A Writer Evokes Loss on South Korea’s Path to Success


LIKE so many South Korean parents at the time, Shin Kyung-sook’s mother saw education as her daughter’s best chance of escaping poverty and backbreaking work in the rice fields. So in 1978 she took her 15-year-old daughter to Seoul, where Ms. Shin would lie about her age to get a factory job while attending high school at night to pursue her dream of becoming a novelist.

Seoul-bound trains at the time, like the one mother and daughter boarded that night, picked up many young rural South Koreans along the way — part of the migration that fueled South Korea’s industrialization but forever changed its traditional family life.

It is that social upheaval that Ms. Shin evoked in her most famous novel to date, “Please Look After Mom,” which earned her the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize and a commercial success attained by few other Korean writers. (Sales in South Korea passed two million this spring, and the book has been published in 19 other countries, including the United States.)

That book and a more recent one, “I Will Be Right There,” about friendship and love set in the country’s political turmoil of the 1980s, are part of a body of work over three decades that has set Ms. Shin apart as one of the most accomplished chroniclers of modern South Korea.

“In her novels, readers have the chance to pause and reflect upon the other side of their society’s breakneck race for economic growth, what they have lost in that pursuit and upon people who were left behind in the mad rush,” said Shin Soo-jeong, a professor of Korean literature at Myongji University in Seoul.

In “Please Look After Mom,” an elderly woman from the countryside travels to Seoul to visit her adult children and gets lost in what is quite literally a mad rush: the scramble to get on a Seoul subway. Reviewers have called her disappearance a metaphor for the profound sense of loss in a society that hurtled from an agrarian dictatorship to an industrialized democracy within a single and often tumultuous generation.

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That feeling has not overwhelmed South Koreans’ pride in their country’s accomplishments, notably its rise from abject poverty to the world’s 13th-largest economy. But the sense of loss taps into a growing unease over some of the costs of that success, especially a widening gap between rich and poor and a generation of elderly people left largely to fend for themselves as their adult children work in cities.

The filial guilt that suffuses the novel is universal, but also has a particularly Korean spin.

Until a generation ago in South Korea, at least one adult child — usually the eldest son and his family — lived with aging parents until their deaths. Now, a growing number of older people live alone in their rural villages or in the nursing homes that are springing up across the country. Often, they have little money left, having invested their savings in their children’s educations with the expectation that the children would prosper and eventually care for them.

The children, meanwhile, living in a hypercompetitive society where people work some of the longest hours in the world, often lament that they are too harried to visit their elderly parents. Many also fear using too much vacation time, afraid of being seen as disloyal to their companies.

IN what Ms. Shin says is probably the most important sentence in her novel, the missing mother expresses what many guilt-ridden readers imagine as their own mothers’ sense of helplessness at having been effectively abandoned by their children. In a scene in which the old woman imagines meeting her own dead mother, she wonders: “Did Mom know? That I, too, needed her my entire life?”

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Ms. Shin’s life, which tracked the trajectory of her country’s rise, prepared her well for her role as an interpreter of her generation. Born in the countryside like so many characters in her novels, Ms. Shin, 49, now lives in an expensive residential district in Seoul. Her husband is a college professor as well as a poet and literary critic. They have no children.

From an early age, she was a voracious reader, hiding herself away with books her elder brothers brought home. (She was the fourth of six children.) By the time she was 15, she was increasingly certain she wanted to write for a living.

After their arrival in Seoul on that night train in 1978, her mother left her in the care of an older brother in a crammed room in a slum. While he worked in a government office by day and attended college at night, Ms. Shin worked in an audio and television parts factory and attended high school in the evenings.

She was one of the youngest employees in the factory, where she witnessed the labor discontent that sometimes rocked South Korea as its economy galloped ahead but many workers toiled in sweatshop conditions.

“The girl sitting next to me at the night school had no fingerprints; she worked all day wrapping candies in a confectionery,” Ms. Shin said in an interview. “Most of my classmates sent part of their meager wages back home to support their little brothers’ and sisters’ education. When they came to class, they were so tired most of them dozed.”

At her own factory, a clash involving one of the country’s growing number of labor unions turned violent as managers deployed their own security guards, who joined with the police in cracking down on workers organizing for higher pay and better conditions.

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Ms. Shin stayed inside, amid the idled conveyor belts, taking her mind off the mayhem by copying a new novel about the urban poor in longhand.

In the end, Ms. Shin was the only one in her high school class to win admission to college, as a creative writing major. She eventually wrote about life at the factory in “A Lone Room,” one of her most acclaimed novels. Its French translation won the Prix de l’Inaperçu in 2009.

“I wonder what would have become of me in those days if I hadn’t had the goal of becoming a writer to hang on to,” she said. “I was determined that one day I would write about what I saw and felt.”

FOR several years after college, she supported her writing with odd jobs: writing scripts for a classical music radio station and reading books to blind people. But by 1993, she was successful enough to be able to write novels and short stories full time.

She also was able to fulfill a personal promise: to repay her own mother’s sacrifices for her children. The day they went to Seoul, she remembers, her mother’s face was etched with weariness.

“I promised myself then that one day I would write a beautiful book for Mom,” she said.

That book, “Please Look After Mom,” solidified her standing as one of South Korea’s finest living novelists and won her accolades.

Her mother’s reaction was decidedly more muted, typical of a generation of women who pushed their children hard to succeed but were accustomed to restraining their own emotions, even when those children met or exceeded their family’s high expectations.

As Ms. Shin recounted, “She only said, ‘My dear, you have done well.’ ”

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