Giving Voice to Fragile, Introspective Souls: About Shin Kyung-sook

  • onOctober 19, 2014
  • Vol.4 Summer 2009
  • byShin Kyung-sook

Writer Shin Kyung-sook received acclaim for capturing her characters’ subtle interior shifts and their existential depths in Where the Harmonium Once Stood and continued to demonstrate her competence as a stylist and a storyteller with a new title every year or two, including the novels Deep Sorrow and A Lone Room. With the publication of the historical novel Yi Jin and more recently, Take Good Care of Mom, Shin has once again achieved the acclaim and success of her earlier work.

Shin Kyung-sook was born in January 1963 in Jeongeup, Jeollabukdo (province). She was the fourth child and oldest daughter among six children; her parents were farmers in a remote village – electricity first became available when she was in sixth grade – where a clan of Shin families had settled. Thanks to her third older brother who was an avid reader, reading and writing became a natural everyday activity for Shin at an early age.

After Shin graduated from middle school, circumstances made it difficult for her to go on to high school, so her mother, who had hoped that her daughter would continue her education, took Shin to Seoul, where her oldest brother had taken a day job while studying for the bar exam. At 16, while working at an electronics plant in the Guro Industrial Complex, Shin began attending a special night program for industrial workers at the Yeongdeungpo Girls’ High School. Around this time she met a teacher named Choe Hong-i who encouraged her dream to become a writer. She began her literary training reading books by laying them open under the conveyor belt and copying her favorite works line by line.

She went on to major in creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts and made her debut as a writer in 1985, at the age of 22, when she was named winner of the Newcomer’s Prize from The Literary Joongang for her novella, “A Winter’s Fable.” In 1988, while going through a series of jobs at publishing houses and radio stations, she published her first collection, titled A Winter’s Tale. But up to that point, her works did not receive much attention.

It was Shin’s second collection, titled, Where the Harmonium Once Stood, published in 1993, that made a name for her. Her stories, which accurately captured the characters’ subtle interior shifts and furthermore, their existential depths, in elegant, delicate prose, were a new and fresh approach in Korean fiction, then dominated by narrative-driven realist works. Shin’s first novel Deep Sorrow, published the following year, and her second, titled, A Lone Room, published a year later, demonstrated Shin’s competence not only as a stylist but also a storyteller. The former, a love story between the heroine Eun-seo and two men, named Wan and Se-ra, sold over 700,000 copies. The latter is an autobiographical work depicting Shin’s experience as a new arrival in Seoul working in a factory in Guro while attending night school. Her poignant portrayal of the main character’s pain as she suffers her fall from her well-adjusted and wholesome life in the rural village to the struggles of the urban poor, had a great impact on readers and society. In a stream of consciousness narrative method that moves between the past and present, the novel recounts the history of the laborers who were sacrificed in the course of Korea’s industrialization through the eyes of a sensitive young girl.

Ten years after her debut, Shin had become a leading voice in Korean literature. Her works were regarded to be on the same literary level as renowned women writers like Park Kyung-ri, Park Wansuh, and Oh Jung-hee, and at the same time, enjoyed great commercial success during the 1990s, a decade when fiction secured a wide readership. Shin followed A Lone Room, with the collections Potato Eaters (1997), Long Ago When I Left Home (1996), Until It Turns into a River (1998), Strawberry Fields (2000), The Story of J (2002), The Sound of Bells (2003), and the novels The Train Leaves at 7 (1999) and Violet (2001). Her immersion and devotion to her art bore fruit with a new title published every year or so.

Shin’s novels center around the joys and the miseries, the hesitations and the quivers, the despair and the will to overcome that her fragile and introspective characters experience in life while attempting to establish ties with others. The complexities of human psychology and of relationships are vividly brought to life at the tip of the author’s fine-point pen that hesitates and feels its way. Shin’s characters exist more as parts of ourselves in our real lives than as characters in reality.

After publishing a collection in 2003, the writer went through a four-year hiatus, which was unprecedented for her, and came back with Yi Jin (2007), a more dynamic narrative that still maintained her refined and delicate style. In this novel, Shin brings back to life a court lady serving Empress Myeongseong, who was brutally murdered by Japanese soldiers as the waves of imperialism and modernization swept into the kingdom of Joseon. The narrative moves from Seoul to Paris as it follows the heroine and her dramatic life.

With her latest book, Take Good Care of Mom (2008), Shin has once again achieved the acclaim and commercial success of her earlier work. This novel, which revolves around a mother who has gone missing after a life of compromise, tracks the life of a woman who lived as a mother while Korea went from being a pre-modern and modern to post-modern society over a short period of time, and restores a place for her in the Korean psyche. Even in the current global economic crisis, which has also severely hit Korea, this book is making record sales, as it reminds the readers of the importance of family and the values that we must hold on to despite difficult times. 


By Han Yun-jeong

1. Yi Jin
2. The Train Leaves at 7 
3. Long Ago When I Left Home
4. Where the Harmonium Once Stood
5. A Lone Room
6. Take Good Care of Mom
7. Violet