Worlds 2015 is the UK’s premier gathering of international writers and takes place in Norwich from 16 – 19 June.
Here one of the participants Han Kang looks forward to her week in Norwich and ‘opening her mind to shared conversations about literature.’ This piece has been translated by Deborah Smith. Han Kang’s latest work The Vegetarian was reviewed by The Guardian as ‘sentence by sentence, an extraordinary experience’.
Quiet Days, Again (May 31st 2015 )
Two months have now passed since I left Seoul, where I’d lived since I was ten years old, and moved to neighbouring Gwacheon, a much smaller, quieter city. In those two months I’ve completed a short story, which was published in a magazine (and which it seems likely will come to form the beginning of a novel), and teaching at an arts college three times a week. What with painting the new place, cleaning the veranda and preparing my study, I’ve barely had time to rest (one Sunday, while arranging my books, I had a minor accident and ended up losing a toenail).
In April there was also a week in the US to be factored in. The Korean Studies departments at three colleges on the east coast had invited the writer Lim Chul-woo and I to come and give talks. This was ahead of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Gwangju Massacre, which took place in May 1980. Lim had been a young man back then, and participated first-hand in the democratic uprising; since then, he has written many novels and stories suffused with the pain of one who survived, and has had to live through all the long years after. As such, he is a writer I hold in deep respect. I myself am of the younger generation, and was a child at the time of the massacre, but I was invited to participate alongside Lim seonsaeng because last year I published a novel dealing with Gwangju, Human Acts. Giving three separate talks in one week means entire days spent either in lecturing or getting to the next location. Our flights were generally in the middle of the night, and always involved a transfer. Having already had a fifteen-hour flight to get to America from Seoul, one batch of jet lag piled up onto another and we were unable to sleep for more than two hours a day. Strictly speaking, it was a pilgrimage of suffering rather than an enjoyable holiday. Unfamiliar cities and unfamiliar people. Airport lights in the black night of 1 or 2am. Repeated baggage inspections. Handheld scanners running over my body, again and again. Extreme fatigue and lack of sleep. A theme for our visit that weighed on us as heavy as our luggage. Lim seonsaeng’s traumatic memories of that May, which he spoke of from time to time.
The trip ended, I returned to Korea, and, as the fatigue of travel was still wearing of, May arrived. It took quite a long time for me to recover my peace of mind; eventually, just a few days ago, I felt up to going for an aimless stroll around this city where I still do not feel at home. I walk here and there among the dense copse of trees in front of the apartment I am renting, which produce a strikingly beautiful susurrus as spring’s warm wind shakes them. Of course, it’s not as though the memories disappear off somewhere, though naturally mine are nothing compared to those which haunt Lim seonsaeng. The countless documents of cruelty with which I came into contact during the year and half I spent writing Human Acts, the traces of those times I pushed myself to the limit in order to turn back time and have myself exist vividly in that place of thirty five years before – all these are harboured still inside my body, in silence (I now realise that they have in fact become a part of me, something that I will have to live with for the rest of my life). In spite of that, here I am, able again to go for a walk like this; able, finally, to read a little every day, something which feels like an antidote; able to feel the clean impulse to write. Strikingly quiet days, as I have always experienced directly before beginning a new novel or story collection, have come to me again like a miracle.
Now, with my back to that hectic spring, I am going to the UK. Norwich, where I spent an afternoon the previous winter, is a small, peaceful city. I still cannot know precisely what sort of things are waiting for me there. Reading to my heart’s content; walking; writing, if possible; meeting people to whom I can open my heart and mind; shared conversations about literature, about things that aren’t literature, and about things that both are and aren’t literature at the same time – might this be what the summer has in store? I now know that certain experiences – whether shadowed by suffering or radiantly bright – absolutely do not pass through a person without leaving a trace, without imparting some kind of meaning. And so I intend to do away with any predictions or presuppositions, and simply go there with this inner quiet as my luggage.
About Han Kang
Han Kang was born in Gwangju, South Korea and moved to Seoul at the age of ten. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University. Her novels have won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. Her most recent novel, Human Acts, won the Manhae Literary Award, and is a controversial bestseller in Korea as it deals with the viciously suppressed uprising sparked by the repressive measures of the incumbent president’s late father. The book will be published in English by Portobello Books in 2016 (in Deborah Smith’s translation) following on from the critically acclaimed The Vegetarian (2015). Han currently teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.