February 2016

Han Kang

The holiness and horror of humanity
Interview by
Several years ago Han Kang, the South Korean author of the beautiful and disquieting new novel The Vegetarian, gave up driving and sold her car. Why? “To be honest,” she writes drolly during an email discussion about her life and her novel, “when I used to drive, it was sometimes dangerous because I had too many thoughts in my head.”
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Several years ago Han Kang, the South Korean author of the beautiful and disquieting new novel The Vegetarian, gave up driving and sold her car. Why?

“To be honest,” she writes drolly during an email discussion about her life and her novel, “when I used to drive, it was sometimes dangerous because I had too many thoughts in my head.” 

Now, Han says, she walks a lot and commutes from her home in the “quiet city” of Gwacheon, South Korea, to the Seoul Institute of the Arts, where she teaches creative writing. On the bus or the train, she says, she can read or look out the window and let her thoughts go where they will.

Those wide-ranging thoughts end up coalescing into Han’s psychologically compelling fiction, including her first work to be published in English, The Vegetarian. The novel is concise and swift, its language often almost poetic. This is not so surprising, since Han worked as a poet before turning to fiction. She has earned several prestigious Korean prizes for her novels, including the Manhae Prize for Literature and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, and The Vegetarian was a bestseller—and adapted for film—in Korea. It also made waves when it was published in the U.K. last year.

 The novel sprang from an earlier short story, “The Fruit of My Woman.” Han describes this work as a story “about a woman who turns into a plant. The man who has been living with her places her in a pot in their apartment. During their time living together, he had trouble understanding her.” 

The man takes good care of the woman-plant, but at the end of the season she “produces a few tough fruits and shrivels up,” says Han. “[T]he man looks at the fruits in his palm and wonders whether the woman will bloom again the following spring.”

Immediately after publishing the story, Han says, “I had the inexplicable feeling that the story wasn’t over.” But when she started working on The Vegetarian, she realized the novel was becoming something “quite different . . . something much fiercer, more painful.”

At the center of Han’s novel is Yeong-hye, a woman who first gives up eating meat and then gives up eating altogether, taking a personally destructive path to avoid harming others. Her actions are shocking and intriguing to those around her and ripple outward to others. 

Han says the question that haunted her while writing The Vegetarian was about the nature of human beings, about human innocence and human violence. 

Han says the question that haunted her while writing The Vegetarian was about the nature of human beings, about human innocence and human violence. 

“Humans are creatures who sacrifice their lives without a moment’s hesitation to save a child who has fallen onto the subway track; they are also the creatures who did such things at Auschwitz,” she says. “The Vegetarian was sparked by my uncertainty about the spectrum of humanity—a spectrum that stretches from holiness to horror.”

Though she is the novel’s central character, Yeong-hye remains in many ways a mystery. She never tells her own story. Rather, we come to understand the outlines of her story from the people around her—her oafish husband, her artistic brother-in-law and her sister.

“I thought that the only way to represent the life of this curiously determined woman was to have readers discover her for themselves, at a certain point between three mutually contrary gazes,” Han explains. 

In Korea, the three sections were originally published as novellas, before being collated into a novel. “Each one took about a couple of months. I didn’t want to hurry to go on with the next part directly, so it took almost three years to finish the book,” says Han.

The section told by Yeong-hye’s artist brother-in-law is especially challenging, full of vivid and sometimes sexually charged descriptions. 

“I think the book’s second act more or less has the structure of a traditional tragedy,” Han explains. “I wanted to deal with the process by which a human being crumbles and crashes due to the fissure which arises within himself. I thought that that internal process needed to be described with the maximum of detail. That suffering was the core of this character.”

Han says the third section, narrated by Yeong-hye’s older sister In-hye, was the most difficult to compose. 

“Of the three narrators, In-hye is the character who approaches Yeong-hye’s suffering the closest. In a certain sense, you can say that this novel is a story of sisters. I wrote it in the present tense to separate it from the two preceding sections, and tried to get closer to In-hye’s suffering. But I absolutely didn’t want to exaggerate that suffering; on the contrary, I wanted to constantly moderate it. Maintaining that disparity wasn’t easy to do.”

Han attended a three-month program at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and her English is very good. Yet in emailing responses to BookPage’s questions, she turned several times to the novel’s translator, Deborah Smith, for help with her more nuanced answers.

“More than anything else,” Han explains, “I like the tone of the sentences which Deborah writes. The sense of moderation, of strong feelings perseveringly controlled, corresponds with the sentences I write in Korean. I think I am lucky to have encountered a translator who can render subtle emotions.”

Strong emotions perseveringly controlled is a most apt description of the experience of reading Han Kang’s haunting novel.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian

By Han Kang
Hogarth
ISBN 9780553448184

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