Pioneering Korean Author Receives her Second ManBooker Prize nomination with her latest book, The White Book.
Many will know of author Han Kang as the first South Korean writer to win the Man Booker Prize in 2016, for her novel, The Vegetarian. And now she continues to break down barriers, with her latest book, The White Book, also being longlisted for this year’s £50,000 Man Booker Prize. While the world of Korean fiction may be relatively small on the global scale, The Vegetarian certainly put Han Kang on the map. Published in 2007, it was her first novel to be translated and into 13 different languages; a testament to the popularity of Kang’s writing. Translated by the talented Deborah Smith (who also translated The Vegetarian), the autobiographical, The White Book, gives us a unique insight into Kang’s life, which she has successfully kept quite private in the past. And with the Man Booker Prize winner prize being announced in May, all eyes are on former winner, Han Kang, once again.
On first glance, the most noticeable aspect of The White Book is the form in which it’s written. As Kang reflects on all things white, she dedicates a new page to a certain white object or concept explained in small paragraphs. Interspersed with black and white photos of Han Kang’s performance of the book, the contrast of the images as well as the black text makes the white spaces even more prominent. Kang alludes to this as she titles one section, ‘Black writing through white paper.’
While some may find this form difficult to follow compared to the usual prose of most books, it’s a refreshing change of pace, which gives you room to stop, ponder and muse on each white object she talks about – from the ‘white, pondering face’ of the moon to the ‘billowing whiteness’ of a flowing lace curtain.
In some ways, Kang uses the book as a form of therapy to reconcile with past trauma – in this case, the death of her older sister, who passed away just two hours after birth. The short musings almost read as extracts of a diary, commonly used to help people navigate their inner psyche and reveal repressed thoughts. And the death of her sister certainly seems to have been buried deep inside her as Kang explains the story of her deceased dog, rather than her sister in a recording studio the year before.
She describes the process of writing the book as something that ‘would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound’, suggesting that writing The White Book is a form of healing. This transformative element also implies Kang may not have known which direction the book would take her but allowed us to be a part of this journey; creating an intimate relationship between reader and writer. Despite The White Book surrounding the death of a sibling, it is surprisingly life affirming. She explains to her sister,
‘I wanted to show you clean things. Before brutality, sadness, despair…clean things that were only for you…’ By addressing her sister directly, Kang almost brings her to life – sealing her existence amongst the permanency of the printed pages.
Kang uses the event as a way of describing various forms of life to her sister such as the white wings of a translucent butterfly. It’s by pausing to appreciate the small things in life that can keep us going. And in a world that’s becoming increasingly fast paced, it’s refreshing to be able to focus on things as miniscule as one white snowflake. We almost see the objects through the innocent, newborn eyes of Kang’s sister – reminding us of the beauty and purity of all things white.
The White Book is a deeply meditative text, which allows us to reflect on our own day-to-day lives and all the small things in it. While reading, I found myself paying greater attention to the little details around me, particularly those that bring life. Even though the death of Kang’s sister may be personal to her, the universal themes of life and death are relatable to many. Kang must be commended for her bravery in laying her thoughts and emotions bare for all to engage with. We can certainly sense Kang receives some closure as she vows to continue focusing on the pure white things, yet to be sullied by life and ‘breathe in the final breath you released.’ The book leaves us with the same life affirming message that Kang’s mother repeated to her sister on that fateful night, ‘Please don’t Die’. Live.
THE WHITE BOOK Published by Portobello Books
Tasha Marthur is a freelance journalist and member of Books Without Borders Bookclub
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