In Han Kang’s illuminating yet startling novel The Vegetarian, the protagonist Yeong-hye spirals into psychosis as she becomes obsessed with shedding her human body and becoming ‘plant-like’: first, by refusing to eat meat and finally, by abstaining from food altogether.
Yeong-hye met her question with another. “Sister, did you know?”
“I didn’t, you see. I thought trees stood up straight…I only found out just now. They actually stand with both arms in the earth, all of them.
“Do you know how I found out? Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head…leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands…so I dug down into the earth. On and on…I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide…”
Bewildered, In-hye looked across at Yeong-hye’s feverish eyes.
“I need to water my body. I don’t need this kind of food, sister. I need water.”
The cover illustration of Sumana Roy’s How I Became a Tree depicts a woman with vines and creepers emerging from her heart and around her. With eyes closed and flushed cheeks (indicating pleasure? contentment? Or maybe they indicate nothing, we don’t know yet), she is halfway through her transformation into a tree. This image somewhat seems to allude to the Greek mythology of Daphne. The beautiful daughter of Peneus is pursued by the Apollo. Afraid of his overtures that border on aggression, Daphne flees. Roy recounts the story in her book:
She [Daphne] ran and Apollo pursued her, she ran until she could run no longer. And then she prayed: ‘Open your jaws, oh Earth, and annihilate those looks of mine that cause me such injury.’ This is Giesecke’s narration of the episode: ‘Scarcely did she finish her prayer when a heavy sluggishness overtook her limbs, and her soft chest became enclosed by bark. Her hair grew into leaves, her arms into branches. Her foot, but recently so swift, clung heavily to the earth with roots unyielding, and her face was supplanted by a treetop. Her radiance alone remained intact. Yet even like this Phoebus [Apollo] loved her, and touching the trunk with his right hand, felt her heart still trembling beneath the freshly grown bark.
What is it about this intense need for metamorphosis into a tree to escape oppresion, specifically for women? This theme reoccurs in innumerable folktales, as Sumana Roy’s debut book reveals. Like Yeong-hye and Daphne, Roy’s desire to become a tree springs from her urges to escape. However, unlike The Vegetarian that dwells on the violence that seeps from Yeong-hye’s obsession and her subversive assertion to reclaim her own body, Sumana Roy’s How I Became a Tree gives a pacifist’s perspective on why a person would want to shed one’s human-ness and embrace the ‘tree-life’.
Roy’s book is a part memoir, part reportage and nature writing at its finest. A collection of essays, How I Became a Tree is a contemplative study of a self-confessed hopeless romantic’s fervent adoration of trees, a story of woman with geccho (tree) eccentricities, an escapist’s tale of living according to, what she would like to call, ‘Tree time’—a pace of life not “bulldozed by time”, and a woman’s ardent longing to dwell in the tree world when she becomes disillusioned with the industrial world.
Divided into nine distinct parts, the book starts off with the germination of an idea to become a tree and follows the author’s life-long affair with trees. She explores the possibilities of falling in love with a tree, the plausibility of a physical sexual relationship with a tree, the birth and rebirth of trees and wonders why can’t plants be adopted plants as children and whether trees have a language of their own. Her fixation with trees leads her to click innumerable photos of trees—alive and dead—and record the sound of leaves rustling against the wind.While tracing her own affinity towards the tree world which she tells is more close to passionate love than to environmental love, Roy talks about men (fictional and real) whose work reflect their kinship towards trees: a man who turns a barren land into a thriving forest, a poet and writer who personifies gardens and forests in his works, a botanist who strives to prove to the world that plants experience the same range of emotions that humans and animals do.
In her pursuit, Roy delves into use of the motif of trees and extensively draws from multiple fields (art, poetry, film, music, literature, mythology, spirituality, and science) to put forth the idea that the plant world is not distinct from the human world or the animal world. “…just as a poem was a poem and the moon was the moon…” the plant world is as alive as any other with their own feelings, emotions, deaths, and births—a concept espoused by the botanist Jagadish Chandra Bose. With a subject so interesting, Roy’s essays sometimes dwell on the poetic, sometimes enlightening, and sometimes wander off to fantastical musings infused with naivety and devoid of rationality, like an infatuated lover whose affections are unrequited.
Reading How I Became a Tree will shift perspectives towards the vegetal world. In an essay titled Wild Men and Lost Girls, Roy wonders whether her solitary time inside a forest will change her as it changes Rama after his fourteen years of vanvas: “Is the person who goes inside a forest the same as the one coming out of it?” The answer lies in the reading of her book. The experience is akin to standing in the middle of a meadow surrounded by a forest of evergreen trees. As the light changes, you start seeing the grass, creepers, vines, plants, flowers and the tall trees differently. They no longer remain just obstinate beings standing stoically; they become living breathing characters with stories of their own.