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South Korean woman wins Man Asian Literary Prize

By Peter Shadbolt, CNN
updated 4:40 AM EDT, Sat March 17, 2012
Kyung-sook Shin is the first woman to receive the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize
Kyung-sook Shin is the first woman to receive the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South Korean becomes first woman to win Man Asian Literary Prize
  • Kyung-sook Shin wins $30,000 award for her book "Please Look After Mom"
  • The novel is a bestseller in South Korea, selling 1.93M copies
  • The novel looks at the role of motherhood in a changing society

Hong Kong (CNN) -- A novel about the role of motherhood and the conflict between tradition and modernity in contemporary South Korea has won the Man Asian Literary Prize for author Kyung-sook Shin, marking the first time a woman has won the prestigious literary award.

Shin, who received the US$30,000 award in Hong Kong on Thursday, said her novel "Please Look After Mom" was a work that was more than 30 years in gestation and one she could only approach after writing seven novels and six short stories.

"I had wanted to write this book since I was 16 years old," she told CNN. "It took me so long to write it because my concept of 'mother' changed so much over all those years.

"I had to think long and hard about my own mother in that time and I found that thinking about your own mother is really thinking about yourself; because you have come from her -- come from her womb -- she is part of who you are."

The novel is already a best-seller in South Korea, selling 1.93M copies, and has been adapted for stage.

The story revolves around the plight of family who embark on the long search for their mother following her mysterious disappearance one afternoon from a crowded Seoul subway station. The search reveals a traumatic family history and taps into the shifting mores of family life in a changing South Korea.

While the novel touches on the Korean War, and the division of North and South Korea is a subject the author feels strongly about, Shin says her books cannot be interpreted in that context.

"I write about humanity and I write about human pain and suffering," she says. "It's not a political story; it's about people suffering and the danger of suffering."

While the novel taps into a unique Korean cultural characteristic known as "han" -- which translates as a profound and abiding sadness -- she says the story of the mother shows another side of "han."

"Han is not so much about sadness as it is about getting back up again from your sadness and Park Son-yo (the protagonist of the novel) best represents this," she says.

Chair of Judges, Razia Iqbal, described the novel as a "sensitive exploration of the inner life of the family with a very dynamic structure."

"The story is surprising in its complexity yet has a beating heart at the center of it," Iqbal said.

Professor David Parker, chair of the board of directors of the Man Asian Literary Prize said "Please Look After Mom" is "a deeply moving, humane and intricately wrought book, at once culturally specific and universal."

"It is a book that will be loved everywhere," he said.

Kyung-sook Shin is the author of numerous works of fiction and is one of South Korea's most widely read and acclaimed novelists.

She has been honored with the Manhae Literature Prize, the Dong-in Literature Prize, and the Yi Sang Literary Prize, as well as France's Prix de l'Inaper├žu. "Please Look After Mom" is her first book to appear in English.

Shin won the prize against strong competition from a shortlist of seven -- the longest shortlist in the prize's five-year history. They included: Jamil Ahmad, Pakistan, "The Wandering Falcon"; Jahnavi Barua, India, "Rebirth"; Rahul Bhattacharya, India, "The Sly Company of People Who Care"; Amitav Ghosh, India, "River of Smoke"; Yan Lianke, China, "Dream of Ding Village" and Banana Yoshimoto, Japan, "The Lake."

Shin said that completing the novel that had been at the back of her mind for so long had given her a sense of release.

"I will be able to write fresh and new things because I have completed this book," she said.

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