A Mother’s Voice
God couldn’t do everything himself, so he created mothers
Born in 1963 in South Korea’s Jeolla Province, Shin established herself as an author in 1985 with the publication of her novella Winter’s Fable, after graduating from the Seoul Institute of the Arts as a creative writing major. She won the Munye Joongang Literary Newcomer’s Prize for the book.
Her short-story collection, Where the Harmonium Once Stood, was widely recognised for its exploration of humanity. Published in 1993, the collection was said to be a watershed in Korean literature, which had, for many years, been dominated by politically charged works. All in all, Shin has written over twelve books, which include novels, short-story collections and non-fiction.
In Please Look After Mother, the 49-year-old novelist, one of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed authors, has written a deeply moving story of a family’s search for their 69-year-old wife and mother after she goes missing one afternoon amidst the crowds of a bustling subway station in Seoul. Please Look After Mother is not Shin’s first novel though it is the first of hers to be translated to English. In South Korea it has sold over two million copies since its publication in 2008. This is a rare achievement because only two novels have sold more than two million copies since the 1990s in South Korea. In the frantic search to find her and as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to unravel themselves, the elderly lady’s husband and children discover much to their regret that they didn’t really know her at all.
The story is not autobiographical. Shin, who is currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York, never lost her mother. There are, however, influences from her family. Like the lead character, So-nyo, Shin’s own mother spent her whole life in the rural part of South Korea, and still lives in the same house where Shin was raised. The family was poor and could not afford to send Shin to school, so when she was a teenager she moved to Seoul, where she put herself through night school while working at an electronics factory during the day.
Shin is the product of her mother’s influence. Her mother felt happy when she saw her reading a book. “I started out reading to bring more happiness to my mother, who always looked so tired. Even before I was ten, it was my dream to become a writer,” she says.
The novelist was a young girl when she moved to Seoul from the countryside. She lied about her age to get a job at a company. South Korea, back in the 1970s, was an industrial society and not yet a democracy, and there were disputes between the workers and the company, and there were demonstrations almost every day. Hearing cries of protest from outside her factory, she would lay down her notebook on the conveyor belt and write. Writing was what got her through those trying years. Five years later, she formally made her début as a published writer. She wanted to write a work that expressed human beauty and its almost magical strength even when confronted with the most tragic of circumstances. She also wanted to write about respect and compassion for life.
Recently longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize as well, Shin’s novel (in a seamless translation from the Korean by Chi-young Kim), in prose hauntingly spare and affecting, and told through the piercing voices of So-nyo’s daughter, eldest son, husband and herself, is both an authentic portrait of contemporary life in South Korea and a universal story of familial love, motherhood, regret and family guilt.
The idea of the missing mother, while it is literal in the novel, also is figurative of the fact that the author feels a lot of modern culture has forgotten our mothers—they are figuratively missing in our lives. Shin, who has been married for over a decade but has no children of her own, believes that we take our mothers for granted because, for the most part, they are always there for us. “Sometimes, the human condition is such that we have to lose things before we can begin to appreciate them.”
It is also perhaps because of the integral role mothers play in our lives that we tend to forget they are also human, with their own hopes, dreams and emotions. “We think they are born to be mothers,” Shin says. “But they were once girls and women as we are now. I want to show it through this book.”
And it appears she has successfully done so. People seem to be more appreciative of their mothers after reading the novel, Shin says. She has been flooded with emails from readers from all over the world who have felt a connection—or lack thereof—with the narrative, seen themselves in the characters of So-nyo’s children. She remembers a reader who told her that her mother had passed away, and then she had read the novel. While she was alive the relationship was not good at all, and the reader was wondering why they did not take the time to reconcile when they had the chance.
Please Look After Mother also struck a chord with American and European readers. It went into a second printing after a 100,000-copy first print run in the United States. It was a bestseller in Italy, and the first print run in France was 20,000. “Maybe Europeans were touched by the theme of losing a mother, a source of warmth and support, and they liked the Korean setting,” Shin surmises.