Kyung-sook Shin is the author of the new historical novel The Court Dancer, which takes place in Korea and France. Her other many other books include Please Look After Mom and I'll Be Right There. She is one of South Korea's best-known writers.
Q: How much of The Court Dancer is based on actual historical events, and what did you see as the right balance between the fictional and the historical as you wrote the novel?
A: Though The Court Dancer is a historical novel, I hoped it would be read as a modern one as I wrote it. Regarding fictional events or historical events, I didn’t treat them separately in the novel. I didn’t have to keep a balance between them intentionally because I saw these two types of events are related as one after all.
Q: A review of the book on NPR said, "Identity becomes the central, defining conundrum in The Court Dancer." What role do you see identity playing in The Court Dancer?
A: The name of the court dancer is Yi Jin and this woman leaves her feudal society to live in a modern society. Bright and beautiful, she quickly learns everything and adopts herself to the new environment.
However, once she realizes she has been observed, Yi Jin grows extremely thin, feeling homesick and failing to define her own identity. Finally she returns where she has left, but she cannot solve the problem. After all, it is her identity that drives herself to death.
Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything particularly surprising?
A: The backdrop of this novel is the world more than a hundred years ago. I had to know the situations in Korea, called Joseon at the time and Paris, France in detail. It was because the main character Yi Jin lived in the feudal Joseon and moved to live in modern France.
In order to research the traces of the life of the French diplomat who loved her and took her to his own country, I visited Paris six times.
What I felt about Yi Jin after finishing the research was that her life was thoroughly concealed both in Korea and France. I was able to find little record about her except a short statement. And the absence of her record actually encouraged me to write about her.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My other novel Violet will be published in English as my next book in America. I’ve been also writing a new novel and some short stories. And currently I’m working on stories about yoga, which I’ve been practicing for 15 years. The stories will be about different topics including the feelings I’ve had while practicing yoga, people I met and how it has influenced on my writing.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: As I was preparing answers for these interview questions, I heard of the death of my dear friend who has suffered from cancer. We are all destined to leave this world one day, but I am deeply saddened by the news.
In The Court Dancer I depicted the main character as a woman who tried to reveal the concealed truth by choosing her own death. It was, of course, based on my imagination. I believe we should leave a trace of ourselves in this world by doing what we can do in the most beautiful way. For this, I’ll keep writing as I’m a writer and you’ll keep doing what you’re good at…
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Kyung-sook Shin.