Kyung-sook Shin, the first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize,
shares her thoughts on mothers, daughters and the loneliness of modern life.
ISSUE: Summer 2012
DEPT: Plugged In
STORY: Carol Park
PHOTO: Lee Byungryul
When Kyung-sook Shin wrote Please Look After Mom, she never dreamt it would be translated into multiple languages that span 32 countries. Its tale of a daughter, son and husband looking for their beloved mother and wife has connected with millions, while also collecting critical acclaim and awards. In March, it won the Man Asian Literary Prize, bestowed on the best novel, either written or translated into English, by an Asian writer. Shin is the first woman and the first Korean to win the accolade. Born in 1963, Shin published her first work of fiction, Winter’s Fable, in 1985. Today, Shin is a prolific writer and is recognized as one of South Korea’s most widely read and honored novelists.
Audrey Magazine: Is your mother an important figure in your life?
Kyung-sook Shin: When I was 16, way before becoming a writer, I took a train in the countryside with my mom to go to school. There was a night train, and I saw my mom in front of me and I thought about her. And I said to myself, “One day I’m going to write a novel about moms and dedicate it to her.” I worked on the actual novel in 2007 and 2008, but the reality is that it was being written in my mind since I was 16.
AM: What is the story about?
KSS: The story is about the reality of our world today, and how we’ve left our mothers to live lonely lives. As the reader reads the story of the son, daughter and father searching for the mother, the reader is able to connect to something that is in them. Also, as they read the novel, it makes them think about their mothers, whom they may have forgotten.
AM: How has the response been to the book?
KSS: I was surprised to see that the international reaction was the same as that of Korean readers. What pleased me the most was when I heard from readers who didn’t have good relationships with their mothers, telling me they re-examined those relationships and about who their mothers are.
AM: There was some controversy about NPR’s broadcast of Maureen Corrigan’s review of your book, where she said readers would be “reaching for the cheap consolations of kimchi scented Kleenex fiction.” What do you think about the comment?
KSS: I think it’s just a cultural difference. Those tears are not only just from sadness but also from the cleansing and purification of your self and soul.
AM: Did you feel there was anything lost in the translation of the novel from Korean to English?
KSS:I was very satisfied with the translation. Throughout the process, the translator [Chi-Young Kim] and everyone worked closely together.What was lost was the mother’s regional way of speaking that, of course, could not be translated. Even for Koreans, the mother’s way of speaking is not a language people from Seoul speak, so it was not possible to be translated.
AM: In the story, the mother asks the daughter for a rosary. Was there a specific reason?
KSS: The rosary symbolizes the mom’s prayer and peace; she was wishing for peace and consolation for other people. All of us forget the fact that our moms are also human beings, and they also need moms, too. They were not always mothers.
AM: What’s the universal thread or message of the novel?
KSS:If you look at the very beginning of the novel, there is a quote [from Franz Liszt]: “O love, so long as you can love.” This is the theme of the novel. I hope readers remember that quote.