Please Look After Mom/Kyung-sook Shin: Reflections

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Among the many extraordinary young people in my most recent class at the University of Pennsylvania was a freshman from South Korea with a philosopher's soul. K went at projects in his own fashion and earned our lasting respect for the ways in which he'd quietly, politely defend his literary outposts. He moved fearlessly outside the confines of form and foundation to suggest a new approach, at one point earning J's highest encomium, "That took balls, man." K was unafraid of dreaming out loud, unafraid of hoping, unafraid of expressing his deep, abiding affection for his mother. K wrote not of disdain and fractures, but of love and sacrifice, of the "whistle of the wind through the open window." That open window was in our own classroom. He wrote movingly, too, of its walls, its soul.

What had shaped this young man? I often wondered, and when I read of Kyung-sook Shin's Please Look After Mom, I knew I had to read it—had to see South Korea through the eyes of one of its most famous working novelists.

Mom is the story of lostness—of a South Korean woman who is somehow not right there, with her husband, when the train they are to ride together pulls out of the Seoul Station. The woman had been beset by blinding headaches and some amnesia. She was getting on in age. She had, to be honest, been largely taken for granted. But now Park So-nyo is gone, and desperation sets in as her husband and adult children set out to find her.

We learn the story through the voices of Park's novelist daughter, her eldest son, her husband, and a younger daughter (before hearing, finally, from Park herself). We understand, throughout all the pained and poignant remembering and reassessing, that it is not just that Park's family doesn't know where she is and cannot find her. It's that they may never really have known her at all.

This simply-told story embodies haunting, complex truths. It yields a devastating but gorgeous portrait of South Korea.  It reminds us that mothers were children once, mothers have dreams, mothers are wrecked and salvaged by their secrets. This is a book that I didn't want to part with. It's a book that I will read again.

I quote from this letter tucked inside the book, written by the younger daughter. I choose this passage because it is Mother's Day and, while I am not this daughter, I was a daughter. I honor today those things that I will never know fully about my own mom, those things she dreamed and wanted.
I know one thing. I can't do it like she did. Even if I wanted to. When I'm feeding my kids, I often feel annoyed, burdened, as if they're holding on to my ankles. I love my kids, and I am moved—wondering, did I really give birth to them? But I can't give them my entire life like Mom did. Depending on the situation, I act as if I would give them my eyes if they need them, but I'm not Mom.... She didn't have the opportunity to pursue her dreams and, all by herself, faced everything the era dealt her, poverty and sadness, and she couldn't do anything about her life other than suffer through it and get beyond it and live her life to the very best of her ability, giving her body and her heart to it completely. Why did I never give a thought to Mom's dreams?


bermudaonion said...

The book sounds fabulous! Happy Mother's Day, Beth!

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