Missing mother looms large in Korean novel

Tue May 31, 2011 4:34pm EDT
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By Nick Olivari

NEW YORK (Reuters) - It's a simple premise -- losing your illiterate mother on the Seoul subway.

But what the characters and readers of "Please Look After Mom" by South Korean author Kyung-sook Shin discover is that in the mother's absence she is only more powerfully present.

The novel is Shin's first book translated into English, after selling 1.5 million copies in her native Korea. It is not autographical but Shin admits through a translator there is a large dose of family anecdotal history in the narrative.

Her 74-year-old mother is a major source of inspiration, "a little pond that never dries up," Shin said. So much so, that she will chat to her for a few hours by telephone when she has writer's block.

Like the first daughter in the novel, also a writer, Shin promised her mother at 16 when she left the countryside to finish her education in Seoul that she would one day write a novel about her.

Shin, 47, began and stopped several times, writing other books and short stories until in 2007 she wrote a single sentence: "It's been one week since Mom went missing."

"And all the untold stories not told before came gushing out," Shin said. "Once started, I could not understand why I was not able to start. There were so many stories to tell, and I was deeply engaged in the writing process."

The mother of Shin's story may be illiterate but like all mothers she is anything but simple. She sacrificed her own goals and aspirations for her children and her husband. She is a woman her children never knew.   Continued...