Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Song
“This Korean Woman Reads” is a book review series by Anna Song, who will be writing for the site reviewing books written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Australia and from other parts of the world.
Headlines: A cathartic and well crafted novel to remind us of all that our mothers do.
Mood: Intensely inquisitive about the role of motherhood in women’s lives.
Pair with: Bonds of family – no matter how imperfect that may feel.
I was reading Please Look After Mom on the way to Seoul Station with my Mum. We were in our last days of visiting Korea, and had just farewelled Grandpa – Mum’s dad – at lunch and were heading back to our accommodation in the city. He lives alone at age 90 with cancer and dementia; Mum had come to Korea to care for him and I followed to care for her. He was doing better now; the remedy for his well being had been filial love, and it was time for us to return to our own lives in the Antipodes.
Mum and I sat still and quiet in the train. The goodbyes with him always carried the possibility – however small – that we may never see him again. I felt stifled from the anticipated loss and grief, as if the subway was running out of air, and helpless that I couldn’t come up with any words to comfort Mum. Instead, I was sitting next to her reading. And while reading Please Look after Mom, I broke our silence by tearing up. Audibly.
Mum: (turning to me) Are you crying? (Her eyes added ‘over a book?’)
Me: It’s just…(choking back tears)…it’s just… this story is so sad…
Mum: Of course it’s sad (slight pause – her eyes turn to the book cover). Read the title. Of course, it’s sad.
My Mum’s dry wit (and deadpan delivery) diffused the heaviness we both felt but couldn’t speak of. I crackled into laughter, and she teased me for laughing and crying at the same time.
So then I started telling her what Please Look After Mom was about: an elderly woman from the country suffering from dementia goes missing at Seoul Station. As her grown children search for her, the story of this mother’s life unfolds: each chapter from a different perspective of her daughter, son, husband, and finally, from the missing Mom herself who is named So-nyeo, meaning ‘girl’.
In the following days, as my Mum busied herself packing the luggage or doing the dishes, she caught glimpses of me reading this book and kept asking: so, did they find her?
The author Shin Kyung Sook writes that she left the ending with the hope of Mom being found (according to the ‘author’s reflection’ section at the end of the original Korean version). But, just like my Mum, I was desperate for a happy ending: the grown children who received so much love and sacrifice from their mother finally ‘paying it back’ by finding her, when she goes missing from old age and illness. They had to find her, for it was (surely!) her turn to be cared for. But why were we so invested in this ending? Why did we yearn her to be found?
I saw in Shin’s creation of ‘the mother‘ a picture of motherhood that rendered caring for others as the essence of a woman’s existence. The Mom named ‘girl’ took on extra work to pay for her daughters’ schooling (consequently one daughter becomes a writer) because she was herself illiterate, being deprived of an education. Even though she was
no more than a girl herself when she became a mother, she endured the unequal (and unjust) amounts of labour, humiliation and burden to raise her family well. She did this until she lost her youth, her strength, her health, and her sense of self. As the ‘Mom’ aged and became ill, neither herself nor her family could help to find her missing self.
To me, the disappearance (and the search) of So-nyeo at Seoul Station holds a message: our mothers want their daughters to have a better version of motherhood than they did. For their daughters, our mothers want motherhood not to be a trap but an experience to be treasured for women.
Buy this book as a gift to: a) someone with elderly parents or grandparents; b) someone searching for meaning in motherhood; and c) someone who writes (or wishes to write) great literature as a gift to the illiterate mothers in the world.
Happy belated Mother’s Day. This review is for my mother, named ‘Young-hwa’, meaning ‘swim towards peace’.
Here’s to happy reading,
This Korean woman reads
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