Bora Chung has been busy. When we speak a few weeks before the U.S. publication of Your Utopia (Algonquin, Jan. 30), her second story collection to appear in English, she is the center of a whirlwind of activity. In November, she had visited New York to attend the National Book Awards, where she and her translator, Anton Hur, were finalists in the category of translated literature for her previous collection, Cursed Bunny. She returned home to South Korea to “a million deadlines,” she says, related to her own work as a literary translator from Polish into Korean (she translates from Russian as well).

Chung is also a passionate activist for human rights, which she describes movingly in the author’s note that closes Your Utopia. Building a better world, she writes, may be a slow, incremental process, but it’s worth fighting for. And when this world inevitably falls short of our vision of utopia, we can and should take time to mourn those we’ve lost.

When Chung logs on to Zoom for her interview with Kirkus, she’s at a hotel in Yeosu, a city off the southern coast of South Korea, where she has traveled for a labor union event. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

It sounds like your schedule is packed. What have you been working on?

I’m translating Polish science fiction right now. It’s a lot of fun. Polish literature found me in Korea. One of my professors taught Korean at Warsaw University, and through him I discovered the beauty of Polish literature. When I went to grad school in America [Chung earned a master’s degree in Russian and East European area studies from Yale and a Ph.D. in Slavic literature from Indiana University], all the programs required a second language, so I naturally decided on Polish. I ended up writing my doctoral thesis on comparisons of images of utopia in the works of one crazy Polish author, Bruno Jasieński, and another crazy Russian author, Andrey Platonov. They’re really amazing.

Those images of utopia must be tied to your new book. But you did your dissertation quite a while ago, right? How did utopia work its way into your fiction over time?

I did my dissertation in 2009. But your dissertation never leaves you, I think. In terms of the title story of the collection, “Your Utopia,” that came from a 2018 trip to Worldcon, the World Science Fiction Convention, that was held in San Jose, California, that year. One day I went to a Tesla dealership where they were exhibiting dismantled parts of the electric cars—the shaft, the tires, the battery pack, the engine. It was my first time seeing the inside of an electric car. Then I decided that I wanted to have a car as my main character in a story.

During the convention, I also attended a panel on pain management and the opioid epidemic in the United States that was very eye-opening. Drugs are strictly controlled in South Korea, so I’d always thought of drug problems as a kind of crime. But the panel taught me that pain management is very closely related to the medical system and that addiction is a health care problem, not a criminal justice problem.

As part of the same story, I got the idea of a medical robot that [rides around in the back seat of the robot car and] asks you to rate “your utopia” on a scale of 1 to 10 [in a post-apocalyptic landscape where humans have died off]. That detail was inspired by the pain management scale from 1 to 10 that doctors use when treating patients. On the way home, I started writing the first part of the story at the airport by hand on a notepad.

Your stories are wildly creative, but there are these nuggets that are recognizable from everyday life. Some say writing is an act of noticing, that writers are very perceptive of the world around them. Do you relate to that point of view?

I would say an author is like a drug addict in a way. A drug addict is always looking for ways to score. We’re always looking for ways to score characters and themes and topics. I’m going to use that in my story. I’m going to use you in my story. I’m going to put that line in my story. I collect them in my mind.

Talking about drugs reminds me of your story, “Maria, Gratia Plena,” about a government worker scanning the consciousness of a comatose criminal who was involved in the drug trade. Did that story reflect your changing understanding of drugs?

First of all, our brains do not discern the difference between reality and our imaginations. If an image is realistic enough or probable enough, our brain accepts what it’s seeing as a probable reality. If our brain made a structural difference between what’s imagined and what’s not, I wouldn’t be an author, because there would be no such thing as fiction writing.

In that particular story—the title means “Mary, Full of Grace”—you can’t really say definitively whether the comatose patient is a criminal. Maybe she dreamt [her crimes] or imagined it all. She’s considered a criminal because law enforcement says she is. In reality, I hope that comatose patients’ dreams or memories never become evidence accepted in a court of law. It’s one thing to consciously make a statement in court, but it's another thing to be unconscious and have someone tap into your brain.

That story was inspired by an article I read about a domestic violence case in France where a police officer killed his family [when they fled his abuse]. The police officer, as a hypocrite and an abuser, should have been killed—that’s what I really wanted to say. What if his daughter had survived and became a great criminal who eventually killed her father? I wanted to defend this character and create confusion about whether the crimes in her consciousness were real or imagined.

In a talk you gave at the New York Public Library in November, you said you write about the things that disturb you; this book includes violence against women, the climate disaster, the end of humanity. Yet there’s hope in these stories, even grace that you offer your characters. How do you go about writing such a complex mix of emotions?

For both this book and Cursed Bunny, I didn’t write stories with the intention of putting them together in a book. I write a lot of stories, and my editor picks which ones go into each book. The stories in Your Utopia are more recent, and it’s possible that I was finding hope while I was writing them. I was teaching science fiction at the time, and I found hope in my students. They were really great undergrads, some from other countries, some who had disabilities, and I learned a lot from them about different ways of exploring the world. It was really fun to find new ways to communicate. I learned more from them than I think they learned from me. I think they will save the future. But I also write about space zombies, so maybe we are all doomed.

Korean American writer Hannah Bae is a journalist, illustrator, and winner of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.