11 - 24 October 2013 #677

Moving words

Acclaimed Korean author Shin Kyung-sook visits Jumla and it reminds her of post-war Korea
Tsering Dolker Gurung

HAPPY FACES: Shin with students of Bhagbati Primary School in Chandannath, Jumla

When author Shin Kyung-sook visited Jumla last week, she was immediately transported back to her own childhood in Korea after the war. Jumla reminded her of Jeolla province where she spent the first 16 years of her life. Shin is now a celebrated author in Korea and her fame has spread far-and-wide, as her books are translated into many languages.

“The problems of poverty and unemployment that the people of Jumla face are things I had seen and experienced in my village,” says Shin after her visit to western Nepal last week as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

In Jumla, Shin was particularly impressed by the work of a watch group against gender-based violence and a 24-hour birthing centre. Shin also visited Nepalganj where she met with members of a child club. “This whole trip has been an enriching experience,” said the 51-year-old through an interpreter. “On one hand I was happy to see that the people had preserved their traditions beautifully, on the other, sad that they didn’t even have the most basic of facilities.” 


Shin says she didn’t have any difficulty coping with the lack of facilities. “My life’s experiences have taught me to handle any kind of situation,” she said. When she turned 16, Shin moved to Seoul to live with her two brothers because her parents were unable to send her to high school. Once there, she worked at an electrical plant during the day and attended school at night. “When you are a girl, the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, and doing the household chores naturally fall on your shoulders,” she says. Her dream of becoming a writer kept her going and at 22, that dream came true when she published her first novel.

While Shin was already a respected literary name in Korea, her popularity catapulted globally in March last year when she won the Man Asia Prize for her novel Please Look After Mom, ahead of other authors including Amitav Ghosh and Banana Yoshimoto and became the first woman to do so. The book, a story about an illiterate rural mother who goes missing during a trip to Seoul, has now been translated into 32 languages. In her acceptance speech she brought to attention the plight of North Korean, something she says is more a human rights issue than a political one.

“I try to represent marginalised voices in my writings. It is something I have always been careful to do,” she admits. The things that she saw and heard during her visit to Nepal, she says, will influence her future writings.

Shin will also be speaking about her Nepal experience in a popular Korean TV program, Healing Camp, a new thing for the reserved author, who has shied away from TV interviews until now. She adds: “I always believed that an author should connect to a reader through her writing, but now I want more people to know about this country.”

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