‘The relationship with a mother transcends cultural differences’

South Korean author Kyung-sook Shin with a Korean translator on stage at Asia House during our pre-Festival event

South Korean author Kyung-sook Shin with a Korean translator on stage at Asia House during the second pre-Festival event

‘The relationship with a mother transcends cultural differences’

17 April 2014

By Naomi Canton

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival’s second pre-Festival event, Separations, was meant to focus on how political division of nations have influenced social values. But it ended up becoming as much a debate about the ‘separations’ that emerged between the authors on stage.

The South Korean author of Please Look After Mother (2011),  Kyung-sook Shin, speaking in Korean through a translator, said: “As I listen to these two writers, I feel a sense of separation as I am using an interpreter and they are not.”

She added: “I have never lived abroad. I feel like they have a normal life. I have only lived in Korea and I feel abnormal.”

The sell-out event, a precursor to the main Literature Festival which starts on 6 May, also featured author Qaisra Shahraz, who moved to the UK from Pakistan when she was eight and author Krys Lee, who moved to the USA from South Korea aged five.

“Krys has a perspective that Koreans who grew up in Korea do not have,” Shin, one of South Korea’s most widely read and critically acclaimed authors, continued. “She can see the problems more accurately than Koreans in Korea.  I feel a sense of separation from these two writers.”

Shin’s humility was ironic given that she became the first woman and first South Korean to win the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011 for Please Look After Mother,  published in 2008 (in Korean and in 2011 in English). The book is about a mother who goes missing on a train to Seoul and it explores modern family relationships.

Broadcaster, producer, author and journalist Yasmeen Khan, who was in conversation with the authors, said that as she was reading Please Look After Mother, she felt as though she did not know her own mother. Shin said that proved the universal appeal of the book, rejecting suggestions that she had adapted the English version for a Western audience as they would not understand Eastern concepts such as ‘filial duty.’

“If the meaning of family in Korea was different to that in Britain, then when I published it in the UK, I would not have received those responses from British readers that they had the image of their own mother as they were reading it,” she said.

“People might be from different countries, cultures and values but the relationship they have with their mother is the same. The differences are only on the surface but I think the underlying feelings and thoughts are the same,” she added.

The book starts with the sentence, ‘It’s been a week since my Mum went missing.’ “But when you read it you think about your own mother,” Shin said.

She said she wanted people reading the book to think about their own mothers, the fact their mothers had their own childhood and were wives and had their own mothers. “That is, in my opinion, finding mother,” she added.

Copies of Please Look After Mother and Drifting House

Copies of Please Look After Mother and Drifting House

She said it was not until the characters lost their mother that they started to properly think about who she was.

“In modern society we see that family members seem close but don’t really know each other that well and I wanted to portray that disconnection,” she added.

Shin said although the book is about the mother who has gone missing, the real question was who is missing and who is lost?

“That is the real question that I raised. I wanted show the reader you don’t know who is lost in the end,” she said.

The session was more about the alienation the writers felt from their own roots and each other than about political divisions of countries.

Author of Drifting House (2010) Lee, who was born in South Korea, raised in the USA, but now lives in South Korea again, spoke about her identity. She said she was angry when The Guardian mislabelled her as “a writer from the West”.

“I have lived more than half of my life in Seoul, my daily language is Korean and my partner is Korean and does not speak English,” she said.

She also said if she had grown up in Korea like Shin, her Korean would be much better and fluent.

A Korean translator with authors Kyung-sook Shin, Qaisra Shahraz and Krys Lee in conversation with Yasmeen Khan

A Korean translator with authors Kyung-sook Shin, Qaisra Shahraz and Krys Lee in conversation with Yasmeen Khan

Shahraz, who was born in Pakistan but raised in Manchester, said: “I am a product of Britain but my writing is about Pakistan. I can’t get away from Pakistan. My literature is a window on Pakistan for the Western world.”

But, at the same time, she said: “I don’t feel Pakistani.”

“My father’s generation settled in the UK a long time ago and he still thinks about Pakistan and hankers for it. But when he goes to Pakistan he is a stranger. You become a product of the place where you live. In my books it is about the generation gap and different sense of values. The children become alienated and different,” she added.

Shahraz’s book Revolt (2014), covers hierarchies and the class system in Pakistan.

“I live in the Western world and Pakistan is very much about servants and masters and no one thinks twice about it, yet for me coming from the West I find it very strange,” she said.

However, this irked a member of the audience, also of Pakistani origin, who said not all Pakistanis should be tarred with the same brush of all turning a blind eye to inequality and that many in Pakistan do care about equality.

But Shahraz retorted that “materialism and class values in Pakistan were very clear-cut” and “in your face” and that made her, as a British Pakistani, feel alienated.

She also spoke briefly about separations in the context of the impact migration has on families.

“Migration is a terrible thing in modern times. It separates families, particularly those from developing countries, who might be separated for decades. In one of my stories a man goes to the USA and waits for a green card and finally dies before his family, who have waited 30 years, can join him,” Shahraz said.

But she mainly spoke about the separation she felt from her homeland, her roots.

Shahraz, who also writes TV dramas for Pakistani TV, also discussed Islam. She said she felt her Muslim faith had been “hijacked” by terrorists but she was a Muslim and proud of it.

“When my sister, who is now a dentist, started wearing a scarf my Dad said to her ‘Why are you wearing it?’ They will think you are a terrorist at university.”

But she said many more Muslim women were wearing headscarves nowadays not  because they were oppressed but rather because they were proud of their identity. “But it does not mean they have become fanatics,” she said.

“I think there is a global shift in the solidarity of Muslim women,” she added.

She said that in Indonesia some women wore “tight skirts but their heads were covered” and in Egypt women wore jeans with headscarves. But it was ironic because neither of these dress codes would be considered “modest” in Pakistan. “Who is right and who is wrong?” she asked rhetorically.

In that way the session focused on what it means to be British Pakistani, a Korean raised in Korea versus a Korean raised in the USA; and the separation of families, clash of values and sense of alienation that can follow migration, rather than the influence of political separations.

Watch a clip from the event:

Listen to the full audio here:

The event was held in partnership with the British Council as part of the Korea Market Focus Cultural Programme at the London Book Fair 2014 and in association with the Pan Asian Women’s Association.

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival takes place from 6 May to 21 May 2014. To read the full programme click here.

Pre-Festival events have been taking place throughout April. The next pre-Festival event is Why Do Indians Vote? Democracy in India on 30 April at 18.45. To book tickets click here. 

To read more about this year’s Literature Festival click here.

To read an interview with Adrienne Loftus Parkins, the director of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, click here.