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Kyung-Sook Shin Interview
By: PP Wong
yung-Sook Shin is the author of the million-copy bestseller Please Look After Mom. She was the first South Korean and first woman to be awarded The Man Asian literary prize.
Kyung-sook Shin was born in 1963 in a village near Jeongeup in Jeolla Province in southern Korea. She made her literary debut in 1985 with the novella Winter’s Fable which went on to win the prestigious Munye Joongang New Author Prize. With a writing career spanning almost three decades, Shin has written seven novels, six short story collections and several non-fiction books as well. She has also won a wide variety of literary prizes including the Hankook Ilbo Literature Prize, Hyundae Literature Award, Manhae Literature Prize, Dong-in Literary Award, Yi Sang Literary Award, and the Oh Young-su Literature Prize.
Her latest novel I'll Be Right There is released on 3 June 2014.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Andersen’s fairy tales
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
I’ve never thought about transforming into an animal, but if I can, I’d like to be an eagle. It would be great if I could spread the strong wings wide and fly to the end of the sky.
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A book and a notebook (I would have to look for something to write with though).
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
A writer. Balance. Solitude.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
Franz Kafka and Albert Camus
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
I like roasted banana ice cream sundae.
You have a writing career that spans over twenty years. What challenges did you have to overcome in order to become a successful writer?
One challenge I have to overcome is to write a better novel than my previous ones. In order to make it happen, I should control myself so that I can concentrate on writing a new novel. When you are finished writing a book, you feel not only a sense of accomplishment, but also emptiness as if you became broke. There is no permanent completion, but you always have to do it again from the first step. When you begin a new novel, you should start with a first sentence out of nothing. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve been a writer for twenty years or you’ve just started. Overcoming the fear of starting all over again and continuing to write a new book—that’s what really challenges me. I’ve never considered myself as a successful writer. But in order to keep writing, first of all, I think you should love your writing job and control yourself fighting against the temptations inside you, such as fear, laziness, or some moments that you want to give up. Unless I’m on a trip or have special plans, I try to write or read books from three to nine every morning. This habit has helped me keep on writing so far.
Your novel Please Look After Mom won the Man Asian Literary Prize. You have also received a number of other literary prizes. How does winning literary prizes affect you as a writer?
Since I had never expected to win the prize, it was totally like a surprise present for me. However I would have continued writing, even if I had not won any literary prizes. As you know, writers don’t write in order to receive prizes. But I should admit that winning a literary prize feels like your co-workers, I mean other writers, call your name out loud when you’re feeling you’ve been in the dark alone. In that moment, I feel a strong connection between readers and me and the world. The feeling is like some kind of friendship or love.
In addition, I think a literary prize for a writer is an invitation to a festival. Imagine there is no festival in the world. Wouldn’t it be too dull? But still, what kind of festival it can be, it is just temporary. When you are invited to a festival, you should savor every moment to the fullest. But when the joyful event is over, you should immediately forget about it and work up your willpower to focus your attention on your work. For writers, books to be written in the future are more important than those written already, and I think it is our sincere duty to move on to the next book.
When you are reading a novel, what makes you feel that the book is a well written or good book?
I think well written books are those that make you want to read them again someday later when you’re done reading the last page. Those books are usually well presented with characters, wonderful dialogues and ideas and also written from the heart. In addition to this, another criterion of a good book for me is that if it can make me reconsider what I’ve known so far and learn new aspects of it. I heard that the best book is what a thief wants to steal, and I want to write that kind of book.
Please Look After Mom is a beautiful love letter to mothers all across the world. How was your mother’s reaction to the book and has she been supportive of your career choice as a writer?
My mother has been a farmer throughout her whole life. She could never spare some time for reading books or doing something for herself, but devoted herself to farming and the education of her children. She is still living in the house where I was born.
Some of the positive sides of Korean society today have been built on the labor, love, sacrifice, and dedication of mothers like mine. If my mother had had a mother like I do, she would have become a writer herself. My mother always loved and supported my reading and writing since when I was a child. And I have not faced any struggles in the society because of my career as a writer. On the contrary, I could find solace in writing novels when I was sad because of unfairness in our society and the pain and sorrow we go through in life. A writer’s life, which constantly makes me ponder on the meaning of how humans live with dignity, seems to be one of the lives what my mother wanted me to live.
Upon receiving your award at the Man Asian Literary Prize, you were vocal about the plight of North Koreans who flee to China. Why was it so important for you to share this issue?
Around the time I was awarded the prize, the Chinese government was to repatriate those who escaped North Korea back to their country. As far as I know, fundamental human rights are not protected in North Korea. There are chronic food shortages and lots and lots of people are suffering from hunger. In other words, they are not properly provided with basic necessities of human life. Who are these people who escaped from North Korea? They fled their own hometown to keep their lives. I thought repatriating them back to North Korea was the same act as driving them to death. I won the prize in Hong Kong, and the region was part of China. Since the news that the Chinese government was trying to return the North Korean refugees back was an issue at that time, I was hoping my voice would be heard to the Chinese government. However, what I said was not anything political. For me, it seemed an impolite act to send them back to North Korea when you knew what would happen to them afterwards.
In Please Look After Mom there are four voices: the daughter’s, the son’s, the husband’s and the mother’s. Writing in one voice is hard enough - let alone four! What made you decide to write the story in this way?
For me, Mother is like a never ending book. You keep reading it, but still there are pages left to go. I thought I could not talk about a mother’s life only in one voice. That’s why I let the people around the mother speak in their own voice about her. The four voices also represent the theme of the novel. After I published this book, I had chances to meet some writers who told me they had tried to adopt this style and then gave up. But strangely enough, it was so natural for me to write in four different voices. I still find it weird that I could concentrate better when I was writing in the father’s and the son’s voices though I’m a woman. It took me one year to finish this novel, but I had been thinking hard what kind of style I would adopt for it for a long time. I came up with a stage for a play. I thought I would let the family members stand on the stage one by one, who were at a loss as the mother suddenly went missing, and confess their relationships with her. Then it felt like I was more listening to the mother rather than writing a novel about her. Unfortunately, I don’t know any books using this narrative style.
Studies have shown that there is still a gender imbalance at the heart of the American and British publishing industry. A high proportion of books being reviewed and publicised by newspapers are novels written by men. Have you ever faced any prejudices because you are female author?
It may be I’m a woman writer and many of the narrators in my novels are female, there were occasions some feminist critics interpreted and criticized my works only from a feminist point of view. I felt quite sorry for that at the time. But then, they don’t interpret male authors’ works only from a male point of view though their narrators are men. When I write a story, I consider it as a story about an individual, not a woman. Of course, there are more female protagonists dealt with in my works since I’m a woman. But I’m just a writer, not female or male, when I’m writing. I think the same goes for male writers. I don’t think writers write to prove which gender is superior, but they need to keep their eyes on the point where they accept the differences between the two genders and try to understand each other’s life. So let’s not view men writers as male when they are writing. Let’s see them only as writers, putting the gender issue aside. Then the works of female writers will be free from being judged only from a woman’s point of view.
Novels often have the ability to transform lives and families. Have you received any touching letters about how your book has impacted a reader’s life?
Sometimes my readers tell me they are happy to live in the same period of time with me. And I heard some of my readers went to the same college where I studied. Once I wrote an essay where I shared my experience in my late teens that I transcribed great writers’ works. Now I sometimes meet the would-be writers who are subscribing my novels. I also remember a woman reader who sent me a letter, saying she cooked and shared the foods appear in my novel to recover a lost friendship.
When I hear from readers that their lives have changed after they read my books, my heart sinks. It is because few of my novels deal with happy people. I really hope that my books have a positive influence on readers. I enjoy describing the beauty of humans or objects in my novels, and I sometimes hope readers will be affected by that. A writer and a reader are like a mirror to each other. Actually, I’m a happy person since I’m living in the same period of time with the readers whom I can communicate with and they also have changed my life.
What is the next page of Kyung-Sook Shin’s life?
In June this year, my other novel I’ll Be Right There will be published in English. Though the story is set in the tumultuous period of Korean history, I hope readers will find the dignity humans possess through the love, friendship, feelings of passion and loss of the four youths and their professor share with each other. And currently I’m working on my seventh novel. It will be published in Korea in summer or fall at the latest. BW