by HAEIN JUNG
The Korean Cultural Center of Los Angeles hosted an intimate evening this past Monday with celebrated South Korean author Kyung-sook Shin, who read excerpts from her latest translated novel, I’ll Be Right There.
Shin, a veteran novelist acclaimed for her best-selling Please Look After Mom, talked about her most recent work, a powerful story steeped in tragedy.
The novel centers around protagonist Jung Yoon, who receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend, whom she hasn’t spoken to in eight years. He calls to inform her that their beloved college professor is dying. This triggers memories of being in their 20s, when they, along with friends Dahn and Miru, bonded over their love of poetry and aspiration to ignite change within their politically turbulent country.
“It’s about human relationships and also about art and how I would want people to form relationships, which is also a topic of the novel,” Shin told the audience of about 50 people.
The novel was inspired by real-life events in South Korea in the 1980s, when the country was rocked daily by confrontations between pro-democracy student demonstrations and riot police armed with tear gas. Shin, who lived through this time period, said she compiled extensive research on young people who died back then for unknown reasons, and would go through a pile of such documents during her writing process each morning.
“It was really painful to read these documents because a lot of young men in their 20s–22-years-olds, 23-year-olds–were going through brilliant youth and bright futures, [and] they died. Many of their names remain, but we still don’t know what happened to them,” the author said. “I wrote this novel to sort of make sure that we don’t forget about them.”
Though real-life events served as inspiration, the author deliberately avoided specifying this time period in the book in order to lend the story a more universal relatability.
“I didn’t want people to think that it’s a story that has already passed, [it’s] in the past and a story that has already been forgotten,” said Shin. “Rather, I wanted people to understand that it’s a story that could happen anywhere, anytime, in any country, now. It was sort of symbolic in that way. For that reason, I didn’t refer to it as the 1980s in South Korea, but everybody knew.”
I’ll Be Right There marks Shin’s seventh novel and her second translated into English. (Sora Kim-Russell is credited as the English translator for I’ll Be Right There.) Her 2011 novel, Please Look After Mom, sold 2 million copies in Korea and became an international hit, topping the New York Times Best Seller List, and was included in Oprah’s “18 Books to Watch for in April 2011.”
Image of Kyung-sook Shin (seated, at far left of photo), via Korea Cultural Center, Los Angeles.