On Wednesday I travelled to London for one of Han Kang’s few UK appearances. In the event space at the top of the Foyles’ flagship store, Kang spoke for over an hour with Philippe Sands, supported by her translator Yunjung Sun Kim. It was a fascinating discussion.
Sands began by asking Kang to explain a bit about her latest novel just published in English (brilliantly translated by Deborah Smith) Human Acts.
It’s about Gwangju in 1980 when an event took place which some refer to as an uprising and others a massacre. There was a military coup, power was seized and demonstrations took place. The response to these demonstrations was mass shootings. The troops then retreated for ten days, during which there was civilian autonomy. At the end of those ten days, the army returned with tanks.
He then asked Kang about the personal nature of the book for her.
She said she was born in Gwangju in 1970 and lived there until she was nine years and two months old when her family moved to Seoul. It was a coincidence they left before the uprising took place. ‘We were not hurt because we were not there.’ She said they were left with survivors’ guilt.
Photobooks were circulated secretly to let survivors know the truth about the dead. The books contained photographs of corpses. ‘My parents wanted to protect me from that book.’ But Kang looked at one in her parents’ house. ‘I was scared.’ If she’d been older, she might have been filled with rage and hatred but at ten, it left her scared of human cruelty. She said it raised two riddles for her: the first was ‘How can human beings be so violent?’ and the second, ‘How could people do something against extreme violence?’ She said these riddles were ‘…imprinted on my mind. A defining experience for me.’
Sands pushed her on the building that Dong-Ho, the main character lives in, being the building Kang and her family lived in and Dong-Ho himself being a boy she knew but Kang sidestepped the question telling us that the book’s 80% fact, 20% fiction. It was clear throughout the interview that the massacre and it’s affect on her is a painful subject to discuss.
At this point there was a reading, taken from the editor’s chapter [chapter three] when the editor goes to see a theatre production of a script that was very heavily censored by the authorities. Deborah Smith came onstage to read the English translation which was followed by Han Kang reading the same section in Korean. It was really interesting to hear a section read by the writer in the original language.
Sands then asked what caused Kang to choose this subject and why she chose to treat it in this form.
She referred again to the two riddles. They were her internal motivation. ‘I wanted to figure out why I’m struggling to embrace human beings.’ She said she had to figure out the answers to her questions or she couldn’t go anywhere with her writing.
Her external motivation was the social cleansing which took place in the Yongsan area of Seoul in 2009. Five residents and one police officer died when a fire started in a building where people were protesting against the eviction of the residents to make way for developers. She said she was watching the news in a ‘warm and comfortable’ room. ‘I bet it’s Gwangju,’ she said. ‘I realised Gwangju is all around us.’
Who are you writing the book for? Sands asked.
Kang said she mostly started to write the book because of her internal questions. She began to collect materials and realised there was no room for her self-consciousness in the novel. ‘I was not important anymore. I wanted to lend my life to them. To the people who were killed there.’
She did more research, reading about Bosnia and Auschwitz. She said she felt a threat that she’d lose all her trust in mankind.
The change in her thinking came when she read a diary entry by a civilian killed on the last night of the massacre. A high school teacher in the civilian militia’s provincial office. She said it read like a prayer and led to her wanting to reach human dignity even though she started the novel from human violence.
She said of the boy at the centre of the novel: ‘Sometimes he was dragging me towards the second riddle’ and of the book: ‘That process has transformed me’. She talked of a moment in the mother’s chapter of the book [the one that I found most difficult to read] where the boy’s holding his mother’s hand and he leads her to the flowers on the brighter side of the road. ‘This book is just for the boy. The boy has written this novel, not me.’
Sands commented that the book is an incredibly brutal journey. How was it written and what was Kang’s decision-making process in writing the opening?
She talked about the opening being in the darkest place and the boy wanting to light candles. He covers the body with white sheets and then there’s the lighting of candles again. ‘It looks brutal…but I believe there are chords of this warming.’ She said in the second chapter [when the boy’s friend’s body is laid in a pile of corpses and he tells us about his life] that the boy’s life was dignified. ‘The face of human dignity’ is there, she said.
Sands asked her what she was hoping to achieve and the techniques she used in creating the novel.
‘I felt this was the only way to talk about the boy’s life and death.’
She said she used the second person perspective because ‘You is someone who is present’ and she wanted the boy to be present. He comes back throughout the book because the survivors want to remember him; they call him to the present. [The book ends in 2013.] She said readers could also assemble the broken moments of the boys last days and hours through the survivors’ stories. ‘The boy is coming to the present. That’s what I wanted.’
She didn’t know how to structure the novel. She said she was ‘lost’ while researching until she found the citizen’s diary and then she arranged it into six chapters. She didn’t restructure again after that. She said sometimes she’s confident in arranging chapters, ‘Sometimes I get lost’.
How was the book received in South Korea? asked Sands.
It was well received. ‘More than I expected. Maybe they wanted to remember this massacre for a long time. They didn’t want to erase these memories.’ Human Acts was on the bestseller list for a year in South Korea.
The discussion was then opened up to questions from the audience.
Where there people who didn’t want the stories to be told?
Kang said that so many years had passed so she didn’t have to interview people. ‘I didn’t have to hurt anyone.’ She said that painful testimonies had already been given. She repeated, ‘I didn’t hurt anyone’ two more times.
Has the novel been published in other countries and what was the response?
She mentioned the Netherlands and France in the future. She said it’s weird to meet readers in the UK, ‘It’s a very personal book of mine’ but that we share human ideas.
She was asked specifically about publication in China. ‘Maybe it’s impossible.’ She said she’s spoken to the Chinese publisher but because the book deals with massacre and censorship it might not be possible to publish it.
How much of the truth about Gwangju has come out?
In the 1980s information was destroyed. The event was isolated. In 1997 it was memorialised. The current regime doesn’t want to remember though.
The discussion leads on to the single textbook the current regime is proposing. Kang said it’s concerning that no one knows who’s going to write it.
Sands commented that it would be fantastic to have Human Acts on the curriculum.
‘Some people have talked about it! I hoped many students could read this novel. I did my best to promote this book as much as I could.’
She said she’s been to schools to talk about the book and the massacre. 15-year-olds in South Korea were quite ignorant about it. She said the events in the book frightened them but they were relieved that they’d realised the truth.
Did Gwangju affect her other novel (The Vegetarian)?
She said they’re both a personal or inner conflict about humans.
Why did it take so long to write about Gwangju?
She said she revised some stories she wrote in her early 20s and there was human violence in them. The Vegetarian is about whether it’s possible to be perfectly innocent in this violent world, which is why the central character wants to become a plant. ‘The two books are intertwined. It’s like a pair.’
‘Writing is questioning for me.’ The question that she’s asking in Human Acts is ‘Should I live in this world which is mingled with such violence and such beauty?’ She said, ‘I lost my trust to human beings since I looked at the photobook. How can I embrace human beings?’
Sands asked whether she had any more of an answer as to how humans can inflict such violence on each other?
Kang replied that Human Acts is also very anti-human acts. She said she read a piece by a Korean essayist who was on a bus when war broke out, looking at the life around him. He realised that he was crying and came to the conclusion, ‘Maybe I love human beings’.
While writing the novel, ‘I came to thinking about my pain’. She said that readers might do the same as they’re reading. Maybe we feel pain about human atrocity and maybe this is the key to preserving human dignity. Maybe we love human beings.
At this point Sands invited Deborah Smith back to the stage to discuss the process of translating the book. How? he asked.
‘It was a hell of a challenge. The language will allow you to do things in Korean you can’t do in English.’ In Korean you don’t need to state the subject all the time. The book moves ‘swiftly and subtly…between the individuals…and then pans out to a…national, political, social level. The lack of a stated subject allows the we and the I to blend together.’ This is disorientating but effective.
Sands asked about the exchange between Kang and Smith.
Smith said that she translated the whole thing and then Max Porter edited that draft. Kang then read that draft meticulously, picking up mistakes in the subtext and making incredibly detailed notes for Smith. These notes included the historical context and Kang’s inspirations, intentions and stylistic decisions. Smith then returned to the translation and reworked it.
Smith said that for Human Acts Kang had to explain the context and the dialects.
‘I really enjoyed exchanging emails,’ Kang added.
The event had to end there as it had run well over time. It was an incredible evening. The audience was rapt with attention, partly because Kang is so softly spoken but also because of the nature of the discussion. It was a privilege to be there.
If you’re interesting in knowing more about the process of translating Human Acts, Deborah Smith has written an excellent essay published in Asymptote.