Interview (full text)
April 24, 2011
Jenelle Pifer: I’ve read that Kyung-Sook Shin’s work marked a relatively strong shift in Korean literature in the beginning of the 1990s because of the psychological depth of her stories–that at the time there was a move from the political to the personal. Is it true that prior to the late 20th century much of Korean fiction was dominated by political novels? And was this trend true of the arts in general?
Seung-hwan Shin: The Korean people faced a series of nightmares in the last century: Japanese colonial rule (1910-45); national division under external influences (1948); the Korean War as the first international war of the Cold War era (1950-53); the severe political/social oppression in the postwar period (1953-60); decades of military dictatorship (1961-92). The succession of authoritarian regimes allowed little freedom of expression to dissident voices not only in the political sphere but in social and cultural sectors as well. In those days, it had been so common to witness people arrested, jailed, and/or tortured on charge of violation of the National Security Law, whether political figures, novelists, or filmmakers. A prime example is former President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2002), who, like Nelson Mandela, was jailed and tortured during military rule and narrowly escaped murder plotted by military regimes twice. The repressive condition, however, could not stifle the Korean people’s thirst for democracy. Or you may say, it rather triggered an intensification of the political fervor for democratization. Understandably, South Korea came to have a strong and rich tradition of politically charged art. In brief, its primary concerns were with minjung (the unprivileged and oppressed) and minjok (a people of the same ethnic origin) ; at the core of the literary tradition was the idea that the protagonist of history is neither internal rulers nor external powers but Korean people. It thus sought to rewrite history by bringing to focus minjung’s sufferings and struggles under the shadows of colonialism and authoritarian rule.
In the wake of democratization (more specifically, in the 1990s), however, South Korea saw a rapid shift and the general climate in the literary world also underwent significant changes. With the downfall of military rule, the necessity of a unified front against military dictatorship and foreign powers (which was considered to have propped it up in one way or another) became no longer self-evident. Even though outcomes of democratization were far from satisfying (it was more like a compromise between old and new rulers, and as the wave of globalization quickly swept the entire nation, many of remnants from the past were quickly reinstated under the pretext of stabilization of national economy or in the name of reconciliation and unity), the political passion for change began to ebb away and the minjung movement also faced a rapid disintegration. As a result, intellectuals were gripped, to a greater or less extent, with a sense of disorientation, helplessness, and impasse. It was in this context that a new generation of writers (many of whom are woman writers: Kyung-sook Shin, Ji-young Gong, He-kyung Eun, Kyung-ran Cho, etc.) emerged with fresh energies and distinct gazes at Korean society. Moving away from weighty political and social imperatives, they turned their eyes toward what had been sidelined by grand narrative. One of the notable trends in their works was that unlike minjung practitioners who had tended to see personal life through collective imperatives, they started to reread public history and discourse through personal memories from everyday life and focus more on style (tone or voice) than content, which is indicative of their critical stances toward not only the ideologies of the state and ruling groups but also the totalizing tendency of oppositional narratives. In other words, the rise of new literary voices did not simply mark a move away from weighty political issues; it has more to do with the need to find fresh ways of cognitive mapping in the face of the changing environments where with a more sophisticated system of discipline and control settling after the downfall of coercive rule, grand narrative, official or oppositional, increasingly became futile, or only partially valid, in coming to terms with intricate forms of suppression at work in sociocultural domains marginalized by political imperatives.
Kyung-sook Shin is truly a representative figure of the new trend. For instance, Where the Harmonium Once Stood (1993), a collection of short stories which catapulted her to the level of leading writer in South Korea, is well known for its elegant lyricism in style and detailed explorations of the internal landscape of a woman who loves a married man, but cannot help but write a farewell letter to him. On the other hand, A Lone Room (1995), an autobiographical novel based on memories of her teen-age years when she moved from her rural hometown to Seoul and worked in a factory to attend night school, provides a subtle and complex bildungsroman set against the backdrop of sociocultural issues in the 1970s such as rapid urbanization, labor exploitation, political oppression, and democracy movements.
Pifer: The author has won a variety of awards, including: 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. Are you familiar with any of these recognitions? And if so, what is their significance? Can you compare them to any similar award in America?
Shin: The appeal of her works is not limited for a selected group of people. They are widely read across barriers such as generation, gender, education, and social status. Of course, readers may like her works for different reasons. Still, for me, the popularity of her works over a wide range of readers indicates that they touch on something fundamental to Korean people. This is well reflected, I think, in the awards she has received from various institutions: the government (“Today’s Young Artist Award from the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism”), newspaper companies (Hankook Ilbo Literature Prize), corporations (Hyundae Literary Award), and literary associations (Modern Literature Prize, Manhae Literature Prize, Dong-in Literary Award, Yi Sang Literary Award, and the Oh Yeongsu Literature Prize). Particularly, given the authorities of literary associations listed above, Kyung-sook Shin deserves to be called a true representative writer of modern Korean literature.
As for the significance of the awards, I have little knowledge of America’s literary awards and thus do not know how to compare them with Korean ones. What I can tell you is that awards from literary organizations listed above are all considered prestigious. The majority of them were launched long ago in honor of important figures in history of Korean literature (Manhae, Dong-in, Yi Sang, etc.) and their fames and authorities are also widely acknowledged in South Korea.
Pifer: The book deals quite heavily with the idea of family roles, particular the expectations of the mother as a caregiver. Does Korean culture today still place a lot of weight on these ideals within the family?
Shin: I would say that for many Koreans, the sacred image of mother still looms large. One can often hear people in Korea saying something like “Mother is the eternal home” and “Mother is the main root of home.” Deeply embedded in such words is the idea that mom always sacrifices herself for the good and happiness of other family members. Few would deny that moms have constituted a vital pole for entire Korean society in many aspects, which unfortunately has not received due recognition. On the other hand, I also maintain that it is the sanctified status of motherhood that has confined Korean women to the prison of good mom stereotypes. “Mom” should always be there to give us everything she has. Yet, since mom is always there for us, other family members pay little attention to her. Accordingly her existence becomes quite invisible. Here lies a paradox that mom is everywhere, but at the same time she remains least visible. Shin’s Please Look After Mom is no doubt a deeply relatable homage to all moms. On the other hand, as drawing attention to the paradox, it also encourages the reader to realize how ignorant our society has been of the fact that mom is also a human being with her own life and desire, a person in need of our care and attention.
* Part of the interview on City Paper (April 28, 2011)
 There is no equivalent to the concept in English. The significance of the concept does not lie in its definition, but its historical context. Developed during Japanese colonial rule, its uses have been associated with the Korean people’s struggles against colonialism and cultural imperialism.