Congratulations to South Korean author Han Kang for winning the Man Booker International Prize for fiction for The Vegetarian. This is Kang’s first work to be translated into English, making it the first time her writing has been eligible for the Man Booker International Prize. The author will split the $72,000 prize evenly with the book’s translator, Deborah Smith. (Side note- Smith was monolingual until age 21, when she decided to become a translator, and lo and behold, 7 years later she translated an entire book from Korean to English!)
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At less than 200 pages, The Vegetarian is a rather short novel, but South Korean author Han Kang packs a lot into the pages of this incredible story. In a seemingly small act of rebellion coupled with her fantastical desire to turn into a tree, Yeong-hye, a depressed South Korean housewife, decides to become a vegetarian. The decision shocks her family and leaves them unsettled. The story focuses on the impact of her choices on her own life and those around her. As Jonathon Sturgeon of Flavorwire expertly put it, her defiance of meat-eating and unconventional manners come to highlight and vilify “the pervasiveness of consumption as a base motive in both art and social life.”
In an interview with The New York Times, Han stated she was inspired by the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1980 in South Korea, a peaceful protest that turned violent, known as the Gwangju uprising. The uprising “profoundly shaped her understanding of the human capacity for violence but also for self-sacrifice and compassion.” During her acceptance speech, Kang described what she was going for with her novel. “When I was writing The Vegetarian,” she said, “I wanted to question about being human, and I wanted to describe a woman who desperately didn’t want to belong to the human race any longer and desperately wanted to reject being [with] humans who commit such violence.”
Kang beat out an impressive group of authors, including Orhan Pamuk for A Strangeness in My Mind and Elena Ferrante for The Story of the Lost Child. Boyd Tonkin, Chairman of the judges for the prize, described The Vegetarian as “lyrical and lacerating,” and proclaimed that it “will linger long in the minds, and maybe the dreams, of its readers.” He also praised Smith for her “perfectly judged translation.” It goes without saying that The Vegetarian is an honorable winner of the Man Booker International Prize.
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