New Emissary

Please Look After Mom

South Korean writer Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel is a runaway hit in the US. A new dimension of the Korean Wave?

South Korean writer Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mom, an emotional tale of one family’s complicated relations, has become a runaway hit—in the United States. The translated book, Shin’s first English language release, has already sold 100,000 copies and has become the first Korean novel to make the New York Times bestseller list. It’s even been featured by US media mogul Oprah Winfrey as one of her ‘18 Books to Watch for in April 2011.’

I recently spoke to Korean culture analyst and professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills Jung-Sun Park on the subject, who said she finds it both ‘interesting and remarkable’ that Shin’s book has been so widely embraced in the United States by audiences, critics and the media alike.

Park was visiting her native South Korea when Please Look After Mom was first released domestically back in 2008, and she remembers what a huge impact it had. ‘Everyone was talking about it and I remember my neighbour asked me to pick her up a copy when I told her I was going to the bookstore,’ she recalls, ‘She’s a middle-aged woman who I don’t think reads a lot, but because it was so popular and widely-read, I think she wanted to read it so she could join the conversation. It’s just an indication of how popular the book was back then.’

The 48-year-old Shin is one of the country's most popular and critically acclaimed novelists, and Please Look after Mom has sold 1.7 million copies in South Korea to date.

Park added, ‘Although it's premature to predict whether this initial success will continue, this is quite a significant turning point for the globalization of Korean literature.’  She explained to me that even though Korean literature—whether classic, modern, contemporary, children's—has been introduced to the world, no work before Shin’s has received this amount of media coverage and acclaim from overseas.

She wondered aloud: ‘Could this be a new dimension of the Korean Wave?’

The Korean Wave phenomenon is something many people continue to follow with fascination, including myself, and so I’ll touch more on these topics next week, including Park’s theories on why this particular Korean book has really taken off in the US, and why Shin might be the first contemporary South Korean writer to hit it so big in America.