Han Kang Interview
By: PP Wong
“In my case, my strongest motivation to write Human Acts came more from my interior. I had to search my interior to grasp the reason why I had been striving to embrace the human experience. Then I encountered Gwangju, the incident that had sealed the most important and painful riddles on my life. I learnt about the brutality and sublimity of human nature.”
Han Kang is the multi-award winning South Korean author of notable works that include The Vegetarian and Human Acts. Her novel The Vegetarian recently won The Man Booker International Prize. In her interview with BW Han Kang talks about the dark facets of the human race and why the usage of graphic violence in her work sometimes assists her to answer questions on what it means to be "human".
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
It is difficult to specify only one book. When I was very young, I liked ones written by Korean children book writers like KWON Jeongsaeang and MA Haesong. Afterwards, I loved The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
A bird - to learn the sensation of flying with wings.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
I would imagine being in a similar situation to when I was in my twenties, working for a monthly cultural magazine and being overwhelmed by mountains of office work. I wished to bring only my private laptop then.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
It doesn’t seem possible for me. I need more words. Or a book.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
It is also difficult to specify only one writer because he/she always changes. However, Lim Chulwoo was my favorite when I was a teenager. I especially I liked his short story Sapyung Station.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
I made some quite tasty banana pancakes a few years ago.
Why do you write?
Writing is a way of questioning for me. I don’t try to find an answer, but to complete the question, or to stay within the question as long as I can. In a sense, writing fiction can be compared with pacing back and forth. You go forward and then come back again, pondering questions that both sears and chills you internally.
In both your novels The Vegetarian and Human Acts there are some deeply compelling but somewhat disturbing violent and gruesome scenes. What is going through your head when you are writing these scenes?
At the risk of oversimplifying, you could say that The Vegetarian and Human Acts are both painfully dealing with human violence and the possibility of dignity.
I have to confess that I myself am sensitive about any kind of violence. I remember, that when I was younger, I would throw up everything whenever I had to watch films about Auschwitz.
It was difficult for me to describe violent scenes in both books, but through those I had to penetrate and investigate my questions on being “human.”
You’ve been quoted as saying “Humans are scary and I’m one of them". What did you mean by this?
I moved from Gwangju to Seoul in January 1980, at the age of nine with my family. It was just four months before the Gwanju uprising/massacre occurred. After a few years, there were photo books which were printed and circulated secretly to bear witness. I found one of the photo books on the bookshelf of my father, and it became sort of a defining experience in my life. If I were not that young, I would have been more aware of the political aspect. But I was just 12. The photo book contained numerous dead faces with deep wounds and after reaching the end of the photo book, I thought to myself, ‘Humans are scary’. I couldn’t find a way to accept that I am one of these ‘humans’.
However, there were also examples of human dignity and inexplicable strength in the photo book. For example, I saw the endless lines of ordinary people who wanted to donate blood for the wounded right after the mass shooting by the Martial Law army. It was like two unsolvable questions were imprinted on my mind:
How can humans be so violent?
What can humans do something to fight against that extreme violence?
In Human Acts you talk about the 1980 Gwangju uprising in South Korea and the cruel massacre that followed. What made you choose to write about the cruelties in this particular incident?
My family moved to Seoul without any real intentions. However, we were not scathed because of that minor, coincidental decision. Rather, my family had survivors’ guilt for a long time.
I grew up with the sentiment that there were people hurt and killed instead of us.
In some countries, the history taught in school lessons is sometimes a different narrative to what really happened. Historians can shed light on the true stories that governments tried to erase. However, do you think it is also the responsibility of fiction writers to help illuminate true stories from the past?
In my case, my strongest motivation to write Human Acts came more from my interior. I had to search my interior to grasp the reason why I had been striving to embrace the human experience. Then I encountered Gwangju, the incident which had sealed the most important and painful riddles in my life. I learnt about the brutality and sublimity of human nature.
However, I have to say there was another motivation. In 2009, in the Yongsan district of Seoul, there was a protestors’ sit-in on the roof of a building, which was planned to be demolished without adequate compensation for the tenants. The government exerted a disproportionate use of force to break up the protest. A fire broke out that claimed the lives of five protestors and one police officer. I saw the burning building on the news, and thought of Gwangju. I felt that Gwangju had returned to us wearing a different face, no longer a proper noun but a common noun; that we had unwittingly been living inside Gwangju all this time.
The Vegetarian was initially written as three novellas before being joined together in one novel. It would be great if you could share with us the development process.
Well, I wrote a short story called The Fruit Of My Woman in 1997. The story is about a woman who literally turns into a plant. The man who has been living with her places her in a pot on the balcony in their apartment. During their time living together, he had had trouble understanding her. After she became a plant, he waters her and takes good care of her, but at the end of Fall, she produces a few tough fruits and shrivels up. Leaning against the window frame, the man looks at the fruits in his palm and wonders whether the woman will bloom again the following spring.
Immediately after publishing the story, I had the feeling that the story wasn’t over. I wanted to rework and rewrite it at some point. Later, while I was writing The Vegetarian, I felt that the novel was becoming something much fiercer - more painful.
I began writing this book in 2003 and published the three parts in three different literary magazines. I remember that I finished the third and final part in the autumn of 2005.
What is the next act of "Human Act" in Han Kang’s life?
My new book, which is difficult to classify is a kind of novella cum prose poem. It is going to be published this June 2016 in South Korea. There is an artist who makes installations using photographs and moving images and is currently preparing a work based around the book. So, there will be an exhibition in Seoul to coincide with its publication. I have worked on my own small performances, which derived from the book and filmed it. They will be exhibited too.
For my next full novel, I’m writing another three-part work. Like The Vegetarian, it will be three independent novellas collected as a novel. I’ve already completed the first novella and am writing the second one now.BW