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Han Kang wins Booker award

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Published : 2016-05-17 17:37
Updated : 2016-05-17 17:37

Korean author Han Kang became the first Korean to win the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for her novel “The Vegetarian” on Monday. British translator Deborah Smith, who translated the novel from Korean to English, was jointly awarded the prize.

“I wanted to depict a woman who refuses to exercise violence,” Han, 45, said in her acceptance speech at the award ceremony held at London‘s Victoria and Albert Museum on Monday night.

2016 Man Booker International prize for fiction winner Han Kang speaks to the media after the award ceremony in London, Monday. (AFP-Yonhap)

The novel was picked unanimously after a fierce debate among a panel of five judges. Among the five other short-listed works vying for the prize were Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk’s “A Strangeness in My Mind,” Chinese author Yan Lianke’s “The Four Books” and Italian writer Elena Ferrante‘s “The Story of the Lost Child.”

A total of 155 entries were received for the international counterpart to the prestigious Man Booker Prize. The Man Booker International Prize, established in 2005, is open to books in any language that have been translated into English and published in Britain. In previous years, it was a career honor, but starting this year, the prize is being given to a single work of fiction. The prize of 50,000 pounds ($72,600) is split equally between the author and the translator.

Chairman of the judges Boyd Tonkin described Han’s book as both “lyrical and lacerating.”

“This compact, exquisite and disturbing book will linger long in the minds, and maybe the dreams, of its readers,” he commented. “Deborah Smith’s perfectly judged translation matches (the novel’s) uncanny blend of beauty and horror at every turn.”

The process of translation had felt “like climbing a mountain,” Smith told Agence France-Presse.

“But at the same time, just falling into this world that was so atmospheric and disturbing and moving -- it was a wonderful experience,” she said.

“The Vegetarian” was first released in Korea in 2004 and published in the U.K. by independent publisher Portobello Books last year. It is Han’s first work to be published in English and Smith’s first translation of a Korean novel.

‘Incredible translation’

Literary circles here welcomed the news of Han’s win Tuesday morning.

The prize will make for a “pivotal turning point in Korean literature,” said Kim Seong-kon, president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. 

Han Kang (right) and translator Deborah Smith pose after being announced as the winners of the Man Booker International Prize 2016 for “The Vegetarian” at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London on Monday. (EPA-Yonhap)

“It will allow publishers worldwide to become interested not only in Han Kang, but also in other Korean writers,” said Kim, also a professor emeritus at Seoul National University.

A key factor that contributed to the novel’s win, according to Kim, was its “incredible translation.”

“A nuanced translation is important in communicating literature, and Smith achieved that,” he said.

Smith, 28, holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Cambridge University, a master’s in Korean Studies from University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and only started learning Korean at the age of 21.

In a past interview, Smith said that translating “The Vegetarian” was her “big break.” She has additionally translated novelist Bae Su-ah’s “His First Love” and Han’s most recent novel “Human Acts,” among other works. 

Last year, Smith founded her own nonprofit publishing house Tilted Axis Press, devoted to publishing contemporary international literature. LTI Korea and Smith will work together to introduce Korean works of literature to the international audience, Kim said.

‘A dreamer gazing into the dark’

Han, a poet, essayist and novelist, was born in 1970 in Gwangju to well-known novelist Han Seung-won. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University.

Han first emerged in the literary scene in 1993 with poems that were published in the quarterly literary magazine “Literature and Society.” She made her official writing debut the following year when her short story “Red Anchor” won the Seoul Shinmun New Writer’s Contest.

Han has published numerous short stories, poems and novels. A key work is “Black Deer,” a novel that delves into human solitude through the story of a woman who roams the city streets naked in broad daylight and suffers memory loss. 

A copy of ”The Vegetarian“ by South Korean author Han Kang (AFP-Yonhap)

Han’s most recent novel “Human Acts,” which depicts the 1980 massacre of protestors in Gwangju during the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising, was published in Korea in May 2014 and in Britain in January this year.

Han has won a number of literary accolades in Korea, including the prestigious Yi Sang Literary Award in 2005 -- an award her father also won in 1988.

She has been lauded for describing strange, tragic and violent themes through poetic prose.

Han questions what it means to be “human” through her work, and describes the process of writing as “pacing about.”

“In a way, writing a fiction is similar to pacing about. With heated or chilling questions in mind, one paces forward or moves backward,” she said at a literary event in Seoul in February. “However, one can know what kind of path one has walked only after the passing of much time. I will continue to pace about with perseverance, holding these questions,” she continued.

In past interviews, Han said that a photograph depicting victims of the Gwangju Democracy Uprising motivated her to start writing.

“I started having fundamental questions about human beings, which I first explored in ‘The Vegetarian,’” she said. In “Human Acts,” she questioned whether “one could endure a world in which violence and beauty coexist,” she said.

Han’s husband Hong Yong-hee is an award-winning literary critic, while her older brother Han Dong-rim is also a novelist.

Regarding Han’s win, Hong told local media, “(Han) writes every line with all her might. ... It’s awe-inspiring.”

Her father said he received an ecstatic call from Han after her win. Since childhood, Han has been a “dreamer gazing into the dark,” he told local media.

“She is creating a new mythical world. She writes in prose ... with a new sensibility, but also based on something traditional. ... She surpassed me a long while ago.”

By Rumy Doo (doo@heraldcorp.com)