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LBF sketch: Shin Kyung-sook on what modernity makes us forget

Shin Kyung-sook attended three London events during the this year’s London Book Fair: a conversation with Arifa Akbar on 8 April, a panel session with Han Kang on Families, Relationships and Society on 9 April, and a panel entitled Separations with Krys Lee and Quaisra Shahraz at Asia House on 10 April. The below  is a digest of the various sessions. Throughout, Shin spoke through an interpreter.

Shin Kyung-sook
Shin Kyung-sook with Korean and English versions of Please Look After Mother, at Asia House on 10 April

Please Look After Mother

“The book took a year to write, between 2008 and 2009, though it had been incubating inside me for a while before then. I left home at 16 years old to go to the city. I was travelling with my mother on a night train from the country to Seoul and I noticed the weary and careworn face of my mother as she slept. I already wanted to become a writer, and decided to write a really beautiful book for my mother who had so many worries.

“There are divisions between the rural and the urban, the old and the young, and not just in Korea. Family is the same everywhere. I received a great response in the UK from readers who were reminded of their own childhood.”

“As a legacy of war, there is tension between history and the present. The mother has lived through the war, the defining event of her age. The younger generation is inevitably different – they are strangers to each other. My book is about the disconnect between family members, between two different generations. The mother and the daughter don’t know each other. The family only think about their mother, and begin to get to know her, when she is gone.”

Shin Kyung-sook with Arifa Akbar
Shin Kyung-sook with Arifa Akbar on 8 April

“My book is about something precious, something we only miss when it’s lost. With modernity, we forget so many things. In my story, the mother had ‘disappeared’ long before she was lost. In modern life we lose something every day. The mother in my story is the symbol of something we have lost.”

“We tend to think that mothers are born mothers. We forget that they had childhoods just like us. They are always there for you. But they are human too. They need mothers too. If you come to realise that your mother had her own childhood, had her own mother, and had her own dreams, that is finding your mother.”

“The book asks you who is it that is missing? Is it the fictional mother in the story, or is it your own mother?”

“In my book the mother is the only person to use the first person. During her life she could only care about others and not think of herself. In the novel it is the son, daughter and husband who can’t use the word ‘I'”

Shin Kyung-sook and Han Kang
Rachel Holmes (L) with authors Shin Kyung-sook, Han Kang and Kerry Hudson on 9 April

I’ll be Right There

“Please Look After Mother is about ageing, while I’ll be Right There is about the youth of the 1980s.”

“After Please Look After Mother, I seemed to become the advocate of the older generation. I wanted to write about the younger generation.”

“I was in my 20s during the 80s. It was a time of demonstrations. My book is the story of how people lived back then. But the story is still in progress, it’s not just about the 80s.”

Current and future projects

In response to a question from the audience, Shin told us she is working on two projects at the moment:

  • A story about someone who suddenly loses their sight
  • A love story involving four interconnected people.

On separation, travel, and urban living

“In urban life there is a loss of intimacy, of making things with your hands. You don’t even know your neighbours. I wondered if I should really stay in the city because everything seemed so cold and so harsh. Modernity is not equivalent to the loss of tradition, but there is a conflict between the two in my work.”

“I hope to reach out and touch my readers, and convince them that despite all the pain, humans can be beautiful. I write because I constantly question myself, what am I? What is my place in society? Writing is an exploration of myself.”

“I don’t like travelling, but I can’t go back to my real home. I am envious of writers who have travelled or lived abroad and have a different perspective of Korea. The fact that everyone seems to move somewhere now is a new phenomenon.”

“When I see my translated books, I momentarily feel like an illiterate person. I think of my translators as my Twin Souls.”

“I don’t set out to write about family. It just happens to be the setting in which I present my story.”

“If people were happy there wouldn’t be art. It’s the lack, the searching, that brings forth the art.”

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