I believe that trauma is something to be embraced rather than healed or recovered from. I believe that grief is something which situates the place/space of the dead within the living: and that, through repeatedly visiting that place, through our pained and silent embrace of it over the course of a whole life, life is, perhaps paradoxically, made possible. These words have been written down by Han Kang, a contemporary Korean writer, for an interview in The White Review that was conducted via email and via translation (by Deborah Smith, Han Kang’s usual translator). Let us look carefully at these words and attempt to pay due attention their meaning. Trauma is something to be embraced, she writes – embraced rather than erased. Han Kang uses the term ‘embrace’ again in the next sentence - our pained and silent embrace of it over the course of a whole life – implying not only a lingering relationship with trauma and grief, but emphasizing that this ought to be a close relationship. Other words that stood out to me were the words that concerned duration and time: the words ‘repeatedly’ and ‘over the course of a whole life’. It is so often assumed and repeated that time heals. I myself have been told this a countless number of times by a variety of people. In order to live on, having experienced trauma and grief, one simply needs minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years to pass. This ‘time heals’ cliché implies that you need to get as far away from your pain as you possibly can. Yet Han Kang here urges us to embrace it. There seems to me to be a stark contrast between these two points of view.
The interview from which I quote these intriguing words is about Han Kang’s book Human Acts, a literary work about the massacre in Gwangju, Korea, in 1980. Following the General Chun Doo-Hwan’s extension of martial law across the country, a large number of students were protesting against his measures (including the closing of universities and the restriction of press freedom) at this time. The uprisings lasted for a few days and then were brutally struck down by a military operation that killed and injured thousands of young students. Human Acts is about victims of this massacre (the event became known as ‘the Gwangju Massacre’), centering on one student named Dong-Ho, while frequently straying from his story into stories of others involved. In the introduction to the interview Sarah Shin (the interviewer) describes the book as follows: (…)‘Human Acts’ is a book with a banging door – it is fiction as a form of alternate historiography where the unresolved past pollutes the present. In my own experience as a reader living far from Korea and knowing very little about its history, the book definitely educated me in a historical sense, but it educated me in a more profound sense about being human. Somehow this work illuminated for me – a feat that some extraordinary literature is capable of - aspects of what it is like to be mortal, to be violent, to be traumatized. What it is like to be part of a group and to be influenced by others. Some one told me that fiction, as opposed to other kinds of texts, is about conveying what it is like and that in this capacity lies its strength. To me, Human Acts is a beautiful example of this.
It should be said that the book is very explicit about horrifying subjects such as the smell and rotting of corpses and the physical and psychological pain of torture. I have never come across a book before that deals with human remains so much and in such a direct way. It does not feel as if Han Kang wants to shock her readers with gruesome details. It seems as if she is simply not shielding us or protecting us from all of those things that are frightening and painful. In this directness I recognize the point of view that we discussed before, her statement concerning the repeated embrace of grief and trauma. In her work she is repeatedly exposing deep pain, grief, injustice and horror.
It is a challenge for a reader to devote your time to read words that, more often than not, hurt to read. Words that make you recoil, that make you fear and despise our entire species. It is a challenge for a writer to deal with subject matter that has such a weight. How to find the words for it? Interestingly, the inability of language to accurately convey something recurs as a theme in the book. There is a chapter about a survivor who is asked to give a testimony about the events in Gwangju, years later. She is unable to press the button of the voice recorder at her disposal, for a number of reasons, and one of the reasons given is the inability of language. Through this character, Han Kang poses the following question: Would you have been able to string together a continuous thread of words, silences, coughs and hesitations, its warp and weft somehow containing all that you wanted to say? Somehow this sentence seems to reflect upon the book Human Acts itself. The story is narrated in an unconventional way, with interlocking chapters told from different points of view. Adding to all the confusion is the use of the second person. Who is this ‘you’? The reader is forced to gather all the shattered pieces and try to piece them together. This way of reading gives me a sense of dealing with a story that is beautifully imperfect. There is no single truth. There is no single story. We, readers, are repeatedly circling around the same characters, the same events, the same trauma. We are doing what she urges us to do: Embrace trauma. Embrace grief. Over and over again. Han Kang makes the historic events of the Gwangju massacre feel raw and urgent today, 37 years later. In this case at least, time does not seem to heal. The wounds are still wide open, and they should be, for it is only while they are remembered and reawakened in fiction like this that we can live on.
Han Kang, Human Acts, Published by Portobello Books in 2016
The White Review, Sarah Shin, Interview with Han Kang, March 2016,