Human Acts by Han Kang
(translated by Deborah Smith)
An American Marriage. I had a feeling that I couldn't just leave with one book in hand, so I walked through the rest of the store and willed something else to speak to me. And then I spotted Human Acts. Now, let me just say that I LOVED The Vegetarian when I read it last year. I was devastated by it, but in one of those readerly ways where a book profoundly touches my soul and jostles my notions about humanity. And at the time, I vaguely remembered that Han Kang had another novel that was highly-praised, but never looked into it. Now was the time!
Human Acts centers on the Gwangju Uprising/Gwangju Massacre (May 18-27, 1980), where protestors against dictatorial leadership and inhumane labor practices were met with violent repression by government troops in Gwangju, South Korea. As explained in the introduction written by translator Deborah Smith, this sensitive subject is also incredibly personal to Han Kang, as she lived in Gwangju for the first 10 years of her life and moved to Seoul not long after the uprising happened. It follows that this book is not simply an ode to her hometown but a carefully-researched tribute to the victims and survivors of that tumultuous time, from activists and bystanders to missing persons and souls never fully set free. Each of the six chapters and the epilogue unveils the perspective of someone connected to a character named Dong-ho, a junior high student and volunteer who takes care of bodies that await being claimed by loved ones.
The first chapter ("The Boy, 1980") features Dong-ho going about his duties hours before soldiers are expected to descend upon Gwangju again. The second chapter ("The Boy's Friend, 1980") features the spirit of Jeong-dae, Dong-ho's missing best friend, recounting the shock and confusion of observing his body as it's added to a pile of other bodies. The third chapter ("The Editor, 1985") features a publishing editor named Eun-sook who used to volunteer with Dong-ho, as she contends with government censors and recovers from being assaulted by a police officer. The fourth chapter ("The Prisoner, 1990") features an unnamed political prisoner and torture survivor who served in a makeshift militia with Dong-ho. Next is Seon-ju ("The Factory Girl, 2002"), another woman who volunteered alongside Dong-ho, who's prompted to revisit her trauma when a researcher requests an interview with her. The last chapter features Dong-ho's mom ("The Boy's Mother, 2010"), speaking to her participation in a group of mother-activists, as well as to a family tragedy that's had a ripple effect for decades. And then the epilogue ("The Writer, 2013") features a fictionalized version of Han Kang as the writer in question (and the daugther of Dong-ho's former teacher), who returns to Gwangju to research the uprising and what happened to Dong-ho.
To delineate the horror, absurdity, and confusion of these situations, Kang does not spare readers from the intimate details of violence and the desecration of human life and bodies. But somehow she manages to relay this information with care. And I'd learned about the Gwangju Uprising in college, but was flabbergasted by the context that Kang adds to it, namely the fact that Korean soldiers were trained to act brutally and mercilessly (and were rewarded for it) fighting in the Vietnam War on the US's behalf, only to then return home and use those same tactics on fellow Korean people during the various demonstrations that arose in the 1980s. While I can't say that I have as strong an affinity for this novel as I do for The Vegetarian, I appreciate Human Acts so much for the honesty and vulnerability it conveys. If you're interested in historical fiction, Korean history, social movements, victims' testimonies, survivor's guilt, or how society supposedly moves on after a momentous tragedy happens, then read this book!
"what is this thing we call a soul?
... is it like a kind of glass?
Glass is transparent, right? And fragile. That's the fundamental nature of glass. And that's why objects that are made of glass have to be handled with care... Before, we used to have a kind of glass that couldn't be broken. A truth so hard and clear it might as well have been made of glass. So when you think about it, it was only when we were shattered that we proved we had souls. That what we really were was humans made of glass" (129-130).
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
I have to admit that I'm not a lovey-dovey person. Romance in and of itself doesn't interest me all that much, so the "love will prevail" theme that's so prevalent throughout the novel didn't do much for me. But! A black family striving at all costs to free an innocent son from jail and fiercely defend a little black baby from hateful people before it even enters the world? The women in said family primarily leading the charge and making ish happen? Two young people trying to build the life they envision without institutional racism dragging them down? I can get with all of that! That's what I appreciate so much about Beale Street. It's not just a love story (which, sorry y'all, *snooze*), but a testament to the phenomenal good that can happen when people are seen, understood, and have folks who care stick up for them. Also, what a coincidence that I am just reading this book this year, amidst #metoo, as the book defends Fonny while still attempting to honor the suffering of Victoria (his accuser).
I only have two disappointments regarding this novel. First: we don't learn as much about Tish as we do about Fonny, which is surprising considering that Tish narrates the entire novel. She's painted as naive and innocent, which is fair given her age and that she's the baby of her family, and she mostly just goes along with what Fonny wants to do because she trusts him. She's forced to become stronger and more intentional as a soon-to-be mom and the main one fighting for Fonny's freedom, but again, that transformation happens only in connection to Fonny. I appreciate Tish being a regular black girl just living her life, but she also doesn't have much of an identity apart from her fiancé.
My other disappointment is with the ending. The last paragraph repeats the same imagery previously used to describe a dream of Fonny's, so we don't know if he's just dreaming again or if he's actually free and at home. It's a fakeout. I'd like to think that I can appreciate an ambiguous ending, but if the movie ends the same exact way I know I'll be a little miffed. We'll see. Though the ending is unclear (did they make it in time? did they not?), it is a refreshingly hopeful story, even amidst the lived experiences of anti-black racism and isolation that often come up in James Baldwin's works. If you enjoy love stories, #blacklove, stories about young people trying to make it in the big city, family drama, black mothers, or anything written by Baldwin, then read this book!
"For you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn't anybody's nigger. And that's a crime, in this fucking free country. You're suppose to be somebody's nigger. And if you're nobody's nigger, you're a bad nigger: and that's what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown" (37-38).
"he kissed my tears and then he kissed me and then we both knew something which we had not known before" (76).
"And they know nothing at all about the song they are singing: which causes Sharon to wonder if they know anything about themselves at all" (151).