Dedicated Passion: Kyung-sook Shin Discusses Please Look After Mom

The New York Times Book Review calls it “a raw tribute to the mysteries of motherhood.” In a guest review on Amazon, Jamie Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet), says it’s the sort of book that alters the way we remember. Smithsonian BookDragon blogger and LJ reviewer Terry Hong declares, It’s one of the best books I’ve read in many years, [offering ] one of those achingly unforgettable moments of intense emotion that only the beautifully written printed page can provide. And in a recent Prepub Q. & A., Knopf Vice President Robin Desser warns, You will never think of your mother the same way again. It’s Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, a best seller in the author’s native Korea that’s making a name for itself here. If you have yet to read this affecting and nuanced novel, the following Q. & A. with the author should persuade you.

1. When I first learned the premise of this novel, of a mother going missing on a Seoul subway platform, I imagined that it would be a sort of domestic mystery‚ a narrative about following clues to finding out what happened to Mom. Instead, it is an indelible portrait of an extraordinary ordinary woman, as we might say in English. Was that your intention?
The line, It’s been one week since Mom went missing came to me suddenly, one day. I think the line’s made a quite a few readers think this is a mystery novel. I thought that we lived in an era in which the sentiment we commonly associate with Mom had been lost. I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about the mom named Park So-nyo in my novel. She’s the kind of mother you would find anywhere. I wanted to describe the radiant love and pain I found inside her in my own words. If you connect with the inner life of Mom you’d forgotten about, or feel the urge to reach out to her again, I would feel very rewarded as the author of this book.

2. Although Mom is astonishingly self-sacrificing, as portrayed through the memories of her family, she is also astonishingly tough and single-minded. How did you build this portrait? From your own mother, from other women you know, from an ideal in your mind?
I hesitate to reduce the love Mom shows in this book with the word sacrifice. Rather than say sacrifice, perhaps we could say that Park So-nyo lived her life, and the situation she’d been given, with a dedicated passion. I often felt, while working on this work, that my mother’s hand was holding my writing hand, writing it with me.

3. Mom has been taken from granted by her now rueful family, and I found myself wondering, Is it just her family, or are all families like this?
No human being can develop without someone else’s care. But after we’ve grown up, we forget those who had been our stepping stones. We’re most likely to forget our mother’s love, because we often take mother’s love for granted. Living our adult lives without thinking about our mother’s isn’t just a story about the individuals in this book; it’s a story of all of us.

4. Despite that question, I also felt a key point of the novel is the comment from the man whose mother sewed him cotton clothes: My mother was different from today’s women. Do she and Mom represent a type of woman that is no longer so common? Is this a huge cultural change we are now experiencing?
That’s a great question. This is the first time I’ve been asked this question. We miss our Moms, who have loved us as Park So-nyo has. Because that is love in its original form. But today’s women cannot live this way. That’s how I got the line, It’s been a week since Mom went missing. Mothers need a mom too. We live in a time when we ought to be able to find moseong (Korean for maternal instinct) in people other than our own mothers. I think as human beings, all of us have the capacity for love that we call moseong. I think time has come to find this within all of us and to share it. As times get increasingly complicated, we need other people to play the role of mom. Maybe it can be between two people, or even between society and the individual.

5. Let me be honest, sometimes I found Mom’s family a bit feckless, a bit ineffective in their hunt for her. Mom would have found whoever went missing. Am I being too hard on them?
No, you’re right. The main theme of this novel isn’t whether ‚ÄòMom is found or not. Rather, it’s to ask, How did we come to lose Mom? That was my focus, so that’s how the novel panned out the way it did. If while reading the novel, you have found a place in your heart to think about your own mother, I would say that you have found Mom.

6. However feckless the family seems to me, it also seems that the message of this novel is, ultimately, the importance of love. The very title seems to be an admonition to us all. Yes?
I would not say it’s a warning or a lesson; I would prefer that it be understood as an attempt at communication, or a prayer. Honestly, how can we really ask anyone else to look after Mom? Novels are questions, they are not answers. Maybe I’m just throwing my question out there.

7. Yet another important message: communication‚ or, how hard communication can be. Mom can’t read, but her daughter’s writing is so important to her that she wants it read aloud; the daughter feels stymied when speaking to readers of Braille; there are things family members wish they had said to Mom. Is perpetually frustrated communication a part of what makes us human?
No matter how close you are to someone, even if you’re family, it doesn’t mean you know everything about that person. This isn’t really anyone’s fault; our lives just happen to be this way. I believe it’s a necessary condition of human life that we are accompanied by an unresolved solitude. Perhaps we can divide the world into two kinds of people: those who try to fill that lack and those who do not.

8. I’m intrigued by your use of the second person throughout. Why did you make the choice to use it?
I wanted to make it so that Mom would be the only character who said I. Once a woman becomes a mother, she rarely gets to think in terms of I so I wanted to set aside this space of the I exclusively for the Mom character. I thought of it as an ode or a dedication to all the mothers of this world.

9. Again, regarding style, I bet that when many Americans hear the phrase Korean literature, they think poetic, lyrical, even flowery. Your writing is tough and contemporary and beautifully economical. Is that style a conscious choice? Is it typical of current Korean literature?
Korean literature is very diverse. You cannot capture it with a single description. This is because Korean society is very dynamic. Narrative is very important to me, but I’m someone who takes sentence style very seriously. Let’s say you find a book of mine on the stairway, but without a cover so you don’t know its title or who wrote it. I’ve always wanted to write in a way that, if you picked up this book and read a few pages of it, you would recognize my style and say, Yes, this is Kyung-sook Shin’s novel! I’ve always wanted to write in a sophisticated and modern style that would allow for this kind of recognition. There’s hardly a story that hasn’t been told these days, but no matter how universal and common, I want to make the story feel new, so I tend to focus on sentence style.

10. Finally, this is your first novel to be published in English. What do you want American readers to come away with regarding you, your writing, and your culture?
In Korea, I have written seven novels, seven collections of short stories and three books of essays. But in the United States, Please Look After Mom is my first book, and this makes me a debut writer, in a way. This whole process has brought back what it felt like when I published my first book in Korea. It’s a wonderful feeling. There were a few times when I was anxious, but for the most part, the experience has been enjoyable. I think it’s a fundamental part of reading literature to want to communicate with other cultures. I also read countless works by American writers in translation. I read, imagine, and dream. I’m more inspired by people who’re drowning in sorrow, rather then those who are happy. I want my books to be there for those who feel alone. More than anything, I would like people to cast aside any prejudices they might have about me, my work and Korea, and free themselves to imagine and dream.

Photo credit: Lee Byungryul

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.