Violence and Being Human: A Conversation with Han Kang

by  Krys Lee
Han Kang
South Korean writer Han Kang photographed by Baik Dahum.

Born in South Korea in 1970, Han Kang made her literary debut as a poet in 1993. She has since published novels and short fiction and won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Literary Prize. She currently works as a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. The Vegetarian, Deborah Smith’s English translation of one of Han Kang’s five novels, has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. In The Vegetarian, a married woman rebels against strict Korean social mores by becoming a vegetarian, leading her husband to assert himself through acts of sexual sadism. 

Here, author Krys Lee speaks with Han Kang about her development as a writer and the recurring theme of violence in her work. 

Krys Lee: Can you tell us about how you became a writer? Was it something you aspired to be from a young age?

Han Kang: I was always surrounded by literary influences—my father is a writer too, you see. We lived in a humble home; we didn’t have much furniture, and we moved around a lot. He loved collecting books, so naturally I was always surrounded by them—on the floor, in every nook and cranny. Everything except the window and door was blanketed by books. The library kept growing. I remember that books always felt “expansive” in the sense that they were in constant abundance, to the extent that I was surprised when I visited my friend’s home and saw how it lacked books.

I read freely and absorbed the language, and my parents left me alone so I could read challenging novels as I pleased; I discovered that I loved reading. Writing came naturally, too. In my teens, I felt the common existential kind of angst over questions such as Who am I? What is my purpose? Why do people need to die, and where do we go afterward? All these questions felt burdensome, so once again I turned to the books that I believed held answers to many of the questions in my youth. They didn’t have any answers. Ironically, that encouraged me. It showed me that I could be a writer, too, that it was for those who have questions, not answers.

KL: The visual arts, or a sense of the visual, feature strongly in your work. I was wondering where this interest first came from and how you found yourself using the point of view of the artist in your writing in The Vegetarian and Your Cold Hands.

HK: When I was young, my aunt, who was studying art, lived with us for a time. Her room was always full of her work, and I’d often model for her, too. 

It was difficult to stay still, frankly. That experience probably helped me understand the point of view of artists and their subjects in my work. I myself never really got into drawing. When I was at the Iowa International Writing Program, they gave me a stipend that allowed me to travel, and whenever I traveled to new cities in America, I was alone, so naturally I spent a lot of time looking at art in museums. I guess you could say I became truly aware of art in my twenties that way. I think I absorbed those experiences, and this is reflected in my writing.

I also like examining and exploring details. Snow falling on a black coat, for example. For a split second, the snowflake looks almost hexagonal. This also goes beyond the visual arts. This idea of looking deeply at and into something is, I think, part of the realm of literature. But recently I’ve also taken up drawing. I think in all these ways, I’ve always had an intimate relationship with art, so I think I write about it naturally, without any conscious purpose.

KL: I’m paraphrasing Gabriel García Márquez, who once remarked that loneliness has always been a subject that returns in his work—only in different forms. As a writer, a human being, I believe there are various ideas and obsessions that haunt us. Do you have something that you continue to explore that continues to return and haunt you? 

HK: I feel like what you say is quite accurate. Of course, I wrote my first novel without being hyperaware of what exactly I was writing. Something inside me compelled me, welled up inside me, and I wrote because I couldn’t not write. But as I continued writing, at a certain point, I realized that there are subjects that disturbed me and, because of that, became subjects that I clung to, others that continue to. I don’t think that there’s just one subject that I return to, but one important question I often return to is the question of human violence. For example, The Vegetarian depicts a woman who rejects an omnipresent and precarious violence even at a cost to herself. In another one of my novels, the female protagonist also recognizes the violence in language and therefore rejects language altogether. And although I didn’t experience it firsthand, I was largely influenced by the large-scale violence throughout my youth. 

Violence is part of being human, and how can I accept that I am one of those human beings? That kind of suffering always haunts me.

KL: You mean the Gwangju Massacre [also known as the May 18 Democratic Uprising, when many citizens, including Jeonnam University students, were beaten and killed by government troops in protest against the Chun Doo Hwan regime in 1980].

HK: Violence is part of being human, and how can I accept that I am one of those human beings? That kind of suffering always haunts me. Yes. I also think my preoccupation extends to the violence that prevails in daily life. Eating meat, cooking meat, all these daily activities embody a violence that has been normalized.

KL: Even stepping on the ground is a form of violence, as grass itself is a form of life. 

HK: True, true. However, although humans have embodied this violence, as they view this around and in themselves, they also have a natural instinct to confront or move in a different direction. I am moving more toward that now, and I want to explore human dignity and strength more deeply, since I wrote Human Acts, which deals with the massacre of Gwangju.

KL: How much does Seoul or Korea itself, a sense of “place,” influence your writing? 

HK: It is crucial to me. I moved frequently when I was young, attending five different primary schools. Now, wherever I go, I have the confidence that I can adjust. However, all the cities I resided in definitely have had an impact on my writing. For example, I lived for nine years in Gwangju before moving to Seoul, and the impression of that small city became a central part of my core self. It often appears in my novels as a city I call K. When I moved to Seoul in January 1980, it felt very cold to me—literally—compared to the warmer temperatures of the South. When did you move from Korea to America again? 

KL: When I was three.

HK: It’s not really comparable, but it was a big change for me. Gwangju was warm, and flowers blossomed even in winter. We moved to Seoul in January and found the city so cold; I shivered even when I wore a thick sweater and socks in bed. That’s when I thought to myself, life will be very cold for me now. The grand scale of the city and its cold indifference felt like a premonition of what my life would be like in Seoul. Though I’m not scared of moving to new places, I’m the kind of person who struggles with and interrogates each place I live in as well as absorbs and am influenced by each place. 

KL: A well-known critic, and your fan, once said that one has to prepare oneself and be in a different mind-set before reading your work. How do you interpret this?  

HK: I believe it’s because my novels directly explore human suffering. Instead of shying away, I try to delve deeper. That’s my tendency, as I’m always trying to discover the truth behind a person. So when I wrote about the Gwangju massacre, a tragedy with so much suffering, I think he meant that such material in my hands meant that the readers would have to prepare themselves to experience—feel—this suffering.  

Each sentence in a language has beauty and baseness, purity and filth, truth and lies, and my novel explores that even more directly.

KL: I sense in your work a way of looking at words—regarding them as if they were visual images. In your book Huirapeo Shigan (Greek lessons, 2011) it is evident that there is a meticulous sensitivity to word choice throughout your novel. I’m curious about your precise relationship to language, in terms of your work.  

HK: I’ve written a book of poems that I wrote over a period of twenty years that scrutinize words—images—in this manner. Personally, I think of language as an extremely difficult tool to handle. Sometimes it seems impossible. Other times it succeeds in conveying what I’m trying to say, but to call it successful isn’t accurate; moreover, it’s as if I keep writing even though I know it’s going to fail, but it’s the only tool I have. It’s a relentless dilemma, and I think it’s something that a lot of poets experience. Especially in Greek Lessons, the protagonist cannot speak and writes poems instead. Each sentence in a language has beauty and baseness, purity and filth, truth and lies, and my novel explores that even more directly. When the weight of words takes over, it is challenging to even speak sometimes. Despite this, we have to continue to speak and write and read. When I lose to my writing, I take a break. I said that I’ve written for twenty years, but I’ve sometimes taken a hiatus for a year or two. 

KL: We talked previously about questions in novels, when you realized that writers didn’t have all the answers. Chekhov once said that the role of literature is to pose questions. When you write novels, do you write focused on a specific question, or does it come to you organically in the process of writing? 

HK: It’s difficult to be continuously writing for a year or two. Writing Your Cold Hand (2002) took the shortest time for me, about a year, and the longest it took for me to finish a novel was about four years. It is always different. I constantly have burning questions in me, and the importance can shift as the novel evolves. Often, the next novel is born from questions that the end of my previous novel sparks. Questions and novels are constantly interacting. For example, in The Vegetarian, I questioned human violence and the human potential for perfection. However, we can’t all just become plants. We have to live. Then how can we live in such a violent world? In Greek Lessons, assuming that it is possible to live, what should be the root of human nature? When the protagonist writes on a palm, she has her fingernails cut so short so she doesn’t leave any imprints, and in another scene when two hands join, they form a few meaningful words. I wanted to give the feeling that these little things might be what make up humankind, a potential for something meaningful.

KL: I’m aware that you were once a vegetarian. How did this inform your writing of The Vegetarian? 

HK: I was a vegetarian in my mid-twenties, and at the time, everyone around me made it a mission to feed me meat. You know how it is in Korean society. It’s a very collective society. It was difficult for me to be the only one to eat differently; regardless, I carried on until the doctor became concerned for my health and told me to reintroduce a little meat back into my diet. My personal experience definitely did influence The Vegetarian, and it was very interesting how the people around me personally reacted to my decision. It was a little humorous. 

However, The Vegetarian has even more direct roots in a short story titled “Fruits of My Woman” (2000), published when I was twenty-six. The main characters are a man and woman, and one day when the man returns home from work, he sees that his wife has become a plant. So he moves her into a pot, waters her, and takes care of her. As the seasons change, the woman spits out her last hard seeds. As he takes the seeds out to the balcony, he wonders whether his wife will be able to bloom again in spring. Overall the story isn’t so dark, and is also magical, but after writing it, I wanted to write it again from a different perspective. So I thought for years about how to write it. From the very first page, The Vegetarian came out very dark and different.

KL: The Vegetarian was published in Korea in 2007, and afterward you published three other novels. I think authors and writers in general feel like they learn something new in each novel that they write. Perhaps it is because of these realizations that come to us that we continue writing. I’m wondering, how does your work change you? 

HK: I did change while writing The Vegetarian. I initially intended to write more than three parts and reveal more about the main character’s nephew. However, when I reached the end of part 3 with the main character Yeong-hye, I knew I was done. It’s hard to explain, but I somehow felt that I became stronger in the process of writing the novel. 

KL: I’m not that familiar with the Korean literary market, but I get the feeling that writers in Korea are treated more or less as equals, regardless of their gender, which is rare in many countries. It is also a reversal of the situation in Korea today. Am I reading the situation correctly, or do you have a different perspective on this? 

HK: It’s true, and it’s quite intriguing. I’ve never felt discriminated against as a writer because I am a woman. I think it’s very normal and celebrated in Korea. One reason is because there are so many talented female writers, and without them, the literary world would be drastically reduced. I’ve thought about this issue before, since I realize that the respect and gender equality in the Korean literary world is unusual compared to most countries and see that as one great strength of Korean literature. However, even in other artistic fields, it’s different; for example, the local film industry is extremely conservative. Male film directors are still the rule for most of the Korean film industry. It’s something to think about. 

January 2016

Krys Lee is the author of the story collection Drifting House and the novel How I Became a North Korean and the translator of I Hear Your Voice and Diary of a Murderer, by Young-ha Kim. She has won the Rome Prize in Literature, the Story Prize Spotlight Award, and the Honor Title in Adult Fiction Literature from the Asian/Pacific American Libraries Association. Lee teaches creative writing at Underwood International College in Seoul.