Eyes that Pierce into the Hinterland of Life Novelist Han Kang
- onOctober 19, 2014
- Vol.15 Spring 2012
- byCho Kang-sok
On a bitterly cold day in Seoul, I met the novelist Han Kang, whose gaze made me forget about the cold outside. I had always wondered where within this calm and thoughtful person hid her grand and relentless narratives.
Han Kang was born in Gwangju in 1970 and moved to Seoul when she was 11 years old. Right after graduating from university in 1993, she made her literary debut with a poem in the journal Literature and Society. She won a spring literary contest the following year for her short story, “Red Anchor,” marking her emergence as a fiction writer. Since the beginning of her literary career, Han has received extraordinary attention, later becoming known as one of Korea's controversial writers with the publication of Love in Yeosu in 1995 and The Fruit of My Woman in 2000. The considerable talent she exhibited in her short story collections sparkled with even more brilliance in her string of novels including Black Deer (1998), Your Cold Hands (2000), The Vegetarian (2007), Leave Now, the Wind is Blowing (2010), and her most recent work, Greek Lessons. Han Kang has continued to receive favorable reviews in addition to winning major Korean literary awards, including the Kim Dongri Literature Prize, Yi Sang Literary Award, Korean Fiction Prize, and Today's Young Artist Prize.
Although Han is now known as a novelist with a unique and worldly aesthetic, she originally made her literary debut as a poet.
Han Kang: In my freshman year I began to write both poetry and fiction at the same time. Whenever I sat down at my desk, I began by writing a poem or editing one I had written earlier. After spending an hour on poetry, I would then turn my attention to the novel I had been working on the previous night. After I made my debut, I found myself spending a disproportionately greater amount of time writing novels, but there are still those unexpected times when I'm able to write three or four poems a year.
Rather than being known for a sharp wit reflecting contemporary trends, Han Kang, I believe, has a characteristic eye for reflecting on the tragedy and hurt that fundamentally lurk deep in the human psyche. Thus it makes sense that she began her literary career as a poet, because poems require attention to detail, focus, and penetrating insight more than quick wits. Her first story collection, Love in Yeosu, can be viewed as a personal record of discerning insights into a faithless world during the author's youth. It was her first book, created during a period of intensely focused writing just a year after her literary debut. The story collection was so polished and intense that it was hard to believe it had been written by an author in her mid-20s. Perhaps that is why literary critic Kim Byong-ik wrote the following comment in a review of her first book: “I just hope that the author's zeal and gregariousness help her regain her youth.” In comparison to her literary peers demonstrating humor and wit, why was Han Kang so sensitive to the themes of hurt and suffering so early in her career? I sought a belated reply from the author in response to the critic Kim Byong-ik's comment.
Han: Well, at that time I didn't think physical age was so important. It's not as if I intentionally wrote somber stories. Recently I've had the chance to re-read my first story collection while preparing a revised edition for my publisher. Most of the characters appearing in this collection don’t believe in healing or reconciliation, and reject consolation to the very end. Although this causes them to waver, they try to live in the moment. I now realize that this was my honest impression of the world's essence during that period of my life.
After the period of so-called realist fiction in the 1980s had passed, some Korean novelists used humor, while others used eloquent verbosity, lyrical aphorisms, and even trivialism to improve the critical response to their writing. In her first published work, however, Han used her penetrating gaze to peel off the veil of ideology and grand causes, revealing the hinterland of lives for all to see. This will and tenacity put Han Kang in rare company in the world of Korean literature. Perhaps that is why her emergence in the mid-1990s was so controversial.
The expectations of readers after the publication of Han's first story collection, Love in Yeosu, were finally met in 1998 when the author published her first novel, Black Deer. The novel is a kind of travel epic that begins with a young woman who’s gone missing. This novel considers the issue of heartbreak superimposed upon the rift between individualism and modern zeitgeist. Literary critic Seo Young-chae highly praised the work, commenting, “This novel signals the arrival of a young master, no less.” The many novels following in the wake of Black Deer have proven Seo’s comment to be more prophetic than laudatory. Her second novel, Your Cold Hands, follows a sculptor, who makes plaster life casts, and his consecutive liaisons with two women. The story is about truth and perspective, illuminating people’s inner world hidden behind flimsy masks. After a hiatus of several years, Han Kang published The Vegetarian, Leave Now, the Wind is Blowing, and other works in succession, all featuring strong narratives through which the author tenaciously plumbed the depths of life's tragedies.
While writing these two books, however, the author herself seems to have experienced pathos firsthand.
Critic Cho Kang-sok and novelist Han Kang
Han: The Vegetarian is divided into three chapters from the point of view of three different characters close to Young-hae, with whom they have made the resolution to go strictly vegetarian. As for the question of what vegetarianism symbolizes…this novel grew out of my curiosity over whether a completely innocent human being could exist. The protagonist, Young-hae, resolutely pursues vegetarianism to the end, to the point that she believes she is a plant and refuses to eat at all. In the process of writing this book, my questions concerning violence, beauty, desire, sin, and salvation became fused together. I remember that completing the last chapter, “Wooden Fireworks,” was particularly difficult for me, as I had to use the voice of In-hae, Young-hae's older sister, who was floundering while trying to understand Young-hae and Young-hae’s physical collapse."
The Vegetarian was even adapted for the screen. The cinematic version became a sensation for being one of 10 competing Korean films invited to the 2010 The Sundance Film Festival. The same director also used Han Kang's novella, Baby Buddha, as the basis for the film, “Scar,” which was one of the works selected to compete in the San Sebastian International Film Festival.
Han: Because of the sexual content in this novel, I was worried about careless adaptations to film.Fortunately, the director approached the task with sincerity and enthusiasm, so I decided to let the film adaptation go forward after many consultations.I believe the perspective of the film itself was faithful to the original work, but I was disappointed by the film distributor's provocative focus on the film’s sexual elements for the marketing campaign.
The Vegetarian is about the painful relationship between two sisters. It looks at pain over the passage of time and considers the possibility of healing. On the other hand, it examines the possibility of ruin or salvation for those who cling so tenaciously to a dream of transformation. As suggested by the title of a chapter in The Vegetarian, “Mongolian Mark,” the themes in the book seem to have made a personal impression on the author.
Her most recent book, Greek Lessons, however, gives a quite different feeling from that of her previous works. Han Kang shared an interesting anecdote about the book.