Han Kang on How Language Misses Its Mark

This week’s story, “The Middle Voice,” is drawn from your novel “Greek Lessons,” in which a woman mysteriously loses the faculty of speech, and signs up for ancient-Greek lessons as a possible remedy. The character says that she did not choose the language specifically—she would have chosen one written in an even more unfamiliar script, like Burmese or Sanskrit, had it been available—but was there something about Greek in particular that attracted you?

Before I start writing a novel, I often experience years of inspirations that pile up on top of one another, until they gradually develop into a clear form. That’s also how it was for “Greek Lessons.” The very first moment of inspiration for this book came while I was having tea with a publisher in the early spring of 2002. The publisher told me that he had majored in ancient Greek philosophy in college, to which I asked whether one must first learn ancient Greek in order to study the philosophy. He said yes, of course, and told me some interesting points about the language: that some very complicated and intricate grammatical elements can be condensed into a single word, so that there is no need to follow the word order. He then went on to explain how a single word can contain multilayered meanings, citing the middle voice, a grammatical structure that doesn’t exist in Korean, which instantly attracted me.

I started my writing career as a poet, and have since harbored mixed emotions about language, an impossible tool. Language is like an arrow that always misses its target by a narrow margin, and is also something that delivers emotions and sensations that are capable of inflicting pain. I still write poems from time to time, and find myself repeatedly using imagery like tongues and lips, breath and dark lungs, or silence. Around the time I had that conversation about ancient Greek, my one-and-a-half-year-old child—who hadn’t yet learned to speak—was making mysterious sounds similar to words all day, so I would sometimes picture all of life’s meanings, feelings, and sensations condensed into a single word, like the moment before the big bang. That’s probably why I found the conversation so intriguing.

It seems important to the character that the classes are in a “dead language,” that is, one that is no longer spoken. What is the relationship between speech and language for her?

I started writing this novel about eight years after that conversation about ancient Greek and came up with a female protagonist who has lost her language. Unlike European languages, many of which are related to ancient Greek, the Korean language has no point of connection with it whatsoever. Ancient Greek is an extremely foreign language to her and has long been a dead language, as you note. I felt that her moving forward in silence, struggling once again to clutch on to her language, both clashed and connected with the act of learning ancient Greek.

The protagonist visits a psychiatrist who proposes various causes for her silence—custody battles over her son, the death of her mother, childhood traumas—yet she repeatedly responds by saying that it isn’t that simple. Is there something in her silence which is also a refusal, or an act of resistance? I’m thinking, also, of your novel “The Vegetarian,” in which a woman’s refusal to eat meat begins to take on larger meaning and consequences.

Yes, there’s an aspect that overlaps between those two characters. The protagonist of “The Vegetarian,” Yeong-hye, refuses violence and eating meat—and, eventually, refuses food altogether—to save herself, whereas the protagonist of this story pushes away language while striving to retrieve it at the same time. There are times when our emotions are tattered, and the language that conveys them is also in tatters. The entire novel “Greek Lessons” is about the process of this character persistently moving on, until the final page, where she finally gets herself to speak, finally becomes the first-person “I” for the very first time. Losing custody of her child is undoubtedly her greatest pain, but it’s linked and extended to the pain of life, the pain of the world. She feels tattered in an irreconcilable world, yet she embraces it with all of her might and retrieves her first-person voice, which makes her a bit different from Yeong-hye. Looking back, I think that was the kind of change in direction I wanted after writing the ending of “The Vegetarian.”

For the protagonist, there is maybe a greater freedom, or at least fewer restrictions, in another language. The story often deals with translation, as well, as the students in her classroom perform exercises between Korean and Greek, and the story hinges on what might be a poem that she writes. Does the story reflect your own relationship to the act of translation, or with your work that has been translated?

“Greek Lessons” was first released in Korea in 2011, when none of my books had been translated and published in another language. So this novel does not necessarily reflect my personal, actual experiences on translation.

But there’s a different kind of personal experience that influenced me to think about a protagonist struggling to deal with the language. Before writing this novel, I took about a year off from writing. I had some complicated emotions about language back then, although not as much as the protagonist. I read only books on science—astrophysics in particular—as I was unable to read fiction, and watched only documentaries, as it was unbearable to see fiction movies. And I returned to writing through some inner process—which, by the way, wasn’t studying Greek—and that whole experience left a mark on the novel.

In the full novel, the student’s perspective is interwoven with that of her professor, who we find out is losing his eyesight. How did you decide to pair these two things, vision and speech?

In the last scene of my third novel, “The Vegetarian,” In-hye, the main character’s elder sister, stares out an ambulance window at the blazing trees “as if waiting for an answer, as if protesting against something.” I feel that that entire novel is about waiting for an answer and protesting. And, then, in my fourth novel—which hasn’t been translated into English yet—I tried to move forward from that scene. In this fourth novel, which takes the form of a mystery, the heroine battles, putting her life on the line, to prove that her friend’s death wasn’t a suicide. After completing this novel, I felt like I had crossed over some kind of line, after which I wanted to look into something soft and tender in humans. That’s how I came to imagine a tactile moment in which the softest parts of two people meet.

The male protagonist of “Greek Lessons” loses his sight—the visible world—year by year, which in fact is also a self-portrait of ourselves, since we all are losing the world every moment, moving toward darkness and disappearance. Feeling himself close to loss, the protagonist keeps reminiscing about people from the past, writing to them, and feeling vividly alive. I asked myself how this male protagonist and the female protagonist, who has lost her language, could communicate when they are with each other. And that’s when a scene came to me, in which the woman writes something on the man’s palm with her finger, her fingernail clipped severely and incapable of harming anyone. The novel flows toward that moment of infinitely tender touch, in a gradually slowing tempo, since I wanted to depict it with a growing sense of vividness, as if it were seen through a magnifying glass—in extreme silence, but with tension and intensity palpable beneath the surface. So that we can suddenly realize how violent the world around that silence is, as these two characters show each other their softest spots. I remember that, as I was writing the novel, time dragged on; I wanted to linger within it as long as possible, which is why it took me nearly two years to complete it. ♦

Han Kang’s responses were translated, from the Korean, by Jasmine Jeemin Lee.

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