Shin Kyung-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.
She 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 has been given the name of the, “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, Manha eLiterature 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 recently been sold in 19 countries including the United States and various countries in Europe and Asia, beginning with China,  and has been translated by world-famous translator Kim Chi-young, to be available in English in the early spring of 2011.
From Somewhere Afar the Phone Keeps Ringing for Me 2010
Shin Kyung-sook’s latest novel is a tale of the bliss and the chaos of youth, as seen through the intertwined lives of four friends—Jeong-yun, Myeong-seo, Mi-ru and Dan. As they struggle to find themselves in the face of political unrest, devastating loss and the abyss of despair, the characters find, at the end of their search, a path to hope and connection. Shin’s distinctive and delicate lyricism paints a vivid picture of the euphoria of love, of unbearable loneliness, of gestures made in hopes of intimacy. The characters’ interactions, for the most part, rely on their phone conversations, to which they depend on singularly and obsessively as a means of communicating deeper truths. Many of the events that the characters live through are reminiscent of the turmoil and social change that unfolded in Korea in the 1980s, but the novel focuses less on a specific time and place and more on depicting the inevitable journey to adulthood and the fear and solace encountered along the way.
Please Look After Mom 2009
Please Look After Mom is the story of a missing mother and her family, told from the shifting points of view of each of the family members. With this book, Shin reclaimed her place as one of Korea’s most prominent writers, achieving both critical acclaim and commercial success. The novel tracks down the mother’s life of self-sacrifice, which coincided with Korea’s dramatic shift from a pre-modern to post-modern society, and in the course has restored a place for motherhood in the Korean psyche. Foreign rights to Please Look After Mom has been sold to 19 countries.
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. Base on a true story, the novel follows the heroine Yi 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. Yi Jin was published in France by Philippe Picquier in February 2010.
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, 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. The Train Departs at 7 marks an important turning point in Shin Kyung-sook’s career, when she began exploring the themes that would shape her future oeuvre—the disconnection between people and the impossibility of coming to terms with a past too painful to live with.
A Lone Room 1995
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. A Lone Room has been translated and published in France, Germany, Japan and China, and is now being translated into English with funding from the American PEN Center. In 2009 the book was awarded the Prix de l’Inaperu in France.
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.
Works in English
Works in Korean (Partial)
Deep Sorrow, 1994
A Lone Room, 1995
The Train Departs at 7, 1999
Yi Jin, 2007
Please Look After Mom, 2009
From Somewhere Afar the Phone Keeps 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
Beautiful Shade, 1995
Sleep, Sorrow, 2003
Translations in 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 Field: Published in China by Hwasung Press in 2005 Yi Jin: Published in France by Philippe 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.