Korean author debuts in English with popular novel
New York: There`s a big difference between "mother" and "mom."
"Mother" is someone to be respected, perhaps held at arm`s length. But "mom" is an intimate name. It`s the woman on the floor playing with her child, wisps of hair falling around her face, instead of the woman in the starched dress sitting in the parlor.
The distinction made all the difference for novelist Kyung-Sook Shin, whose book "Please Look After Mom" has made a splash in the United States and is a best-seller in her native South Korea.
On a recent day in New York, Shin discussed, through her translator, the popularity of the novel and its universal themes of mother and child, and the gradual realization that all our moms actually have a life outside the family and are women with thoughts and desires.
The book centers on a modern-day family coping with grief when their mother, known only as Mom, vanishes in a busy city train station. The story tracks the woman`s disappearance through the eyes of her children, her husband and, ultimately, through her own words.
The first line reads: "It`s been one week since Mom went missing."
As a teenager, Shin had taken the night train to Seoul with her mother and thought to herself that when she became a writer she would write an ode to her mom. Shin contemplated the book for years, thinking of the character as "Mother," but was unable to set anything on the page.
Then one day, the first line suddenly came to her, and the use of "mom" changed everything.
"It surprised me," she said. "Everything flowed very naturally ... as though a door had opened."
Shin is one of South Korea`s most widely read and acclaimed authors. She was honored with the Manhae Literature Prize, the Dong-in Literature Prize and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, as well as France`s Prix de l`Inapercu. She had dreamed for years of becoming a writer and published her first work of fiction in a Korean literary journal at 22.
Shin grew up on a farm with many brothers and sisters. She was an avid reader, even though there weren`t many books available.
"As my older brothers would borrow books and bring them into our house, I would read the books and find out about a world I didn`t know," she said. "I would just take them away to into my space, and they would come look for me or the books."
She papered the windows of her room so that she could focus, reading entire anthologies, history books, whatever she could get her hands on.
"My mother was very happy to see me read," she said.
Most of the younger children out in the country were expected to help with farm work, she said, not become writers. And so, Shin went to Seoul to study, with her family`s blessings. From the time she was 16 to age 30, she worked all sorts of jobs so she could write — editing at a publishing house, writing for a radio station, tutoring children.
"There was a kind of literary atmosphere that I was able to inhabit and I was able to kind of understand what it meant to be working with literature," she said.
When she was about to turn 30, she published a collection of short stories that sold 300,000 copies, the first time a collection had done so well in Korea, she said, and everything changed. Since then, she writes full time, working on coming-of-age stories, historical novels and nonfiction. She has published seven novels, two nonfiction books and several collections of short stories.
"Please Look After Mom," her first book to appear in English, debuted as No. 4 on the New York Times list of best-sellers and is now in its eighth printing. It will be published in 19 countries.
The book is richly imaginative, but also grounded in reality as the daughter, oldest son and husband take the reader through their guilt, fears and realizations about the mom and the sacrifices she made for them. Through them, a portrait is created of a woman whose identity is shaped almost entirely by her children, her secret thoughts and desires locked away.
As she wrote her book, the person Shin called most was her mom.
"I used to think, as many people do, that my mother was born a mother. But through the process of writing I came to understand that she was born something else entirely and became a mother," she said.
Shin`s English author, Robin Desser, said she was hooked from the first sentence. She worked with a translator to preserve Shin`s voice and to tweak so readers would really grasp the story.
"You hope for the perfect balance between being true to the authenticity of the work, and having a translation that reads fluently," she said.
Desser said the differing points of view, and the universal theme of motherhood, made the book a natural for translation. It also has the bonus of showing English readers sociological changes occurring in Korea.
"She uses specific imagery so powerfully and with great emotion, so you feel you are there," she said. "You are at once related to something, being delivered to your door and heart with so much grace."
And while reading it, readers can`t help but think about their own moms and feel pangs of sadness, melancholy or nostalgia.
But Shin, currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University, doesn`t want us to feel guilt over the selfless acts of her story`s mother and the self-absorbed children.
"I don`t think that`s a productive way of looking at mother-child relations," she said. "I`d like to think of it as a natural cycle that you get a mother`s love and then you give that love to someone else. Through that progression, we can make good on that relationship."