Han Kang, author of Booker winner The Vegetarian, whets Koreans’ appetite for literature

‘Now is just the begining’ for K-lit, says novelist who won 2016 Man Booker International Prize; she admits to being overwhelmed by her book’s success in Korean and English

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2016, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 May, 2016, 12:00pm

South Korean author Han Kang, whose novel The Vegetarian had sold just 20,000 copies in her home country before it became a candidate for Britain’s prestigious Man Booker International Prize, has urged Koreans to read more.

Han won the prize for fiction this month with the novel, a dark, surreal story about a woman who gives up eating meat and seeks to become a tree.

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“There are many writers whom I like and respect, who are quietly, silently writing in their rooms. I hope that you read them as well,” says the soft-spoken Han, 45.

Han, a creative writing instructor in Seoul who shared the prize with the British woman who translated the book, Deborah Smith, has been catapulted to literary stardom with the win. While relatively few Korean novels have been big sellers overseas, the country’s cultural exports, from music and movies to cosmetics and food, are creating a global buzz.

The Vegetarian sold about 20,000 copies in Korean from its 2007 publication to early this year, before its inclusion on the long list for the international prize, awarded to a work of fiction translated into English and published in Britain.

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A total of 462,000 copies in Korean had been printed as of last Tuesday, Changbi Publishers says.

“I am overwhelmed. I had thought the previous 20,000 copies sold was good enough. I am thankful to everyone who is reading my books,” says Han.

In The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye, a dutiful wife, rebels against societal norms after struggling with gruesome recurring nightmares. She forsakes meat and stirs worry in her family that she is mentally ill.

Han comes from a literary family. Her father wrote the best-selling novel Aje Aje Bara Aje, which was made into a movie. Her brother is also a novelist, and her husband is a literary critic.

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“I was raised enveloped in Korean literature. I read works from Korean and foreign writers, so I have affection as well as debt towards literature,” she says.

“I feel, and hope, that Korean pieces can be read widely. I feel that Korean literature is starting to become a trend, now is just the beginning.”