Shin Kyung-sook's <Please Look After Mom> was a novel that affirmed the fact Korean literature had the ability to penetrate overseas markets. The novel was a signal flare that marked in earnest the beginning of Korean book exports to the world. Today, non-Korean editors ask Shin for book recommendation comments and the following is the story of the author who has captured the hearts of the international publishing market.
Author Shin Kyung-sook
We're elated to introduce you to our webzine readers. Please introduce yourself to our <K-Book Trends> readers.
Hello, I'm author Shin Kyung-sook. A translator once told me there are people who don't think much about Korean literature being introduced outside South Korea, but the reality is that it's very hard to make it happen. As difficult as a camel passing through a needle eye. And I agreed with that person. But the fact that the situation is becoming better, is all thanks to the hard work of translators, institutions and management companies who continue to take an interest in Korean literature and make it available for non-Korean readers. And I am thankful for that.
(From left) Cover art for the South Korean edition of <Please Look After Mom> and cover art for the U.S. hardcover and paperback editions
You've published <Please Look After Mom> in the United States. The response, we heard, was very positive and the book was later ranked as a bestseller. What do you think was the reason behind the book's success both at home and abroad?
There is no real way an author can ever know why a certain work becomes beloved by readers. I think a lot of luck was involved. In the case of <Please Look After Mom>, I think perhaps readers were able to empathize with the universality that mothers have in countries that don't share the same culture or history.
The Man Asian Literary Prize is given to literary works that are translated into English and <Please Look After Mom> was selected as one of the nominees for the top prize after being published in the United States and the United Kingdom. I recall the book became a New York Times bestseller and went up to 18th on Amazon's bestseller list at one point.
It was only then I realized I had become the first female author
to win the Man Asian Literary Prize.
And you did win the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011. Could you tell us about the award ceremony and how you felt back then?
All the candidates for the award were invited to Hong Kong by the award hosts. I was one of them, so I went. We had a good book reading, myself and the other candidates from countries like India, Japan, China and Pakistan. I went with three of my friends, just like I would on holiday, but once I got there, I found the other candidates from India, Japan and China had arrived with translators and reporters from their respective countries. I never dreamed that I could win. The announcement was made at a gala dinner and trying to be formal, I was wearing fancy shoes and stockings. My feet kept slipping inside my shoes and I was contemplating whether to take my stockings off when they called my name and the title of my book for the award. I was so surprised.
One of my friends had advised me the day before I should prepare acceptance remarks just in case, so I did have something written down in a hurry. At that time, there was a tragic happening in which a group of North Korean refugees were being sent back to the North by the Chinese government. My speech was sort of a letter to the Chinese government asking to protect them after the refugees were ordered to return to North Korea. I never thought I would actually have the opportunity to say the speech onstage. It was only then I realized I had become the first female author to win the Man Asian Literary Prize. That was news. After the awards ceremony, there was a press conference, and I was flustered to see reporters from the Guardian and CNN in addition to those from Hong Kong and China.
Could you recall when your books were first introduced to non-Korean readers outside South Korea? If there were any special episodes regarding exporting translation rights, do feel free to tell our readers.
My full-length novels that have been published so far in English are <Please Look After Mom>, <I'll Be Right There (Munhakdongne)>, <The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness (Munhakdongne)> and <The Court Dancer (Munhakdongne)>. The first book that was published in English was <Please Look After Mom>. After that novel was published in South Korea, Joseph Lee, who is the president of KL Management came and visited me. He said he'd been keeping an eye on my work ever since I started publishing stories in a quarterly magazine. Lee visited me three times and asked if he could manage the export process for my book. With that as a beginning, I became connected to many foreign literary agents. I was rather surprised at how smoothly things ran for <Please Look After Mom> when it was being exported to the United States, the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe.
Cover art for the Korean and U.S. versions for <I'll Be Right There>
Cover art for the Korean and U.S. versions for <The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness>
<Please Look After Mom> has been translated and published in over 40 countries now, including the United States. Aside from English speaking countries, are there any other regions that were unique for you? And we'd like to know if you have any overseas markets you have eyed.
My novel has been published in countries like Israel, Slovenia, Finland, Lithuania and Denmark. I might not be wrong in thinking that my book may have been the first Korean work of literature to have been published there. In Finland, it was selected as book of the year, and the novel also became a bestseller in both Israel and Taiwan. I don't know about oversea markets very well, and this is pretty much all that I know.
Does anything come to your mind regarding previous direct interactions with your foreign readers?
I was taking part in a book reading once in Minnesota at the behest of Pen International with writers from Canada and France. There was one reader who had driven for 8 hours to get there. This person ran a book club, and we ended up autographing books for every single member of that book club. Another reader in the U.S. comes to mind. There is a scene in <Please Look After Mom> where the father in the story blames himself for having lost his wife's hand in the subway station and also regrets he had always walked ahead of her because she was slower than him. This reader told me he was like that father. In Norway, the person who translated my book was a person who had been adopted from South Korea to Norway when they were little, and I felt a twinge in my heart after learning this fact. Also, there was a reader who blamed the South Korean police for not having done their jobs to find the mother who'd become lost. I had to reassure that reader the case was fictional.
Are there any books that are closest to your heart?
Personally, for me, those would be the books that became my turning points like <The Place Where the Harmonium Was (Moonji Publishing)>, <The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness> and <Please Look After Mom>.
Do you have any books you'd like to see published overseas?
Rather than hoping to see one specific book exported, I have more than 100 short stories published at this point, and it's my hope some of them may be selected and published for non-Korean readers.
Could you tell us about any other books that have been exported abroad in addition to <Please Look After Mom>?
I have seven full-length novels published so far, and starting with <Please Look After Mom>, books like <I'll Be Right There>, <The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness> and <The Court Dancer> were published in English and French. Later they were also exported to countries like Italy, Norway, Finland and Russia. In Asia, I think it is notable that my books are being consistently exported to China, Japan and Taiwan too.
Cover art for the South Korean and U.S. versions of <The Court Dancer>
It hasn't been published in South Korea yet, and we're thinking of publishing it in English first.
Is there anything you're working on right now you can tell us about? And what are your plans for the future?
The U.S. paperback version of <The Court Dancer> is scheduled to be released in December. I'm also waiting for my next novel to be published, called <Violet (Munhakdongne)>. I've practiced yoga for a long time, and I'm currently writing something on the people I've met in my practice and the things I've felt. It hasn't been published in South Korea yet, and we're thinking of publishing it in English first. It's a full-length novel, and my goal is to finish it by next spring at the latest.
Arranged by Choi Hyo-jun