White Is the Color Somewhere Between Life and Death
Han Kang's "The White Book" is a eulogy, a prayer, and a novel
The Han Kang I know is a true artist. Someone for whom issues of art, humanity, and the beauty of the world and of people are more pressing and real than awards. Someone who feels and empathizes with the pain of others, who ponders over a question she is asked for days. Someone haunted by history, someone private, fiercely compassionate and as uncompromising as the books she writes.
To much of the English-reading public, Kang is best known for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize-winning novel The Vegetarian, as well as the novel Human Acts about the 1980 Kwangju Uprising and its aftermath. The White Book, her most recent novel in Korean and English, may appear to be new territory for Kang in terms of material and form, but readers of Han Kang’s oeuvre know that each book is a new expression, a tunneling into experience. The White Book is about the cycle of birth, death, and resurrection in both its metaphorical and literal meanings. It is also, obviously, about the color white, a symbolic color with multiple significances in many cultures, including Korea.
Han Kang and I met one sunny spring afternoon in Seoul to talk about the significance of the color white and the death of her sister.
Krys Lee: The structure of The White Book is held in as fine a balance as the book’s themes, and from a writer’s point of view, an exciting journey. Did form come first in the writing of The White Book, or the material that had to find a form? And did you intend to collapse the line between genres?
Han Kang: With The White Book, I originally intended to make a book out of fragments. I started with a list of white things then gave each of those white things a title, and intended to make small fragments out of those. Some of those fragments were a few pages long, and others, a few lines. As a result, it stands at the border between poetry and fiction.
I’ve always liked lyrical essay collections, but I didn’t embark on the book planning to write something between the essay and the poem. I just knew I wanted to write about white things, and decided later that this was the best form to express what I wanted to do. Usually when I write a book, it’s ignited by an idea, or a feeling, but I can’t properly begin the book until I discover its structure.
In the case of The White Book, the sense I had from the beginning from was that it would begin with the swaddling bands associated with birth, and progress from birth to death. I was in Poland when I began the book, at an art residency. Another aspect of the structure that I discovered there while writing was the relationship between me and the narrator of The White Book. That I was imagining her and calling up her presence in part one, and in the second part, I realized that she was living through me. In part three, we would have to part from each other, since our lives can’t co-exist. For one to live, the other has to die. So that became the other way the book found its structure. The book might go from swaddling bands to mourning robes, but then there was me, her, and our parting at the end. That was how I perceived the book. Only when I sent the manuscript it in, my editor—who is also a poet—asked me, what should we call it when we send it to bookstores? The White Book is poetry, a novel, and also in some sense, an essay, so I said, let’s just call it a book. She said that was impossible since bookstores require a genre to display it, and asked me to make a decision. I thought about it a lot, and decided that it was a novel for me, and in retrospect, I believe it really is that: a novel.
KL: Traditionally, “white” has multiple meanings in Asian and Western cultures. How did you take those meanings and made them your own in The White Book?
HK: I’ve always been interested in the color white. It seems to me the most fundamental color. Like salt. Also light, if we had to identify light as a color, I think it would be white. Also, perhaps this is a custom unique to Korea, but when a baby is born, he is wrapped in white swaddling bands as soon as he emerges from the mother’s womb. The color is also the color of mourning. It’s also a color without a true color, maybe a color somewhere between life and death, so I was always interested in it. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere before, but the word “횐” is different than the word “하얀”, though they both mean white in Korean. “하얀” has a lovely connotation, all that is pure, clean, bright. But “희다” has more room for darkness, sadness, and death. So I was already very interested in the color white, but when I was thinking about my older sister who died at birth, I thought back on the color. When I first started with the baby clothes, that naturally brought me to the subject of my older sister. I realized then that this book would be dedicated to her. I end with the mourning robes, and saw then that the book would all come together.
KL: The White Book seems to be partly inspired by the landscapes of the many places you’ve been. Can you share some of those places with us? In general, how does place influence your writing?
HK: First when my parents first got married and my father became an elementary school teacher and as newlyweds, I was told that they went to Gwansan with one suitcase in each hand, and began married life together. They told me this story many times when I was young. I don’t know everything but I often imagined what had happened to them there, the death that happened, and their pain afterward. The place where they had they loved each other so much and suffered so much together, is re-imagined in my novel.
Then when I was in Poland, I didn’t know much about the city before arriving. I knew its very basic history, but as I also wrote in the novel, I went to the Warsaw Uprising Museum and saw a film about the city in ruins. I’d only known it as a city covered in snow, but the city in the film was one shattered into stone fragments and completely destroyed. This shocked me. I realized then that all the streets I had wandered through had been ruined and rebuilt. It was so surreal, to realize that this was a city that had been resurrected. I then began imagining my resurrected older sister walking through the resurrected city. I decided to walk through the city and experience it through her eyes.
KL: Was that a difficult time for you?
HK: No, it wasn’t. Once I decided to see the city through her eyes, everything started looking different to me. It was as if I was looking through her innocent eyes, maybe because she left the world before she had a chance of being scarred or hurt. The only thing she’d ever experienced was my mother saying “don’t die, please don’t die,” so imagining her walking through those streets made everything new, fresh. I also wanted to show her good things, since I imagined myself giving her these experiences, so I tried to have good thoughts, and tried to see good things. That’s why I didn’t feel sad at all. In fact I felt comforted. In a sense it was as if I wasn’t alone. so I felt less lonely. I wasn’t as if I’d become a ghost or anything, since of course she was me, too, so in that sense it was as if I were loaning my eyes and senses to my older sister. I had a similar experience when writing Human Acts. I had thought then that I was loaning the dead my eyes and my senses. But I hadn’t disappeared; we were together.
KL: Beauty and suffering are often companions in your work. There seems to be suffering, dying, destruction, and birth, that can potentially lead to regeneration that run throughout. There is never a simple pain, or happiness, or beauty. Can you talk about what this relationship is, for you?
HK: There is another layer of suffering that lies underneath the surface of The White Book. I actually began it during a difficult period in my life. It was also after writing Human Acts, when I still hadn’t recovered from how difficult writing that novel was for me. That suffering is subsumed in the book. That city I was living in had been destroyed, experienced violence, then over time buildings had risen from those empty spaces. This characterized the city. The narrator who comes to the city is also that kind of person, as she gains a strange set of new eyes while in the city, so the city and the narrator resemble each other. So death, regeneration, birth, all of this exists together, which is why the “횐,” not the “하얀.”
KL: There is also beauty, and happiness. Is this what cleanses and brings us to the condition of white, or is beauty and happiness aspects of white itself?
HK: I still am not sure what happiness is, not yet. When I look at something, I don’t think I have a way to measure happiness. I don’t think of a person as happy or not happy, but I think of it more as light. I think more of what their state of mind is. Or of their dark, light, or their texture. Questions I asked myself when I was young was, Why was I born? Why do we suffer? Why do we die? Also, why is the world so beautiful? I think beauty has the power to constantly surprise me, moment to moment. But naturally, pain also exists in equal measure. Since I can’t ignore that, when I gaze at life both pain and suffering walk dramatically.
Light and texture is largely how I approach life, the world, and people, and when I consider the senses and emotions that we rely on. It might be the influence of poetry, which was what I first wrote when I was young. Countless sensations exist in light and darkness, and pain and tenderness. But there doesn’t seem to be any way to measure happiness, for me. Luminous, beautiful, or tender moments exist, but I don’t think those moments can necessarily be called happiness.
There are beautiful people, and even people who aren’t “beautiful,” are beautiful at moments. Like beautiful decisions. So I’m not saying that I judge a person by whether they are beautiful or not, but that I’m often surprised by the moments of beauty in people. Suffering and beauty seem to intensely exist together.
I don’t have much faith in happiness but I do often think about people. It’s a very important theme in the book I’m working on right now. Human suffering, violence, love, light, and beauty are all things I want to explore and am still exploring.
All my different thoughts above seem to say something about my attitude toward life. This question had me thinking a lot the last few days, and it led me to look deeply within myself.
KL: “Clean, cold light that had bathed her eyes, scouring her mind of all memory.” (page 87, The White Book) That sense of a necessary cleansing reminded me also of Human Acts: I wonder if history can also be cleansed in the way that the narrator is cleansed of memory.
HK: The cleansing here was about emptying my head of what I had to, and what was right to, let go of. But I believe that mourning is very important. So in one sense this is a book of mourning. It was the same with Human Acts. One can’t do that with history. In Poland, how they memorialize tragic historical events and conflicts in statues and monuments in public made an impression on me. That made me think about my own country. South Korea, in contrast, seems to replace the old with the new, or erect memorials where they are hidden from view, when they should be located downtown, visible to all.
Last March, I did a fifth performance at the Carnegie International exhibition titled, ”I Do Not Bid Farewell.” It was related to what happened in Gwangju and Jeju Island. When I was looking into opportunities to perform the piece, I looked into performing at the Ilmin Museum of Art in downtown Gwanghwamun. It would have been the perfect location for such a performance, to be able to mourn together in the heart of Seoul. It didn’t work out, but we have to return to the historical memory and mourn, and mourn again.
KL: Any last words or thoughts?
HK: My oldest sister was never given a name since she died so early, so in the book, I gave her the name Seol-yeong. (which means Snow Flower.) By chance, I heard about how the writer Park T’ae-won gave his daughter this name. Sometimes I still think about the time I spent loaning my body to my sister, and wonder to myself if that time was a kind of prayer. What I remember was walking a lot. It was a strange silence since I didn’t know any Polish, and inside me was only my native language. Even though I was surrounded by so many people talking and street signs, it was a strange silence. I was like an island. I thought about white, about my book, about my sister. Every day, I would take notes on the bus. I walked then wrote bits down at a traffic light, and after walking all day I would write some more when I returned home. I spent four months there, and after a month of settling in, I spent the rest of the time this way after I realized that I was in a white city. That process felt like a kind of prayer. Even now when I look back, writing The White Book felt like a kind of prayer.