Shin Kyoung-sook

Shin Kyoung-sook: Complete

INTRO | EXTENDED BIOGRAPHY | REVIEWS | AWARDS | LINKS | ALL WORKS | TRANSLATIONS | NOVEL SUMMARIES

INTRO

Kyoung-sook Shin has written many works, both fictional and non fictional. She is perhaps best known in the western world for her record-breaking,  Please Look After Mom, which is published in nineteen countries. In her home country of South Korea she is one of the most acclaimed and read writers. In 2010, she and Kim Young-ha served as literary ambassadors to the country of France, where they are both quite popular.

Shin Kyoung-sook was born in 1963 in a village near Jeongeup in Jeolla Province in southern Korea. She was the fourth child and oldest daughter of six. Her parents were farmers who could not afford to send her to high school, so at sixteen she moved to Seoul, where her older brother lived. She worked in an electronics plant while attending night school  She made her literary debut in 1985 with the novella Winter’s Fable after graduating from the Seoul Institute of the Arts as a creative writing major.

Shin emerged as the new voice of her generation with the publication of her second collection, Where the Harmonium Once Stood, in 1993, which won wide recognition for the elegant lyricism and psychological depth of the stories. The book marked a major turning point in Korean fiction, which had been dominated for decades by political novels faithful to the aesthetics of social realism. Shin is given partial credit, by some, for the strong emergence of the female author in the latter part of the 20th century.  in Korea’s weekly news magazine, Volume 27, Issues 1-26, p 30, the author says, “The popularity of authors Kong Ji-young, Shin Kyung-sook, and poet Choi Young-mi helped to create a market for woman writers.”

Shin’s work has altered over time. Until 2000 it was nearly without sex, but in Strawberry Field, Shin added a new weapon to her arsenal. In a 2008 interview with Azalea Magazine she noted

“It was publicized as being quite a different work from the things I had previously written. My works until that time had been noted for their lack of sex scenes between lovers, but “The Strawberry Field” contains strong sexual images. One critic quoted a passage from one of the love scenes in “The Strawberry Field” and said it would be long remembered as one of the most beautifully written love scenes in Korean literature. That pleased me very much

Shin won the prestigious Munye Joongang New Author Prize for her novella, Winter Fables. Her other works, which include Where the Organ Lays, Deep Sorrow, A Lone Room and others have been recognized as vital parts of Korean literature, vaulting Shin to literary stardom. Her rise in popularity was so quick and complete that this kind of  rapid ascent has been named,  “Shin Kyung-sook Syndrome.”

Shin has won a wide variety of literary prizes including the Today’s Young Artist Award from the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Hankook Ilbo Literature Prize, Hyundae Literary Award, Manhae Literature Prize, Dong-in Literary Award, Yi Sang Literary Award, and the Oh Yeongsu Literature Prize. In 2009, the French translation of her work, A Lone Room (La Chambre Solitaire) was one of the winners of the Prix de l’Inapercu, which recognizes excellent literary works which have not yet reached a wide audience. The international rights to the million-copy bestseller Please Look After Mom were sold in 19 countries including the United States and various countries in Europe and Asia, beginning with China  and has been translated by Kim Chi-young, to be published in English by Knopf in both printed and Kindle form, on April 5th

Shin’s international success with Please Take Care of Mom is already unprecedented for a Korean writer as, “The deal reportedly included a hefty advance of near $100,000, compared with the $20,000 or less that other Korean authors usually receive.” Pre-publication publicity also required Knopf to go back and do a second printing, even before the first printing had gone on sale. Additionally (links below in “REVIEWS”) critical reaction has been strong and the book is extremely popular in the review section of Amazon. It is worth noting that this was not always true in Korea, where despite amazing sales, critics attacked the book as “idealized” and critic Go Bong-jun even claiming the novel “is nothing more than popular culture hampering the self-awakening of readers.”

In any case, the book is a partial reflection of Shin’s own life, in which she says she has relied heavily on her mother:

The author said that whenever she has difficulty writing, she calls her mother:

“My mother always told me not to live like she did. She has a lot of stories to tell me and is always busy with work to feed her children. I want to go in my mother’s way however hard it is,” she writes in the book.

“We’ve taken it for granted that our mothers are always here beside us and devoted to us. We think they are born to be mothers. But they were once girls and women as we are now. I want to show it through this book. My mother is the energy behind my writings,” Shin said.

Shin currently splits her time between Seoul and New York city, where she currently teaches at Columbia University as a visiting scholar.

Shin has published (listed below) seven novels, six short story collections and several non-fiction books as well.


EXTENDED BIOGRAPHY

Shin Kyung-sook was born in Jeong-eup, in the  Northern Jeolla Province of Seoul in 1963. She graduated from the Seoul Institute of the Arts, and quickly won the Munye Joongang New Author Prize for her novella, Winter Fables, marking the start of her career as a writer. Her other works, including Where the Organ Lay, Deep Sorrow, A Lone Room and others have become recognized as important parts of Korean literature, vaulting Shin to literary stardom. Her rise in popularity has been called the “Shin Kyung-sook Syndrome”.

Her writing is characterized by a profound and unique point of view focusing on the human mind,  featuring colorful prose utilizing symbolism and metaphor that captures the minute details of life’s subtle trials and tribulations. Shin is also known for her expressive and heartfelt narrative style.  In the last several years she has focused her energy on writing full-length novels including  Lee Jin, Please Look After Mom, Somewhere A Phone Is Ringing For Me and other works that have solidified her position as one of Korea’s top writers.  She is the recipient of the Today’s Young Artist Award from the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the Hankook Ilbo Literature Prize, Hyundae Literary Award, Manhae Literature Prize, Dong-in Literature Prize, Yi Sang Literary Award, and the Oh Yeongsu Literature Prize. In 2009, the French translation of her work, A Lone Room (La Chambre Solitaire) was one of the winners of the Prix de l’Inapercu, which recognizes excellent literary works which have not yet reached a wide audience.

The international rights to the million-copy bestseller Please Look After Mom have been sold in 19 countries including the United States and various countries in Europe and Asia, so readers the world over asn  enjoy her work. In her seventh and most recent novel, Somewhere A Phone Is Ringing For Me, she explores the meaning of love and youth through the experiences of characters living through a tragic era of suffering. The title is both a coming-of-age epic and a love story that shows beauty can exist even amidst suffering. The work is an affectionate portrayal of times gone by and a love song celebrating youth who are trying to find the meaning of life anew. The book is also author Shin Kyung-sook’s ardent and earnest attempt to communicate to the younger generation that the joys of love and the pain of loss can help one get one step closer to the world. The novel illustrates how the love that one person has for another can transcend the generation gap and time, bring about mutual personal growth, and create something immortal. The book showcases Shin’s tenacious style which doesn’t let up till the end.

In addition to the works mentioned above, Shin Kyung-sook has written Till River’s EndPotato EatersStrawberry FieldsPeal of the Bell (a story anthology), The Train Departs at 7, Violet, The Story of J (a collection of short stories),  Beautiful ShadeSleep Sorrow, and House with a Mountain,  House with Water (a prose collection) in addition to other titles.

REVIEWS
Please Look After Mom has been multiply reviewed. Here are some of those reviews:

 

AWARDS

1985 The Literary Joongang Newcomer’s Prize for Winter’s Fable
1993 The HankukIlbo Literary Award for Where the Harnonium Once Stood
Today’s Young Artist Award from Ministry of Culture and Sports
1995 Hyundae Literary Award for Whenever I Take A Deep Breath
1996 Manhae Literary Prize for A Lone Room
1997 Dong-in Literary Award for When Will He Come
2000 21st Century Literary Prize for The Place Where He Doesn’t Know
2001 Yi Sang Literary Prize for Buseok Temple
2006 Oh Young-soo Literary Prize for Linden Tree in front of the Castle Gate
2009 Prix de l’Inaperu for A Lone Room

 

LINKS:

An interesting page of Korean responses to Shin’s work.
Professor Yoo Hui-sok takes a critical look at “Please Look After Mother.”


ALL WORKS

Novels:
Deep Sorrow, 1994
A Lone Room, 1995
The Train Departs at 7, 1999
Violet, 2001
Yi Jin, 2007
Please Look After Mom, 2009
Somewhere A Phone Is Ringing For Me, 2010

Short Story Collections:
Until It Turns into River, 1990
Where the Harmonium Once Stood, 1992
Potato Eaters, 1997
Strawberry Fields, 2000
The Sound of Bells, 2003

Non-Fiction:
Beautiful Shade, 1995
Sleep, Sorrow, 2003

 

TRANSLATIONS INTO OTHER LANGUAGES:

A Lone Room: Published in Germany by Pendragon in 2001; in Japan by Shuei-sha in 2005; in China by China People’s Literature Press in 2006; in France by Philippe Picquier in 2008, recipient of the 2009 Prix de l’Inaperu; an excerpt published in the US in The Literary Review in 2007, recipient of the 2007 PEN Translation Fund from the American PEN Center
The Sound of Bells: Published in China by Hwasung Press in 2004
The Strawberry Fields: Published in China by Hwasung Press in 2005
Yi Jin: Published in France byPhilippe Picquier in 2010

Short stories published in France, Japan, Mongolia and the U.S. Publications in English include The Blind Calf, in The Harvard Review, Fall 2002; The Strawberry Field in Azalea, 2008; and Where the Harmonium Once Stood, forthcoming in the KLTI Anthology of Modern Korean Literature from Columbia University Press in 2011.

 

NOVELS

Somewhere A Phone Is Ringing For Me (2010)
* Translation rights: China (People’s Literature Publishing House)

Please Look After Mom (2008)
* Translation rights: USA (Knopf, April 2011), UK (Weidenfeld& Nicolson, March
2011), France, Dutch, Spain, Japan, Vietnam, Germany, China, Taiwan, Israel,
Portugal, Brazil, Italy, Turkey, Poland, Norway, Arabic
* A million and six hundred thousand copy best seller in Korea

Yi Jin (2007)
* Translation rights: China, France (Philippe Picquier, February 2010)

Violet (2001)
• Translation rights: China (People’s Literature Publishing House)

The Train Departs at 7 (1999)

A Lone Room (1997)
* Translation rights: Germany, Japan, China, France
* Manhae Literary Prize, 1996 / Prix de l’Inaperu, 2009

Deep Sorrow (1994)

 

“>NOVEL SUMMARIES:

Somewhere A Phone Is Ringing For Me
2010
This novel starts on an early snowy morning, with the phone ringing for writer Chong Yun. It isMyong-so, who was her boyfriend in college, which was the most exciting and intense time of herlife. This one phone call instantly transports Yun to her youth.

Kyung-sook Shin explores the meaning of love and youth through four young people named Chong Yun, Myong-so, Tan, and Mi-ru, who have reached adulthood amid political turmoil. As if to fight back against the dark times, the four build love and friendship for one another, sharing scars and dreams as they walk through Seoul, read books, and write together. In class, their favorite teacher, Professor Yoon, talks about Saint Christopher, who crossed a swelling river in the middle of the night with Christ on his back. Professor Yoon encourages his students to become one other’s Saint Christopher and Christ as they battle toward adulthood. This idea—that everyone must sometimes rely on, and sometimes help, others as they make their way into the world—becomes a cornerstone in Somewhere A Phone Is Ringing For Me.

Yun, Myong-so, Tan, and Mi-ru become inseparable—whenever life becomes unbearable, each says without hesitation, “I’ll be right there.” But not everyone passes through youth safely: two are
unable to do so. Tan, who grew up with Yun, loved her, and dreamed of becoming an artist, enters the military and dies under unexplained circumstances. Mi-ru, who had been traumatically involved in her sister’s death, moves into the country home her grandmother left her and starves herself to death. As Yun and Myong-so grapple with the two deaths, their love for each other deepens, but ultimately they grow apart, unable to deal with it all.

Eight years later, Myong-so, who had traveled the world as a photographer, informs Yun that Professor Yoon is ill. This phone call revives their turbulent college years for Yun. Depicting youth as an unforgettable time in life, filled with passion, love, dreams, friendship, and loss, Shin details Yun and Myong-so’s undying love despite the era and circumstance. Through the four friends’ dedication to their community and love for one another, Shin explores the tension and deep connections of twenty-somethings against the backdrop of the military dictatorship and the division of Korea. Here, Shin showcases youthful beauty and passion that thrive despite societal pressures, and through Mi-ru’s sister’s shocking suicide, she questions the meaning of love and sacrifice. In the end, humanity triumphs in the face of the repressive South Korean politicallandscape.

Professor Yoon leaves on his students’ palms the following words:

thank you for journeying with me, my Christophers. Don’t be sad. There is an end to everything:
to youth, to pain, to passion, to emptiness, to war, to violence, just as a flower fades after it
blooms. I was here and I am leaving now. Look up at the sky; there are stars. They will be
sparkling there, even when we look at them or forget about them or after we die. You, each and
every one of you, please become stars that are unique in the world.

After Professor Yoon’s funeral, Yun flips through Myong-so’s notebooks he gave her eight years ago. She discovers a sentence that says, “I want to grow old with Chong Yun.” Underneath that sentence, Yun writes, “I’ll be right there.”

Somewhere A Phone Is Ringing For Me is a coming-of-age story and a love story, an exploration of the meaning of love and youth through four friends in transition to adulthood during tragic times. It is also a poignant portrait of a bygone era and a dedication to young people everywhere who are searching for the meaning of life.

Please Look After Mom
2008
A runaway bestseller in South Korea, Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom chronicles a family’s shock and despair following the matriarch’s disappearance. So-nyo, a mother of four adult children, suffered a stroke a few years previously and is often in a confused state. She arrives in Seoul with her husband to visit their children, but is wrenched from her husband’s grasp in a crowded subway station. Her husband is in the car, but she is left behind. She is gone by the time her husband returns to retrieve her. This event triggers the family’s meandering, emotional journey to find So-nyo, as they reflect on their relationship with the woman they have only thought of as a mother and a wife. Desperately following every lead to find her, So-nyo’s children and husband lash out at one another but also become close-knit, supporting one another as each tumbles along a path of regret, grief, and fear. Alternately heart wrenching and uplifting, this intimate novel illuminates the complexities of love among family members.

The book is divided into five chapters, each one written from the perspective of a different family member. The first chapter is written in the second person and addresses Ji-hon, So-nyo’s fiercely. independent eldest daughter. Ji-hon is a successful writer who had a complicated relationship with her uneducated, illiterate mother. Although her mother, a firm believer in Ji-hon’s abilities and
potential, did everything in her power to give her daughter a good life, Ji-hon was reluctant to spend time with her mother, who had become a stranger by the time she reached adulthood. Visceral and startling, Ji-hon’s chapter is awash with regret as she makes an honest attempt to understand the woman whose life was very different from hers, the woman whose presence and support she took for granted before her disappearance. Shin’s use of the second person is jarringly effective; Ji-hon’s feelings of guilt and desperation are heightened by a layer of accusation. Describing Ji-hon’s remorse at leading a completely alienated life from her mother when her mother went missing, Shin writes: “While you were in Tiananmen Square, looking at the kites floating in the sky, your mom might have collapsed on the floor, calling your name.”

The second chapter is written in the third person and follows Hyong-chol, the eldest son. A different portrait of So-nyo emerges through Hyong-chol’s eyes. While Ji-hon saw their mother as someone she couldn’t relate to, someone who pinned all of her pride and hopes on Hyong-chol, his version of their family history is vastly different. To him, their mother was a woman of firm convictions and strength, who encouraged and inspired him to be the best he could be. Partly because of her belief in him, he spent his youth working toward success, brimming with possibilities. But several decades later, Hyong-chol is living an average life, having failed to achieve his youthful dreams. He barely thinks of his mother until she disappears. Guilt-ridden that his failure to become someone who mattered had also dashed his mother’s dreams, Hyong-chol’s anguish at his mother’s disappearance is profound and filled with desperation. Fueled by remorse, Hyong-chol and Ji-hon roam the city with fliers printed with their mother’s likeness, beseeching passersby to help them find So-nyo. The two receive tips from strangers, who say that they have seen their mother. But when they race to those locations, So-nyo is nowhere to be found.

The third chapter is from the perspective of So-nyo’s husband, and Shin reverts back to the second person. So-nyo’s disappearance causes her husband, who was largely emotionally detached from their marriage and physically absent when he left home to shack up with a mistress or pursue one of his interests, to see his wife in a new light. He realizes that So-nyo supported him without question, bearing his children, taking care of his family, doing all of the farm work. While she toiled, he went about his life, never considering his wife’s needs. He talks to her, frustrated, wondering where she is. He is overcome with regret that he treated her harshly. He realizes that he has been selfish, and that he has blamed her for every bad thing that happened to their family. He replays the day of the incident in his head, wishing he did things differently; walked slower, turned around to check if she was there, was more attentive. His wife’s disappearance pushes him to reevaluate his life and his relationship with his family, as he realizes that he loved his wife.

The fourth chapter is written in the first person, and the narrative follows So-nyo herself. She is already a ghost, ready to leave the world, as she visits her loved ones, observing what her disappearance has done to them. This fantastical chapter gives So-nyo a voice as she addresses her daughter, a man she once knew named Eun-gyu, her sister-in-law, and her mother, allowing her to convey her last words. At her youngest daughter’s house, she recalls happy memories they had together and urges her daughter to be strong, wishing she would no longer be saddened by her disappearance. She then floats to the sick bed of Eun-gyu, a man she had relied on for emotional support during periods of extreme anguish. Then, So-nyo, going to her home, ruminates on the life she and her family created in that house. Finally, she encounters her long- dead mother, sitting in her childhood home. Demonstrating the centrality of mothers in their children’s lives, So-nyo wonders, “Did Mom know? That, throughout my entire life, I needed my mom too?” This last chapter is indicative of So-nyo’s emotional depth, as Shin’s portrayal of her as a woman with conflicting feelings, needs, and a history separate from the collective one of her family’s lends a beautiful nuance to So-nyo’s story. So-nyo, whose family saw her as being focused only on rearing and supporting her family, has actually touched and changed the lives of many around her.

In the final chapter of the novel, Shin comes back to Ji-hon, who is at the Vatican nine months after her mother’s disappearance. Still distraught by So-nyo’s disappearance and regretting her failure to acknowledge her mother as an individual, Ji-hon breaks down in front of a statue of Mary, asking her to look after So-nyo.

A heart rending account of a mother’s anchoring effect on her family’s life and an astute, intimate study of grief and regret, this novel is sure to resonate with readers who have had complicated relationships with members of their families, or are grappling with feelings of helplessness after having lost loved ones.

Yi Jin
2007

The novel Yi Jin brings to the pages the forgotten life of an unforgettable woman caught up in the turmoil of a changing nation as the modern world came knocking on the gates of feudal Korea at the end of the 19th century. Based on a true story, the novel follows the heroine, LYi Jin, as she goes from a beloved court dancer to the wife of a French diplomat, from a Parisienne socialite to a woman of the old kingdom all over again, in pursuit of love and independence.

Born into the feudal society of the kingdom of Joseon, then transplanted to the modern society of Paris, Yi Jin stood at the forefront of her times, unafraid to live her own life, but greeted a tragic death as her motherland faced its demise. Her short and beautiful life is brought to life in the novel with vivid lyricism, most notable in the depictions of her dance.

Yi Jin is a novel of epic proportions, moving from the palatial grounds of turn-of-the-century Korea to the streets of Champs-Elysees, a sweeping period piece told in a sophisticated modern
voice.

Violet
2001
Violet is the story of an odyssey, of a young woman’s tragic quest in pursuit of her desire inside the gargantuan metropolis of Seoul, amidst the web of its back alleys and layers of history, both personal and social.

As the novel begins, Osan lives locked inside the painful memories of her past, opting for a plant- like existence as a florist while nurturing a distant, detached dream. But when one day she encounters a man who boldly approaches and pursues her, she becomes obsessed, perhaps less with him than her own desire for love, and is forced to confront the past that has been haunting her.

Told with keen precision while maintaining the emotional scope of an opera, Violet is a quiet yet electrifying tragedy about a fragile and passionate soul trying to find connection between estranged dreams, repressed trauma and the withered blossoms of our heart’s desire.

The Train Departs at 7
1999
Kim Ha-jin, a voice actress, returns from a trip to China and finds that there are mysterious particles of memory squirming along the edges of her consciousness. Her only clue is a photograph with a telephone number written on it and with this, she sets out on a journey to reconstruct her buried past.

The journey takes her through a labyrinth of places and people, which leads her to a different life lived under a different name, where she finds her old self stuck, refusing to move on as she waited for a song to play, for a man to show up, for the train to finally depart. What is uncovered at the end of the trip, on the distant island of Jeju, is everything that she has been refusing to confront, the consequences of one’s personal past and of a society’s political trauma.

A Lone Room
1997
Shin’s second novel A Lone Room is a stark autobiographical work depicting her teen-age years as a new arrival in the city from her home village, working in a factory to attend night school. Set against the backdrop of Korea’s industrial sweatshops of the 1970s, the book took on many of the urgent socio-political issues of the era—exploitation, oppression, activism, urbanization—and produced an intimate, complex and nuanced coming-of-age story. The book established Shin as a major writer with an important story to tell, and the courage, the voice and the artistic finesse to
tell it.

In A Lone Room, Shin has structured the narrative as a work of metafiction, closely tracking the process of revisiting and writing her past. The result is a carefully crafted and richly layered portrayal of not only her experience and of the people she encountered, but of the relationship between an individual and the world around her, of how one comes to an understanding of one’s own experiences in the midst of sweeping social change. A Lone Room is still read widely in Korea and has been cited as one of the most important literary works of the 1990s. Shin was awarded the prestigious Manhae Literary Prize for the book in 1996.

Deep Sorrow
1994
Shin Kyung-sook’s first novel Deep Sorrow is a tale of unrequited love between three childhood friends—Eun-seo, Wan and Se—whose lives continue to intercept as they face new challenges in the unfamiliar terrain of adulthood.

As the three friends move on from their utopian rural hometown to the big, brutal cities, their hopes and disappointments collide, bringing them together or sometimes pushing them apart. The rapture of love offers shelter, but never for long, for love cannot be shared equally amongst the three of them.

Passion and betrayal, in the end, bring about unexpected consequences to the three young protagonists and what they discover in the course are the limits of love, the inescapable sense of solitude and the incomprehensibility of human fate.