South Korean novelist Han Kang, who won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction for her surreal, unsettling novel, “The Vegetarian,” was almost entirely unknown to English-speakers until last year when her book was translated into English. — her first.
Widely praised by critics in the United States and Britain, “The Vegetarian” is about a woman who believes she is turning into a tree. It was selected May 17 by a panel of five judges, who considered 155 novels in translation, and chosen over novels by more established writers, including Elena Ferrante’s “The Story of the Lost Child” and Nobel Prize-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s “A Strangeness in My Mind.”
The prize, which is awarded jointly by Booker Prize Foundation and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, honors a single work that has been translated into English. The writer and translator share a cash prize of 50,000 British pounds ($72,000).
Han has been publishing fiction and poetry for more than two decades. “The Vegetarian” was published by Portobello Books in 2015. (It was released in the United States earlier this year, by Hogarth.)
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The novel had an unusual path to publication. Deborah Smith, a 28-year-old British translator, read a Korean edition of “The Vegetarian” about four years ago when she was studying for her doctorate, and she decided to send a sample translation to a British publisher, who was won over by the first 10 pages.
The novel, which unfolds in three parts, centers on a depressed South Korean housewife named Yeong-hye, whose violent nightmares lead her to stop eating meat. Her husband and father view her vegetarianism as a subversive act, while her brother-in-law becomes sexually fixated with her plant-shaped birthmark. Yeong-hye begins starving herself, believing that she can photosynthesize light and transform herself into a tree.
In an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, Han said the novel grew partly out of her fascination with the Gwangju uprising in 1980, when pro-democracy demonstrations turned bloody after government troops attacked protesters. Although she was just 9 at the time, the event profoundly shaped her understanding of the human capacity for violence but also for self-sacrifice and compassion, she said.
With “The Vegetarian,” she aimed to explore what it would mean for a person to live a completely nonviolent life, by eschewing food. The novel, which grew out of a short story she wrote around 1998, was inspired in part by a line from Korean poet Yi Sang, who wrote, “I believe that humans should be plants.”
Han said, “I was thinking about the spectrum of human behavior, from sublimity to horror, and wondered, is it really possible for humans to live a perfectly innocent life in this violent world, and what would happen if someone tried to achieve that?”