Her voice is soft and focussed. Her hands are an extension of her words, as she uses them to express herself whilst describing to BBC Journalist Razia Iqbal where she got the idea of writing The Vegetarian.
It is Sunday the 15th May and I am sitting in a theatre hall inside the British library with an audience that is listening intently to the author Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith. They have just read an extract of the book The Vegetarian both in Korean and in English and Razia is now exploring the journey of the book with them.
It is the day before anyone would know that these two women currently on stage would surprise everyone and win the Man Booker International Winner 2016, beating elusive author Emily Ferrante and Translator Anne Goldstein; Portugese writer Jose Eduardo Agualusa and translator Daniel Hahn; Turkish author Orhan Pamuk and his translator Ekin Oklap; German author Robert Seethaler and translator Charlotte Collins and Chinese writer Yan Lianke and his translator Carlos Rojas who all made up the short list of the Man Booker International.
However that is in the future and this is now. Razia has set the tone of the novel, The Vegetarian, by describing it as the most viscerally transgressive novel she has ever read about a woman’s journey. She turns to Kang and asks her how she got the idea of writing it.
Kang’s voice is generally quite soft but it appears more so when she speaks in public. I feel like time stops and slows down with every word she utters and it carries this sort of intensity. You feel her words more with the emotion she conveys, and I begin to understand how she sees the world and how this translates to her writing. I remember her visiting Foyles in Charing Cross earlier in the year to discuss another novel Human Acts also translated by Deborah. I felt the whole audience was entranced by her presence drinking in slowly each word she spoke.
It is the same again now. She refers to 1997 when she wrote a short story called the The Fruit of My Woman. Narrated by the husband, the woman literally turns into a plant. The story is magic realism. The husband takes care of his plant wife, puts her in a pot, waters her, and sees her produce fruit. The story ends after the husband wonders whether his plant wife will produce fruit again the following year. After having written the story, Kang felt unfulfilled and wanted to continue with and rework the idea of a woman turning into a plant. After several years she began writing The Vegetarian.
Razia asks if there was a political dimension for writing the story, as she sees it as a female protest novel, where, the protagonist takes charge of her own life. Kang responds that she continually encounters this idea of what it is to be human. Having experienced the trauma of the Gwangju massacre at an early age of nine, this fundamental question comes to her when she starts writing anything, and for this particular novel, the question of exploring what it is to be human causes the novel to become much became darker than she intended. She explores the idea of innocence in a world that reacts with violence and the possibility that all humans are and can be innocent in a very pure way.
Razia commends Deborah for introducing The Vegetarian to the English speaking audience. It was after all she, who discovered it. Having a good grasp of the language (having learnt it for the last six years) when Deborah came across the book, she felt it was quite unlike anything she had read and had the potential to reach a much wider audience. Amongst the many layers that existed in the book of the patriarchal society, and the aspects of human violence, it also had a structure that was quite unlike anything within the western tradition. The three different perspectives had sharply contrasting tones with moods set against each other over the same chronological narrative. The story was unique and distinctive. Deborah felt it would be a fascinating challenge to translate. The point of translation was to allow people to read something they would not usually have access to.
Razia also asked her about the difficulties she encountered when translating and how was she able to stay true to the distinct voice of each character.
Over the years Kang has developed a style in Korean where the questions she asks can be likened to the still surface of the water but with something vibrating underneath. Deborah found it challenging to translate this in English without the prose seeming flat. It is never easy to translate from one language to another and to be able to maintain the same continuity of thought and imagery that another langauge may not allow. So with each of the three separate sections, Deborah had to handle it with great dexterity, especially where it was sexually explicit or had images of violence. The language is never hysterical or overtly emotional but at the same time it is not detached. She gives us an example in the first section where she uses adverbs for the protagonists husband to appear a pedantic, self exonerating and unsympathetic man. Yet he does not come across as a monster or an evil person.
Razia explained to perhaps an unfamiliar audience, that Kang has a big reputation in Korea as a writer and a poet, but her Korean readers were quite shocked by this novel and it took a while to reach a cult classic status. Kang explains about the reaction that her audience felt the novel too bizarre and too extreme for them to deem it a commercial success. This reaction seemed to mirror the feelings of the journalist gentleman I encountered a little earlier. He was from YTN, a Korean 24 hour news channel. He told me he felt the book was too weird and felt it difficult to describe his reaction, especially since we wanted to capture my views on camera. However I politely refused to be filmed. I did not think I could verbally do the book justice with a camera being aimed in my face and stuttering…’It was great.’
Razia ended the interview there as the two ladies vacated the stage to a round of applause. At the time they did not know that 24 hours or more into the future, the applause would be much louder at the V&A and the tears would be ones of joy.
The inteviews and readings at the British Library of course needed to be short so the other five authors and translators, where possible, could also take to the stage and read extracts from their books.