The weight of words

on May 14, 2016 with 0 comments » | ,

I don't think I've ever read a novel by a Korean writer - but may have to fix that since this is the second time I am reading about The Vegetarian by Han Kang in the last month or two. (It was on the long-list for the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year but don't think I had noted it then but may have noticed it in some news article about the short-list in April because it has made it to the short list too!)
 

Anyways, I ran across an interview with her just now in World Literature Today (read the full interview here) and here's an interesting excerpt.

KL: A well-known critic, and your fan, once said that one has to prepare oneself and be in a different mind-set before reading your work. How do you interpret this?  HK: I believe it’s because my novels directly explore human suffering. Instead of shying away, I try to delve deeper. That’s my tendency, as I’m always trying to discover the truth behind a person. So when I wrote about the Gwangju massacre, a tragedy with so much suffering, I think he meant that such material in my hands meant that the readers would have to prepare themselves to experience—feel—this suffering.   
KL: I sense in your work a way of looking at words—regarding them as if they were visual images. In your book Huirapeo Shigan (Greek lessons, 2011) it is evident that there is a meticulous sensitivity to word choice throughout your novel. I’m curious about your precise relationship to language, in terms of your work.  
HK: I’ve written a book of poems that I wrote over a period of twenty years that scrutinize words—images—in this manner. Personally, I think of language as an extremely difficult tool to handle. Sometimes it seems impossible. Other times it succeeds in conveying what I’m trying to say, but to call it successful isn’t accurate; moreover, it’s as if I keep writing even though I know it’s going to fail, but it’s the only tool I have. It’s a relentless dilemma, and I think it’s something that a lot of poets experience. Especially in Greek Lessons, the protagonist cannot speak and writes poems instead. Each sentence in a language has beauty and baseness, purity and filth, truth and lies, and my novel explores that even more directly. When the weight of words takes over, it is challenging to even speak sometimes. Despite this, we have to continue to speak and write and read.  

In a lovely essay titled 'The Persistence of Books' in the lovely literary zine,World Literature TodayRebecca Walkowitz writes about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes Junot Diaz's use of Spanish and English in his fiction, Paul Kingsnorth’s breakout novel, The Wake, and Ali Smith's book  How to Be Both (2014).
In Tree of Codes, Foer has cut out words from the pages of the book, so that we see both gaps (literal cutout spaces in the paper) and words from other pages, which lie beneath those gaps. Tree of Codes (the title itself involves paring away letters from The Street of Crocodiles) uses the codex—the structure of paper sheets lying one on top of the other—to engage readers in the turning of pages, encountering holes, and registering loss or absence. Moreover, as Hayles points out, the reader’s intensive experience of her own body is meant to evoke by contrast the unfelt loss of other bodies, especially the loss of the novel’s author, who was murdered by a Gestapo officer in 1942. Loss, gaps, and absence are a condition of the novel’s history, which Foer seeks to make palpable through his adaptation. 
Foer’s work registers the absence of English words but generally forgets—and allows readers to forget—the absence of Polish words. There is no direct reference in the text or in the afterword to the original language of the work. In this sense,
 Tree of Codes is interested in the history of the book but not especially interested in the history ofbooks: their movement through the world in multiple editions and languages, their debt to translators, and their reliance on English as a medium of translation. Like many other recent works of world literature, Tree of Codes animates the medium specificity and sensuous effects of the printed page
....Books are not simply containers for language. They also establish the location of language. They do this, for example, by reproducing the national lexicon (the words that count as US English) while marking out and distinguishing, through italics, words that are foreign or outside that lexicon. Typographically, literary fiction since the nineteenth century has served to affirm the borders between local and global diction. Junot Díaz makes this point—and upends it—in his 2012 collection of short stories, This Is How You Lose Her. Díaz’s fiction is concerned with the relationship between English and Spanish. When his works move into other languages, translators have had to figure out how to communicate the formal dimensions of that theme. In particular, they’ve had to grapple with his selective use of italics, in which many but not all Spanish words are presented, alongside English words, in roman font. How do you translate a work of US fiction in which some words are local and foreign at the same time?

.....
Incorporating medieval and modern, Kingsnorth shows that the normative technologies of the novel—the standardization of typeface and format, orthography and font—are complicit in the invisibility of English. We have forgotten the history of English. We have forgotten that English has a history. The Wake hopes to awaken our memory. 
Kingsnorth suggests that the flourishing of the English-language novel, represented by the triumph of contemporary anglophone fiction, is rooted in the physical brutality of the conquest. The novel presents that history while also seeking to inaugurate an alternative, localist future.

Incorporating medieval and modern, Kingsnorth shows that the normative technologies of the novel—the standardization of typeface and format, orthography and font—are complicit in the invisibility of English. We have forgotten the history of English. We have forgotten that English has a history. 
The Wake hopes to awaken our memory.
Kingsnorth suggests that the flourishing of the English-language novel, represented by the triumph of contemporary anglophone fiction, is rooted in the physical brutality of the conquest. The novel presents that history while also seeking to inaugurate an alternative, localist future.

....
Like Kingsnorth, Ali Smith asks us to consider the words, voices, and agents that precede or lie beneath the book we hold in our hands. Smith’s How to Be Both (2014) evokes multiple languages by generating the impression of multiple narratives, books, historical periods, and media. The novel emphasizes not only the history of writing but also, like our other examples, the typographic representation of that writing. The characters make free use of smartphones and iPads and other digital technologies, but the work relies on the codex and on the reader’s visual experience of letters and shapes on the page. The work is thus “post-digital” or “bookish” in the sense used by Jessica Pressman. It reaffirms the technologies of the book while benefitting—through composition, format, design, and circulation—from the technologies of the computer. Insisting on the book becomes a way to make the reader’s body participate in the text, to be sure. But it is also a way to make the reader a kind of instigator or operator of the text. The narrative provides an apt image for this process when it tells us that one of main characters, George, re-watches the same iPad video over and over again. She does this, she says, because she wants to witness the “happening,” by which she means the fact of circulation rather than the represented acts. We too are asked to witness the happening: the way the book presents itself to us, the way its words and ideas visually and figuratively twist into other words, and our experience as readers and handlers of the object. The reader’s experience is inseparable from the novel’s plot.
 Read the full article at the link.