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The White Book interview

The White Book interview

Han Kang describes how her experience of living in Warsaw in 2014 led her to write The White Book, and translator Deborah Smith discusses her approach to translating a novel by Han which is much more experimental in form.

This is part of our series of Man Booker International Prize 2018 longlist interviews.


Han Kang, author of The White Book    

What has it been like to be longlisted?  

It was utterly unexpected. The White Book is ultimately a novel, but at the same time also a book which resists classification, existing in the borders between fiction, essay and poetry. It is surprising – in a good way – to see a book which has such an experimental form included on the longlist.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel The White Book?

It is a book about fundamental 'white' things, made up of 65 fragments. I wanted to write about the thing inside us, that is not destroyed and remain unsullied to the end.

The White Book is the most autobiographical of your works, why have you decided to write about this personal tragedy of your family’s now?

I spent the autumn and winter of 2014 in Warsaw. Every day walking the unfamiliar streets of that city, tenaciously reconstructed after 95 percent had been destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, the thought came to me to write about a person who resembled the city. And one day I realised that this person had to be my older sister – a baby who left the world within two hours of being born into it. I wanted to make her live again through lending her my senses, my life. Writing this book was a form of prayer intending to make the things I saw, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted, all with the warmth of my living flesh, into 'her / your' things. And, as is always the case with our prayers, at a certain point it occurred to me that I was not writing for 'her' alone.


Deborah Smith, translator of The White Book    

What has it been like to be longlisted?

Han Kang pushes boundaries of form and feeling with everything she writes, so it's wonderful to have her most recent work recognised by the judges.  And a huge privilege to be in such wonderful company!

What did you most like about translating The White Book  

The fact that I happened to be in Seoul during the fortnight of edits, so was able to meet up with Han Kang regularly and go through the manuscript in person – very different from The Vegetarian, when were only in touch via email. She even gave me a private tour of the tie-in exhibition in a tiny gallery.

The forms of The Vegetarian and Human Acts, two previous works by Han Kang that you have translated, are relatively straightforward, while The White Book is much more experimental – did this change your approach to translating her work?  

The experimentalism is mainly in the form, and I think of myself as translating words and sentences, so form pretty much takes care of itself. Her prose is even more lyrical than in the earlier books, which means I went to town on the alliteration, assonance, tinkering with sentence structure to get a feel of melancholic recapitulation. But I always focus on the rhythm, the resonance, the mouthfeel of words, whatever I translate – I'm a translator because I'm in love with language – so that wasn't exactly new, just a different degree.