Kyung-sook Shin

Kyung-sook Shin 4_no credit line

Interviewed by PP Wong

Kyung-sook Shin’s answers were translated by Charlie Chung

Kyung-sook Shin is the bestselling author of Please Look After Mom which was published in nineteen countries and has sold over a million copies. In March 2012 Shin was awarded The Man Asian Literary Prize —beating out Haruki Murakami, Amitav Ghosh, Banana Yoshimoto, and other worthy rivals for the prestigious prize.

Shin was born in 1963 in a village near Jeongeup in Jeolla Province in southern Korea. The notable author left her hometown at the age of fifteen to attend a night school program for low-income households. She juggled working in an electronics plant during the day while studying at night. Her literary debut was in 1985, at the age of 22, with the novella Winter’s Fable which went on to win the Munye Joongang New Author Prize. This has been followed by seven novels, six short story collections and several non-fiction books that have won a wide range of literary prizes including the Hyundae Literature Award, Hankook Ilbo Literature Prize, Manhae Literature Prize, Yi Sang Literary Award, Dong-in Literary Award and the Prix de l’inaperçu.

 Shin’s writing is a delightful example of how authors can turn dark and difficult questions about society into art that affects the reader in a profound way. When asked what her three favourite words were, she chose Closeness, Freedom and You.

What was the very first story that you ever wrote?

I grew up in a country town until I was fifteen. In my hometown was a railway, where animals and even sometimes humans were hit by trains and lost their lives. Trains ran so fast that even when engineers noticed danger ahead and stopped the train, the object had already been broken into pieces, only leaving the smell of blood in the air. That is how I first experienced death. I remember my first writing was about the shock I had felt. Since then, I kept writing in the form of a diary. Later I made up new names for actual ones and added extra description to daily events in fear of others peeping into my diary. I just wanted to keep it a secret for myself.

I left my hometown at the age of fifteen to attend a special night school program for those who could not afford high school. These schools were called “Special Industrial Classes.” Since I was too young to apply for the school, I had to submit the papers under someone else’s name and started working for an audio company. I worked during the day, but I could study at night as I had wished. Around the time when I started working and studying in Seoul, labor unions began to form in Korea. There was constant conflict between laborers who were determined to form a union and companies trying to stop them. My company was no exception to this situation. Eager to continue my study, I could not side with either of them but stood before the worktable. It was then when I began to read novels, write down what’s happening around me and transcribe books I read in my notebook.

While I was reading and writing, I could see my self-esteem restored. Then I realized that I would become a writer, and reading and writing would be my job for the rest of my life.

Which authors have changed your life or affected you?

It was not authors who changed how I think or see the world, but those who died before their time. I would ponder upon the deaths of my friends who died young, the death of children on news programs and the lives of college students who went missing or found dead after participating in student movements with the hope of making a better society. I realized that the lives they could not live were also part of my life. The fact that we all equally face one last day on earth someday no matter how we have spent our lives also changed how I see the world. As a human being, I may end up finishing my time without changing anything in the world. However, the stories that I write from what I have seen, heard, felt and realized will not die away but go beyond my time. This idea often made me feel nervous.

Do you think writing is a painful process? Do share about your writing process and your relationship with words.

Writing is surely a painful process, but how can I keep doing it if it’s only full of pain?

When it takes more time to prepare for writing than to write or the time that you cannot write a sentence gets longer, depression often comes over you. Even then, what else can you do? You have no choice but to try to write again.

I like the moments where I immerse myself in my work when I start a new book. Nothing beats the satisfactory feeling I have as I write the first sentence and go towards the last sentence. When I am finished with a book, the pain I have felt while writing it has already gone and I don’t remember anything. For me, language is my cheeks, my veins and my heart. I sometimes feel quite sorry that I can freely write only in the Korean language, but I believe that by spending my time on writing in my precious mother tongue I serve my life.

Having published several highly successful novels, what advice would you give to an author starting out?

Actually, there is no special advice I could give. All I can say is that once you decide to live your life as a writer, you should observe what is happening in the community you belong to and share your love and compassion with someone next you.

The most important thing to do as a writer is that once you have started writing the first sentence, you should not stop until you finish your book. When you stop writing in the middle of a book, you’ll probably do the same with your next book. I’d like to tell young writers to make it a rule to keep writing until they complete a work, and then write again until they do another one.

Before you wrote Please Look After Mom, you said, “I was blocked for the longest time on this book.” How did you get over this writer’s block and what advice would you give to a writer facing it at the moment?

You should not stop trying to write about your topic.

When I was six, I decided I would write a book about my mother someday. I became a writer at twenty-two and even by that time I could not write about her. It was because each time I tried, I had a different idea about my mother. However, I never forgot that I would write a book about her someday in the future.

Finally, after having completed ten and a few more books, I was able to work on a book about her. I believe we can get over our own blocks as long as we remember what we’ve wanted to write. That means these stories are destined to be written at some time.

In your novel Please Look After Mom, you take the reader through the beautiful, hidden sacrifices that mothers make every day. What in life, are you willing to sacrifice everything for?

No matter how independent a human can be, he or she cannot grow up without someone else’s support. That means, for one person to grow up, it absolutely requires another person’s sacrifice. I believe that’s why a mother has been a symbol of sacrifice.

Since I do not see myself as someone who is as willing to sacrifice for someone or something, I’ve always respected my mother and how she brought up my siblings and me. But as our society becomes ever more complex, we cannot simply request mothers to continue to sacrifice themselves. I think now the society needs to play the role mothers have been doing so far. Besides (it may sound abstract), if laws and institutions don’t have motherhood in them, humankind in any society will suffer disasters.

We live in a fragile world, with the news talking about the friction between North Korea and America every day. Since you live in South Korea, would you share about how you feel about the situation?

We are just getting on with our lives as always. There’s no sign of panic buying at supermarkets, people just go to work, publishers make books and teachers teach children at school. All these scenes make me think that those who are outside of South Korea have more fear about the recent situation than those who live in this country do. I’m also just keeping my daily routines. I read books and write as always. This means, however, as citizens of the only divided country in the world, we already internalized this anxiety that the daily routines we enjoyed even yesterday could shatter into pieces at any time.

But as the exchange of threats and harsh rhetoric between the North and the US gets longer, many in Korea have started worrying about this situation thinking, could anything really happen sooner or later? A survival kit called Survival Backpacks (these can contain food rations, first-aid supplies, sleeping bags and hand-operated radios),which became known to the public after the earthquake in Gyeongju last year, are gaining more popularity now.

While North Korea is an isolated country, America is considered the most powerful in the world. I only hope that America keeps a sense of perspective on this situation as one of the world’s most influential countries responsible for protecting human rights and keeping peace on earth. There would be no winner or loser in a nuclear war, only the end of the world. What could we prepare for or where could we hide from it?

I’m sorry but I can only say this cliché again: instead of pursuing their own interests, though it should be quite difficult to do so, all governments should cooperate to find ways to solve the North Korean situation peacefully.

You were the first female to be awarded the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize for Please Look After Mom and are a fantastic role model for female authors everywhere. Over the years, have you seen positive changes in the publishing industry in regards to sexism and inequalities? In an ideal world, what improvements would you like to see for gender equality?

Am I the person you’re mentioning? I don’t know about that. Haha. I’m honored to be considered a role model.

I see gender equality will be achieved when the phrase “the first female” is not used any longer in any fields. I’m a woman but I don’t want to be classified as a female writer, because I’m just a writer. I’m a writer and of course, part of the publishing industry, but I don’t have much knowledge of how the industry operates. The only thing I have been always wondering is that why they add the word “female” in front of a writer whose gender is female? If we still want to call women writers female writers, I think, we should also add “male” when mentioning “men” writers.

You seem to have a great relationship with your agent Barbara Zitwer. How did you both meet and what traits should a writer look for in an agent?

After reading a sample translation of Please Look After Mom provided by my Korean agent, Barbara sent me a long email. As I read her email, I could feel how much she liked my work and how passionate and hardworking she was with her work. I think I was so lucky to meet her.

Barbara introduced my books, published only in Korean by then, to many countries including America, the UK, Italy, Spain, France and so on. It’s amazing when you have an agent who loves and understands your work. Even when I’m feeling low, once I have a talk with Barbara, I gain confidence and courage to write again. She always tells me (and of course, to other writers she’s working with), you are the best! Then she asks me, what are you writing for your next book? It’s like she is always by my side.

I think writers need to look for an agent who genuinely understands their work even though it might take some time. Having this kind of agent surely offers you a chance to have a turning point where you can meet new readers.

You’ve been quoted as saying, “I was very young, and those events (the Gwangju massacre) affected me deeply. I feel the time given to me doesn’t belong only to me. In everything – my writing, my travelling, my happiness – I live partly on behalf of those who weren’t able to survive. I feel I’m living their share of life.”

Sometimes painful memories affect how we are as writers and as people. At the same time, painful memories can blacken our spirits and minds. If someone created a pill that would allow you to erase all the painful memories in your life, would you take it?

What happened in Gwangju, Korea in 1980 was such a traumatic event to everyone in my generation at the time. We could not even bring up the topic for a while when we were under the dictatorship. When facing unexpected misfortune, we usually have this question:

Why me?

However, when we think of a historical tragedy that claimed thousands or more of souls, we have to have another question:

Why them, not me?

After contemplating this painful question, I ended up thinking that those who were not able to survive surely have a share in my life. I could have been part of the horrible event instead of them. As I survived, the event affects me deeply for the rest of my life. In this way, what they experienced or suffered became my life and experience as well.

In everything – what I see, my daily life, things I love and admire and my writing – I see the lost time of those who weren’t able to survive what they didn’t enjoy. This is one of the reasons why I try to live my life to the fullest.

Even if someone created such a magic pill, I would not take it. Whether it was painful or sad, the past I lived through is part of my life. If these feelings are erased from my life, I won’t be myself any longer.

Note: The Gwangju Democratization Movement was a pro-democracy uprising in the city of Gwangju, South Korea, from 18-17 May 1980. Estimates suggest up to 606 people may have died.

If only we could have met each other sooner. We had led such poor and fragile lives, each alone,” is a quote from your novel I’ll be Right There.  

What does the word “alone” mean to you?

Through the word “alone” in I’ll be Right There, I tried to express regret for the situation. It’s like, “If I had been there for you, you might have suffered less. I’m sorry because I wasn’t there for you.”

In another sense, I think we can grow up and move forward only by being alone. For me, being able to be alone shows that you have strength to deal with solitude and anxiety. After all, life as a writer may mean that you sink deeper to this solitude and anxiety.

Your first novella Winter’s Fable was published in 1985. This was a time that was pre-internet, pre-Facebook, pre-iPhones. Do you think that social media has made the world a better or worse place?

The development of social media has made the world one global village in terms of communication. People on one side of the Earth are able to share the news with people on the other side at the same time. They have never met before, but they communicate as if sharing each other’s daily life all the time. But it seems that we feel more isolated and lonelier than ever.

It may be because individual thoughts and styles are not properly respected. Our lives seem to be swept away in a huge current called public opinion formed by social media. Every writer should have different attitudes towards using social media, and I’m not active on it. Actually, I hardly use it. I think social media makes me have too much information, part of which I do not have to know. Besides, the process that people accept public opinion established through social media without proper verification appears rather violent and it takes away from my time to think by myself.

And finally, many writers face rejection when trying to get published. What advice would you give to a writer who wants to give up?

You have to have faith in yourself. Even when you are rejected, just think, “they will regret it …” I’ve never given up writing.

When I received unfair criticism, I just wrote one more work.

 PP Wong is an author, editor and anthropological fly on the wall.

%d bloggers like this: