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Prix Medicis winning Han Kang wants next novel to be 'spring'

Nov. 14, 2023 - 18:52 By Hwang Dong-hee
Han Kang speaks at a press conference held in Yangcheon-gu, western Seoul, Tuesday. (Munhakdongne Publishing)

Her happiest moment in writing so far was when she finished “I Do Not Bid Farewell,” said novelist Han Kang at a press conference in Yangcheon-gu, western Seoul, Tuesday.

“Because it was a work that took me a long time and was so difficult to write,” she said.

Han made history Thursday by winning the Prix Medicis for foreign literature in France, becoming the first South Korean author to achieve the feat. Portuguese author Lidia Jorge’s “Mercy” was named co-recipient of the prize.

The novel, translated into French by Kyungran Choi and Pierre Bisiou, was released in France in August by Grasset, under the title "Impossibles Adieux," meaning "impossible farewells."

“It all seems peripheral. Of course, I am happy and grateful to receive the award. But my true joy lies not in receiving awards, but in completing a story. Writing and completing a novel is the most important thing to me.”

The Korean edition (left) and the French edition of “I Do Not Bid Farewell” by Han Kang (Munhakdongne Publishing, Grasset)

“I Do Not Bid Farewell," released in Korean in 2021, marked a return effort for Han five years after she was launched into the global literary scene by winning the prestigious International Booker Prize in the UK in 2016.

The book delves into the tragic events of the Jeju April 3 Incident from the perspectives of three women. The story follows Gyeong-ha, who visits her friend In-seon's house on Jeju Island after In-seon suffers an accident that severs her finger. There, Gyeong-ha encounters the tragic history through a vision of In-seon's mother, Jeong-sim.

As Gyeong-ha writes about the Gwangju Democratization Movement and suffers from nightmares and psychological burdens, the novel has been interpreted as an autobiographical one. Han has publicly mentioned having nightmares after writing "Human Acts" in 2014, a novel about the 1980 Gwangju Democratic Uprising.

“'I Do Not Bid Farewell’ was published in September 2021, but its starting point was 2014 when I finished writing ‘Human Acts,’” said Han. “The dream I wrote at the beginning of the novel was actually a real dream I had that summer, and I spent the next few years thinking about how to write this story.

"I thought about the relationship between pain and love for a long time while writing the two novels and having nightmares. The pain is insignificant compared to that of those who actually experienced the tragedies, but I thought that pain is connected to love,” explained Han, referring to the author’s note where she said the book is a story about “utmost love.”

Han Kang speaks at a press conference held in Yangcheon-gu, western Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

During her visit to France, Han found it interesting that there was no need for a separate explanation of the historical background of the novel. She attributed this connection to a shared experience of violence and genocide.

However, Han said she has no plans to write novels based on historical events in the future.

“I see the two books -- ‘Human Acts’ and ‘I Do Not Bid Farewell’ -- as a pair. I had been working on them for such a long time. I don’t think I’ll write any more on history.”

Looking ahead, Han said her next work will likely be a novel about life.

"I've been thinking about life a lot lately. We are all born and given a one-time life, and whether we want it or not, we have to give it back someday. I want to explore the meaning of being alive."

"I have said for a long time that I will write a ‘bright’ novel,” Han laughed. “I am not making any such promises anymore. I will probably write it as it comes, but my heart wants to move on from winter to spring.”