In the run-up to London Book Fair 2014, where Korea is the market focus, Han Kang writes about women that turn into plants, the intuitive process in choosing between prose and poetry, and what the future holds for her writing

Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

In Spring 1997, I published a short story called “The Fruit of my Woman”. It was about a woman who starts to notice green blotches on her body, signalling that she is gradually becoming a plant, and about the man who lives with her, who ends up planting her in a pot on their balcony and watering her. She withers as winter sets in, disgorging a handful of tiny fruit. The story ends with the man clutching the fruit as he stares vacantly out from their balcony.

Immediately after writing the story, I thought that I might like to return to this idea in the future. Rather than fleshing out a backstory, I wanted to write a longer work which would allow for variations on the theme, as in a piece of music. It wasn’t until I’d published two full-length novels, which I’d already been planning, that I was able to get started on what eventually became my third novel, The Vegetarian, published in 2007.

The Vegetarian is made up of three parts, originally published in Korea as separate novellas; the first part is the one which shares a similar form to “The Fruit of My Woman”, in that it’s narrated from the husband’s point of view, with the voice of the protagonist, Yeong-hye, haunting the narrative in a series of monologues. But the tone and atmosphere are completely different. Unlike in “The Fruit of my Woman”, there are no paranormal events. The husband’s narration is chillingly matter-of-fact, and the nightmares which Yeong-hye’s monologues recount are particularly gruesome. Her hazardous attempt to ‘become vegetable – a pure being’ in order to vomit out ‘the violence of flesh/the human’ is constantly misunderstood as it progresses towards destruction. By the third part, “Flaming Trees”, Yeong-hye is refusing all food other than meat, believing that she is turning into a plant. The trees appear to blaze up like fireworks as the ambulance rushes her to the general hospital, in an agonising variation of the conclusion to “The Fruit of my Woman” – the withering of the tree-woman as winter approaches.

The novel took me three slow years to write. In the final year, when I wrote “Flaming Trees”, I also wrote a lot of poetry. In-hye, who watches over her younger sister Yeong-hye in “Flaming Trees”, is having trouble sleeping, disturbed by a recurring dream. In this dream she is standing in front of the mirror. Blood runs from the reflection of her eye. She raises her hand to wipe the blood away, but her reflected self remains stock-still, and the eye carries on bleeding. That year, thinking of those suffering sisters, I wrote a seven-poem cycle called “Bleeding Eye”. I also wrote several poems featuring plant imagery.

In this way, for me, poetry, short stories and novels are all closely intertwined.  So far, I’ve published three short story collections and five novels. Last year, my first poetry collection came out. Out of the hundred-plus poems I’d written, I chose sixty, and arranged them into five sections; I was able discern a similar feeling uniting those poems written while I was also writing a particular novel. Of course, these poems are independent from prose fiction, but they had undoubtedly been influenced by the questions and emotions that I’d lived with, the images that had absorbed me, while I was writing my novels.

I’m sometimes asked about the difference between writing poetry, short stories, and novels. I’ll usually also be asked what makes me choose a given form. This process is extremely personal and intuitive, and so it isn’t easy to clarify – the only thing I can say with any certainty is that the most obvious difference is that of time. You need at least a week when writing a short story, twenty days at most, whereas if you want to write a novel you’ll need over a year (my fourth novel took me four and a half years to complete). Poetry, by contrast, can be written in a very short amount of time. Of course, some poems end up nagging away at you for quite some time, but this can’t be compared with the labour-intensive work of producing a novel, which involves a strict routine of writing a fixed amount every day.

Selecting which form to use is a slightly more complex issue. When I write a novel I focus on internal questions. Questions are what motivates me to write; if I want take those questions as far as they can go, to see them through to the end, I need the novel’s tenacity. On the other hand, the idea for a short story will come to me as a single scene. I start to write and when I arrive at that scene, the one that gave me the idea in the first place, I know the story has come to its natural conclusion. A poem’s deepest connection is to language. It will come to me as a single line, which usually forms the beginning of the poem, but sometimes ends up in the middle or at the end. These intuitive flashes find their way to me whenever I’m unwell, or have to move house, when the flow of my life is interrupted by the trivial or significant. The year when I wrote the most poetry was the year when I felt most insecure. I wasn’t sleeping properly, didn’t have the concentration necessary for prose, and lines of poetry kept running around in my head. These eventually morphed into a play, so one afternoon I picked up my pen and turned it into a verse drama. The play would take an hour to read or perform, but took five hours to set down because I was limited by the speed of physical writing. Once I’d managed to drag that slow parade of images out of my head and onto paper I was utterly exhausted, but I also felt that I’d finally turned a corner.

I first published poetry and short stories when I was twenty three. Now that twenty years have flown by, I’m moving forwards slowly but surely, trying to maintain a precarious balance between everyday life and writing. Now, while putting the final touches to my sixth novel, to be published in June, I’m also taking notes of ideas for short stories so I can get started on them in the summer, and of the next novel, which I’ll begin in autumn. Sometimes poetry demands to be written, and brings other work to a halt to create a breathing space for itself.

Now and then I feel that I have nothing to fear, since, whatever the circumstances, I still somehow manage to write. Even when I find myself struggling, the agony of being unable to write will cleave open a fissure in life which I can then infiltrate. A new form, a new language, will be waiting there for me to grasp. And I do know now that this is neither optimism, or pride.

About the translator

Deborah Smith (@londonkoreanist) is an early-career translator of Korean literature, with The Vegetarian by Han Kang forthcoming from Portobello Books. She has received translation grants from the International Communication Foundation, and LTI Korea (forTheEssayist’s Desk by Bae Suah). English PEN funded her sample translation of Hwang Sok-Yong’s Princess Bari. She is currently studying for a PhD in contemporary Korean literature at SOAS.