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.
THROUGH THE EYES OF BABES: During the four years of the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge,
a small child is witness to daily horrors — as well as everyday humanity — in Vaddey Ratner’s
autobiographically-inspired novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan.
ISSUE: Summer 2012
DEPT: Plugged In
Story: Susan Soon He Stanton
How does one write about atrocities? Can there be good amongst all the evil? Vaddey Ratner’s debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, answers these questions. The book reflects upon the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, a nightmarish time during which 2 million Cambodians perished (almost a third of the population.) Ratner’s story is drawnfrom her own personal history; Ratner was 5 years old and a member of a royal family marked for execution during the Khmer Rouge regime. Disguised as a peasant, she survived years of forced labor, starvation and near execution, finally escaping and living long enough to tell a story not of despair but of hope.
The story is told from the point of view of Raami, a 7-year-old child crippled by polio. Thanks to this disability, she was often ignored and forgotten by those around her, allowing her to become a keen observer of her rapidly shifting world. The novel begins in the idyllic days before the fall of Phnom Penh, at Raami’s luxurious family home. Despite the epic turn of events, In the Shadow of the Banyanserves as a delicate character study, and the reader observes each family member through Raami’s watchful eyes. The characters who emerge most vividly from the narrative are Mama, who begins the story looking like “a butterfly preening herself” and smelling of jasmine, and Papa, known as the Tiger Prince and an emotional pillar of strength in the novel. Throughout the difficult times, Papa is able to retain his humanity, embodying the qualities of both a philosopher and a leader. Distinct but minor players are Big Uncle, who is larger than life, and Grandmother Queen, who suffers from dementia, living more in the past than in the present. Raami and her large extended family are forcibly relocated several times, and eventually separated.
Curiously, for all of the atrocities witnessed and hardships experienced, Ratner’s story is filled to an even larger extent with optimism and beauty. Ratner’s gift is her exquisite descriptions of the careful details of daily life, such as planting rice or observing a turtle swimming in a stream. Most of the accounts in the book concern these mundane details rather than focus on the lurid atrocities. The decline of Cambodia is painted in a hundred subtle ways: in the beginning, Papa remarks that their basil-seed dessert was not properly sweetened; near the end of the novel, Mama shares a water bug with Raami, who devours it ravenously. Through the novel’s slow pace, Ratner’s vision of the genocide becomes more real and disturbing. The Khmer Rouge’s four years of hell were not just an epic series of events but an accumulation of long and difficult days. Since the novel is told through the eyes of a child, certain larger political aspects of the time are not discussed in depth. However, Ratner subtly takes the reader through the reasons for the regime and the many ways the people were killed, including execution, starvation and malaria.Yet simultaneously, Ratner constantly finds opportunities to inject moments of surprising kindness or beauty throughout the story, reminding readers of the goodness of human nature.
In her author’s note, Ratner describes her desire to memorialize the loved ones she lost with an enduring work of art. Shehas done just that; hers is a beautiful tale with considerable poetry and restraint. In the Shadow of the Banyanis an important novel, written by a survivor with unexpected grace and eloquence.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER: In The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, reviewer Susan Soon He Stanton discovers that a fascinating study of the human psyche can also be an easy read.
ISSUE: Spring 2011
DEPT: Plugged In
STORY: Susan Soon He Stanton
ISSUE: Summer 2010
DEPT: Plugged In
STORY: Susan Soon He Stanton
The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee: Book review and Q&A
Famed author Chang-rae Lee is out with yet another stunning novel, The Surrendered. In our Summer 2010 issue, Audrey book reviewer Susan Soon He Stanton reviews the work and talks to Lee about his father, the Korean War and The Iliad.
They Could Be Heroes
Reviewer Susan Soon He Stanton says Chang-rae Lee’s The Surrendered is an engrossing tale of the effects of war.
Chang-rae Lee opens his fourth novel with the words “the journey was nearly over.” A curiously misleading start to an epic tale which moves from 1934 Manchuria, the aftermath of the Korean War, and New York in the 1980s. Lee spent nearly six years crafting The Surrendered and his uncanny gift of describing the war-ravaged countryside of Korea can make the reader forget Lee himself is not a war survivor. Inspired by a memory of his father’s, Lee turns his attention to the aftermath of the war, creating characters that are profoundly shaped by acts of shocking violence and loss. The result is a haunting story of endurance: survival at a cost.
The story begins with June, a young Korean girl, fleeing south with her two siblings. When she is separated from her siblings, she is sent to an orphanage run by a minister and his beautiful but troubled wife, Sylvie Tanner. Hector, a handsome American GI, stays on after the war to work as a handyman at the orphanage. June and Hector find themselves vying for the love and attention of the enigmatic Sylvie. The dark hands of history also shape the course of Sylvie’s life after she witnesses a horrific massacre in Manchuria and is nearly raped by Japanese soldiers. Hector, June and Sylvie negotiate an unstable triangle until a horrific event closes the orphanage. Hector saves June’s life and they travel to America together in hopes of carving out new lives.
Many years later, despite a mutual animosity toward each other and a secret catastrophic past, June and Hector reconnect in New York. June, suffering from advanced stages of stomach cancer, closes her antique shop and sells her home. Leaving her few belongings behind, she is on a singular mission to track down her missing son. Believing Hector is the only man who can help her, she struggles to bridge 30 years of separation and silence. Hector, now a janitor at a strip mall run by Korean immigrants, attempts to drink away his unlucky past. Warily, he joins June’s search, traveling with her to Italy in hopes of finding her prodigal son.
With prose so visually stunning it verges on the cinematic, Lee moves swiftly between the various landscapes. Throughout the novel, there are powerful vignettes of minor characters whose lives are changed by the war: a young Korean bugler tortured by American soldiers and a Korean farmer looted of his food supply by roving refugees. At times, the story takes incredible, nearly implausible turns causing me to question how much tragedy and senseless violence can two lives hold? Despite the impressive death count, The Surrendered does not collapse into melodrama or dwell in depictions of gratuitous violence. Folding intense moments of carnage with subtle descriptions of daily life, Lee creates a heartbreaking story that captivates with the details.
Although not for the faint of heart, The Surrendered is an engrossing story about the complications of war and the intricacies of human nature. Moreover, it is an impressive work of fiction by a stunningly gifted writer.
Author Insight: A Q&A with Author Chang-rae Lee
Audrey Magazine: You’ve written that The Surrendered was inspired by your father’s experience as a refugee during the Korean War. How did the protagonist become an 11-year-old girl?
Chang-rae Lee: The only thing that directly relates to my father’s experience was that his brother was killed on the train, just like June’s brothers and sisters. So I was just using that one incident as the final scene in that chapter, but really I had an idea about a Korean orphan who was a girl. So there was no other connection to him. It was that incident that spoke to me and haunted me.
AM: The Korean War is almost a lost war in the American consciousness, Vietnam having eclipsed it from sight. How do you see your book affecting the Korean American community and what has the reaction been?
CRL: I don’t know yet how it will affect the Korean community. It’s a war that no one wants to talk about, not Americans, not Koreans. A lot of Koreans from my generation, their parents never talk about it and I know why because it’s too painful and unhappy. So I don’t know, but I do know that these stories and experiences exist and have haunted people in my father’s generation. Perhaps there will be an opening. That’s not why I wrote the book. A Korean friend of mine said as their parents were getting older, they wanted to tell more stories from that time because it was something they would never forget.
AM: Do you think there is a connection between the psychic damage of losing a mother or father and losing a homeland?
CRL: There is a connection on a different kind of scale. I’ve never lost a homeland, not one that I’ve ever really owned. But I think one of the things about this book is that all of the characters are unmoored. They are orphans and anchorless. That’s one of the conditions that I wanted to explore in this book. It’s a condition that fascinates me and troubles me. I know it’s partially because of my upbringing and feeling unmoored by society and culture.
AM: I wanted to ask you more about the meaning behind the title The Surrendered. Who are the surrendered and how does it relate to Hector and June, who seem almost immortal in the face of danger and tragedy?
CRL: I used the passive form because they were surrendered by the forces and history of fate. They had to endure war. They had to see what they had to see, do what they had to do. There is also a sense that they had surrendered to themselves. Hector surrenders to self-pity and self-loathing. June surrenders to her own furious will to live, and pays the price for it with her son. Surrendering for me is complicated.
AM: June Han, the young orphaned Korea refugee, is an extremely sympathetic character at the start of the novel, but less so as a teen and an adult. Was this a conscious decision to make her less likable later in life, or was this her character arc from the start?
CRL: I saw her as someone who was very hard, stubborn and willful. I didn’t see events as completely forming her but revealing her. Maybe she would have been different had those things not happened to her, but that’s what the book considers. It considers a force as grand as history influence and determine who people are. Also, just as importantly, after that happens, how do people construct and create themselves? My father made a choice to live a very normal life, just as most of the people who survived this war and had normal experiences.
AM: What is Hector’s relationship to Hector in The Iliad?
CRL: He shares the name but he doesn’t share the character. Hector in The Iliad is an upright and noble and wise good son who tries to do all of the right things, and is ultimately slaughtered by Achilles. I wanted Hector to be the anti-Hector, the opposite of all of these things. A fallen titan. A fallen Immortal. I like the idea that Hector is an immortal soul and could not be vanquished. I asked myself, “What would be the worst thing for Hector?” and that would be if he could never die. If he could never feel the pain in the way he wants to feel pain. He could never even get drunk, so that he could not erase himself. It hooked up with my wink to classical writing and epic tales of Gods and immortals. It would define his tragedy.
— Susan Soon He Stanton