The White Book by Han Kang

I

 

In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was to make a list.

 

     Swaddling bands

     Newborn gown

     Salt

     Snow

     Ice

     Moon

     Rice

     Waves

     Yulan

     White bird

     ‘Laughing whitely’

     Blank paper

     White dog

     White hair

     Shroud

 

     With each item I wrote down, a ripple of agitation ran through me. I felt that yes, I needed to write this book, and that the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform. Into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.

     But then, a few days later, running my gaze down over that list again, I wondered what meaning might lie in this task, in peering into the heart of these words.

     If I rake those words across the heart of me, sentences will shiver out, like the strange, sad shriek the bow draws from a metal string. Could I let myself hide between these sentences, veiled with white gauze?

     This was difficult to answer, so I left the list as it was and put off anything more. I came abroad in August, to this country I’d never visited before, got a short-term lease on an apartment in its capital, and learned to draw out my days in these strange environs. One night almost two months later, when the season’s chill was just beginning to bite, a migraine set in, viciously familiar, and I washed down some pills with warm water. And realised (quite calmly) that hiding would be impossible.

 

     Now and then, the passage of time seems acutely apparent. Physical pain always sharpens the awareness. The migraines that began when I was twelve or thirteen swoop down without warning, bringing agonising stomach cramps that stop daily life in its tracks. Even the smallest task is left suspended as I concentrate on simply enduring the pain, sensing time’s discrete drops as razor-sharp gemstones, grazing my fingertips. One deep breath drawn in, and this new moment of life’s on-going takes shape distinct as a bead of a blood. Even once I have stepped back into the flow, one day melding seamlessly into another, that sensation remains ever there in that spot, waiting, breath held.

     Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. With no time for our will to arrest or impel, we lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time I have not yet lived, into this book I have not yet written.

 

Door

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Han Kang is a poet, novelist, and professor of creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. She has won the Yi Sang Literary Award, the Today’s Young Artist Award, the Manhae Literature Prize, and the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Following The Vegetarian and Human Acts, The White Book will be her third book to appear in English.