This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: Sonakshi Srivastava
Subjectivity, Silence, and Vegetal Future in Han Kang
Content Warning: rape, suicide
Keywords: cannibalism, consumption, body, arboreal, fantasy
When Yeong-hye, the protagonist of Han Kang’s novel, The Vegetarian, makes a dietary choice independent of any prior discussion with her husband, and maternal family, everyone is taken by surprise. The choice of giving up meat and animal products (eggs and milk) induces much anxiety amongst her kin, who fail to rationalise her aberrant behaviour and see reason in her “dreams” – ultimately incarcerating her in a psychic hospital.
The disobedient act of giving up meat and ultimately food itself along with Yeong-hye’s refusal to “speak” about this choice trigger the action in the novel since the act of eating with the family provides a ready setting in which “individual personalities develop, kinship obligations emerge, and the customs of the group are reinforced” (Fiddes). We routinely use food to express relationships among ourselves and with our environment. The obtaining and consuming of food can be an eloquent statement of shared ideology.
Yeong-hye’s refusal of meat, and her refusal to inhabit her “fleshly body” is seen as an “interruption” in the regular routine of the ordinary world of her husband, and family.
Yeong-hye gradually begins to make an escape from the regular world and begins to believe that she is turning into a tree – her fantastical construction of an alternative reality forms the crux of this paper. I will attempt to delineate how such radical imaginings serve to pronounce underlying inequalities in inhabiting gendered bodies that also inform acts of consumption. What does Yeong-hye’s fantastic arboreal world tell us about our entangled living(s)? By referencing Sumana Roy’s and Kiran Desai’s works, I will attempt to answer these questions.
About the Author: Sonakshi Srivastava is a writing tutor at Ashoka University, and an MPhil scholar at Indraprastha University. Her research is at the intersection of food futures, speculative fictions, and the Anthropocene. She is a South Asia Speaks Translation Fellow from the class of 2021, and was also shortlisted for the Food Serendipity Lab.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 8: Cannibalising Femininity, which will take place at 6:50 pm GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Sonakshi Srivastava, who is a writing tutor at Ashoka University, and an MPhil scholar at Indraprastha University. Her research is at the intersection of food futures, speculative fictions, and the Anthropocene. She is a South Asia Speaks Translation Fellow from the class of 2021, and was also shortlisted for the Food Serendipity Lab
Before embarking on an insightful investigation of how she became a tree, Sumana Roy quotes from Czelaw Milosz, “not that I want to be a god or a hero. Just change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone” to highlight that her desire to become a tree is not unique to her. Like the epigraph, Roy distinctly signposts two reasons that had invoked arboreal fantasies within her. “At first it was the underwear” – throttled by the oppressive societal requirement to wear a bra, Roy realizes that trees are free from the violent sartorial necessity. The other reason that prompts her to embrace the idea of an arboreal transformation is to escape from “being bulldozed by time”.
Roy is pushed to embrace the arboreal world specifically because it lacks the “spectre of violence” that haunts her in the human world. Human beings are not preoccupied with the existence of trees particularly because they are not in direct conflict with them. This lack of conflict epitomizes the trees’ position as non-violent beings. In the epigraph too, Milosz distinctly mentions this quality of the trees – they do “not hurt anyone”. Thus, Roy is induced to an arboreal imagining because she is enchanted by the serenity of forests, and their distance from prosaic human existence.
The Miloszian sentiment, and Roy’s expressed reasons that initiated her arboreal transformation find ready grounds to germinate in Yeong-hye, the protagonist of The Vegetarian. Before I foray into a close reading of the aforementioned to delineate the reason(s) that cause the protagonist to undergo arboreal metamorphosis, I will briefly introduce the text. Winner of the 2016 edition of the Man Booker International Prize. Han Kang's The Vegetarian is the story of Yeong-hye who believes that she is becoming a tree. Prior to this belief, she pronounces her “remarkableness” by giving up meat. The two instances are not isolated, but intricately tied to the spectre of violence that haunts Yeong-hye’s existence. As readers, we never get complete access to Yeong-hye’s interiority, for each of the three parts of the novel presents a viewpoint from either her husband, her brother-in-law, or her sister, In-hye. The only glimpses into her interiority are provided by her dreams, and some reflections that intersperse the narrative. However, what is certain is that her transition to becoming a tree is not sudden, rather it had always existed, albeit in traces, with her “nipples resembling a pair of acorns”in the first part to her final metamorphosis into a “glistening tree” by the close of the novel. Much like Roy, Yeong-hye too, detests bras because she finds them oppressive.These traces of recognition of her oppression eventually culminate in her desire to be a tree.Yeong-hye launches into an arboreal self-imaging after she recognizes her shared violation with nonhuman animals at the hands of a patriarchal order; a recognition that gains momentum after the significance of her dreams, dreams of “violent acts perpetrated by night”, dreams where she is “only now coming face to face with the thing that has always been here” begin to dawn upon her.
Feminist and animal rights activist, Carol J. Adams has extensively sought to deconstruct the politics of meat and the associated subjugation of women. She enunciates the percolation of the myth of men as hunters by clubbing together edible nonhuman animals and women as victims of the patriarchal order. Her scholarship highlights the sexualization of nonhuman animals, and the objectification of women as symptomatic of the malady of patriarchy which is underpinned by the myth of the man-hunter. Eating meat becomes synonymous with the dominant ideology of men as “hunters”, and nonhuman animals and women as “hunted.”
It is by attempting to circumvent this ideology that Yeong-hye perturbs the “ordered existence” of her family, and those around her.
Meat is central to Korean society, figuring in ancestral rituals as symbols of the sacrifices made by elders of the family. To abstain from it implies a threat to societal structure which is patriarchal at large. This threat to patriarchal structure is visible when Yeong-hye refuses to comply with the orders of two patriarchal authorities – Mr. Cheong’s boss at his dinner party, and her father during her sister’s housewarming ceremony.
One of the ways through which Adams highlights the congruent violation and subjugation of women and nonhuman animals is by introducing the concept of “absent referent”. This concept refers to the act of making edible nonhuman animals absent from the entire act of consumption by employing mystifying gastronomic taxonomy. The “absent referent permits us to forget about the animals as independent entity; it also enables us to resist efforts to make animals present”.
The undercutting of the original meaning of nonhuman animals as it gets “absorbed” in a dominant “human centered hierarchy” also extends to women by way of sexual violence. Adams equates the processes by which nonhuman animals, and women are made absent referents – by way of butchering and rape (metaphorical butchering) respectively. Any act of violence requires instruments – knives and forks in the actual butchering of animals, penis in rape. A violent act, rape objectifies women, treating them as “inert objects, with no attention paid to their feelings or needs. Consequently, they feel like pieces of meat” . Adams also offers the medium of lens, that is, camera as an instrument that perpetrates violence against women. Attributing the power of representation as the domain of the male gender, Adams condenses the idea of the subjectivity of women being relegated to the background as they are subject to objectification by the dominant “male gaze” . She writes, “looking at representations provides the gazer with pleasure while simultaneously reinforcing the distance between subject and object as unbridgeable”, thereby corroborating the idea of distancing in the concept of “absent referents.”
Within the novel, Yeong-hye is subjected twice to rape – once by her husband, Mr. Cheong who leaves her feeling like a “comfort woman”, and subsequently by her brother-in-law, who, under the garb of his aesthetic project attempts to force himself on her. As if the sexual violence is not enough, Yeong-hye’s body also endures violence at the hands of her father (recipient of the “Order of Military Merit”), at the housewarming lunch for her absolute stubbornness to refuse meat. Her “dressing down” is reminiscent of the demeaning association between women and nonhuman animals. The scene is nothing short of a simulated war scene with the images of associated violence – blood, brutality, and inhumanity. Yeong-hye’s becoming a tree is the product of the recognition actuated by her dreams, and these acts of violence inflicted on her body that serve her to identify the similarities between nonhuman animals and herself.
I will briefly attempt a close reading of the dreams to pronounce the blurring of distinctions between her and the nonhuman animals.
Before she dreams up her first dream, Yeong-hye reckons how while mincing meat, the knife had “sliced cold into my finger”, and a remnant of that knife was later found in Mr. Cheong’s meal. Upon being rebuked from him, Yeong-hye does not agitate, rather she dreams of an “infinite space” away from the dining table and the kitchen area, thereby anticipating her life as a tree in a vast expanse of forest away from closed spaces. In the “uncanny” dream that followed, she found herself “chewing on something that felt so real, but couldn’t have been”. In the dream, familiarity had precipitated into unfamiliarity, marking her initiation into vegetarianism. I interpret this unfamiliarity as the first expressed instance that serves to rouse Yeong-hye to recognize her shared position with the nonhuman animals. The kitchen scene may be interpreted as an act of consumption of Yeong-hye by her husband in contrast to the dream where Yeong-hye is chewing on something “real”, hinting at no longer seeing meat as an “absent referent” but as something “real”, something with a life of its own. This insight gains further grounding in her second dream where the “violent acts perpetrated by the night”, the “dreams of murder” ( perplexes the distinction between the murdered and the murderer. The juxtaposition of “murderer or murdered” aids in contextualizing the kitchen incident and the first dream, upsetting the hierarchies of who is consuming who. The vivid violence of the dream sticks to her conscience.
In another dream, the violence continues. However, she is offered some respite by her breasts. Cataloguing hands, feet, tongue, and gaze (corroborating Adams’ discussion of the gaze), as “weapons from which nothing is safe” , Yeong-hye places faith in her breasts, necessitating the emotions of maternal kindness, and nurture. As opposed to the catalogue of the bodily weapons, her breasts are benevolent. The final dream that bridges the gap between Yeong-hye’s subjugated existence and her arboreal existence is the dream where she witnesses the violent murder of the dog who had bitten her at the hands of her father. Her dreams come to a full circle as she realizes that the “flickering eyes” of the first dream are, in fact, the dog’s. Symbolic of her father’s prowess, the dog meat haunts her in her dreams, gradually allowing her to perceive the violence around her.
Yeong-hye’s situation is akin to that of a “trapped animal eating a dead animal”. She attempts to break free from the cycle of violence that has seeped so deep in her life by believing that she is becoming a tree. Yeong-hye’s desire to transform into a tree is not typical of her.
Roy too, was unsurprised when she realized that her desire to be a tree was not peculiar to her but had, in fact, proliferated the world of literature since the time of Ovid, and perhaps beyond. With a particular focus on Ovid, and his tale of the metamorphosis of Daphne into a tree, Roy identifies the “fear of sexual violence” as the reason for Daphne’s wish to transform into a tree. Yeong-hye, too perceiving the threat to her bodily integrity, amplified further by her cognizance of the oppressed connection between women and nonhuman animals desires to become a tree.
Like her predecessor Daphne, Yeong-hye wishes to escape from the violence inflicted on her body as well as the body of nonhuman animals. She envisages a vegetative world, where trees are her “brothers and sisters”. Unlike Daphne, Yeong-hye does not literally transform into a tree. Rather, it is a gradual process, manifesting within, in her mental landscape rather than without. The focus on the body is quite telling as it serves as the sight and site of control, linking us back to Adams’ concept of the “absent referents.”
Before finally believing that she is a tree, Yeong-hye first gives up wearing a bra because “of the way it squeezed her breasts” . When Mr. Cheong attempts to correct this aberration by lecturing her, her retort that he would not understand how constricting it felt highlights Yeong-hye’s decision to break free from the constrictions, and prescriptions of a patriarchal society. At home, she gives up wearing tops, and shirts, roaming around half-naked. The transformation to a tree begins to take a firm rooting when Yeong-hye exposes her naked self to the sun while at the hospital. Yeong-hye is hospitalized because she wields a knife on her wrist to wrest herself from the patriarchal militarism of her father who attempts to force feed her meat. This act of “brandishing the knife” may be contextualized in Adams’ scholarship where she appeals for the interruption of the “traditional narrative” that is patriarchal at large, by asking women to fill up the “gaps and silences”. These “gaps and silences” may be filled by women claiming up their agency – just as Yeong-hye does. The wielding of the knife may be interpreted as an act of self-preservation against the violent act of being force-fed, against the violent act of killing and consuming animals. Yeong-hye’s body continues to “photosynthesize” into a tree “spending majority of her time out on the veranda, sunning herself in the late autumn sunshine. She would occupy herself in picking up dried leaves that had fallen from the flowerpots and crumbling them into a fine powder, or by stretching out the palm of her to cast shadows on the floor”. Her body “somehow beyond comprehension” begins to associate itself with all things floral, and when her brother-in-law witnesses the long fetishized Mongolian mark on her body, he realizes that it evoked “something pre-evolutionary, or else perhaps, a mark of photosynthesis”, realizing that the mark was “more vegetal than sexual”.
Yeong-hye is sapped of the “slightest feelings of desire”. “Passed into a border area between states of being” , where “limits and boundaries no longer held any meaning for her”, Yeong-hye frequently takes to exposing her body to the sunlight by taking her clothes off. The dreams that had besieged her stop coming after her brother-in-law paints flowers on her body. Although this painting is an act of lust on the part of her brother-in-law, Yeong-hye believes it to be a material realization of her arboreal transformation. She consents to being filmed with flowers painted on her body in postures that border on the pornographic because of this belief. Her “gentle tossing, her naked body littered with gorgeous blooms, the Mongolian mark - against a background of silence, a soundless harmony” reminds her brother-in-law of “something primaeval, something eternal, hinting at the timeless existence of the trees, long before human life made its mark on the Earth.
The nudge of “something primeval, something eternal” eventuates when he dreams of Yeong-hye’s metamorphosis in a tree. The lucid description of her skin as “pale green”, and her body covered with “a pale wash of green” readily bring to mind the picture of a tree. He is unable to see the area above her breasts because his eyes are dazzled by a “source of light”. I interpret this “source of light” as nothing but the sun, risen and shining atop the tree. As he tries to enter her, a green sap that is usually symptomatic of a “bruised leaves” begins to ooze from her vagina, again hinting at the violence of rape. The vegetal description is complete when her brother-in-law remarks that Yeong-hye smells of the “sweetness of grass”.
Yeong-hye also attributes a non-sexual meaning to “wet”. Devoid of any carnal desires, she remarks that she is “wet” after filming with painted bodies for her brother-in-law. While the brother-in-law takes it as a hint to get physical with her, Yeong-hye “roughly” shoves him away, declaring that it was the flowers that had made her “want it” unlike ever before, and with flowers painted on her body, she pushes her breasts over the veranda, spreading her legs as wide as she could as “though she wanted to make love to the sunlight, to the wind” . While her body glistens with an intensity more marked that the night that her brother-in-law had “filmed her”, we are again reminded of the violence of the gaze , and Yeong-hye’s dream of “violent acts perpetrated by night.”
Yeong-hye transitions from a painted floral-patterned body that “photosynthesizes” in the sun to a “glistening tree” that only requires water to subsist, her image overlapping with the zelkova tree. The repeated references to her glittering body, and “glowing breasts” allude to the utopic vision of a feminist, and a pacifist future, one that is reminiscent of a Golden Age where “elements of vegetarianism and feminism intersect”. By switching to vegetarianism, Yeong-hye had recognized the dormant violence against nonhuman animals, and by extension against her. By transforming into a tree, she recognizes a “truly gynocentric way of being in harmony with the earth, and in harmony with (your) body” which does not include killing nonhuman animals. This bonding displayed by Yeong-hye is foreshadowed in an interview conducted by Adams. The participant declared that she was “beginning to bond with the earth as sister and with animals as subjects not to be objectified” .
The metamorphosis into a tree is an act of exercising agency by Yeong-hye, much like Daphne. By retreating into sylvan worlds, they had sought to replace the violence of the “blood culture” with a “plant culture”, the latter “imagining a world without violence”.
Transforming into a tree assures freedom from the grasp of human cruelty. By transforming into vegetable beings and establishing a sense of kinship with nonhuman agents, both Jungai and Royal seek to transcend the violence of the human world. The envisage nonviolence world provokes us as readers to reflect on the possibility of a burdened utopia that offers a respite from the freight of doubt and weight of hope, a respite from the inmates of postmodern life.