Here are some recommended reads about South Korea that go beyond K-Pop and K-Dramas.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
This epic historical fiction novel starts in 1883 and ends in 1989, spanning more than a hundred years, and focuses on one Korean family at the start of Japan’s annexation of Korea, a move to Japan, living through WWII and the atomic bomb, and the ensuing decades after as displaced Koreans known as the Zainichi.
Released in 2017, the book was a National Book Award Finalist and made the 10 Best Books of the New York Times Book Review. This year, Apple TV is set to release an adaptation, starring Lee Min-ho and 2021’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung.
The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin
Based on a true story, The Court Dancer is set during the waning years of the final Korean empire. A French diplomat falls in love with court dancer Yi Jin and gains permission to take her with him back to Paris.
In Paris during the Belle Époque years, Yi Jin lives an independent life, away from the opulent, gilded cage of her former standing. Yet homesickness gets the better of her, which sets the stage for a dramatic, tragic return to the empire. Luminous characters and a propulsive plot set the stage for a thrilling, unforgettable read.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
Beneath the shiny trappings of the Korea we know and love today are gritty characters that fall by the wayside. In If I Had Your Face, Frances Cha brings these stories to life with four women trying to overcome their disparate lots in life:
Kyuri makes her living at a “room salon” entertaining sleazy businessmen, her roommate Miho is a talented artist in a volatile relationship with a chaebol (a conglomerate heir), their neighbor Ara, once a high school bully now has an impairment and is obsessed with a K-pop idol, and Wonna is trying to have a baby while struggling with expenses. These four resilient women offer a look of survival in a brutal, forward-looking society that doesn’t stop to look behind and slow down.
Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin
French-Korean Elisa Shua Dusapin’s first novel, Winter in Sokcho is set in Sokcho, a tourist town on the South and North Korean border. At a guesthouse, a French-Korean woman works as a receptionist and greets a French cartoonist trying to awaken his creative juices in this cold and brooding landscape.
Striking a strange and uncomfortable friendship, they travel to the snowy, dramatic vistas around them, and make a quick visit to the North, teaching each other parts of their own stories. A story of identity and alienation, the book won the prestigious Prix Robert Walser and is a must-read for anyone wanting to know more about South Korea beyond the flashy lights.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee
This essay collection by Korean-American writer Alexander Chee is a manifesto on life, literature, and politics, and how his family has influenced him. In sixteen essays, he charts the progression of his life, from his different identities of childhood to adulthood, as a student and as a teacher, an observer and writer, a gay man, a Korean-American, an activist, and a man trying to live a fruitful life.
From formative experiences like his father’s death, life in University, the AIDS crisis, all the way to the tumultuous last few years of American history, these interesting, heartbreaking, and wise essays show a man writing at his finest.
Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
Cathy Park Hong was born to Korean immigrants. Growing up in America, she felt burdened by shame, sadness, and the awareness that she was not like everyone else. Later on, she realized these “minor feelings” are not minor: they are what happens when the American dream confronts the reality of a minority growing up with a racial identity that is different from everyone else around you.
In this tension, Hong unlocks the questions that she has always held about her life. Memoir and cultural criticism mix in this radically honest essay collection that explores minority consciousness.
Ghost Flames: Life & Death in a Hidden War, Korea 1950-1953 by Charles J. Hanley
A piece of historical non-fiction like no other, Ghost Flames is an account of the Korean War through the eyes of twenty individuals who lived through the tumult: from a South Korean woman who lost her children, a North Korean refugee, North and South conscripted soldiers, an American nun, a black American POW, a British journalist and more, each story is a harrowing point of view on the realities of war by those who had to survive every day between the grip of warring superpowers in a conflict that until today has not officially ended.