Waking in Dawn’s Hours, Awaiting the Words of a New Day: Novelist Shin Kyung-sook

  • onOctober 18, 2014
  • Vol.4 Summer 2009
  • byHan Yun-jeong


Shin Kyung-sook has been faithfully carrying out the role that has been asked of her as a writer. She has restored real characters long overshadowed by history and social issues, more specifically women, to Korean fiction. She has not only pioneered new styles of fiction but has secured a wide readership for them, as seen in the huge success of her latest novel, Take Good Care of Mom. Journalist Han Yun-jeong met with Shin Kyung-sook to talk about her writing and her life.


Shin Kyung-sook is an important writer that cannot be overlooked when discussing Korean literature of the 1990s and 2000s. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she has been a leading force behind Korea’s literary trends during these decades.

Shin stepped into the limelight as a writer in 1993, when a prolonged series of military dictatorships finally came to an end in South Korea and a new civilian government took power. Korean fiction, at the time, was dominated by realism, which had been firmly established over decades of artistic struggle against authoritarian rule. Readers, however, were growing tired.

It was at this time that Shin Kyung-sook presented readers with her second story collection titled, Where the Harmonium Once Stood (1993). Her distinctive style, subdued and delicate, immediately captured the attention of critics and readers. It was the moment of arrival for the then 30-year-old writer, fair and tender in her looks and her sensibility.

Shin said, “For seven, eight years after making my literary debut at 22, I had several different jobs while I continued to write. I read a wide range of fiction, but works that other people found fresh did not quite have that effect on me. At the time I was filled with the urge to break out of the boundaries of the traditional narrative, captured by the desire to write something that, even with the cover gone, people would recognize as mine after reading just five pages.”

Back then, Shin was strict about reading all works written by her favorite writers, which included Yi Chongjun and Oh Jung-hee. This period of intensive reading allowed her to establish her own distinctive style, one that is sad and at the same time beautiful, hesitant and at the same time firmly pushing forward, in order to speak the unspeakable and to show the unshowable. With great precision, she brought life to familiar details and reaffirmed their significance, focusing on the individual, in most cases a woman, an aspect that had been overlooked in the fiction of many Korean writers who had come before her.

Shin’s breakthrough story, “Where the Harmonium Once Stood,” is a first-person narrative told by a woman who has fallen in love with a married man. When the man proposes that they flee to another country, she is forced to confront the memories of her father bringing home his mistress. Written with heightened lyricism – so much so that Shin kept asking herself as she wrote, “Can I really call this a story?” – the story takes the readers, as all great literature does, to a world where one can arrive at only when one pushes away the text and delves into the depth of human existence.

The novel A Lone Room, which Shin published two years after the second collection, allowed her to make an important leap as a writer. As the novelist Hwang Sok-yong described, the book was a “dual-sided exploration, of both life and writing” – an autobiographical story of a woman’s experience surviving the most difficult period in the course of Korea’s industrialization, and at the same time, a story of a writer painfully confronting the past in order to tell her story.

Shin Kyung-sook was born in Jeongeup, in a remote part of Jeollabuk-do (province), where she grew up and graduated from middle school. At the age of 16, when her family could not afford to send her to high school, she moved with her cousin to Seoul, where her older brother lived. In Seoul in the late 1970s, the drive toward industrialization was at its peak, with rampant labor exploitation and human rights violations taking place under severe working conditions as the Park Chung-hee regime, a dictatorship that had fed on a blind pursuit of growth and development, charged on toward its demise.

“It had been ten years since my first publication and I was desperately caught up in the idea that I would not be able to write anything without confronting this very painful period in my life,” Shin confessed, “Most of the time I am probably the most ardent reader of my own books, but in the case of this novel, it was so painful to write that I did not read it until ten years later when the publisher issued a new edition.”


Journalist Han Yun-jeong and novelist Shin Kyung-sook


The book was followed by a series of novels – The Train Leaves at 7, Violet, Yi Jin and most recently, Take Good Care of Mom – each eagerly awaited and embraced by both critics and readers. All of Shin’s novels, whether they be a coming-of-age story, a romance, or a historical novel, take on a distinctive color, based on a unique style and structure, and a profound depth that only Shin is capable of. Her characters are, in most cases, good, unhurried, contemplative, and non-calculating. Shin seems to believe, despite her early conflicts with family and society, that human nature is based on goodness, that people somehow end up doing wrong rather than intending to do wrong. Perhaps that is why her books are so loved.

Looking back at her 23 years as a writer, she comments, “When I was starting out, I was tense and overly sensitive, too eager to write something unlike what anyone else was writing, whereas after A Lone Room, I have been trying to write out of empathy for the other, to pursue the kind of writing that compensates and embraces, rather than antagonizes.”

More than anything else, Shin Kyung-sook has been faithfully carrying out the role that Korean literature has been asking of her. She has brought real characters, more specifically women, back to fiction, which had been dominated by the grand epic of history and social reality. She has not only created new styles of literature but secured a wide readership that has allowed her to spread this new aesthetic. She was at the forefront of bringing new readers to Korean novels in the 1990s, and now, amidst much talk of a crisis in publishing with Korea emerging as Asia’s new filmmaking capital, Shin remains a strong force in keeping the fiction genre alive.

Her work has been introduced to many readers overseas as well. A Lone Room has been translated into French, Japanese, Chinese, and German, with English and Spanish versions underway; Yi Jin was published in China and is being translated into French; A Deep Sorrow has been translated into Thai; and many of her stories have been collected in various anthologies in a number of countries. Many around the world still associate Korea with war, division, and military dictatorships, but Shin’s books have a more universal appeal that can speak to a wider readership. As was the case with Korean readers who first encountered her stories in the early years of her career, readers overseas will experience the same pleasure and a sense of self-recognition in her books.

We may wonder, at this point, what Shin’s life is like. She says, “Writing things down has always been a natural habit for me since I was young.” And to keep her well of stories from going dry, she always wakes up in the early hours of the dawn. In the tranquil hours while the rest of the world sleeps, she contemplates about herself and others, and quietly starts writing. Shin says, “If I could be born again, I would like to do the kind of work that uses the body more, like making sculpture with a hammer and chisel or building a desk with a saw or even dancing. But for now, in this life, I love myself as a writer.”

Writing fiction, for Shin, is dreaming, her most powerful weapon against life’s transience. Her dream as a writer is “to write a book so beautiful that there isn’t a single sentence you can throw out, from the first to the last.” It would not matter if it were in fiction or another genre. She will continue to write until she has written that book.


By Han Yun-jeong