Kyung-Sook Shin
Kyung-Sook Shin is the first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize Image Credit: Supplied

Kyung-Sook Shin’s narration of her first experience with death- and the first time she put pen to paper- is so shocking and gripping, it gives me quite literally a jolt.

‘I grew up in a country town until I was 15,’ says the South Korean writer, the only person from her country and the first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize, when I ask her about what led her to become a writer. (Shin will be speaking at the upcoming Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.)

‘There was a railway line that ran through my hometown and it was not uncommon for animals and sometimes even humans to be hit by trains and lose their lives. The trains ran so fast that even on occasions when the engineers noticed danger on the tracks and tried to stop the train, it would be too late- the human or animal would have been splintered to pieces with the impact, leaving only the smell of blood in the air.

‘That’s how I first experienced death.’

Kyung-Sook Shin 2
Growing up, reading and writing, she says, boosted her self-esteem

Even as that line sinks in, she continues: ‘I remember my first writing was about the shock I had felt.’

Since then, Shin, who turned 60 this year, kept writing, first in the form of a diary; later making up names to mask characters’ identities and adding her own descriptions to everyday events to throw those who might chance upon her diary off track. ‘I wanted to keep the secret to myself,’ she says.

Leaving home at 15 to enroll in a special night school program in the capital Seoul- her family could not afford to pay the fees for high school- the farmer’s daughter worked for an audio company spending her free time reading novels and ‘writing down what was happening around me in my notebook’.

Reading and writing, she says, boosted her self-esteem. ‘That was when I realized that I would become a writer, and reading and writing would be my job for the rest of my life.’

It surely was a good thing.

Shin on the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature
‘Dubai is a city I haven’t been to yet. I am happy to be a part of the festival. The book that will be the central part of my session is “I Went to See My Father”. With the English translator of the book, I will be sharing the story of a father who did so much, but says, “I’ve done nothing. All I’ve done is live through it.” For details of the dates and timings, visit

Making her literary debut at the age of 22 with the novella Winter’s Fable, Shin has over the years followed it up with a dozen novels, several short stories and two works of non-fiction, in the process amassing a bouquet of awards including the Republic of Korea Culture and Arts Award and the Manhae Award for Literature.

But if there was one novel that she wanted to write since she arrived in Seoul it was Please Look after Mom, which bagged her the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012.

After more than 30 years in gestation and after writing seven novels and six short stories, she finally got down to writing a work that pitchforked her to international literary fame. ‘It took me so long to write it because my concept of ‘mother’ changed so much over all those years,’ she told CNN in an interview after winning the award.

Kyung-Sook's award-winning book

The novel tells the tale of a 69-year-old woman who gets separated from her husband among the crowds of a railway station, and her family’s desperate search to find her. Along the way, the family begins to wonder how well they really know the woman they called Mom. The book also explores the themes of loss, abandonment, self-discovery and of sacrifices a mother makes in raising her family.

The last is something Shin is keen to emphasize.

‘The mom character in this novel is very dedicated to her children, giving everything of her; sacrificing herself for them. With mom’s sacrifice, the daughter moves out to the city and leads her own independent life,’ says the author.

A reason the Mom is willing to sacrifice herself is because she wants her daughter to live a life different from hers. But, in the meantime, the two drift apart and lose their intimacy which makes them miss each other.

‘I thought this situation reflects the way we contemporary human beings live. Only when the daughter experiences the extreme situation of “missing” her mom does she realize how much she has been influenced by her mom’s life and how deeply she has loved her. As a writer, I definitely wanted to create a moment that two different generations miss, love, and respect each other.’

Did the sense of loss that she experience when she moved from her hometown to Seoul fuel the narrative of the novel in some way? I ask.

Not really, she says. ‘Nothing can make up for the feeling of loss. What I could do was to dream that I would one day become a writer, and write about the things I saw.’

Seven years after she moved to Seoul, she became a writer. ‘Since then, I’ve been filling my deficiencies and losses by writing one work after another.’

The multiaward winning author says that it is not uncommon for Koreans born in the countryside to leave the place where they were born to go to college or to work because schools and workplaces are mostly concentrated in Seoul. ‘And once you leave, it’s hard to return,’ she says.

‘After leaving home at a young age, I had a specific place that I would always miss, and I think it kept me from feeling empty.’

The losses that she explores in her novels are of different kinds and not just about leaving home, she makes it clear.

‘It’s more of a feeling of mourning for all the things that have passed away early.

‘I used to think about the deaths of young friends, the deaths of children I read and see in the news, and the unfulfilled lives of people who went missing or were found dead during student movements to change society. It made me realize that my life is also permeated with their unfulfilled lives.’


A writer who believes that maternal instincts should not be restricted only to mothers, Shin once suggested changing the term’s meaning ‘so everyone can have maternal instincts because we live in an era when you have to play the role of mother to each other’. Could she expand on that? I ask one of the foremost voices in Korean literature today.

‘There’s a scene in my novel where Mom shows up and tells her story. And in the last sentence, I wrote, “Did Mom know? That I, too, needed her my entire life?”

‘I want you to notice that this is coming from not anyone else, but from mom who has been a mom her whole life. We now need to play the role of a mom to each other. Individuals to society and society to individuals,’ says Shin.

Shin’s favourite authors
My favorite Korean writers are Oh Jung-hee and Park Wan-suh, and for international writers, I like Jhumpa Lahiri, Marguerite Duras, Philip Roth and Patrick Modiano. Without the joy of reading their books, I would have felt lonely in my life.

For the record, Shin wrote a follow up to Please Take Care of My Mom titled I Went To See My Father that revolves around the protagonist’s efforts to reconnect with her ageing father after she stumbles upon a bunch of letters that shines a light on her father’s past.

Praised as an ‘epic contemplation on grief and the relationships, responsibilities, and expectations between family members’, the work paints a splendid picture of sacrifice and heroism- themes that were also explored in Please Take Care of My Mom.

Shin reveals that her next book will be about a laborer who goes to work one morning but never returns home.

‘The theme that runs through in my writings is ‘sympathy’ and “restoration’,’ says the author who finds literary inspirations ‘from the sorrow and beauty humans have to carry.’

Shin reveals that her next book will be about a laborer who goes to work one morning but never returns home

In the 17 books she has written so far, she has ‘been working on revealing the minds of individuals who have been devastated due to their own tragic histories. And I have been working on restoring the shattered and lost things using my language.’

How does she see her novels?

‘We are living in a world where social media tricks us into believing that our lives are connected to everything,’ she says. ‘On the contrary, we seem to be lonelier and more isolated [than before].

‘Oftentimes, I think living in a metropolitan city is like a journey in search of someone, the only person who thoroughly empathizes with [you]. I hope my novels stand as that “someone, the only one” to communicate with those who are lonely and alone.’

For details of the author's session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, visit