Han Kang puts a ghost to rest in The White Book

When South Korean writer Han Kang moved to Warsaw for four months, she found herself exploring more than an unfamiliar city. Each day she went out, she also went in. Out into the snowy streets, into her own self.

"So that it seems the place I flee to is not so much a city on the other side of the world as further into my own interior," the unnamed narrator writes in Han's new autobiographical novella, The White Book, which she conceived during a writers' residency in Poland in 2014.

Isolated, lonely and unable to speak Polish, Han spent much of her time abroad walking the dark and icy streets of Warsaw. She was struck by how the trauma of World War II - most of the city was obliterated by Nazi bombs in 1944 - emerged in the architecture. How remnants of buildings, pillars or walls that escaped the bombings were incorporated into new structures as the city was rebuilt; the past and present merging but the fault line on display.

"I imagined a person who has the fate which envelops the city and then I wanted to write about that person. I came to know that the person had to be my older sister," Han says, on the phone from Seoul, where she lives with her 17-year-old son.

Han's older sister was born two months premature and lived less than two hours. Her young mother gave birth on her own, in a rural village, in the heart of winter, miles from a telephone.

"I don't think I always wanted to write about her. Of course I knew about her for a long time but when I came to Warsaw I remembered her because of the city," Han says. "My mother told me about my older sister sometimes. It was not because she wanted to make me sad but she wanted to tell me how precious my birth was, how she was waiting for me, and how she suffered because of the death of my older sister. I could see she was grieving. I was born in the place of my sister, and in a way I think I lived her life sometimes."

The White Book gives the narrator's dead sister an imaginary life. "I think of her coming here instead of me," the narrator writes, "to this curiously familiar city, whose death and life resemble her own."

This is Han's third book translated into English since 2015. She made her literary debut as a poet in 1993 and has won South Korea's major literary prizes including the Yi Sang Literary Award and the Dong-ni Literary Award, but she attracted a cultish following in the English-speaking world when her novel The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, won the Man Booker International Prize last year. It was the first novel Smith had attempted to translate; she had started to learn Korean only six years earlier.

The raw and surreal novel, which was originally published in 2007, emerged from a short story penned by Han and is about a South Korean woman who gives up eating meat in an attempt to lead a more "plant-like" life. Her refusal to eat meat outrages her family, and she slowly lapses into madness as she moves further away from the expectations placed on her as a woman, and a human.

Boyd Tonkin, a literary critic who was chairman of the judging panel for the prize, described the novel as displaying an "uncanny blend of beauty and horror".

The description could also be applied to Han's Human Acts, which was released in English earlier this year and is about the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, when the military ruthlessly opened fire on students protesting the Chun Doo-hwan government.

Han grew up in Gwangju, in south-western South Korea, but moved to Seoul four months before the massacre when her father decided to become a full-time writer. The killings were a wound in her country's history, and they haunted Han after she found a book of photographs of the massacres in her family home.

She was only 11 and says she did not know how to process the destruction she discovered. "Can the present save the past? Can the living save the dead?" became questions she repeatedly scrawled in her diary during her 20s.

The confusion fuelled her desire to become a writer; to use language to try to solve the questions she could not answer. The violence humans are capable of perpetrating against each other, and the power of human resilience and dignity in the face of it, have been consistent themes in her work.

The White Book is Han's most overtly autobiographical book, and is far less narrative-driven than The Vegetarian and Human Acts. It consists of fragments of meditations on the colour white, with reflections on objects that are loosely tied to her sister's life and death. There's the white swaddling band in which her sister was wrapped, the baby's face "as white as a crescent-moon rice cake", her mother's unused breast milk and snow flakes.

"When I finished the manuscript my Korean editor asked me to define the book. I said I thought this was mostly a novella, but maybe someone will call it a prose poem or a narrative poem, or someone will it call it an essay, so whatever. I think it is just a book," Han says. "It is a narrative, it's not traditional, but it is still a narrative so I wanted to call this novella fiction."

Han sees all her work as interconnected and a line from Human Acts - "Don't die. Just don't die" - reappears in The White Book in the words the narrator's mother repeats to her newborn baby.

"I realised it was the sentence my mother told to the baby, my older sister, for two hours before she died so it was deep in my thought. It came to the surface when I was polishing Human Acts maybe because I was lending my body, my life, to the survivors."

Han is thoughtful and softly spoken. She rarely gives interviews, and even more rarely does she give them in English, which is her second language. She says the process of writing about white things became a ritual that occupied her days in Warsaw. She travelled to Poland at the bidding of her Polish translator and as a break after the emotional stress of writing Human Acts, but the city's tragic history proved hard to ignore.

"I had to think about white things every day. It was like a prayer. I walked around the city all day and then I came back to my flat and I wrote one fragment for one night, or two nights, or even a week," she says.

"At first, Poland was very bright and I liked it but since the end of October it became very dark and cold. I was walking around, I couldn't read anything. It was like an island. Of course I was lonely there."

A series of photographs of Han also forms part of the book. Her face is not visible but the images capture mournful, intimate and delicate moments. In one, she makes a white dress for her sister; in another she washes white petals. She calls the vignettes her "silent performances" and says they were something she wanted to do for her sister.

While Han's book displays deep grief and sadness, it is also marked by a wonder at the world and at the beauty of life. Han's characteristically poetic writing, driven by the visual, is potent in the short fragments.

She felt she changed during the course of writing the book in Warsaw and later in South Korea. The process revived her sister, and was also a goodbye to her.

"I felt that yes, I needed to write this book, and that the process of writing it would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed," the narrator says in a sentiment that Han shares.

Now home in Seoul, Han is finishing another book. She's unsure if it will be a novel or a triptych, and finds it difficult to talk about her work when it is only partially completed. It is a period of great uncertainty, she says. Before the end of the year Han will leave her job as a creative writing professor at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. "I'm going to become a full-time writer," she says.

Han has given herself a year to focus on her writing, time she says she desperately needs. She plans to start a new novel in 2018.

"What do I do for fun? I don't drink, I don't smoke. I like the peaceful life," Han says.

She saves exploring the complexities of life for her work.

The White Book by Han Kang is published in December by Portobello Books at $24.99.

This story Han Kang puts a ghost to rest in The White Book first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.