• To Tell the Story of a Brother
    I Will Never Know

    Marian Ryan in Berlin, Reading Han Kang

    In one of the few stories I have about my oldest brother, Jody, he lies across my parents’ bed, perhaps five years old, his pants pulled down for a diaper change. My mother silently undoes the safety pins and tugs down the soiled rectangle of cloth, unfolds a clean one and lifts his hips to slide it beneath him. He raises his eyes to hers, something he has rarely done, and speaks his first word. It is also a question. “Dirty?” he says, looking into her eyes.

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    Dirty! is what my mother has long called out while changing his diaper, shaking her head. Clucking. Tsk tsk! Dirty! This time she has not said it, so he has filled in the blank, with a questioning tone that says something is missing.

    I cannot quite imagine my way into the joy my mother feels at this moment, the flood of hope, shock, confusion at this first word, this scrap of language the doctors had said would never come. She must pause the mechanical work of her hands. What does she say, what does she do? Does she say word over again, imploring my brother to repeat it? Does she lift him in her arms and press him to her chest? Perhaps she only fumbles over fastening the diaper and pulls up his pants before rushing to the phone to call my father at work.

    “Jody can talk!”

    The calling and the sequence of three words I know she did and said, because they are part of the story. But the content of my parents’ conversation that day is largely unknown to me. I don’t know how this event altered their expectations or behaviors over the following months into years. But after this surprise eruption, I am told, my brother was never heard to speak again. Eleven years later he died from a blow to the head in a state institution. I was then two years old.

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    The heart of The White Book, Han Kang’s poetic autobiographical novel, recently translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, is, like the story of Jody’s only word, a story of fragile communion. It is a foundational story in Han’s family, the story of when her young mother gave birth to her first child, two months early and alone in a remote cabin. The child, a girl, lived not even two hours. I read and reread Han’s book to find clues to the book I’ve started to write, exhuming a foundational story of my own, the story of my brother’s life and death.

    How will I write about this brother I cannot remember, whose adolescent face I can barely imagine?

    The White Book is composed of 65 fragments, or prose poems, running from a few lines to a few pages, each titled with an image, object, or phrase. In the book’s first section, “I,” Han recounts how, in her forties, her thoughts gradually turned towards writing about her sister. First, with “a ripple of agitation,” she made a list of white things—newborn gown, salt, moon, ice, snow, waves, shroud. Then she began to doubt. “If I sift those words through myself, sentences will shiver out, like the strange, sad shriek the bows draws from a metal string. Could I let myself hide between these sentences, veiled with white gauze?” She put off her decision until she left Seoul for an extended trip to Warsaw (the city is unnamed in the book). Migraines set in and with the pain they bring comes the knowledge that she must go ahead, that “there is no other way… I feel that vertiginous thrill course through me. As I step recklessly into time I have not yet lived, into this book I have not yet written.”


    In “Newborn Gown,” she steps ahead into the book while trespassing into the past to narrate her sister’s brief life, laying out the details her mother passed on to her. The repetition of “was told” and “my mother told me” imply that the experience she narrates is borrowed. It is not memory but story; the book will be an exploration of Han’s relationship to this story, a story about a story. She must honor this distance, but also wishes to test and question it.

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    “I was told that she was a girl,” she writes, “with a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake.”

    Though she was very small, two months premature, her features were clearly defined. I can never forget, my mother told me, the moment she opened her two black eyes and turned them towards my face.

    Later in the book, Han writes that her sister “had held her eyes open, held them in the direction of our mother’s face, but her optic nerves never had time to awaken, and so that face had remained beyond reach.” The girl responded only to the sound of their mother’s voice and the direction of light—yet this was a moment of connection and communion. “Perhaps I too have opened my eyes in the darkness, as she did, and gazed out,” Han writes, the act that first allows her to wander into the gap between sister and sister, the living and the dead, the known and the unknown.


    Last summer I applied for a stipend intended to support work on a book project. I planned to write a collection of essays centering on my progressing physical disability, the intellectual disability of my lost brother, and the as-yet hazy relationship between the two. But as I took steps to learn more about him—who he was, how he lived and died, and why—I knew his story needed more space. It would need to unfold throughout a full-length book, a sort of investigative memoir. It was a commitment I feared and even resented, for it felt like an order, an assignment I couldn’t refuse. If I were to write about him, what happened to him, who “did” it, and why, the research and answers would be painful and messy. Who was I to write a book questioning family decisions made before I was born? Who was I to even claim him? I doubted I could learn enough to convey the scope of the horror and injustice I sensed his story was part of. When I imagined the book, all I could see were the gaps, things I didn’t and perhaps could never know.

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    “Why do old memories constantly drift to the surface, here in this unfamiliar city?” Han asks in the poem/entry titled “Fog.”

    When I go out into the streets, the scraps of conversation which pull into focus when the speaker brushes past me, the words stamped on street and shop signs, are almost incomprehensible… The more stubborn the isolation, the more vivid these unlooked-for fragments, the more oppressive their weight. So that it seems the place I flee to is not so much a city on the other side of the world as further into my own interior.

    She carries all her memories, “and the mother tongue from which they are inseparable,” and retreats to their intimate pain while a penumbra of strangeness sets her apart.

    Seeking consolation in language is the id-like drive of the writer, coaxing just the words from Mother Language that will fill us, fill in the gaps of our questions, smooth them or shrink them. Berlin is not as unfamiliar to me as it once was, and I don’t foresee a time of leaving it. I understand much of the language, but my conversation remains poor. Calls to insurance companies can still end in tears of frustration. The culture is not quite my culture, the jokes not my jokes. I withdraw into the hoped-for solidity of English and my lacuna-strewn memory. The gap between self and place becomes a space where I hide, where I look up close at these holes in my history, walk up to their edges, try to learn their shapes and imagine how they may be crossed.

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    Han encounters the artifacts of trauma as she moves through the foreign city, what they teach about history. At a public screening she sees film images of Warsaw shot from an American plane in the spring of 1945. “The city from far above appeared as though mantled with snow,” she writes in the entry called “White City.” “A grey-white sheet of snow or ice on which a light dusting of soot had settled, sullying it with dappled stains.” When the plane drops lower and distance collapses, she can see that the white substance was once stone and brick and mortar, this powder and dust all that remained of the city after a massive German bombing campaign launched to avenge Nazi pride after the Warsaw Uprising.

    Han visits fortresses and villas rebuilt to incorporate a lone pillar or fragment of a wall left standing in the razed city. The scars turn Han’s thoughts to her sister, “a person who met the same fate as that city. Who had at one time died or been destroyed.” A blurred image begins to form of a the person rebuilt from “fire-scoured ruins” or a surviving “broken pediment,” to bear “a strange pattern, the new distinct from the old.”

    Berlin is not as unfamiliar to me as it once was, and I don’t foresee a time of leaving it.

    Berlin displays its own traces of violence, exacted from within and without. The bulge of hill in Volkspark Friedrichshain is a pile of scraped-up rubble, and the Neues Museum displays looted ancient art inside walls disfigured by shrapnel. Small brass plaques known as Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) are embedded in sidewalks to mark the last residence of Nazi victims. A few blocks from my flat stands a manicured redbrick condo building whose pair of cheery, scalloped gables and creamy stucco accents invoke for me a gingerbread house was once home to thirty intellectually disabled Jewish men and their guardian; they met their deaths by gas or bullet at camps in the occupied east or in Sachsenhausen, just north of Berlin. An hour’s journey on the S-Bahn and a short bus trip will take you to its gates.

    The legacy of private and public trauma and shame is everywhere here. I respect that it is for the most part not hidden, even if the manic former Permanent Home for Feeble-Minded Jews bears no indication of its history. Berlin is where my brother began to come into my mind, several years ago, before I lived near this site, but he comes more often now.


    Han finds Warsaw often thick with morning fog the autumn of her visit: “The border between sky and earth has been scrubbed out.” Borders and gaps, their dissolution, are on her mind. What, she wonders, do the city’s ghosts do in these “muffled early-morning hours?”

    Do they greet each other, through the gaps between those water molecules which bleach their voices white? In some mother tongue of their own, another whose meaning eludes me? Or do they only shake or nod their heads, without the need for words?

    Do the ghosts of Berlin greet each other? Do the spirits of Selma and Hans Hugo Asch stroll about, the couple whose Stolpersteine I pass daily tells me they lived around the corner from my building and were murdered at Auschwitz? Do the shades of Adolf Baronowitz, the superintendent of the Home for Feeble-Minded Jews and one of his teenage wards, Fritz Hahn, leave the house on a summer’s day to weed the flowerbeds? The Stolpersteine website tells me that Adolf died at Sachsenhausen, Fritz at Sobibor.

    My brother loved to run and jump, I am told, before he was stilled by the walls of the back ward where he went to live at the age of ten. How often did he step outside and run across the grass over the next six years? I don’t know what he looked like at age ten or sixteen, either cramped in a corner of a day room or seated at a picnic table during a family visit I have been told of. He was not the subject of photographs. How will I write about this brother I cannot remember, whose adolescent face I can barely imagine? If our ghosts inhabit the liminal zone between the present and the past, is there any way to reach them?


    “She” is the second and longest part of The White Book; here Han’s older sister survives her traumatic birth and the book steps into the false, into fiction. Their father chooses Seol, snow, as one of the characters for the first-born’s name, honoring the frost that covered the earth the day of her arrival. Because her sister’s life means that Han Kang would not have been born, the author erases herself in “She.” “This life needed only one of us to live it.”

    “Whiteness,” sees Han Kang consent to her place as the sister who lived, though taking her sister into herself.

    It is instead her sister who travels abroad and encounters the sights and chill of the foreign city in winter, who retraces memories of her youth and adulthood in Korea, memories Han gives her by stepping away from her own nullified existence. The senses, sight and sound and touch in particular, transport Han to her sister’s outer life and from there to her interior. The girl who lived only two hours grows into a woman with decades of life behind her.

    The image-titles of each entry in “She” are foremost gifts: all white things, unstained and pure. Further objects of beauty, white and clean, glitter and glow throughout each prose poem, forming a taxonomy of white things, often elemental. Things which do not stay one thing, but enact a transformation, crossing from one state to another. The book unfolds here as lists within lists of predominantly visual images.

    serried ranks of frozen waves
    white clouds of breath
    a single white butterfly [becoming] something which is no longer butterfly
    cold fists… clenched to white
    mysterious hexagons melting clean away
    this border where land and water meet
    the winter sea
    a spray of white
    their mother’s powdered bones
    white birds
    an anchovy shoal

    Sometimes the transformations grow abstract, as in

    the street’s erasure
    an equal absence of joy or sorrow…

    sites of occlusion or emptiness. Han’s sister stands at the shore in “Wave,” and watches the waves’ “seemingly endless” motion though knowing “the earth will one day vanish, everything will one day vanish… our lives here are no more than brief instants.”

    The strata of separation multiply, the gaps to be forded gape along every path. Divisions of language, history, culture as analogues to the divide between living and dead, the negative space where our world ends and even the elements cease to exist.

    In some of Han’s fragments, other, unspoken losses press from beneath the words. Her grief and guilt at replacing her sister merges with other griefs and guilts. In “Incandescent Bulb,” the imagined sister and Han come close to joining completely: “She is sitting at the desk, like someone who has never known suffering… Like someone who has never been shattered.”

    The White Book’s final section, “Whiteness,” sees Han Kang consent to her place as the sister who lived, though taking her sister into herself. With her sister’s eyes she will see all the clean, white things she had wanted to give her: “precious young petals… the half-moon risen in the day, inside the silence of a white birch forest.” The gap between them is now  part of the narrator/writer, of her body: “I will breathe in the final breath you released.”


    I consider this transmigration of souls through the thought experiments of fiction, the as if of it. Because I have no memory of my brother and my living brothers and sisters were discouraged from spending much time with him before he was sent away and cannot tell me much, because Jody appears in no home movies and scant photographs, because my father is dead and my mother in failing health, I will have to grope toward a way across this gap. Is there a passage to be found in images, as in The White Book? Can I see with Jody’s eyes, lend him my life? Can I find him purely in words, perhaps exchange letters, enter into a dialogue? Can I talk with my brother? Disabled people who cannot speak often understand language. But this is my what if, so perhaps he can speak in the pages of my book, without stipulation. I would like to give him warm things and soft things. Perhaps he can live with me here in Berlin, walk the streets of the city which has a history that calls to mind his own. He was misinterpreted, construed as lacking an inner life. If he does not speak I will receive what he gives me, when he squeals or wrings his hands or rocks in place. I will to learn translate his gestures.

    “Instead of trying to sleep,” Han writes early in The White Book,

    I wait, feel my senses attune to the passage of time. The trees outside the window cast silhouettes onto the white plaster wall. I think about the person who resembles this city, pondering the cast of their face. Waiting for its contours to coalesce, to be able to read the expression it holds.

    I will wait to know the contours of my brother’s face, the relation between temple and brow, hairline and cheekbones and jaw. Then I will listen.

    Marian Ryan
    Marian Ryan
    Marian Ryan is a writer and editor based in Berlin. Her work has appeared in Quick Fiction, Role Reboot, Slate, The Writer’s Chronicle, and elsewhere. She tweets @marianryanese.

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