How Han Kang made herself a conduit for memories of an atrocity in South Korea
The poet and novelist says that something broke inside her teenage self when she found out about the 1980 massacre of student protestors in Gwangju, and her acclaimed new novel tries to make sense of the human propensity for violence
Early in 2015 a buzz began to build around a slim novel called The Vegetarian. It was about a woman who turned her face to the wall, refusing to eat meat and scandalising her friends and family, as a prelude to rejecting life itself. “It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions,” wrote a Guardian reviewer.
Its author, Han Kang, is a poet, short story writer and novelist who has for years been one of South Korea’s best-kept secrets. Her fable of refusal hit the sweet spot for fiction in translation, or indeed any fiction: it mined universal truths from the culturally particular, it was both painfully close to home and mysteriously “other”.
She returns this year with a novel that is even more disturbing and provocative; it certainly splashes its violence across a bigger stage. Human Acts opens with the 1980 massacre of student protesters in the South Korean city of Gwangju and spares no detail in its scrutiny of the carnage: the slashed throat with its red uvula sticking out, the putrefying toes swelling up “like thick tubers of ginger”.
The writer who has borne witness to this devastation is a quietly spoken, 45-year-old mother of one, with a growing circle of admirers in the UK. They include the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, who found in The Vegetarian a common interest in “pain, the body and how the struggle to be human involves many strange ways of trying to look after oneself in the face of hurt, cruelty, confusion”, and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, for whom Human Acts is “an intense and magical achievement – a brutal yet lyrical reflection on the universal legacy of injustice seen through the prism of one act of atrocity”.
Han is a charismatic, thoughtful woman, who wrote herself into the final section of Human Acts in order to explain why she felt compelled to tell the story. “I was nine years old at the time of the Gwangju Uprising,” it begins. Gwangju, a city in the south, had been her home until four months before the massacre, when her father gave up his teaching job to become a full-time writer and moved the family to the capital Seoul.
She discovered the massacre when she was 12; hidden on the top shelf of the family bookcase was a secretly circulated memorial album of photographs taken by foreign journalists. It had been stacked with its spine to the wall to prevent Han and her brothers from finding it. The shocking discovery transformed a public trauma into an intensely personal one. “I remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet,” writes Han. “Silently, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realised was there.
“If I had been 20 years old when I saw them maybe I could have focused my hatred on the military regime, but I was very young and I just felt humans are scary and I’m one of them.”
It’s an episode that is rarely mentioned in South Korea, leaving Han with an unresolved case of survivor guilt, which she shared with the rest of her family, coupled with “two insoluble riddles: how can humans be so violent and cruel, and what can people do to counter such extreme violence?”
Rather than seeking answers from people, she turned to books. “As a teenager I suffered typical questions: why pain, why death? I thought that books held the answers, but curiously I realised they contain only questions. Their writers were weak and vulnerable just like we were.”
By the time she was 14, she knew she wanted to be a writer herself. She sailed from school to university, where she studied contemporary Korean literature. By then, the dictatorship responsible for the massacre had been deposed, and South Korea had become a democracy. “I’m very lucky to belong to the free generation: a generation that didn’t have to focus on social issues,” she says.
She made her literary debut in 1993, writing poetry and then short stories that were deeply introspective, but though the awards and accolades were quick to land, she realised that she struggled whenever she tried to embrace a wider humanity. In her 20s she looked for an answer in Buddhism, drawing back from it only when she was struck down, in her 30s, by mysterious joint problems that made her hands so painful that she could barely use them. For three years she could only write by tapping a pen on her keyboard. “Most people turn to religion when they’re ill,” she says, “but it was the opposite for me.”
It’s not hard to see the shadow of this experience in The Vegetarian, in which a young woman, Yeong-hye, rejects her body, as if in an attempt to erase the violence done to it by a society personified in her father, her husband and – in a florid body-painting scene – by her sister’s artist husband. Though the joint pain receded, Han realised that she had to look deeper inside herself, and towards the horror that nobody wanted to talk about. “I finally discovered this period that I had encountered indirectly in my childhood. I realised I couldn’t go any further unless I penetrated this experience.”
Her research took her into some of the darkest episodes of 20th century history, not just in Korea but in Bosnia and at Auschwitz. “More and more I dreaded that I would lose my trust in humankind.” She was on the point of giving up when she discovered the diary of a member of the civilian militia who had occupied the provincial government offices where the massacre took place, while the troops made a brief retreat. “It said: ‘Why do I have such a thing as a conscience that pokes me and hits me in this way?’ And it blew me away. I realised I had been forgetting the second riddle of my childhood. The diary gave me a way of moving towards human dignity, even though I started from violence.”
The boy at the centre of Human Acts was lifted from the pictures she had discovered as a child. She imagines him leaving his home, helping out with the corpses at a makeshift morgue before disappearing into the crowd of protesters even as his desperate mother beseeches him to come home. He is one of the “disappeared” whose fates were unknown and cannot be told in a simple, sequential way, so the details are scattered through the narrative. A friend who sets out to find him also dies. “Writing the boys was a struggle for me,” says Han, “I’m a person who feels pain when you throw meat on the fire. But they couldn’t testify because they were dead, so I wanted to lend my own body and voice to them. I don’t know why I had to do that, but I did.” For a year, she would go to her workroom every day, often struggling to produce as few as three or four lines before finding herself unable to continue.
That effort reveals itself in writing that is grisly but never gratuitous in its struggle to apply an intrinsically humanist art form to the examination of industrial-scale butchery. As forensic as her observations are, she is also a formal innovator, whose work draws on her knowledge of poetry and on her interest in music and art, as her translator Deborah Smith was quick to recognise. Smith had only recently started to learn Korean when she discovered Han’s work. “The thing that kept me interested in it was something you can really tell from Kang’s books: the novels they write in Korea aren’t really similar to those from the US or the UK because in Korea everyone officially debuts by writing short stories. You do a couple of collections then you move on to doing a novel. The ‘linked novel’ is regarded as a literary form in its own right.”
If Human Acts has placed Han Kang on the international stage, it has also made her a conduit for the conscience of South Korea. “After it came out, I went to Poland for a four-month residency and when I came home it was still on the bestseller lists,” she says. “Suddenly people wanted to invite me for lunch to talk about their own memories of Gwangju.”