On top of the world
This year’s Man Asian Literary Prize winner Kyung-sook Shin tells Matt Fleming she never expected to scoop the trophy
She’s written seven novels, six short story collections and three non-fiction books. She’s one of South Korea’s most notable literary stars – and now she’s become the first female to ever win Asia’s biggest literary prize. And the first South Korean to do so, for that matter. And she’s unnervingly modest, despite all this success.
Kyung-sook Shin scooped the Man Asian Literary Prize in Hong Kong last month after a shortlist of seven superb novels had been whittled down to her family portrait masterpiece, Please Look After Mom, a tale of a lost mother and a family coming to terms with that loss. Time Out reviewed the novel on its path to the prize – and, unsurprisingly, it scored top marks due to its powerful themes (loss of mother and unconscious loss of old ideals in modern society) told from different family perspectives.
Shin, born in Jeongeup, South Korea, is a household name in her country. And the 49-year-old is quickly becoming a massive voice in the worldwide literary scene, thanks in no short measure to the Man Asian prize win. “I am a budding writer in the world,” she tells us. “But I never expected that I would win the prize. Please Look After Mom has helped me experience many emotions that I’ve never dreamed of experiencing before.”
Please Look After Mom, originally written in Korean, seems, at first, to be aimed at a more ‘homely’ reader. Someone who likes to explore family values. But its appeal has proved to be universal – not least because it shares a common theme which all can relate to. Mum. We’ve all got – or have had – one. “I didn’t aim for certain types of readers when I wrote this novel at the beginning,” she says. “I hoped that readers – wherever and whoever the readers are – have the chance to think about their mom again after they finish reading this work.”
And they do. But they also start thinking about what Shin will offer in the future. “The prize made me think that I write all alone, by myself,” she says. “After I received it, I realised that I was the first female writer to win it. I’m also the first to win this award among Korean writers. Therefore, this award made me think that, even though we live apart in other countries, we are all connected in some ways.”
This year’s prize was a major success. And it was special to host the ceremony here in Hong Kong, a place Shin says she is passionate about. “I came to love Hong Kong this time because I received the award,” she says. “But I have celebrated New Year’s Day twice in Hong Kong while travelling. There were so many people pouring out on to the streets on New Year’s Eve. It was a very special experience celebrating with Hong Kong people – and that memory remains very special in my mind. Hong Kong is an international, cosmopolitan city full of great potential, with great foods – and, most importantly, with freedom.”
The next Kyung-sook Shin work being published in English is I’ll Be Right There. It’s about four young people’s journeys to probe the meaning of love and youth during a tragic period in Korea’s history, says the author. And she also says that readers should look to Asia for future literary greats. “I feel that the world now understands the uniqueness and intensity of Asian writers in new perspectives. Asia is a vibrant and mysterious place where people can find unimaginable things.” Too true – and hopefully we can learn more about this ‘mysterious place’ through the writings of prize-winning authors like Kyung-sook Shin.
Please Look After Mom is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced $102.