MAN ASIAN LITERARY PRIZE WINNER
When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom?
Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.
Excerpted from Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin. Copyright © 2011 by Kyung-Sook Shin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Kyung-Sook Shin is the author of numerous works of fiction and is one of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists. She was the first woman to be awarded the Man Asian Literary Prize (for Please Look After Mom), and she has also been honored with the Manhae Literature Prize, the Dong-in Literature Prize, and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, as well as France’s Pirx de l’Inaperçu. Please Look After Mom is her first book to appear in English. It will be published in twenty-nine countries and has sold over 2 million copies in South Korea alone.
Q: Please Look After Mom is written in four distinct voices: a daughter, a son, a father, and finally “Mom” herself. Why did you decide to structure the novel in this way? Which voice came to you first?
A: Human beings are multi-dimensional. But what we know about our mothers doesn’t always tell the whole story of who they are. I wanted to show a ‘Mom’ who was a complex and profound human being. As it was impossible to do this in a single person’s voice, I needed multiple narrators. In the novel, the voices of the daughter, son and father are narrated in the second person, “you” and the third person, “her”. It’s only the mother who uses the first person. I had in mind the fact that, when a woman becomes a mother, she no longer gets to speak or sometimes even think in terms of that “I”. Of the four different voices in the book, the mother’s is perhaps the most vivid and powerful. When I was writing it, it felt as though my mother’s hand had held—even gripped—my authorial hand, so that she could tell her own story.
Q: This is an extremely personal novel, and readers will undoubtedly think about their relationship with their own mothers while reading. Did you draw on your relationship with your own family while writing the book?
A: My own family relationships do in fact make up the background, but the episodes in the novel were invented, or altered from reality. My own mother for example, thankfully, has never gone missing. But, speaking at a symbolic level, many mothers of our generation, I believe, have gone missing or remain neglected.
Q: Has your mother read this novel? If so, what did she think/say to you about it?
A: That she was proud of me for having written it.
Q: In Please Look After Mom, you beautifully describe many elements of Korean culture—the Full Moon Harvest, the food, clothing, etc.—that most Americans may not be familiar with. Are there any traditions that you are particularly excited to share with readers here?
A: The novel’s various aspects of Korean culture came up naturally as I was describing the everyday life of the ‘Mom’ character. The Chuseok holiday, or the Full Moon Harvest, in Korea is similar to Thanksgiving in America. On that day, family members all over the country return to their hometowns. In order to show gratitude to our ancestors, offerings are prepared from the season’s harvest. We also pay our respects at their gravesites. On a clear night, you can see the full moon on Chuseok. There’s a popular saying that translates roughly to, “May your life be as plentiful and full of joy as a Chuseok night.” It expresses the sentiment that the person’s life will be as bright as the full moon during the harvest festival. Last year, I got to spend my first American Thanksgiving in New York. I was invited to have dinner by a friend who’d been living in New York for a long time. Turkey was served, of course, and I had a wonderful time sharing the meal with my host’s family. Just as Americans celebrate the day over turkey, Koreans spend Chuseok sharing songpyeon, or half-moon shaped rice cakes, with their families. I was delighted by the similarities between the two holidays. Dining with someone, especially these days, isn’t simply a matter of sating one’s hunger—preparing a meal with someone and dining under the same roof is of course a way of connecting. You can drink tea with just anyone, but to dine with someone shows how close you are to that person. In my book, ‘Mom’ is always preparing warm meals, often to send them to family members living out in the city. I wanted food to play an important role in my book—a symbol of warmth that can’t be expressed with words. I wish I could prepare for my American readers the many Korean dishes that appear in Please Look After Mom, so that we could share them together!
But, moving beyond food, Korea has a number of beautifully elegant Buddhist temples, such as Hwaeomsa, Pusoksa and Haeinsa, and seowon (a kind of Confucian academy) such as Dosanseowon and Byungsanseowon. These are sacred and quiet spaces, containing the spirit and culture of the country. You should definitely pay them a visit if you are ever in Korea. If you have an interest in music, try listening to pansori, Korean traditional music, which contains a different resonance than Western harmonics, and expresses a distinctly Korean sorrow and humor.
Q: Your novel is being published in many countries and people around the world are identifying with the characters you have depicted. What are some of the universal truths of the relationship between mothers and children that you explore in the novel?
A: The line by Mom when she finds her mother’s soul (“Did Mom know? That I, too, needed her my entire life?”) expresses, I believe, a universal truth. When I’d written that sentence, I felt that the work was complete. We all need mothers, regardless of who we are. Even those who are currently mothers!
Q: One theme that runs throughout the novel is that of personal dreams versus sacrifice for family. Do you feel that this struggle is different for older and younger generations?
A: There’s that old saying that God couldn’t do everything himself, so he created mothers. No matter how much society advances, there’s bound to be some gap between a woman’s desire for self-actualization and her need to give of herself for her family. Of course, the situation has improved a great deal, but the dilemma persists. It still holds that one person’s development comes from someone else’s care and sacrifice: nothing and no one can replace a mother. I think humankind has been able to sustain itself because, at its center, there’s this entity called, “Mom.”
Q: You are now an extremely well-known and widely respected author in Korea. Has this fame dramatically changed your life, and your experience of being a writer? What kind of responses did the novel receive in Korea?
A: I published my first work of fiction in a Korean literary journal at twenty-two. From age sixteen to thirty, I was always working. I went to high school at night and worked during the day for a company that made stereo systems. When I was in college, I would tutor children, write and do research for the school newspaper, and read to those who’d suddenly gone blind. Even after my first book was published, I worked all sorts of jobs, any really, that would allow me to write: an editor at a publishing house, a writer for a classical radio station or for magazines, etc. My experience at these jobs provided vivid material for when it came time to write. But it was when I was about to turn thirty, when I published my second book, that people began to really pay attention. It was totally unexpected. The book was a collection of nine stories, and within six-months after it was published, 300,000 copies had been sold. It was the first time that a short-story collection had done so well in Korea. Everyone was surprised. For the next twenty years, my readers have stayed with me for every book I published. Thanks to their support, I have been able to live a life of great freedom, and to devote all of my time to writing. This was a dramatic shift for me. Writing and my personal life became like two sides of the same coin. Whatever I was experiencing at a personal level in Korean society, I tried novelizing to the most truthful and powerful extent possible, and my readers seemed to actively engage with my work and sympathize with it. Even today, I write a little every day without being tied down to anything else. I only feel free when I’m writing, and the best way I know how to give back for this invaluable freedom is to write in a way that engages people—and will make readers curious about what the next work will be like!
Q: Although this is your first book to be published in English, you’ve written numerous other works of fiction. When did you first begin to write and what topics were you drawn to?
A: I’m the product of my mother’s influence. My mother would look so happy when she saw me reading a book. I started out reading to bring more happiness to my mother, who always looked so tired. Even before I was ten, it was my dream to become a writer. I began writing fiction on my own when I was in high school. Of course, it was an exercise more than anything. I wrote in any form I wanted—stories, essays, poems—pieces where often, the beginning didn’t even fit with the end. I was a young girl who’d moved to Seoul from the countryside. I lied about my age to get a job at a company. Back then, South Korea was an industrial society and not yet a democracy, and there were disputes between the workers and the company, demonstrations almost every day. Hearing cries of protest from outside, I would lay out my notebook on the conveyor belt and write. Writing was what got me through those years; five years later, I formally made my debut as a writer.
I wrote, wanting to produce a work that expressed human beauty and its almost magical strength even when confronted with the most tragic situations. I wanted, too, to write about respect and compassion for life. Now that I am older I have these same hopes. But I also hope that after they read my works, readers will be seized by the longing to remember and see again someone they’d forgotten, or some aspect of life they may have overlooked. Whenever I see people drowning in suffering and sadness, I feel a strong compulsion to return to my writing. I would like for my work to in a way play a maternal role, of standing by those who feel sorrow, whether it is of social or personal origin.
Q: Tell us more about your writing habits. When and where do you like to write?
A: I like best to write from 3 in the morning till 9 in the morning. I like the feeling of writing in darkness and working myself, little by little, towards light. One of my habits as I write is that I often wash my hands in cold water.
Q: Is there a message that you hope readers take away from Please Look After Mom?
A: I’ll point you to the novel’s epigraph, by Franz Liszt: “Love, so long as you can love.” And I’d hope you’d remember, and realize again the plain truth that your mother was not born that way, that she too had to become a mother. Taking the time to think about your mother might also mean taking the time to think about yourself. If anyone wants to call his or her mother after reading this book, it would please me very much.
From the Hardcover edition.
“A suspenseful, haunting, achingly lovely novel about the hidden lives, wishes, struggles and dreams of those we think we know best.” —Seattle Times
“A moving portrayal of the surprising nature, sudden sacrifices, and secret reveries of motherhood.” —Elle
“Intimate and hauntingly spare. . . . A raw tribute to the mysteries of motherhood.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Lovely. . . . Please Look After Mom, especially its magical, transcendent ending, lifts the spirit as only the best writing can do.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Shin renders a tender and beautiful portrait of South Korea, but the novel recognizes a familial dilemma experienced throughout the world.” –Ms. Magazine blog
“The most moving and accomplished, and often startling, novel in translation I’ve read in many seasons. . . . Every sentence is saturated in detail. . . . It tells an almost unbearably affecting story of remorse and belated wisdom that reminds us how globalism—at the human level—can tear souls apart and leave them uncertain of where to turn.” —Pico Iyer, Wall Street Journal
“The novel perfectly combines universal themes of love and loss, family dynamics, gender equality, tradition, and charity with the rich Korean culture and values which make Please Look After Mom a great literary masterpiece.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“An authentic, moving story that brings to vivid life the deep family connections that lie at the core of Korean culture. But it also speaks beautifully to an urgent issue of our time: migration, and how the movement of people from small towns and villages to big cities can cause heartbreak and even tragedy. This is a tapestry of family life that will be read all over the world. I loved this book.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
“Haunting. . . . The novel’s language—so formal in its simplicity—bestows a grace and solemnity on childhood scenes that might otherwise be overwrought. . . . Throughout the novel, the rhythms of agrarian life and labor that Shin deftly conveys have a subtle, cumulative power.” —Boston Sunday Globe
“An affecting account of a slow-burn family break-up. . . . Well-controlled and emotionally taut. . . . What distinguishes this novel is the way it questions whether our pasts, either public or private, are really available for us to recollect and treasure anyway.” —The Financial Times
“A captivating story, written with an understanding of the shortcomings of traditional ways of modern life. It is nostalgic but unsentimental, brutally well observed and, in this flawlessly smooth translation by Chi-Young Kim, it offers a sobering account of a vanished past. . . . We must hope there will be more translations to follow.” —Times Literary Supplement (London)
“A poignant story of a family told in four voices. . . . Shin’s storytelling and her gift for detail make Please Look After Mom a book worth reading.” —Post and Courier
“Shin perceptively explores the greatest mystery—not Mom’s disappearance, but who Mom really was. Every mom, that is.” –Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Here is a wonderful, original new voice, by turns plangent and piquant. Please Look After Mom takes us on a dual journey, to the unfamiliar corners of a foreign culture and into the shadowy recesses of the heart. In spare, exquisite prose, Kyung-sook Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being.” —Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of March
“Shin is a scribe with a slow and steady pulse; this is writing that allows you to meander with your own thoughts (and reflect on your own mother, perhaps), while still following the physical and mental travels of her characters. . . . Plain and softy insistent eloquence.” —Hyphen Magazine
“Intriguing. . . . It is easy to see the source of this global popularity, for not only is Shin’s absorbing novel written with considerable grace and suspense, but she also has managed to tap into a universality: the inequitable relationship between a mother and her children.” —Bookpage
“An arresting account of the misunderstandings that can cloud the beauty of the affection and memories that bind two very different generations. . . . A touching story that effectively weaves the rural, ages-old lifestyle of a mother into the modern urban lives of her children.” —Newark Star-Ledger
“Here is a deeply felt journey into a culture foreign to many—yet with a theme that is universal in its appeal. A terrific novel that stayed with me long after I’d finished its final, haunting pages. This is a real discovery.” —Abraham Verghese, bestselling author of Cutting for Stone
1. While second-person (“you”) narration is an uncommon mode, it is used throughout the novel’s first section (the tale of the daughter, Chi-hon) and third section (the tale of the husband). What is the effect of this choice? How does it reflect these characters’ feelings about Mom? Why do you think Mom is the only character who tells her story in the first person?
2. What do we learn about the relationship between Chi-hon and her mother? What are the particular sources of tension or resentment between them? Why does Chi-hon say to her brother, “Maybe I’m being punished . . .” (p. 73)?
3. Why is it significant that Chi-hon is a successful writer, and how does her career affect her position in the family? What does this mean for her relationship to her mother, who is illiterate? How does it happen that her mother begins to treat Chi-hon like “a guest” when she visits home (p. 18)?
4. Mom’s life has been defined by her relationships to others and the needs of her family. When her daughter asks her, “Did you like to cook?” how does Mom’s reply summarize the divide between her own and her daughter’s generations (p. 60)? How is the generational gap between you and your parents, and/or you and your children, at all similar to, or different from, this one?
5. What are some of the reasons for the special bond between the eldest son, Hyong-chol, and his mother?
6. Why does Hyong-chol feel that he has disappointed his mother? Why does she apologize to him when she brings Chi-hon to live with him (p. 95)? Why do you think he hasn’t achieved his goals (p. 119)?
7. Why is food such a powerful element in Hyong-chol’s memories of his mother?
8. How do you explain the fact that Mom has been seen by various people wearing blue plastic sandals, with her foot badly injured, although when she disappeared she was wearing low-heeled beige sandals (pp. 68, 77, 78, 96, 97)? What do you make of the pharmacist’s story of treating her wounded foot and calling the police (pp. 106–107)? Does Mom’s own narrative solve this mystery?
9. The Full Moon Harvest is a festival in which Koreans traditionally return to their family home to honor their ancestors. Hyong-chol reflects that people are now beginning to take holidays out of the country instead, saying, “Ancestors, I’ll be back” (p. 98). What feelings do memories of their mother’s preparations for the festival stir up in Chi-hon, Hyong-chol, and their father (pp. 98–104)?
10. Weeks after his wife disappears, her husband discovers that for ten years she has been giving a substantial amount of money—money their children send her each month—to an orphanage where she has taken on many responsibilities (pp. 124–30). How does the husband react to this and other surprising discoveries about her life?
11. After Mom has gone missing, her husband says to himself, “Your wife, whom you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart” (p. 131). Discuss the pain and regret Mom’s family feels, including in the context of the book’s epigraph from Franz Liszt, “O love, as long as you can love.” Have they followed this edict successfully? Why do you think Kyung-sook Shin chose this quote to open her story?
12. Taking out the burial shrouds his wife had made for the two of them, her husband remembers her wish that he die first: “Since you’re three years older than me, you should leave three years earlier” (p. 144). What is the effect of the way this passage moves from poignancy to humor and back again? Similarly, how do grief and warmth, even happiness, intertwine as he recalls his wife’s generosity and her hands applying a warm towel to his arthritic knee (p. 150)?
13. Do you think Mom’s husband and children would have been able to help her if they had paid her and her illness more attention? Or, given her aversion to the hospital and the way she hid her sickness, was what happens to her inevitable?
14. Discuss the return of Mom as storyteller and narrator in the fourth section. What is inventive about this choice on the author’s part? What surprised you—and what remained a mystery?
15. How does Mom’s feeling for her younger daughter differ from her feeling for Chi-hon? Why was she able to be more attached to the younger daughter than the elder one (pp. 193-97)? How is the use of the second person here—Mom addressing her daughter as “you”—different from the use of second person in chapters 1 and 3?
16. What do her children and husband discover about Mom’s life only after she disappears? How do her actions express her generosity and benevolence? Do you see some of her activities as ways of seeking self-fulfillment? Was she, through giving to others, taking care of herself?
17. What are we to understand of the fact of Mom’s possibly being spotted, in chapter 2 (“I’m Sorry, Hyong-chol”), in the various neighborhoods where Hyong-chol has lived in Seoul? In Mom’s own narrative (chapter 4, “Another Woman”), what is the connection between herself and the bird her daughter sees “sitting on the quince tree” (p. 188; see also p. 182).
18. At the end of the father’s section, he says to his older daughter, “Please . . . please look after your mom” (p. 176). How does Chi-hon carry out this directive? How is it related to her feelings about the Pietà and her purchase of “rosewood rosary beads” at the Vatican (pp. 250–54)?
19. What are the details and cultural references that make this story particularly Korean? What elements make it universal?