A courtyard with terracotta jars full of soy sauce, red pepper pasta, salt and beans. And then plates and plates of rice and panchan, with kimchi of sesame leaves, braised tofu, sautéed anchovies and algae. Reading Please Look After Mom is like taking a voyage through traditional Korean cooking, which is still one of the more exotic and unfamiliar of the Asian cuisines.
It’s also a novel with extraordinary emotional power, which has made the author, Kyung-Sook Shin, a kind of literary superstar not only in her native country, but a best-selling author in the United States and in many European countries.
And yet, she speaks no English: she looks at me with interest and responds to my questions quickly, in a curious language full of melodic sounds, and often laughs while talking. Of course, I have to wait for the interpreter to answer back before I can share the laugh. Except that when the translation arrives, sometimes I don’t find anything funny about them, so I wonder whether it’s my dumbfounded expression that causes the writer’s mirth. I try not to worry about it, which is easy because Kyung-Sook is so likeable that any doubts quickly disappear from my mind.
As testament to her fame, as soon as she walks into the restaurant where we will have dinner together, out of the kitchen comes a small but emotional procession: a Korean cook and two of his compatriots and co-workers who seem to be overcome with gratitude and excitement at the presence of the author. They bow and smile and bring their hands to their lips and then touch them to their heart.
The book that shot her to worldwide fame is the story of a mother who gets under your skin and stays there, recounted and remembered by her daughter. In her daughter’s memory, her mother is inextricable from the kitchen: kitchen is mother, mother is kitchen.
Many of the novel’s gestures of love pass through food. When her unfaithful husband returns home after month, his wife shows her forgiveness by having him find food ready and waiting. And she shows her preference to her first son over her other children by preparing him exquisite ramen noodles, which her other children can only enjoy if there are any leftovers. For the mother in this book, food has a value that goes well beyond nourishment.
«We Koreans have a very wide cultural approach when it comes to food. For a Korean, before even saying ‘hello’ to a guest, we ask them: ‘have you eaten well?’. It’s actually a way of greeting someone. The first thing you say in the morning is, ‘Did you have a good breakfast?’ and it’s the same as lunch and dinner. It’s a way of expressing our love and gratitude to people we care about».
It doesn’t sound much different than Italy, where family gatherings are most always done around the table. «It’s true!», laughs Kyung-Sook. «Maybe that’s why the Koreans are considered the Italians of Asia!». I feel a bit guilty; the little I know about Korea is tied to negative images: the atomic weapons, the soccer match that eliminated Italy from the World Cup, a terrible war that killed countless civilians.
«Maybe there’s a historical reason why food is so important to us. For many years, during the war, there was desperate famine everywhere. Parents spent their days searching for food, without knowing if they’d find anything to feed their children. And they often lied in front of their kids, saying they had already eaten, so they could give them what little there was».
While she speaks, Kyung-Sook is taking great pleasure in the plate of octopus in front of her. It’s a joy to watch someone eat with so much gusto and appetite in this era of intolerances, allergies, anorexics who are full after a forkful and the body-obsessed.
When we talk about the happiness about eating something delicious, Kyung-Sook says, enthusiastically, «Alone, food makes no sense to me. The deep meaning of food is sharing it with other people. Cooking for someone you care about is a special moment. I often show my characters in the kitchen – and not just women! Even many of my male characters spend time in the kitchen with their partners as a way to show their love». I couldn’t agree more.
I’d like to be friends with this woman, with her contagious smile and energy, but the problem of language seems insurmountable. We decide to give each other names in our own languages, as a sign of intimacy. She calls me “Sine”, which means, she tells me, “torrent”. She then proposes for herself, “Marcella”, but I’m not sure of the etymology of the name, so I suggest “Chiara”, which means “clear, illuminating light”.
One thing is certain: her taught, emotionally dense writing has given me a rare light, illuminating a literary landscape that today can seem too homogenous. Hers is a story of a woman who cooks for love, but who has always been stuck between the walls of her kitchen. «Some days you just can’t take it anymore», she confesses to her daughter one day. «When the kitchen felt like a prison, I went out the back and picked up the most misshapen jar lid and threw it as hard as I could at the wall. Aunt doesn’t know that I did that. If she did, she would say I was crazy, throwing jar lids around. When I went to get the new lid, I thought it was so wasteful and felt terrible, but I couldn’t stop. The sound of the lid breaking was medicine to me. I felt free.» A frustrate housewife, an advice Made in Korea.