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NPR Arts & Life

Don't Be Fooled, 'The Vegetarian' Serves Up Appetites For Fright

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A young woman named Yeong-Hye lives quietly and passively most of her life, a good girl, but she suddenly decides to give up meat. Her family is perplexed at her determination to be a vegetarian and they try, with varying degrees of force, to stop her. Han Kang's new novel is called "The Vegetarian." And you wouldn't think it from the title, but this story is intense, a dark and disturbing parable. The book was originally published in South Korea 2007, but has only now reached this country. Speaking to us from Seoul, Han Kang described why her protagonist gives up meat.

HAN KANG: Yeong-Hye wants to become a vegetarian, and furthermore, she doesn't want to belong to human race any longer. And she is so determined not to harm anything in the world. And this declaration is quite extreme and bizarre to her family. And the characters surrounding her are kind of personifying the violence to the determination of this woman.

WERTHEIMER: You decided to write your book with three narrators. There's Yeong-Hye's husband and her sister's husband and that sister, her older sister. That's an interesting thing to do because, I mean, in my reading of the novel it seems to me that members of her family really do not understand her.

KANG: This act of her determination looks quite bizarre or extreme because she doesn't want to eat meat, and furthermore, she doesn't want to eat anything in this way. She believes she is saving herself, but ironically she's approaching death in reality. Of course, in the world of reality, she has madness. That's why the family members are so concerned, and they are even violent at this act of her determination. So this novel might seem like a parable, and that was exactly I wanted to have this novel to be seen.

WERTHEIMER: Reviewers have called this book frightening and dark, strange, terrifying. You do a very impressive job of making ordinary moments seem very intense, of creating scenes where reality just sort of slips away. Did you want your readers to be frightened by the book?

KANG: I always feel I am questioning when I write novels, and I wanted to deal with my long-lasting question about human violence and the possibility or impossibility of refusing it. And I will be happy if the readers could share my questions.

WERTHEIMER: There are a lot of ideas in your book. Some of the striking ones to me seem to involve gender politics - the power and control that men have over women, the way women cope with their lives, what happens when they reject the power and control that men have. When you were writing this, were you thinking of it as specific to South Korea or do you think you were writing about a wider world?

KANG: Yeong-Hye's father is a veteran from the Vietnamese war, and there is a very violent scene in the novel where he tries to force his daughter, Yeong-Hye, to eat meat. And it is also overlapped in the third section when the doctors tries to feed her in the psychiatric hospital. In the danger of simplifying, I think these male characters are sharing or personifying the violence to the determination of Yeong-Hye. And I think this could be quite a universal theme. They were universal questions about human violence while I was writing this novel.

WERTHEIMER: Han Kang's novel is called "The Vegetarian." We reached her at home in Seoul in South Korea. Thank you very much.

KANG: Thank you very much, absolutely, it was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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