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Author:
• Friday, February 24th, 2017

Shin Kyung-Sook was born in 1963 in a village near Jeongeup, north Jeolla Province, in southern South Korea, from humble farmer parents who lacked the financial means to send her to high school. She was the fourth child and eldest daughter of six. At the age of sixteen Shin joined her elder brother in Seoul where she worked at an electronics plant while at the same time attending evening classes.

After graduating as a creative writing major from the Seoul Institute Of Arts, Shin published her first novella “Winter’s Fable” which earned her the 1985 Literary Joongang Newcomer’s Prize.

Shin’s work consists of novels, short stories and non-fiction. She has received several literary prizes and awards and is the most acclaimed writer in South Korea. Please Look After Mother has been translated into several languages and won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. It was originally published in Korean in 2008 and in English in 2011.

Presently Shin divides her timetable between Seoul and New York City, where she teaches as a visiting scholar at Colombia University.

Please Look After Mother starts with the one week missing, sixty-nine-year-old illiterate, hard-working peasant, Park So-nyo, who was with her husband on their way to visit their children in Seoul. She is separated from her husband, who is walking fast, ahead of her as usual, in Seoul’s crowded central railway station. The distracted husband boards the congested train in a hurry while his wife is left behind on the platform.

Park So-nyo’s husband and her four adult children, two sons and two daughters, undertake a thorough search to try to find her. The businessman, Hyong-chol, is the eldest son and the successful novelist, Chi-hon, is the eldest daughter.

Park So-nyo’s disappearance leads to a strange mixed feeling in her family, realising that they didn’t really know her well and took her for granted all these years without showing her any gratitude and without ever devoting time to appreciate the love and sacrifice of this kind, affable and generous woman.

Please Look After Mother, Shin’s sixth novel and her first to be translated into other languages, is a short, powerful and heavily emotional book. It is divided into four chapters plus an epilogue. The first chapter concerns the daughter, Chi-hon and the third chapter belongs to Park So-nyo’s husband. The narration in these two chapters is in the uncommon second-person style which lends the novel a note of personal intimacy as well as a general accusatory tone.

In the second chapter, Hyong-chol, Park So-nyo’s favourite child is the focal point. And by a twist from the author, in the fourth chapter the mother reappears as a ghost – suggesting that she has already passed away – to narrate her side of the story which is the most evocative and lyrical part of the novel.

In the poignant, melodramatic, short epilogue, Shin leads the story through a spiritual path by taking the maternal love and devotion to a higher level, turning it into self-martyrdom worthy of sanctity. The author goes to the extent of comparing Park So-nyo to the virgin Mary in Michael Angelo’s “Pietà” and the novel ends with Chi-hon praying and pleading to the virgin Mary to look after her mother.

Each chapter conveys the thoughts, the feelings, the guilt and remorse of each one of the characters. The different narrations as they unravel gradually, constitute the multifaceted story that forms the full image of the matriarch’s character and illustrates the veracity and inner self of each member of the family.

The reader learns that Park So-nyo is a kind-hearted, tough, resilient and determined, solitary woman who is averse to pity and therefore suffers silently from brain cancer, while her family is too busy ignoring the symptoms of her debilitating, dangerous disease. And although poor and in fragile health, she continues to devote herself to helping the less fortunate than her. She gives assistance and comfort to the destitute Un’gyu, his sick wife and to his newly born baby. She is also a donor and a helper in the local orphanage as well as a devoted, self sacrificing mother and wife.

In Please Look After My Mother, the author tackles an important subject by placing in juxtaposition rural and urban life and their effects on societies by creating an unbalance with the increasing social shift from one to the other : a common preoccupation world-wide, not only in South Korea. Young people from the countryside migrating to the big cities, whether they seek education or work in the hope of a better life. They end up settling in the big city leaving their parents behind and nobody to look after the parents or to take over the agricultural land.

In one of her interviews Shin says about her novel: “We’ve taken it for granted that our mothers are always here beside us and devoted to us. We think they are born to be mothers. But they were once girls and women as we are now. I want to show it through this book. My mother is the energy behind my writings.”

How far back can we remember a human being? And how far does the memory of a mother last? Please Look After Mother is a moving, gloomy story, a hymn and a tribute to maternal love and a contemplation on motherhood. A good insight into Korean culture, values, food, festivals and political changes.

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Author:
• Saturday, April 30th, 2016

Daniyal Mueenuddin was born in 1963 from a Pakistani father and an American mother. His father and mother met in the USA in the late fifties. His mother was working as a reporter for The Washington Post and his father, a Pakistani civil servant, was posted to Washington for the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan brokered by the World Bank.

His parents moved to Pakistan soon after their marriage in 1960. Daniyal was brought up in Lahore where he attended the American School, but at the age of thirteen his parents separated and his mother returned to live in Elroy, Wisconsin and took him and his brother Tamur with her. Daniyal was enrolled in a boarding school in Massachusetts and after four years obtained a degree in English literature.

Daniyal Mueenuddin, after graduating from Dartmouth College and at his aged father’s insistence – his father, now in his late seventies, being a land owner from the old Punjabi feudal system – returned to Pakistan in 1987 in order to live on his father’s land in South Punjab to run the family farm efficiently.

In 1993 he returned to the USA, attended Yale Law School for three years, obtained a degree and worked as a corporate lawyer in a law firm in New York from 1998 to 2001. After resigning, he returned to live in Pakistan, dedicating his time to writing and managing the family farm in Khanpur. He still lives there with his Norwegian wife when he is not in Cairo.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Mueenuddin’s first book published in 2009, has been translated into several languages. It won the Story Prize in 2010, an annual book award for short story collections and he reached the finals for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Best First Book Award and the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is a collection of eight short stories interlaced around a central protagonist, the wealthy landlord K.K. Harouni. It also follows the life of his family, his friends, his entourage and his staff. One of the stories is set in Paris and as for the others, they are mainly set in South Punjab. They originate from the author’s experience as a land owner in this part of Pakistan and many of them were written on the spot. The stories portray colourfully rich characters from the late nineteen seventies and ending just before the new millennium.

The author depicts the privileged life of prosperous Pakistanis, in contrast to their poor peasants, servants, managers and clerks, the lack of job security and government corruption. In each story we invade the intimacy of a master or a subordinate, what the author metaphorically calls: “another room”, in order to discover a new aspect of someone’s life or perhaps even unearth: “another wonder”.

The first story is dedicated to the ambitious Nawabdin, an electrician, handyman and father of thirteen children. He works on the Harouni estate and after begging his employer he obtains his permission to buy a motorcycle which becomes his most priceless acquisition and makes him highly regarded in his entourage. Such a valuable motorcycle enhances his status to such an extent that he will try to save it with his own life from a desperate, destitute thief.

There is also the touching story of Rezak, in A Spoiled Man (the eighth and last story). The indigent peasant, Rezak, has been abandoned and badly treated by his own family. He is a happy-go-lucky hard-working man who, for no fault of his own, is being unfairly tortured and threatened by the corrupt police. This leaves him overwhelmed with sorrow, never to be the same man again and to think that what happened to him was meant for his redemption.

Nawabdin’s story is followed by the story of another servant, Saleema, a young maid working in the Harouni’s household. She is married to a weak and depraved man who takes a few rupees from her everyday to satisfy his addiction to amphetamines, while she sleeps with Hassan the cook in order to obtain favours but ends up falling in love with Rafik, an old married valet from the same household.

In another story, Husna, the poor young secretary, cum companion, cum mistress of the retired civil servant and well-to-do landowner, K.K. Harouni, who lives separated from his estranged wife, is like Saleema, also pinning her hopes on an old man in order to escape poverty and secure herself. The two women’s expectations are unfulfilled and they find themselves once more in the street after their employer dies.

In Provide, Provide, the author, moves one degree higher in rank with K.K. Harouni’s estates manager, the shrewd, Jaglani. He is a devious schemer who manages to sell some of Harouni’s land in Southern Punjab at half price to people around him, earning commissions on each sale and keeping the best pieces of land for himself, convincing Harouni that the price of land has gone down.

In About A Burning Girl, Mian Sarkar, a sessions judge in the Lahore High Court, is another interesting figure in Pakistani society. He has an ambitious, haughty wife and an unpleasant problem with his servant, Khadim, who is accused of having murdered his sister-in-law. Sarkar’s character is humorously illustrated as a well informed detective of trivia: “Everything about the private lives of the judges, and of the staff, down to the lowest sweeper, is to him incidental knowledge. He knows the verdicts of the cases before they have been written, before they even have been conceived”.

The author dedicates his longest story, Lily, to the spoiled, idle rich Pakistani society. His very pretty heroin, Lily, leads a debauched life, partying almost every evening, drinking alcohol, taking drugs and getting what she wants. In order to redeem herself, she marries the wealthy landowner, Murad Talwan, lives with him on his farm, but feels terribly bored because she misses her former life of partying, despite inviting friends to stay over.

In Our Lady In Paris, the author takes us to France’s capital city, Paris. Harouni’s nephew, Sohail, is in love with his Yale university friend, Helen. He introduces Helen to his parents while everybody is on holiday in Paris during the Christmas/New Year holidays to the dismay of his mother, who would have preferred a Pakistani wife for him. Surprisingly, in the last story: A Spoiled Man, Sohail Harouni is married to an American woman he met at University in the U.S.A called Sonya and not Helen. The mystery is unexplained in the novel.

There are several themes that occur throughout the novel, like the feudal system, the array of established social classes and their very different ways of leading their lives: the unfulfilled love, the unhappiness, the corruption, the helplessness of women who more often than not have to resort to sex for survival like: Saleema, Zainab or Husna and the destitution of the poor servants once the master dies. A good insight into the different social strata and its complexities in the modern Pakistan.

The bleakness of the stories, which are beautifully written with a great deal of observed detail, are softened by the author’s compassion for his characters, which can be read between the lines, similar to the shafts of light that pierce the dark gloom and are softened by some well-dispersed humour.