#edbookfest: Mary Costello & Han Kang: “What are humans?”

mary costelloMary Costello & Han Kang – The Quest for Another Life – 16th August 2015.

Both Mary Costello and Han Kang have a shared ground in their respective novels, battles of the inner-world vs. outer-world in a person. Mary Costello’s Academy Street follows Tess as she pursues a life and career in New York, and her connection to the world. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian sees her protagonist reject human brutality out of herself by attempting to become a plant.

Diverse as these approaches seem, their commonality is striking. “Tess is a chronic introvert,” begins Mary. “She’s intuitive and gets energy from within. She’s looking for more meaning in the external world. We live in a generally extroverted world; inner life is not valued and it’s hard to put value on, but most people have an inner life that’s invisible. Tess is in tune with the mystery of the physical world.” She functions trying to touch a higher note.

“My protagonist is the only character that doesn’t say anything,” picks up Han. “Only dreams, recurring bad dreams, explain her point of view throughout the novel. Despite her calm and silent exterior, she is passionate and complicated and strong. She’s worried about what being human is and its value. “

han kangWhy vegetarian? Is it taboo in South Korea? “I wrote a short story, The Fruits of My Woman. My woman literally turns into a plant when her husband comes home. He puts her in a pot, waters her and takes good care of her.” Han wanted to rewrite that, as it dealt with the basic and fundamental questions of being human. “They’re creatures that can sacrifice themselves to save a child on a subway track,” she begins, but adds they can also cause such atrocities as those in Auschwitz. She would agonise on these questions: “What are humans?”

“I just wanted to tell the story of Tess,” notes Mary, in terms of her motivation. “There was no agenda.” It does have a family resonance, with several elements coming from her relatives’ experience in moving from Ireland to America. She learned very young that her mother had lost her own mother at a young age, and it struck her as an adult: how can the catastrophic event of losing a parent have a knock on effect for generations to come?

They’re both well versed in the short story. Mary notes, “Short stories are suited for isolated characters. It conveys a sense of isolation. It’s a very opaque form – there’s always something lurking underneath.” Though, “no one wants someone emoting all over the page.”

Han largely agrees with Mary’s assessment of the form. “My personal opinion is almost like you strike a match, watch the fire and eventually it’s extinguished.”

A nice and interesting look at the shared dynamics of two opposing narratives from other sides of the world!

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