By: Dohyeon Kim
A good book is a window into the lives of others. By reading books, we are able to understand and empathize with people across cultures and nationalities. The more diverse our book choices are, the more open-hearted we can be.
But sadly, in the status quo, foreign literature makes up only two to three percent of English publishers’ output. In other words, Anglophone readers read very few books from other languages. In order to encourage the publishers to translate more widely, it is important that people read many authentic works by foreign-language authors.
So I’m sharing with you some must-read books by Korea’s most beloved authors. I’ve read all of these books myself, and I absolutely loved them. I hope my recommendations will help you discover the beauty of Korean literature and expand your reading horizons.
Human Acts (Han Kang)
Han Kang, with her novel The Vegetarian, won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for fiction. Her another novel “Human Acts” is based on the 1980 Gwangju uprising, which is one of the most tragic moments of Korean modern and contemporary history. After a military coup took place and martial law was imposed, citizens in Gwangju started a protest calling for democratization. A brutal military crackdown followed. The soldiers clubbed, bayoneted, and fired on its own citizens, which left hundreds of people dead or missing. “Human Acts” revolves around the story of 6 victims and survivors of the massacre—a teenage boy named Dong-ho, a university student, a factory girl, an editor who tries to avoid censorship etc. Han Kang focuses on describing the individual identities and lives of these ordinary, yet brave people. It feels as if these characters are our own families and friends, which makes this novel even more heartrending. What’s interesting is the author’s personal connection to the uprising. In the final section of the novel, we find out that Han Kang had lived in Dong-ho’s house before him and moved from Gwangju just before the uprising happened. By accounting for what happened in Gwangju in an unflinching attitude, “Human Acts” constantly questions what humanity is. Is cruelty an innate part of human nature? What makes humans good and what makes them evil? Is the human soul indestructible even under extreme violence? By reading “Human Acts,” you’ll be given a chance to think about these questions that we should definitely not shy away from.
Quote: “After you died I could not hold a funeral, and so my life became a funeral.”
Please Look After Mother (Shin Kyung-sook)
“Please Look After Mother,” since it was first published in 2008, was sold over a million copies in Korea alone. The book is about a family’s desperate search to find sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo after she is lost in a bustling subway station. So-nyo has always worked hard to take care of her four children and her cheating, alcoholic husband who often yells at her. As she gets older, she suffers severe headaches and dementia, but the family members simply dismiss her symptoms as forgetfulness. Her daughters and sons who have moved to Seoul, the capital city of Korea, are too busy supporting their own families, which makes So-nyo even more lonely. Only after she disappears do the family members gather and spend time together, recounting their memories about So-nyo. In the process, they painfully realize that they have been indifferent to her pain and sacrifice. They learn that they have always treated So-nyo as a wife and a mother, rather than a woman who once had dreams of her own. “Please Look After Mother” reminds us that we might not actually know the person whom we think we know so well about. Through her novel, the author seems to tell us that family love is not a given. In order to retain family love, you need to put in your time and effort to express gratitude and actually care for your family.
Quote: “Only after Mom went missing did you realize that her stories were piled inside you, in endless stacks.”
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (Cho Nam-joo)
Although “Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982” is a debut novel by Cho Nam-Joo, it garnered a huge attention as soon as it was published in 2016. A big part of the reason why it became so popular is because the year 2016 marked the “feminism reboot” in South Korea. When a woman was murdered in Gangnam by a man with a misogynistic perspective, women in Korea started to speak up about violence against women and rampant sexism. Then came out this novel, which features the main character Kim Jiyoung and her strife against everyday sexism. Kim Jiyoung is an ordinary woman born in a typical middle-class family now in her mid-30s. In fact, Jiyoung was the most common name for Korean baby girls born in the early 1980s. The author has intentionally set the main character this way in order to emphasize the universality of Kim Jiyoung’s experiences. This book traces every moment of Jiyoung’s life: her nurturing, school years, college, entering the workforce, getting married, and becoming a mother. Living in a patriarchal society, Jiyoung faces barriers in front of her in every step of her life. The novel deals with issues including gender pay gap, sexual harassment, victim blaming, assigned gender roles etc. As you might have guessed from the title, this book is written in a simple, stark reportage style. The overall tone is extremely restrained and clinical, but the reality that it portrays is absolutely heartbreaking. While some of the injustices covered in the book are only understandable in the context of Korea, I’m pretty sure there are many parts that resonate with your own society as well.
Quote: “Jiyoung grew up being told to be cautious, to dress conservatively, to be “ladylike.” That it’s your job to avoid dangerous places, times of day and people. It’s your fault for not noticing and not avoiding.”
Who Ate Up All the Shinga? (Park Wan-suh)
Park Wan-suh, although she passed away 9 years ago, still remains as one of the most revered authors in Korea. In her childhood and youth, she experienced the Japanese colonization of Korea and the Korean war firsthand. Having spent her formative years during the most turbulent periods of Korean modern history, Park Wan-suh has published many novels based on her experiences. “Who Ate Up All the Shinga?” is one of them. This autobiographical novel elaborately portrays her early life immersed in the beautiful nature of Bak-jeok-gol, a small countryside village. Then the novel chronicles her life as Park moves to Seoul and spends her youth in the city, devastated and ruined due to war. Although the novel is set in the times of war, ideology and the struggles for power is not the main focus. Rather, Park concentrates on more personal stories and daily episodes: the games that she played with her childhood friends, the friendly relationship between her mother and her aunts, the shamanic rituals that provoked her curiosity, the insecurities that she felt after moving to Seoul etc. By reading the book, you can easily grasp the lives of Koreans from the 1930s to 1950s. In addition, the vivid imagery and exquisite expressions that Park Wan-suh uses is unrivaled by any other authors. That is why this book is so beautiful despite the heavy topic it discusses.
Quote: “And to come upon a slander, sensuous squash, lying under lush, dew-laden leaves early in the morning, before the heat spread—ah, sheer rapture. The expression likening an ugly woman to a squash? Obviously, an invention of ignorant urbanities.”