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Han Kang says novels were form of resistance against violence

Nov. 16, 2023 - 18:24 By Hwang Dong-hee
Han Kang delivers a keynote speech at the International Congress of Writers Writing in Korean, in Gwangju, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

GWANGJU -- To capture humans in works of literature is a pledge against violence, according to award-winning writer Han Kang.

Han, who recently won the Prix Medicis for foreign literature in France and was the first Korean to do so, delivered a keynote speech on Wednesday at the 9th International Congress of Writers Writing in Korean.

The event, organized by the PEN Korean Center, a member of PEN International, a worldwide association of writers founded in London in 1921, took place at the Kim Dae Jung Convention Center in Gwangju.

In her address, the 52-year-old author discussed her two historical novels, "Human Acts" (2014) and "I Do Not Bid Farewell" (2021).

The two books, which the author herself considers “a pair,” each delves into the tragic events of Korean modern history, taking the Gwangju Democratization Movement in 1980 and the Jeju April 3 Incident in 1948-49 as their respective motifs.

Reflecting on the depiction of historical events in literature, Han said, "Examining the history of violence is a questioning of human nature. Even if violent scenes are portrayed, it is not for the sake of violence. It is an attempt to stand on the other side."

"Human Acts" by Han Kang. The book was translated by translated by Deborah Smith. (From left, Changbi Publishers, Granta and Hogarth)

Born in Gwangju in 1970, Han, although she did not experience the 1980 Gwangju Democratic Uprising firsthand as she had moved to Seoul before it occurred, said it was something she had to “confront” before moving on, in a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday.

"I had thought about writing ‘bright’ stories, but as those didn't work out well, I delved into the reasons inside me. I realized the memories of Gwangju and my indirect experience with tragedy held me back. I felt that I couldn't move forward without confronting it."

Han said she read over 1,000 pages of materials, including the testimonies of bereaved families and victims, every day for a month, before writing “Human Acts.”

"I wasn't present at that time, but I felt a sense of experiencing history together with them," she said.

Han Kang delivers a keynote speech at the International Congress of Writers Writing in Korean, in Gwangju, Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Han made her literary debut as a poet in 1993 with the publication of five poems including "Winter in Seoul” in the quarterly Literature and Society. The following year, she won the Seoul Shinmun New Writer's Contest for her short story "Red Anchor.”

On Wednesday, speaking on the theme of "Writing Poetry, Short Stories and Novels," the writer explained how such works are internally interconnected within her literary world.

"(I don’t think I am explicitly writing poetic sentences), but poetry resides in each scene I am portraying. It is present in both novels and short stories alike.”

Novelist Kim Hong-shin, the author of Korea's first million-selling novel, "Human Market" (1981), and Purevjav Battsetseg, a professor from Huree University of Information and Community Technology in Mongolia, also delivered speeches at the event.

The four-day congress continues through Friday, featuring literary discussions in various areas of Gwangju.