Loving the Stranger Beside You (Ploughshares Blog)

My article “Loving the Stranger Beside You: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian has been posted on the Ploughshares blog! I -loved- this eerie, beautiful book. Here’s a snippet of what I had to say about it:

In The Vegetarian, a collection of three linked novellas, author Han Kang creates and then protects an open moral space between Yeong-hye’s sudden conversion to vegetarianism and her family’s perception of it. Is Yeong-hye wrong to become such an extreme vegetarian that she eventually tries to subsist on nothing but sunlight and water? Is she crazy? Is she selfish? Are her family members wrong to respond as they do to her radical decision?

Each novella is told from a different point of view: Yeong-hye’s husband Mr. Cheong, then her brother-in-law, then her sister In-hye. What can be known of Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism is pieced together little by little, from narrator to narrator: She has a recurring, violent dream of eating raw meat. She and her sister sometimes have flashbacks to violent moments in their childhood, such as the time her family killed and consumed a dog that bit Yeong-hye. Yeong-hye is diagnosed with schizophrenia, but the doctors don’t understand why she refuses to eat. Yeong-hye wants to turn into a tree. Yeong-hye doesn’t want to sleep with her husband because he smells like meat, but she will sleep with her sister’s husband when he paints flowers on her body. She believes trees hug the earth with roots like arms, so she, too, balances in a handstand for as long as possible, saying, “All the trees of the world are like brothers and sisters.” Continue reading…

Han Kang is a South Korean writer who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 for this book. I am looking forward to reading her latest book Human Acts, which continues to explore how societal violence is expressed in a single person’s life (in this case, the death of a student during a student uprising).