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Interview with Han Kang

Han Kang is a disquieting storyteller who leads the reader into the very heart of human experience, where the singular crosses the universal. Author of ten books of fiction and poetry in her native Korean, Han’s subversive work has been brought onto the Anglophone stage through close partnership with her award-winning translator Deborah Smith. Smith’s elegant renditions of the novels Human Acts (2016) and The Vegetarian (2015) form part of a recent blossoming of international interest in Korean literature; Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature launched in 2013 and consists of 25 translations so far. Originally published as three novellas in South Korea nearly a decade ago, Han has said that The Vegetarian was initially received as ‘very extreme and bizarre’ in Korea. It has since become a cult bestseller, with translation rights sold in twenty countries and its central novella ‘Mongolian Mark’ awarded the prestigious Yi Sang Literary Prize in 2005. Human Acts, her latest novel, was awarded the Korean Manhae Literary Prize last year, adding to her numerous other accolades.

 

‘I believe that humans should be plants.’ This line from the great modernist poet Yi Sang, written in the Korean script hangul banned under Japanese rule, reportedly obsessed Han during university and became the seed for The Vegetarian. Yi’s dream-like images evoking the violence of imperialism upon the colonial subject are mirrored in Han’s surrealistic and painterly portrayal of a woman’s personal rebellion. The novel tells the story of Yeong-hye who, haunted by grotesque dreams, first gives up meat, then food altogether in a radical refusal of human cruelty and destruction. In a patriarchal society where vegetarianism is rare, Yeong-hye’s transgression eventually leads to her institutionalisation and force-feeding. Han’s life-long exploration of the themes of violence and humanity are here rooted in the anorexic body forming a provocative psychological portrait of a woman’s body politics.

 

Human Acts revisits these themes but pans out to the national stage, excavating the traumatic legacy of the Gwangju massacre in post-war Korean history. Opening in the Gwangju Commune, the action unfurls in the crucible of the 1980s student and worker-led democratic movement. In 1979 when military dictator Park Chung-Hee, the father of current president Park Geun-Hye, was assassinated his ‘protégé’, General Chun Doo-Hwan, succeeded him and extended martial law across the country, closing universities, restricting press freedom and banning political organising. On 18 May 1980 when students gathered in Gwangju to protest these measures, the government responded by sending in soldiers who opened fire on the crowds. A citizen army managed to eject the military presence and in the following days virtually the whole city joined together in creating an autonomous community comparable to the Paris Commune. The uprising endured for a few days until it was crushed by a US-approved military operation on 27 May that killed and injured thousands.

 

The massacre left a deep imprint in Korea’s cultural memory, in part because the truth around events was suppressed for years afterwards. Conservative accounts painted the incident as a Communist plot driven by North Korean sympathisers, and the death toll remains contested. ‘Gwangju’, Han says, has become another word ‘for all that has been mutilated beyond repair. The radioactive spread is ongoing.’ Thus Human Acts is a book with a banging door – it is fiction as a form of alternative historiography where the unresolved past pollutes the present. For Han, ‘Gwangju’ functions like a common noun denoting mankind’s capacity for acts of extreme violence in the same instance as acts of great humanity. Indeed, Korea’s tumultuous history has seen a succession of Gwangjus: there has been little closure, for example, for the Korean women forced into sexual slavery under Japanese colonial rule, or for the families separated by the Korean War that left the two Koreas divided by the Demilitarized Zone when the Cold War turned hot on the peninsular.

 

A language carries its culture on its back and Han deftly transports the myriad complexities of Korean history through her spare prose. Yet Human Acts, like The Vegetarian, is often about the failure of language to adequately convey experience. In a striking scene, a survivor of torture asks, ‘Would you have been able to string together a continuous thread of words, silences, coughs and hesitations, its warp and weft somehow containing all that you wanted to say?’ Han certainly attempts to do so, both in her lyrical work and in this interview, conducted through email and translated by Deborah Smith.

 

Q

The White Review

— The history of Korea in the twentieth century is rich in trauma – why did you choose to write about the Gwangju Uprising in particular?

A

Han Kang

—  The twentieth century has left deep wounds not only on Korea but on the whole of the human race. Because I was born in 1970 I experienced neither the Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1910 to 1945, nor the Korean War, which began in 1950 and was concluded with a cease-fire in 1953. I began to publish poetry and fiction in 1993, when I was twenty-three; that was the first year since the military coup d’état in 1961 that a president who was not from the army but a civilian came to power. Thanks to that, I and writers of a similar generation felt that we had obtained the freedom to investigate the interior of the human without the guilty sense that we ought instead to be making political pronouncements through our work.

 

So my writing concentrated on this interior. Humans will not hesitate to lay down their own lives to rescue a child who had fallen onto the train tracks, yet are also perpetrators of appalling violence, like in Auschwitz. The broad spectrum of humanity, which runs from the sublime to the brutal, has for me been like a difficult homework problem ever since I was a child. You could say that my books are variations on this theme of human violence. Wanting to find the root cause of why embracing the human was such a painful thing for me, I groped inside my own interior, and there I encountered Gwangju, which I had experienced indirectly in 1980.

Q

The White Review

—  You appear as a character in the novel, inscribing your process of memory in the book. It’s a very effective means of bridging life and art, and the past, present and future. How did you first encounter the incident?

A

Han Kang

—  I was born in Gwangju and moved up to Seoul with my family when I was nine, barely four months before the massacre. We had moved purely by chance, and because of this seemingly minor decision we remained unscathed. That fact became a kind of survivor’s guilt, and troubled my family for a long time. I was twelve when I first saw a photo book produced and circulated in secret to bear witness to the massacre. My father had brought it back with him after visiting Gwangju. After it had been passed around the adults it was hidden away in a bookcase, spine facing backwards. I opened it unwittingly, having no idea what it contained. I was too young to know how to receive the proof of overwhelming violence that was contained in those pages.

 

How could human beings do such things to one another? On the heels of this first question, another swiftly followed: what can we do in the face of such violence? I have not forgotten it even now, the photograph of an endless line of people queuing outside the hospital in response to a public request for blood donors. So many ordinary people had left the safety of their homes to help those who had been injured in the violence. When the martial law army returned to the Provincial Office, ending ten days of civilian government of the Gwangju Commune, the decision of citizens—those who, until a few days previously, had been no more than ordinary citizens—to remain there even while knowing that it might well end in their death, was also recorded in the photo book. In that way, I was presented with two unsolvable riddles—that of human violence and that of human dignity, stamped on my heart like a seal. Human Acts forms a record of my fumbling towards those two riddles.

Q

The White Review

—  You started writing Human Acts in 2013, shortly after the election of Park Geun-Hye at the end of 2012. For many, her term can now be seen to be characterised by a similar confluence of tensions to South Korea in 1980 at the time of the Gwangju Massacre—‘a heap of dry tinder waiting for a spark’, as put by Smith in the introduction. How did her election influence the genesis of Human Acts?

A

Han Kang

—  It’s true that I began to compile documents relating to Gwangju in December 2012. But the feeling that this was something I needed to write about had been with me since January 2009. At that time, a building in Seoul’s Yongsan district was earmarked for redevelopment, and those who rented small businesses there held a sit-in on the building’s rooftop to protest the paltry compensation they were being offered. The government exerted a disproportionate use of force to break up the protest, in the course of which 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 as a proper noun but a common noun; that we had unwittingly been living inside Gwangju all this time; that Gwangju was revealing itself in those brief flames. Because I believed that Gwangju was now a name that applied to something universal rather than particular to any one place or country, the documents I read subsequently related not only to Gwangju, but also to Auschwitz, Bosnia, Nanjing, and the massacre of Native Americans.

Q

The White Review

—  Recently Seoul has seen the largest protests held there in many years. In the state crackdown dozens have been injured, including a sixty-nine-year-old farmer who will now remain in a coma as a result of injuries sustained when he was knocked down by police water cannons. This man had been out protesting agricultural trade reforms. Incredibly, Park Geun-Hye has compared these protestors to members of ISIS! Do you view the current political situation in South Korea as an example of history repeating itself, ‘first as tragedy, then as farce’?

A

Han Kang

—  In early 2013, when Park Geun-Hye had just been elected, a symbolic incident occurred: a large-scale deployment of official power in response to a railroad workers’ demonstration against railroad privatisation. It acted as a flare, exposing the current government’s attitude towards the socially disenfranchised and the labour issues that were gradually and consistently driving these groups to the wall. In particular, the violence of this government’s method of suppressing mass demonstrations has left farmer Baek Nam-ki in a coma. I was deeply shocked to see a photograph of this defenceless sixty-nine-year-old, who had been protesting with nothing but his empty fists, being knocked to the ground by the white spray of a water cannon. Furthermore, the fact that the history which South Korean schoolchildren used to be able to learn from one of eight officially-approved textbooks is now being shrouded with a veil, and a single government-approved textbook is being written by those whose identities are unknown, gives rise to sincere concern. In the theatre world, which is heavily reliant on government subsidies, many people were shocked last year to learn that this support was being cut for several directors and producers who had criticised the government.

 

But one thing I would like to say is that many people are struggling keenly to find a way of opposing all of these ‘unspeakable’ yet ‘genuinely happening’, unbelievable attempts to turn history back on itself. If we feel pain when we look on the sight of an elderly man being hurled to the ground by a water cannon, if the belief that ‘this must not be’ prevails among us, it will still be impossible for history to be reversed so easily and completely.

Q

The White Review

—  How has the political situation developed since you started writing the book? What has been the reception of Human Acts so far and do you think it would be different if it was published today?

A

Han Kang

—  Right up until Human Acts was published, I was not sure how this novel would be received. And yet, contrary to my expectations, almost all media outlets (with the exception of those that are especially right wing) gave the book a generous amount of coverage. The response from readers, too, was ‘we want to remember Gwangju at this point in time, we don’t want it to be erased’. That point in time was May 2014; I believe that this response would probably be very similar if the book were to be released now. The situation has worsened since then, and because it appears that if anything it will grow worse yet, paradoxically and regretfully it seems that people will come to use the name Gwangju still more frequently as a common noun, a name in which human violence and dignity inextricably coexist.

Q

The White Review

—  You have said that all of your work concerns what it means to be human. Human Acts covers an incredible scope, ranging from barbarity to tenderness. On the surface, Human Acts, staging the post-war growth of a young nation struggling towards democracy, seems very different to The Vegetarian, a novel with an intensely personal, singular scope.

A

Han Kang

—  Yes, though these two novels appear very different, they can in fact be seen as a pair, their roots entangled. While writing The Vegetarian, I was harbouring questions about human violence and the (im)possibility of innocence. On the reverse side of the protagonist Yeong-hye’s extreme attempt to turn her back on violence by casting off her own human body and transforming into a plant lies a deep despair and doubt about humanity. In another of my books, Greek Lessons, the protagonist loses speech as a way of rejecting the violence which saturates language.

 

The gesture of refusal also holds within itself an attempt to recover—narrowly, with great difficulty—dignity through a self-destructive action. Human Acts also began with agony over human violence, but I wanted eventually to reach human dignity—that bright place, where the flowers bloom. That was the biggest motivation for me to keep on writing the novel.

Q

The White Review

—  The structure of Human Acts, with interlocking chapters told from different points of view, is reminiscent of Rashomon, where each testimony offers a partial revelation. Why did you choose this structure to tell the story of the last hours of the central character Dong-Ho’s life?

A

Han Kang

—  Dong-Ho’s life and death was a story that could only be told in such a way. A way whereby, through gathering the scattered shards of Dong-ho’s final hours, readers can piece together a face whose truth is imperfect, and which can be glimpsed only briefly before it melts away. I used this form in The Vegetarian, too. Yeong-hye only has a voice in very brief dream-monologues, so the image of this singularly tough and determined woman is gathered into an imperfect composite, through the gazes and voices of those around her. I am concerned with stories and certain moments of truth which cannot be told using traditional modes of narration.

Q

The White Review

—  In this polyphonic form, Dong-Ho appears in most of the novel in the second person. Why did you make that decision?

A

Han Kang

—  The second-person ‘you’ is a single person addressed by an ‘I’ who is themselves different from a third-person narrator. Through this calling out, ‘you’ comes into being in the time and space which ‘I’ inhabits. Though the fifteen-year-old boy Dong-ho could not make it through May 1980, continued invocation can make him appear here, breaking the surface of the darkness and permeating the present. And so, Dong-ho is invoked and remembered by a continuous series of narrators, a different character for each chapter, which themselves present discrete slices of time, and eventually, after more than thirty years have gone by, he steps into our present. In Korean, the book’s title was in fact The Boy Approaches.

Q

The White Review

—  In the chapter ‘The Editor’, the editor of a play that falls foul of state censors ritualistically revisits a violent incident of interrogation repeatedly in an attempt to-remember-in-order-to-forget. The play, heavily censored, is then performed mute within the novel. Classic literary trauma theory might suggest that the repetition compulsion of the character of the editor and you, the writer who revisits Dong-Ho’s death to transform it into literature, are attempts to access the realm of the unrepresentable inherent in the experience of the original trauma.

A

Han Kang

—  I believe that trauma is something to be embraced rather than healed or recovered from. I believe that grief is something which situates the place/space of the dead within the living; and that, through repeatedly revisiting that place, through our pained and silent embrace of it over the course of a whole life, life is, perhaps paradoxically, made possible.

 

In Chapter Three, Eun-sook has made her life into a funeral so that she can grieve for Dong-ho and the other victims of the massacre, stubbornly and persistently. The play, written for the sake of the dead who had been denied the dignity of burial rites, is performed in silence after the censors erase it almost completely, so that the actors’ lips only twitch in place of speech. This silent scene is of course a part of the real circumstances of the period in which censorship was in effect; something desperate, and at the same time an impossible act of mourning.

Q

The White Review

— Your use of time in Human Acts is very interesting. Each chapter takes place at successive intervals in time following on from the 1980 massacre until the narrative ends up at the present day of you writing the book in 2013 but this progression is not strictly linear. For instance, the reader has to work to piece together the fragmentary narrative of the end of Dong-Ho’s young life and their experience of time is therefore time as a constructed product of memory. In this way a constellation is created linking the past and the present, could you talk about this temporality? Was there an ethical dimension to this decision?

A

Han Kang

—  You mentioning the past and present makes me recall a time in my twenties. Though at the time I had absolutely no intention of writing fiction about Gwangju, this is something that has always been in the back of my mind, like the fragment or shadow of a nightmare. Around that time, each time I filled up a diary and started a new one I would write the same passage on that first blank page. ‘Can the present save the past? Can the living save the dead?’ When, almost twenty years later, I wrote Human Acts, I came to think carefully about those sentences again.

 

It seems I have to talk here about the changes I experienced in the course of writing Human Acts. For three months after December 2012 I spent eight or nine hours every day reading brutal documents related to Gwangju, followed by examples of other brutal acts which the human race had perpetrated throughout the twentieth century; the more I read, the more the faith in humanity I’d had so far, such as it was, crumbled. I felt thwarted, unable to carry on writing, and almost did give up. Then, I happened across the final diary entry of a member of the civilian militia who had stayed behind in the Provincial Office in the early hours of May 27 1980, and died. A quiet, delicate-natured twenty-seven-year-old who had taught at night school. The entry was in the form of a prayer, and began thus: ‘Oh God, why does this thing called the conscience pierce and pain me so? I want to live.’ Reading it, I realised what I had been missing in my previous reading. And what I thought was, though this novel began with human brutality and violence, it has to move towards human dignity. I felt that that was the only way, to go as far in that direction as possible.

Q

The White Review

—  Strikingly the book begins and ends with a candle lit in vigil for the dead – what role does mourning play in this project?

A

Han Kang

—  I wanted to light a candle at the very beginning and end of the book, to mourn in the best way available to me. Because figures had resurfaced of a person or people coming back to us through the heart of a guttering flame, having crossed a span of thirty years. In that way, I wanted to have past and present, the dead and the living, encounter each other in the candle flame. Suddenly it was clear in my mind how I ought to order the chapters, and I was able to begin the novel itself in March 2013. Once I started right, what I soon realised was that in this book I myself was unimportant. In a surprisingly natural fashion, my self-consciousness disappeared. I wanted to lend my feelings, my body, my life, to them.

Q

The White Review

—  The chapter ‘Factory Girl’ is a complex weave of memory, dreams and the present. Blacklisted and tortured for her role in a women’s splinter group from a main union, former factory worker Lim declines to provide an oral testimony for an academic’s dissertation. How is the act of writing related to the act of bearing witness for you, ‘The Writer’ of the epilogue chapter?

A

Han Kang

—  That chapter, Chapter Five, was incredibly difficult for me to write. Though I’d initially thought that I wanted to lend my feelings, body and life to ‘them’, through writing the life of torture survivor Lim Seon-ju I again experienced things which it seems that, as a woman like her, I did not want to have to bear. And so, at first this chapter had the tone of observing Seon-ju from more of a distance, one night in August 2002. I then realised that this was because I had been trying to distance myself from her, and so I rewrote the whole chapter from the beginning. I struggled to write precisely her feeling of being unable to press the button of the dictaphone. And I wrote the final sentence of the chapter, ‘please don’t die’, in Seon-ju’s voice. Don’t die; that was something I wanted to say to her, to all the living, to us.

 

Though writing the chapter was hard, the pain of Seon-ju’s testimony absolutely cannot be put side-by-side to the pain experienced by the writer. Because, even though the writer experiences pain by lending her feeling and life to the characters in constructing a testimony, the writer is ultimately one who survives this book. These days I feel that the guilty conscience of the living cannot but endure, even after the book came out.

Q

The White Review

—  It would be wrong to describe Human Acts as a historical novel because its historical past isn’t neatly over, the memories and scars seep the past into the present. Today, the massacre exists both in the living memory and in documentation, so what was your process in terms of research and planning? Did you make use of historical archives in your research?

A

Han Kang

—  While writing the book I tried to carefully examine Gwangju’s historical context. In other words, rather than May 1980 suddenly springing into being, I wanted to show how the military government’s oppression of human rights in the 1970s, and the labour movement, became the kindling.

 

Had I written this book in the 1990s, obtaining the documents would itself have been a huge challenge. But because I began to write in the winter of 2012 I was able to obtain a great deal of material from institutions such as the 5.18 Research Centre and the 5.18 Cultural Foundation. So in actual fact the challenge I faced was how to work my way through such a mountain of material. In particular, there were the written testimonies of hundreds of people, which together filled over two thousand pages; reading these carefully was very important to me. But ultimately, I wanted the novel not to have a documentary function, but to be a literary work pervaded by the human.

Q

The White Review

—  Did you conduct interviews as well?

A

Han Kang

—  I did not want to subject the families of the bereaved or those who had been injured to yet another interview, given they had already given their testimony several times. I felt that it would not be right. Instead, I would meet up with ordinary people who I knew and ask them about Gwangju. When had they first found out about it? How had that discovery altered their lives? And I received unlooked-for help with all manner of things. Beginning from information about valuable documents whose existence I’d had no idea of; description of the university atmosphere in the early 1980s, which, being a child at the time, I hadn’t experienced for myself; things like the atmosphere of the censor’s office in that period. Those details were exactly what I needed. I am very grateful to those who opened their hearts to me in this way.

Q

The White Review

—  Human Acts is haunted by wandering ghosts – victims of the massacre. Can you talk about the tradition of ghosts in Korean literature and folklore? Is their appearance in Human Acts related to the dislocation between rapid industrialisation and traditional Korean belief systems?

A

Han Kang

—  These wandering entities aren’t quite related to traditional Korean belief system. Even in Korea the figure of this ‘hon’ (neither ghost nor soul in English) was read as something out of the ordinary, and I was often asked about it. In Chapter Two, hon are able to know whether someone has died or not, while not knowing who they are, and apprehend each other’s presence as something slender and soft to the touch. In Chapter Five, when Seon-ju imagines the light footsteps of Dong-ho’s hon approaching, it is with just such a sense of hon.

 

Even before I wrote Human Acts, whenever I had various thoughts about hon, I always thought of them in this way, as such soft, pale entities. One of my seniors at university, who wrote poetry, once said: ‘Were there such a thing as spirits, perhaps they would be something like the face that flickers tenaciously inside a person’s heart when they have fallen in love’. My own thoughts are something like that. Hon seems some slender wavering thing, like a shadow.

 

In Human Acts, the world after death has neither god nor saviour. Hon only flicker above their bodies as limitlessly slender shadows, remembering their own life and death. Precisely because of this, we, in other words the living, all bear a responsibility.

Q

The White Review

—  Is there a contemporary ‘national’ Korean literature, and if so, what themes do you feel that Human Acts shares with it or responds to within it?

A

Han Kang

—  I don’t see a single concept of ‘national’ or ‘literature’. Rather, I’ve always been fascinated by language. I enjoy contemplating the great depth, complexity and delicacy of the layers of a culture in which a single language is in-built. I owe a great debt to poetry and fiction written in Korean, as I spent my adolescence immersed within these.

 

Human Acts shares common themes with Lim Cheol-woo’s Hundred-Year Inn. As a young man, Lim participated directly in the Gwangju Uprising, and as a writer he has spent the rest of his life scrutinising the business of bearing witness to Gwangju. Spring Day, which can be called his representative work, is a novel in five volumes which reconstructs Gwangju’s ten days of civilian government. Hundred-Year Inn, which he published next, is a curiously beautiful work which, though much shorter than Spring Day, mourns not only Gwangju but the entirety of Korea’s twentieth century. In spite of that, though, I’m not sure it can be called ‘national literature’.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Finally, could you tell us about what you are working on for your next book?
A

Han Kang

—  A little while ago I wrote a very short book that’s difficult to classify, a kind of essay cum prose poem. It’s scheduled to be published this June in South Korea. There is an artist who makes installations using photographs and moving images who is currently preparing a work based around the book, so there will be an exhibition in Seoul to coincide with its publication.

 

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.

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


Deborah Smith is working on a PhD in Korean literature at SOAS, University of London. She has translated The Essayist’s Desk by Bae Suah, funded by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, as well as short stories by Kim Kyung-uk and Kim Ae-ran. She has also received translation funding from English PEN and the International Communication Foundation, Korea. She lives in London.

Sarah Shin is Communications Director and Blog editor at Verso Books.


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