By Neha Kirpal
The first sentence of Kyung-sook Shin’s book Violets is, “A little girl.” It is the best-selling South Korean author’s characteristic way to draw attention to what readers may otherwise overlook, and to set the tone for a mesmerising novel about urban loneliness, misogyny and rejection.
“If we don’t look carefully at this little girl who has nothing special about herself, we would pass by her without realising her existence around us just as we do with violets. I thought all of us are alter egos of the ‘little girl’ in this novel. I was also inspired by the dream, love and desire that lie inside contemporary women,” Shin tells eShe.
One of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists with 17 books to her credit, Shin writes that her inspiration behind writing Violets was to “amplify the voices of those women whom no one could hear unless one was listening very carefully, to let them speak through my words.”
Shin’s first book to be translated to English, Please Look After Mom, won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012, making Shin the first South Korean and first woman to win the coveted literary award.
Published in India by Hachette this year and translated by Anton Hur, Violets is set in rural Korea in the 1970s, a period in South Korean history that was marked by two parallel trajectories of greater participation of women in the workforce but also more exploitation and sexual harassment of women workers who often occupied lower rungs in factories and workplaces.
The book follows the life of San, beginning with her birth as “an uncelebrated girl”, to later finding connection with another young girl Namae: “two nothing-girls”. But Namae’s rejection of her friendship haunts San in her adult life as well, and follows her as she moves to Seoul in the 1990s: “Through the years that loneliness took root inside her, and whenever she tried to approach anyone, it screamed, get away, get away.”
Shin’s book represents a time when women and their stories were being systematically discriminated against and silenced. “This is the story of a woman unable to find a place to fit into the world, suddenly swept up into a warped desire for love that eventually breaks her; it is the story of a woman punished by violent men in a cruel city because she is unable to express her confused desire for love and connection, who then disappears into the dark,” she writes in the book’s afterword. To experience San’s journey, Shin herself worked on a farm for six months.
A winner of several prestigious literary awards including the Manhae Literature Prize, the Dong-in Literature Prize and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, Shin frequently returns to urban loneliness as a theme in her books, something that is quite resonant in contemporary Korean society particularly in big cities like Seoul.
When she writes, she does it as if communicating with each single reader. “We are living in a world where social media tricks us to believe that our lives are connected to everything. On the contrary, however, we seem to be lonelier and more isolated,” she says.
Often times, she says that she feels that “living in a metropolitan city is like a journey in search of someone, the only person who thoroughly empathises with you.” She hopes that her novels stand as “someone, the only one” to communicate with those who are lonely and alone.
Some of the other themes that run through her books are sympathy and restoration. “They reveal the inside of devastated individuals due to their own tragic histories,” says Shin who has been working on restoring “shattered and lost things” using her language.
“We are still living in a world where we face discrimination, violence and solitude, but we always believe and say that humans are beautiful regardless,” the 59-year-old author says.
Along with Kim In-suk and Gong Ji-young, Shin is one of a group of female writers from the so-called 386 Generation, which refers to the generation of South Koreans who attended colleges or universities in the 1980s and were in their thirties when the term was coined in the late 1990s.
The 386 Generation led the democratisation movement of the 1980s in South Korea and were keenly interested in feminism and civic awareness. During the 1990s, a number of female Korean writers emerged in the literary scene to present new writing styles from diverse points of view. “It seems that they still have an influence on Korean literature,” adds Shin.
Shin finds her literary inspirations from both the sorrow and beauty of humanity. Her favourite Korean writers include Oh Jung-hee and Park Wan-suh, and among international writers, she looks up to Jhumpa Lahiri, Marguerite Duras, Philip Roth and Patrick Modiano. “Without the joy of reading their books, I would have felt lonely in my life,” she admits.
Shin is presently working on a novel about a labourer who goes to work early one morning but never returns home.
Lead image: Jun-yeon Kim