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Missing mother looms large in Korean novel

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

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - 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.

"Moms are not simple," Shin said. "Moms are like a thick book, the more you read, the more pages to be read."

The mother of the novel is not the woman Shin would have written about at 16, but she said after watching her own mother age and sicken she has wrapped more human intimacy into the book's characters and their relationships.

Shin is happy with the translation, though the Korean version is more emotionally rich because the mother speaks in a regional dialect which differentiates her in the Korean narrative.

In the English version the mother is powerful enough, particularly as the voices of all the characters other than the mother are narrated in the second person.

"It's only the mom who uses the first person, 'I'," said Shin. "I had in mind the fact that, when a woman becomes a mom, she no longer has the time to live as 'I,' so made only Mom be able to speak as 'I.'

The mother, like most mothers who subjugate themselves to their children's future, is treated until her disappearance like most children treat their parents, relegated to secondary importance, an appendage to their daily lives.

But the mother retains her dignity and her secrets and in vanishing on the Seoul subway looms larger than ever in her children's lives.

The first word children learn is mother, said Chin.

"If (the reader) remembers that, it would make me really happy," Shin said. "If they remember moms were never born as moms but became moms."

Shin is married and lives in the Pyeongchang-dong area of Seoul. Her mother still lives in the house where Shin was born in Chongup, south of Seoul in the south west Korean peninsula.

Regarding her own life, Shin said she has more unfulfilled dreams than fulfilled ones with one being "to write a book so beautiful that other people want to memorize it from the first to the last word."