The White Book

Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

February 19, 2019 
The following is from Han Kang's novel, The White Book, a meditation on the color white, as well as a fictional journey inspired by an older sister who died in her mother’s arms, a few hours old. Han Kang has won the Man Booker International Prize, the Yi Sang Literary Award, the Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Prize for Literature. She currently works as a professor in the department of creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.


In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was make a list.

Swaddling bands
Newborn gown
White bird
“Laughing whitely”
Blank paper
White dog
White hair

With each item I wrote down, a ripple of agitation ran through me. I felt that yes, I needed to write this book and that the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.

But then, a few days later, running my eyes over that list again, I wondered what meaning might lie in this task, in peering into the heart of these words.

If I sift those words through myself, sentences will shiver out, like the strange, sad shriek the bow draws from a metal string. Could I let myself hide between these sentences, veiled with white gauze?

This was difficult to answer, so I left the list as it was and put off anything more. I came abroad in August, to this country I’d never visited before, got a short-term lease on an apartment in its capital, and learned to draw out my days in these strange environs. One night almost two months later, when the season’s chill was just beginning to bite, a migraine set in, viciously familiar. I washed down some pills with warm water and realized (quite calmly) that hiding would be impossible.

Now and then, the passage of time seems acutely apparent. Physical pain always sharpens the awareness. The migraines that began when I was twelve or thirteen swoop down without warning, bringing with them agonizing stomach cramps that stop daily life in its tracks. Even the smallest task is left suspended as I concentrate on simply enduring the pain, sensing time’s discrete drops as razor-sharp gemstones, grazing my fingertips. One deep breath drawn in and this new moment of life takes shape as distinctly as a bead of blood. Even once I have stepped back into the flow, one day melding seamlessly into another, that sensation remains ever there in that spot, waiting, breath held.

Each moment is a leap forward from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way. Now, in this moment, 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.


Swaddling bands

Swaddling bands white as snow are wound around the newborn baby. The womb will have been such a snug fit, so the nurse binds the body tight, to mitigate the shock of its abrupt projection into limitlessness.

Person who begins only now to breathe, a first filling-up of the lungs. Person who does not know who they are, where they are, what has just begun. The most helpless of all young animals, more defenseless even than a newborn chick.

The woman, pale from blood loss, looks at the crying child. Flustered, she takes its swaddled self into her arms. Person to whom the cure of this crying is as yet unknown. Who has been, until mere moments ago, in the throes of such astonishing agony. Unexpectedly, the child quiets itself. It will be because of some smell. Or that the two are still connected. Two black unseeing eyes are turned toward the woman’s face—drawn in the direction of her voice. Not knowing what has been set in motion, these two are still connected. In a silence shot through with the smell of blood. When what lies between two bodies is the white of swaddling bands.


From The White Book. Used with permission of Hogarth. Copyright © 2019 by Han Kang.

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