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Interview fail: Han Kang author event at the Kaufleuten in Zurich


I have been attending author events at the Kaufleuten in Zurich since I moved to Switzerland. They are great things for the community and I think they can encourage reading, multilingual boarder-crossing, and intellectual discussions about literature from around the world. I recently went to Han Kang’s talk/interview about her book, The Vegetarian. I have loved both her books and was really excited to hear she was coming to Zurich. However, my excitement was and is generally tinged with frustration. The interviewers have no clue. No clue. The clue is in Mars and they are lifting up leaves in their backyard trying to find it, that is how much they don’t have a clue. You might be thinking I am being harsh… and well, I think it is time to be harsh.

Han Kang spoke at length about The Vegetarian and somehow managed to keep her calm collected self together when questions like: “How does The Vegetarian compare to like in Korea?” Or, “Do you think North and South Korea will ever have peace?” Or this gem, “How does the family in The Vegetarian compare to Korean families?”

Repeatedly Han Kang replied with statements like, “The Vegetarian is a very exaggerated story. It doesn’t reflect modern Korean life at all.” She repeated this, what felt like ad nauseum. After being asked about North Korea’s latest nuclear tests and peace between the countries, Kang replied with, “I am not sure I am the right person to talk about this.” And rightly so.

Why do we except non-Western, often non-White, authors to be complete and total representatives of their country’s policies, culture, and well everything?!

Why can we not allow these authors to be authors (you know, like real people)? Why do we presume their books reflect an accurate depiction of life in their country. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has pointed out in a previous TEDTalk, would we really say that American Psycho is a correct and accurate depiction of U.S. life, culture, and masculinity (although, maybe in this case we should entertain the idea)? Would people really ask Bret Easton Ellis what he thinks of U.S. interventions in Syria? Or the effectiveness of Obamacare?

I don’t want this article to just be a rant so I am going to throw out some handy tips for anyone interviewing authors:

  1. Treat the author like an individual who has been influenced by their culture and upbringing, but not as a definitive representative of everything their country does.
  2. If an author has to repeat, “This fiction novel is an exaggeration (and FICTION) and not at all a reflection of *insert country name here…” more than twice… STOP ASKING THOSE QUESTIONS. STOP. JUST. STOP.
  3. If you think that any of my outrage is unjustified here, then I want you to ask yourself why you feel entitled to make authors of non-Western (white) countries as tokenistic non-beings incapable of creativity and fiction that does not have to be a direct reflection of their country’s culture, society, and peoples?!

Are frustrated by how non-Western and non-white authors are treated by interviewers, critics, or just in general? Let me know what you think and if you have any handy tips to stop people thinking this way. Remember as always, to share the reading love.


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