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A Pure Being Made of Flesh and Heart
On The Vegetarian by Han Kang, and being trans.
A quick note before we start: Some friends reading this will know this as the supplemental essay I wrote for an MFA application. In true Jonah fashion, I started writing this (from notes! not from scratch) about two hours before the application deadline, so it’s a bit rushed — and anyway, the word limit was 1,000 words. The part I left out — and would have gone back in to ruminate on had I the time and energy — was that Yeong-hye feared the dreamworld cannibal of her body. In one passage, she recounts, “Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them […] So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening—what am I going to gouge?” There is an allegory here, perhaps, about the danger of a world that continues to crush and punish femme bodies, but I also think therein lies a buried fear of our true animal nature. Of who we are beneath the civility and manners and years of tradition. There is a paragraph I omitted from the submitted essay that I’ll re-introduce at the end, that was meant to begin exploring something along these lines (though from not from the perspective of a carnivore, but as meat).
Like Yeong-hye, my breasts keep shrinking, though unlike her, I welcome the sharpening. And like Yeong-hye, I also retain my Mongolian mark well into adulthood. It’s faded now, but perhaps a struggling video artist reading this will, in similar fashion, grow enamored with its stubborn refusal to be erased totally by nature/time.
In The Vegetarian, I recognized a familiar thrall. Something kindred, communicated only through displays of uneasy violence. It might be cliché by this point to say that trans readers are attracted to literature about the visceral experience of being a body, but despite our various cultural differences, it was why I understood protagonist Yeong-hye. The terror of being stuck inside of something made of flesh, desiring flesh. After she wakes up from a horrific dream where she’s covered in blood, Yeong-hye refuses to eat any meat. Even more drastically, she becomes a shell of a person, haunting her own house, nibbling on greens. This is an affront to her husband, Mr. Cheong, who’d married her because he’d expected her to be an obedient housewife who would cook, clean, and have sex with him when he wanted. Her stubborn abnegation of meat causes a scene at her husband’s business dinner, and after he requests the intervention of her family, we learn that Yeong-hye has always been subject to the control and domination of men. “Only Yeong-hye,” her sister In-hye recalls, “docile and naïve, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones.”
Hunger is more than desire; it is freedom. In Yeong-hye’s dreams, she devours freely in a dark wood, totally naked, her “hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe.” But in the waking world, where she is forced to dress like a woman and adhere to humiliating expectations, she has no teeth at all. She wastes away slowly, eventually rejecting food entirely. The hunger only exists safely inside her. Gendered bodies trap us, The Vegetarian seems to say — though that isn’t quite right. Bodies are the only thing “where you’re free to do just as you like,” as In-hye later observes. It’s the meaningless assumptions and definitions that people make about our bodies that take away our personhood. Once, I argued with an acquaintance about why my pre-HRT body, despite still possessing a vagina and breasts, was a masculine body, rendered masculine by virtue of the gender inside of it. “But you have a female body,” he protested. “You have female secondary sex characteristics. You can’t just change scientific categories just because you want to.”
Does nature come to us neatly divided into categories? Are humans not the ones who created taxonomies, first by grouping animals and plants that look, on the outside, similar enough, then by our rough estimations of where one species ends and the other begins? The jackrabbit, I told him, is not a rabbit. Its name is a deceitful obfuscation of what it actually is, which is a hare, which is the truth of its existence. My body does not define who I am, I determine my body to be what I say it is. The jackrabbit is not a rabbit. It is flesh and heart held together and confined by our human eyes in the shape of a rabbit, and is a jackrabbit by sheer virtue of being a jackrabbit. If it could talk, it would surely call itself something else entirely. I am the jackrabbit; I call myself flesh and heart.
In one of the most riveting sequences of the book, Yeong-hye reaches this state of true existence with the help of her brother-in-law. After In-hye mentions as an aside that Yeong-hye still retains a Mongolian mark, a pale blue dot on her bottom that usually fades after childhood, In-hye’s husband steadily becomes obsessed with seeing it. He devises an elaborate video art project, wherein he paints flowers across Yeong-hye’s naked body and records her in various poses, eventually going so far as to have sex with her on camera. Though obviously erotic in nature, the painted flowers simultaneously free Yeong-hye from any eroticism at all. In-hye’s husband considers her with wonder: “It was a body from which all superfluity had gradually been whittled away. Never before had he set eyes on such a body, a body that said so much and yet as no more than itself.” Reading this line, I remember feeling an intense pang of envy. Stripped of its societal confines, returned to its neutral state of nature, Yeong-hye’s body becomes pure flesh and heart.
Sometime after reading The Vegetarian last autumn, I started HRT, in a primal attempt to reconnect with my flesh. The needle I use for testosterone injections is sharp and pricks my epidermis without compunction; it is a substitute for my teeth. I dream of blood, meat on the cutting room floor. Unlike Yeong-hye, I do not keep it to myself.
In the lamplight, I self-cannibalize.
I taste good
be eating well.
And now the excised paragraph (you’ll see why it was largely irrelevant, and simply a matter of me marveling at languages):
I have a special relationship with human meat / I am fluent in no language but my own. I know that the word for “meat” in Korean is 고기 and I wonder if the same word is applicable for human flesh, much like the Mandarin 肉. I recall the Japanese word for “thing” is もの, and I jokingly refer to myself as such, as if becoming an object is an easier existence than human — as if, contra Sartre, objects did not also have feelings. 食べもの, food. Or, literally, “eaten thing.” A piece to be taken into the mouth, consumed, and digested. Indistinguishable from language.