Interview: 2016 Man Booker International Prize Winner Han Kang
- onMay 19, 2016
- byLTI Korea
What is life? What is death? Who am I? Writing means embracing these ever resilient questions as you move forward.
Hello, I’m Han Kang and I write novels. It’s always a very special and amazing experience to meet my readers. Translation is such a singular process where a book is completely reborn, and I am so grateful to be able to meet you through this demanding and interesting process.
Q. How did you become a writer?
I was always reading as a child. We moved a lot, so I changed schools a lot, and I remember reading by myself until I made new friends. So I was reading for pure pleasure as a child, and then I revisited those books when I was a teenager. I was asking all of those typically adolescent questions, what does it mean to be human, why do people die, what is life, who am I, and when I reread those books I was surprised to not find the answers—there were only questions, not answers. And I felt that the authors, the writers were as vulnerable and clueless as I was, asking and recording the same questions that I had. So I felt a sense of kinship with them, although of course I was only a very young and insignificant being, and I thought that if writing is about asking questions, and not necessarily finding answers, I could write that way too.
Q. Could you introduce yourself briefly?
I studied Korean literature in university. After I graduated I worked for about three years in publishing and magazines. I made books, I interviewed people and wrote articles, I went on trips on assignment. After I started writing myself, there have been times when I’ve been writing full time and when I teach on the side; and so the time goes.
Q. When do you feel fulfilled as a writer?
For me, to write is to endlessly question what is life, what is death, what am I. When I write, especially when I’m writing novels, I’m exchanging one, two, three, sometimes four years for that book. So when I feel that I’m going forward as a writer, when I see that I explored what it means to be human in a certain way in this book and I went another way in another book, that’s when I’m glad that I became a writer.
Q. Your novel The Vegetarian is about…?
The protagonist is a woman named Young-hye, who sees vegetarianism as a way of not inflicting harm on anything. Eating meat symbolizes human violence, the violence of this world, and she chooses vigilant vegetarianism as a way of purging herself of that violence. But then she starts to identify as a plant rather than a human and stops eating entirely. She becomes completely exhausted, with the ironic result that what she did to redeem herself ends up killing her.
Q. How was The Vegetarian conceived?
I have an old story called “The Fruit of My Woman,” from ten years or so ago, about a woman who actually, physically becomes a plant and her husband puts her in a flowerpot and waters her and takes care of her. I always wanted to write a follow-up to that story, so that was my first motivation, and secondly I have always been curious about human violence, I wanted to explore if human innocence was possible, what someone would have to overcome to lead a completely blameless life.
Q. What message did you want to convey through this novel?
Can a person be completely innocent? What happens when we vow not to hurt anything? What is sin, and what is redemption? What is beauty? These are the questions that I hope to share with the readers of this book.
Q. Who is your favorite character in this book?
This novel is made up of three parts, but ironically the protagonist, Young-hye, doesn’t have a voice. She’s a silent character that is observed, desired, misunderstood, and pitied, and for precisely those reasons I took great care when writing her. After her I feel for her sister In-hye the most. You could say the novel is about these two sisters. Young-hye is never truly understood by anyone, but In-hye is the character who comes closest to understanding her pain. I love her for trying to understand and for sharing her sister’s pain.
Q. If you could pick one sentence that best represents Young-hye?
Young-he doesn’t have a voice as a narrator, but she expresses how she feels, what she’s thinking, through conversation. She says to her sister, “I’m standing upside down, and leaves are growing from my body and roots sprout from my hands and burrow into the ground.” She’s recounting how her body is transforming into a plant, so for her it’s such a critical thing to say.
Q. What are your personal thoughts on vegetarianism?
I was a vegetarian for a few years in my late twenties. So I have felt the same kind of fear as Young-hye, as if everyone was trying to get me to eat meat. After that I started eating meat again for health reasons, in small amounts. But I still don’t like meat, and always feel a sense of guilt about eating it. I know people who are meat eaters but who think a lot about the fact that we take other lives to preserve our own. So for the vegetarianism question, I used to do it, and now feel a bit guilty about eating meat.
Q. Is there any background behind your vegetarianism and how it ended up in The Vegetarian?
I recently published a novel called Here Comes the Boy, about a boy who dies during the Gwangju Massacre of May 1980. It’s a story that’s been 30 years in the making, during which the question of human violence has never left me. Are humans violent by nature? How do we suppress this violence, then? These are the kind of questions I’ve been living with for a long time. Looking back, I realize that The Vegetarian was about this question as well. The question of innocence. Can we become beings that reject violence? That was the question I was exploring. In retrospect, I wonder if my thoughts about vegetarianism, my guilt towards eating meat, might be connected to the Gwangju Massacre I experienced indirectly as a child. That was a defining experience for me, and in some ways Here Comes the Boy and The Vegetarian feel like a pair, although they are very different in other ways.
Q. What do you constantly think about as a writer?
My fundamental question is, what does it mean to be human? Obviously it’s an ongoing question that changes with each novel. So in The Vegetarian I was asking, what is man? Can man be innocent? Can we reject violence completely? And in Leave Now, the Wind is Blowing, I ask, is it possible to reconcile the great contrast of beauty and violence in this world? Is life worth living? After that, in Greek Lessons the question is if we can bear this life, in what form is that possible? And in Here Comes the Boy the question is, what does it mean to be human? What should we do to not be a certain way? So it’s always changing. But the fundamental question underlying everything is, what does it mean to be human?
Copyright ⓒ Literature Translation Institute of Korea