Last semester, a student of mine gave me a paperback copy of the English translation of Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. It was a very kind gesture, and I appreciated it very much. This whole culture of gifting professors–sometimes before exams, which is a little uncomfortable, but more often after–is rather nice.
I‘ll be honest, though: while some mainstream Korean literature I’ve found enjoyable, a lot of it leaves me kind of cold, for reasons that remind me of things my own students say when I ask them to interpret texts. I find that the standard mode of reading, even among literature students, is one that puzzles me. That is, they tend to want to find a take-home message, and they tend to be satisfied with limiting a reading of a given text to that, as if all literature were essentially, at root, such Aesop fables: Men are untrustworthy. Women should be careful. Korea must be reunified. Power is dangerous.
(This isn’t necessarily all bad, mind: they seem, in fact, very much aware of what some Western students have to learn to recognize: that characters are not people, and cannot be discussed only on the level of plot and who they are. I’ve even seen graduate students back home in North America who’ve gotten themselves caught up in that kind of approach, which is comparably problematic. Korean students grasp at least that in the end fictional constructions differ from the real world; but they also tend to isolate it from the world, and read it in pretty limited modes. There’s a middle ground that readerly peopple seem to grasp, but which comes naturally to neither group generally speaking.)
Of course, what students compelled to read a text do, and what texts themselves are doing, are two different things. The majority of literature majors in Korea are not literature majors but English literature majors, with the emphasis being fundamental. One of the things I learned when I was studying up on the literature onm creativity a few summers back was how important motivation is. One experiment that sticks out in my mind is of a maze that test subjects were asked to solve–the usual type of maze puzzle on paper, where they had to find an exit. Some people found a single, simple exit, and in doing so, completed the puzzle as quickly as possible and declared themselves finished, while others spent some time in the leisurely tracing-out of multiple pathways through the maze.
Why the difference in behaviour? The surprising thing is that it’s not intelligence: it’s motivation. All external conditions being equal, if people are (for whatever reason) intrinsically motivated to learn about something, they tend to actually explore and search for interesting, multiple solutions to problems; when they are extrinsically motivated, on the other hand, they seek to achieve the task-completed state in the simplest, quickest way possible.
This should be familiar to anyone teaching TEFL: the students who actually want (and like) to speak and to learn English keep discussing long after other groups have declared themselves “Finished!” But, I’d suggest, this is also why Korean English literature majors are so often so devoted to the Aesop mode of reading narrative: the “moral of the story” formula is simply the easiest reading to construct for any text in the world. (Even when you need to squint to ignore all the contradictory or complicating evidence in the text.)
But when I read a book like Please Look After Mom, I can’t help but think that maybe this lack of intrinsic motivation to explore literature isn’t the only problem.
After all, the reviews I’ve seen online seem to suggest that the novel, in the end, is all about, well, I’ll let this review say it:
I cant imagine that my mother will be gone. I know she will die but It seems that she is always with me. Afther reading this book I can understand the devotion of mothers. maybe this book is typical and not new to some people. but Mothers cant be new things. mothers are good and Family is the most precious thing in life. These are valuable.
영어로 이책을 읽지는 않았지만, 영어로는 한국어의 표현을 담아낼 수 없다고 생각한다. 어떤 사람들은 자부심이라고 말할지도 모르겠다. 하지만 한국어의 세심한 표현이야말로 이 책을 더 완벽하게 만들었을거라고 생각한다.
Which, you know, sort of seems to come from the TV-melodrama mode of narrative reception. Me, I feel more like some of the other reviewers over on Librarything, whose reactions include words like “wallowing” and “misery” and whose frustration with the book and its tearful guilt-fest became impossible to ignore within the first fifty pages.
Which form of reading is appropriate for a text like Please Look After Mom? That’s the question that I am grappling with now, as, having reached page 80, I feel as if I know exactly how the rest of the book is going to play out. In fact, it’s eerily like the stereotype of Asian-American literature that Minsoo Kang once ranted about in an interview with Jeff Vandermeer:
Does your book have any socially redeeming qualities? If so, what are they?
Minsoo Kang: Breaking the stereotype of the Asian writer writing in the United States. ‘Oh look, he’s Asian and he’s written stories in the experimental-fantastic mode, not on how-my-Asian-mother-drove-me-nuts-until-I-found-out-all-the-terrible-things-she-went-through-in-the-old-country-and-learned-to-be-less-neurotic-about-my-Asian-identity-and-married-a-white-man-because-Asian-men-are-too-uptight. And he writes so fluently in English! I wonder how long he’s been in the country, and I wonder if his spoken English has a strong accent.’
Kang is understandably annoyed by the heavy-handed, deeply-predictable, and annoyingly familiar tropes he satirizes. Another author I know–with Asian heritage, I’ll add–refers to this tendency as the act of “chinking up” one’s fiction: to add those things that make the narrative characteristically and recognizably Asian-American. Kind of like using pentatonic scales when composing the music for the original film score of the cinematic adaptation of one of these books.
(Which, as I consider it, kind of makes me think of the literary representations of Asians in the pulp tradition: the opium dens and the Fu Manchu moustaches and the women who could be divided up between the pure-hearted dutiful (if put-upon) daughters and the… other sort of women.
(This occurs to me because Kang’s criticisms here of mainstream Asian-American fiction–its formulaic qualities and predictability, its dependence on melodrama, its almost-obsessive valorization of the suffering of the parents in the old country, its inherent fixation on one issue (identity) to the exclusion or subjugation of other kinds of plot, story type, and so on–makes me wonder whether Asian-American fiction really isn’t just another form of pulp literature, though one perhaps in part built up out of Asian/Asian-American narrative sensibilities, dressed up in the trappings of “respectable fiction,” but actually straightforwardly a form of pulp complete with its own marketing category. Not that all work by Asian-American authors would fit here, of course… but maybe this would help explain the narrowness of this marketing category.)
In any case, Shin’s novel doesn’t have the stuff about marrying a white man–that, I think, would be somewhat radical and weird in a Korean novel, though doubtless someone has touched upon the theme somewhere–but the rest? It’s all there, in a big way. Whether or not Asian-diasporic fiction has had any influence in Korea, I wouldn’t know, but I can say that the book is in a melodramatic mode that, well, I’ll be frank: it dominates almost to exclusion other popular narrative forms in Korea.
I’m about halfway through Shin’s novel, and even fifty pages ito the book she was already with the tears, and the guilt, and especially the long-winded discussion of mom’s cooking. No, really:
Mom wasn’t used to fish. She didn’t even call fish by their proper names. To Mom, mackerel and pike and scabbard fish were all just fish. But she differentiated between types of beans: kidney beans, soybeans, white beans, black beans. When Mom had fish in her kitchen, she never made sashimi or broiled or braised it, but always salted and steamed it. Even for mackerel or scabbard fish, she made a soy-based sauce with red-pepper flakes, garlic, and pepper and steamed it on a plate over rice that was cooking. Mom never put sashimi in her mouth. When she saw people eating raw fish, she looked at them with a distasteful expression that said, What are they doing? Mom, who had steamed skate from the time she was seventeen years old, wanted to steam octopus, too. Soon the kitchen was filled with the smell of radish and octopus. As you watched Mom steaming octopus in the kitchen, you thought of skate.
Oh, one reflects, I thought of skate.
Wait, what kind of fish is skate? Why would I think of it?
Sure, the next paragraph explains it, but for me, it was a struggle to read on past the specificity of the soy-based sauce with red-pepper flakes and the smell of radish and octopus and the stern distaste for sashimi: all this stuff means very little to me. And this is one paragraph in a series of almost four pages about food, cooking, and Mom. I’m sure it has some kind of resonance for at least some Korean readers–after all, in every conversation course I teach, when I ask students what they want to talk about, they always say, “Food.” I always ask them why they would want to talk about food for an hour. But it’s a Korean thing. Korean people love to talk about food.
(In certain places, like down in Jeonju and Iksan, that’s justified. In Seoul, often I get the feeling people love to talk about food more than they actually love the food itself. But I digress…)
I’ve observed that almost every Korean film features–with a regularity that makes one playfully wonder whether it’s a national film rating requirement–a scene where people eat a meal together. Meals are highly significant, ritualistic scenarios in Korean narrative. Occasionally, they’re even powerful or revealing scenes, such as the meal in the film The Host, where the longing for a missing child is expressed very poignantly.
But more often, we just end up seeing people eat, mostly talking with their mouths full, or we spend five minutes learning that a family is rich or poor, truly Korean or tainted by Western cultural influence, through how such information is indicated in the size of their table, the food they eat, and how they conduct themselves during a meal.
Maybe for Korean audiences, there is some meaning I’m missing.
That’s fine, and I am happy for them. But I get bored, in the same way I get bored reading Ann Tyler or John Updike. I’ve tried. I could joke and say that it’s a lack of rocket launchers, but you know, that’s not really it. I like the work of, say, Kim Young-Ha. It’s not the rocket-launchers I miss, its just a certain sensibility, one that turns to things a little less conventional in order to find the source of the energy, tension, and purpose of the story.
But I don’t think it’s even that that turns me off this book so heartily: rather, it’s that the novel seems to attempt the same kind of emotional manipulation one sees in a Lars von Trier movie, except that it feels to me as if the only way a mother can be humanized in the world of this novel is for her to have been an all-wise, long-suffering (in secret) saint. That is: Mommy needs first to be dehumanized, and then raised up onto a pedestal. So far, this book doesn’t read as being about a family so much as it reads as being about archetypes. We all treat Mom and Dad like shit, and we should feel guilty because they are the long-suffering saints of our society.
Except they aren’t. Korean mothers are like anyone else: some are generally kind and generous, others are genuinely cruel and selfish, and most of them–like most people–occupy a space between those extremes, oscillating toward one or the other as the circumstances of their lives unfold. The kind of hagiography I can feel already overwhelming this story–the flood of guilt and tears, the regretful longing, the love-experienced-as-misery-that-binds-us… all of that is precisely the stuff in Korean culture that gets celebrated and upheld for reasons I cannot fathom, though not-fathoming doesn’t stop me from thinking maybe life would be better for all concerned if misery didn’t have to be the tie that binds.
Which may just be, you know, my struggle with a foreign literary aesthetic, but I think not. The thing is, my it’s hard for me to separate my feelings about the mom in the book who is being valorized, as compared to the people like her whom I encounter out in the world. While the Mom character in the novel is elderly during the present-day action, most of what happens in the novel is in flashbacks, when she is middle-aged, and I know plenty of middle-aged Korean women. Some are lovely people, but the Mom character in this book doesn’t remind me of them very often. She’s the sort of middle-aged woman who chains a dog to the wall of her house using a two-foot long chain. She’s the sort of middle-aged woman who throws temper tantrums like a little kid, and then bitches her children out for not handling her tantrums with infinite patience. Sure, I know the author is going to pull a Joy-Luck-Hitchcockian-Shyamalan twist out at the end, and we’ll realize Mom was all about self-sacrifice and kindness, though the kids never realized or appreciated it.
But there’s something really, really dehumanizing about that. Moms are never simply (even if only occasionally) thoughtless assholes? Moms are never straightforwardly selfish? Gimme a break. That’s tantamount to saying that Moms aren’t human. That, even more than the simplification and the overblown melodrama, really turns me off.
I don’t know whether I’ll actually finish this book. I’m torn between a sense of not caring and being tired of all the food-description, and wondering whether Shin might find a way to make me care about anything that’s going on here. There’s been just enough bait-and-switches so far that I don’t trust the story, but I suppose I can’t totally pan the novel (fairly) if I don’t finish it. But then, life is too short.
All I know is that when I told Miss Jiwaku I was reading the book, and then told her the original Korean language title, her eyes widened a little and she said, “That’s a really popular book here.” She said it as if this would self-evidently explain her shock at the fact I was bothering to read it–because neither she nor I tend to enjoy the kinds of books that end up being ridiculously popular here… books that lend themselves to being read the way one reads Aesop.
(Note: I’m not decrying all Korean literature. There’s some of it I really have enjoyed. But the stuff that seems to get most popular, like in other forms of narrative, always seems to be the stuff that doesn’t interest me. I’m not criticizing those who like it, necessarily. Just sayin’…)