiction. I read many so-called detective stories; my favourite was Agatha Christie, but even among her books, my favourite was Murder on the Orient Express. There are other Christie books with even more ingenious plots, like The ABC Murders, or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but I just love the kind of claustrophobic, very cold atmosphere she managed to conjure up in that book. Plot-wise, it may not necessarily be the best book that she has ever written, but the whole atmosphere makes you feel like you're trapped in this snow-covered wilderness, on the train.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

[Hitchhiker's Guide] really showed me that you can write in a very light hearted way, even while talking about a solemn subject

I chose it for The Guardian before, but I would still choose The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Having been a science fiction fan throughout my teenage years and university years, arriving here as a graduate student, I got to read it and I just couldn't believe it. For me, until then at least, science fiction was, you know, heavy – about post-nuclear holocausts, galactic imperialism, the moon crashing into Earth, technological manipulation of the human body and mind. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was so funny – not just make-you-smile funny, but like, laugh-out-so-loud-that-you-finally-cry kind of funny. I couldn't believe that science fiction could be like that. That book liberated me from what I call the burden of solemnity, because we tend to think that if you're going to write about a heavy, heavy subject, the writing should be heavy too. But it showed that actually, poking fun at the absurdity of the world is a very effective way of criticising the existing order and making you think in different ways. It really showed me that you can write in a very light hearted way, even while talking about a solemn subject. Hopefully that shows in my new book.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I’ve only had two jobs: being a university professor and an author. But when you think about it, the university professorship is a very strange job. Because, who gets to be paid for stating your opinions? Most other people work in jobs where their opinions don't matter, or they have to suppress their own opinions to conform to the organisational logic. So actually, it is quite a strange job.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

I work with my literary agent, Ivan Mulcahy, who gave me lots of different writing tips and advice when I decided to write for the general public. I think the best advice that he gave me is to write in shorter sentences. In academic writing, you tend to kind of drag on – some sentences could be like, half a page. He said “Look, you have to write in a more dynamic way”. I took it to heart; since then, I have been trying to write in a shorter, more dynamic way. I think it has worked.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

There is one book that I read every few years: 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve read it about ten times. I first read it in 1982 when he got the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was in Korea then, but the translation was terrible – the Korean publisher seemed to have super-rushed the job, in order to bank on his new Nobel fame, as he had been unknown in Korea until then. Also, it was the first book in the tradition of ‘magic realism’ that I had read; I couldn't make heads or tails of the book. But it kept haunting me, and in the late 1980s I read it again in English and fell in love with it. It’s got everything – love, hate, comedy, tragedy, history, politics, economics – and is told in such a magical way that I re-read it every few years and still find new things to be amazed by.

The last time I read it was just before the pandemic in January/February 2020. At the time, I was invited to Hay Book Festival in Cartagena, Colombia. My ritual re-reading of 100 Years was sort of due, and knowing that Cartagena is one of the towns Gabriel Garcia Marquez lived in, I thought it would be good if I read it in the kind of atmosphere in which he lived. I read about half of the book in sunny, beautiful Cartagena, and finished it in cold and wet England, with news of a mysterious virus spreading.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

I must say, War and Peace by Tolstoy. When I was a teenager, we were told that we need to read serious classical literature, and Russian classical literature is very popular in Korea. There’s a kind of affinity with the Russian soul, or whatever, in Korean culture, so a lot of my friends read War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov. Being a science fiction and detective story fan, I really couldn't care that much, but I picked up it up one day, and I was defeated about one fifth of the way through.

The most difficult thing for me at the time was the names, you know? Two given names, because of the patronyms. After 100 pages, I just couldn't remember who was who, so I gave up. I have always felt bad about it. But actually, a couple of years ago, I read these two amazing books by the Ukrainian Jewish writer Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad and Life and Fate. He’s sometimes called ‘Red Tolstoy’; he was a dedicated communist, although quite critical of Stalin. But I really loved the epic drama that was in the book, and I thought, “Okay, maybe I should go back to Tolstoy.” There are too many great books in science fiction and the detective genre these days, though – I might not find time to read War and Peace. Maybe one day I will.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

When I was a boy, I wanted to become a scientist; I grew up in the 1970s when a lot of people believed science would solve all our problems

A teacher, but then I am already a teacher – albeit a peculiar kind, as I said above. When I was a boy, I wanted to become a scientist, as I grew up in the 1970s when a lot of people believed science would solve all our problems. As a teenager, I wanted to become a diplomat, because I thought it would be nice to travel all over the world as a job (and this was the time when foreign travel for leisure purposes was banned in Korea). However, I have always liked to learn things and explain them to other people, so I think teaching has always been my kind of thing.

What makes you happiest?

As a person, I will say cooking together and having a nice meal with my family, my wife and two children. As an author, it’s when people write to me, or come to me in a book talk or something telling me that my books have changed the way they see the world.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

Well… what would be surprising? I mean, is there a hobby that economists are supposed to have, or Koreans are supposed to have? One thing I can think of is the pursuit of trivia. There is a bit of that in this book ­– I keep a lot of trivial facts about this food item or that food culture, or things like checking what the population of this city is, and what is the capital of that country in Latin America? Trying to figure out, which are the 50 states of the United States of America? Like that.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

Before I had children, I needed silence and no disturbance. But after I had children, I can write anywhere. So there's no ideal scenario in terms of the physical setting. But I'm a bit of an inconsistent writer; I really get amazed when I read people like, I don't know, Roald Dahl or Philip Pullman saying, “No matter what, I write 2000 words a day”, you know? Sometimes I write 30 pages a day, sometimes three words. So the ideal scenario would be when ideas keep coming to me without racking my brain. But I can’t engineer it.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

I actually racked my brain on this one, but I really cannot think of anything unusual. So yeah, I'll let you know when I have one.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

The first part of the question is a bit tough, because there are so many interesting people to meet. But I would say the American fantasy/science fiction writer N K Jemisin. She has this capacity to imagine these worlds that are just beyond anyone else's imagination. I mean, in that genre, there are so many people who are very imaginative, but she's in a league of her own. I haven't read everything by her but she is capable of creating these really different, sometimes really cruel but beautiful worlds. I would want to find out more about what new world she's dreaming, what she's creating. In terms of food, I love cooking but I would play it safe and cook this big pasta dish that I have adapted from the famous cookery writer, Claudia Roden in her book on Italian cooking. It’s a pasta bake made with fried aubergine, lots of tomato sauce, penne pasta with three cheeses on top: mozzarella, ricotta, and parmesan. I have cooked it for many people, and all of them liked it, so probably that.

What’s your biggest fear?

When I was a kid, I was terrified of a nuclear holocaust. That time, in the Cold War in the 70s, you were hearing about these things all the time. Now I'm less worried about that, but I'm worried about total climate breakdown. It may be already happening. I hope it isn't, but we are seeing so many signs of such a thing. I'm very worried about it.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Definitely the ability to speak any language. Having another language is having another world. Unfortunately, I can only speak English and Korean. I can read Chinese and Japanese a bit, but I don't really speak them. But if I could speak all the languages in the world, I could experience all the possible worlds that humanity has created. So yeah, that’s no contest for me.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

If I could speak all the languages in the world, I could experience all the possible worlds that humanity has created

I’ll plump for this detective story written under the pen name Elly Griffiths, The Postscript Murders. It’s written in the style of classic murder mysteries. So it's not like a police procedural like Henning Mankell or Jo Nesbo. The plot’s not overwhelmingly ingenious, but I really like the way she characterised the people in it; she had very nuanced and astute observations about the state of British society today.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Yes, but the thing is, I rarely take baths. I'm a shower person. So probably my whole life I've read in the bath, five, six times, because I very rarely do that.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Coffee. But I like milky British tea in the morning. These days though, even in the morning, I'm drinking coffee.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Well: 100 Years of Solitude. No question about it.

What inspired you to write your book?

I started writing for the general public back in 2005, 2006, so I've been in this game for a good 15 years, approaching 20. But I really wanted to broaden my audience, because my view is that democracy is meaningless in a capitalist society unless every citizen understands some economics. Universities are told to close certain departments because they are not making enough money; some people don't have access to basic essentials like food and heating and so on, because producing them at affordable prices doesn’t make enough profit for companies. So, you know, in that kind of society, almost every decision is bound up with economics.

Without the public knowing about economics, elections become meaningless; a lot of Americans voted for George W. Bush, because he looks like someone you could have a beer with. Lots of British people voted for Boris Johnson because he may be a rascal, but he's a “lovable rascal”. What reason is that? It may be good enough when you're voting for people on TV talent shows, but not to choose your political leaders. Normal economics books can be too boring for many people, so I tried to give them kind of sweeteners – to entertain them with food stories, and before they realise it, snare them into a discussion of economics. Edible Economics is an attempt to reach out as far as possible, to a general audience, to get people interested in economics. It gave me a perfect excuse to combine my two greatest passions, economics and food, so why not?

Edible Economics is out now.

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