This is Part 2 of an interview I conducted in late March, right when Please Look After Mom was released in the U.S. (Apologies for the late, late post!)
For Part 1 of the interview, click here.
SOV: Most readers have been talking about mojeong (maternal love) as the primary theme of your novel. As I was reading some of the blurbs for your book, novelist Gary Shteyngart—I’m a fan of his work—said something that struck me. He brings up another theme that’s more historical—about the tragedy that often accompanies migration from the countryside to the city. That flow isn’t limited to Korea. The center/periphery relationship can be Seoul/countryside, but also, U.S./Korea, for example.
I think this theme is hugely important, especially in the context of your novel’s own “migration” from Korea to the United States.
KS: That’s right. People move around for education, for example; it’s just how things are today. Now that I’ve come to the United State, I see that people do the same thing here. (Laughs) We’re constantly leaving where we are for something better, to achieve something. This brings alienation—the differences in environment, for example, between Seoul and the countryside. But this applies to the U.S. as well. In trying to gain something, you also lose something. But of course, something can be gained as well. This is true for Korea and for the United States. For example, you (referring to interviewer) – you were born somewhere else, and now here you are, in New York. This seems like a common story today.
As for the question of “center,” yes, most characters in my novel do not originate from the center. They started in the periphery, as outsiders, and worked their way to the center.
SOV: The second daughter also has an American-born son. When you wrote this book, you had no idea that it would be translated into English.
A: No not at all. But that is the reality these days. Many of the younger generation of Koreans, they can find ways to live a few years abroad without too much difficulty. Whether it’s because of work, or college, or it’s for some other personal reasons, to learn something. It’s not entirely uncommon for Koreans to have American-born children these days. Even in New York, you’ll hear a lot of Korean on the street. That was really surprising to me. New York for me, it’s not like Europe—there’s something about the atmosphere that reminds me of Seoul. There’s a similarity, not in the older buildings, of course. But it can be really uncanny at times… So many different ethnicities live here and the culture is so diverse. Even in my case, I feel like I’ve come here as another person. It’s been a good experience. Because I always have my desk to return to.
SOV: Because your desk is your home.
KS: (Laughs) Yes, my desk is my home.
SOV: Writers are lucky, I think.
SOV: I was reading a customer review on Amazon.com, and one reader said, “I liked everything but I really wanted to know what happened to Mom in the end.” The reader seemed frustrated. I suppose wherever you go, you’ll find readers who need to have closure, who want something certain in the end?
SOV: Then someone else wrote a reply to the comment and explained the ending.
SOV: That the chapter from Mom’s point-of-view is coming “from beyond.” And the original commenter wrote back, “Oh really? Is that what happened? It makes sense now.” I think that’s one possible interpretation. My interpretation has been – taking into account your earlier work like Solitary Room – on one hand you seem to be telling stories of forgotten people – the lower-class or people who are invisible to society; on the other hand, your work seems to confront the problem of representation in general, the inherent impossibility of speaking for those who are voiceless. Some readers, I think, read your works too transparently, to simply accept your descriptions and think, “So this is how they live.”
I feel that your work often has that additional, complicating layer, which suggests that we shouldn’t believe everything that is here, that there are things that cannot be known. The impossibility of testimony seems like an important theme for you.
KS: I think that’s spot on.
SOV: Even Mom’s first-person testimony is kind of contradictory, since she is illiterate and it is written…
KS: Sure. That’s why a part of me felt, as I was writing this, that it wasn’t me who was writing it, that my mother had taken my hand in hers to help me write it. Someone once asked me, if writers’ works are like their children, what kind of child is Please Look After Mom to me? And I wanted to say that I felt like I was the book’s child, not the other way around.
I am always plagued with the feeling that what I am seeing and feeling is not everything. There’s something impossible to capture there. But there’s also the feeling of wanting to get as close as possible to that impossible thing, and that’s the experiment of language I’m engaged in. It’s really hard to say. There’s always a remainder there. I like things to be interpreted in more than one way. If ten people read something I wrote, I want ten different takes; I want diverse readings.
As for the “Mom” section. The question is understandable. Even in Korea, I would receive questions about why I didn’t let Mom be found in the end, why I chose to leave the readers hanging. I don’t think it would’ve made sense to have Mom be found. That would’ve been something out of a TV drama. It’s not important in this novel whether Mom is actually discovered. What’s important is the process of finding, in “the absence” of this fictional Mom, “the presence” of our real Mom. So it’s important that Mom stays missing. “It’s been nine months since Mom’s gone missing.” This is what the last chapter says. It’s not over. We don’t know whether Mom is alive or not. I had to create a point-of-view for Mom that would bridge the gap between this world and the next, because we don’t know what happened to her.
In a way, the question of whether she is found or not lies in the heart of the reader. And maybe there is something fundamentally maternal or “Mom-like” in all of us, that allows us to rear a small life, to pour our effort into making the world better for its sake. I wonder if the symbol of this Mom-ness might not be found within the self, so that I may be like a mother to you, or you to me, so that the mother-child relationship can be imagined within all sorts of social relationships. This seems to provide hope in these difficult times, when everything is bcoming rational, and everyone is obsessed with progress, with moving ahead. Maybe this idea of “advancement” shouldn’t be everything when it comes to being human. Maybe we can turn our attention to what is fundamental, to our point of origin. Maybe our task is to rediscover the thing that“Mom” had cultivated for us, for us to reclaim it in some way.
SOV: If you could mention a few writers you admire, or enjoy reading?
KS: Foreign writers?
SOV: Korean or non-Korean, whichever you prefer.
KS: For the most part, I’m a fan of individual works rather than writers. (Laughs) But of the older generation of Korean writers, I like Oh Jung-hee and Park Wan-seo. I was very influenced by them and enjoyed their works greatly when I was younger. I really loved much of the Korean literature I encountered while I was studying creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.
A great deal of foreign literature has been translated into Korean. I really enjoy Duras. Proust, also, because he is difficult. I enjoyed Russian literature too. As for American literature, I’ve been reading a lot of Paul Auster and Raymond Carver; many of their works have been translated. I have read and enjoyed Toni Morrison too.
SOV: I know that some writers dislike reading works by other writers when they’re in the middle of their own work. Some will say, though, when they get stuck, they’ll take down a volume of Proust and to get themselves unstuck.
KS: When I’m writing I usually do not read other books. I like to listen to music, actually. Rostropovich’s cello performances, for example. I like pieces that help me feel, from time to time, a strange convergence with my work. I listen to pieces without words, because the lyrics can distract me, because I end up thinking too much about them. When I’m not writing, I read more.
When I get stuck with my writing, I often call my mother. She has a lot of stories I can’t hear from anyone else. Because I live in the city, and Mom lives in the countryside. So she sees a lot of things I don’t see anymore, things that transpire in the countryside: what’s growing on the trees, the fields, and what it’s like during harvest time. It’s something I used to see when I was little, so hearing her stories, I can imagine what it’s like. And these details make their way into my work. It’s completely different from the city life I now lead, and so through her stories, these two disparate lives are allowed to meet.
SOV: Thank you for your time, Ms. Shin.
KS: It’s been a pleasure.
Interview translated from the Korean by Jae Won Chung. All mention of the country or polity of “Korea” unless otherwise noted, refers to Republic of Korea/South Korea