Korea is a fantastic travel and work destination, and it was our home for 2 years as TEFL teachers. However, before we decided to move there, I had zero general knowledge about Korea. I now realise that Korea is so much more than just the conflict between North and South, and the best way to explore Korea’s complexities is through it’s fantastic literary offerings. So here are my top Korean book recommendations, but be warned, these books will make you think. (Also I love weird fiction, so be prepared to get some off the beaten track recommendations!)
Korean Book Recommendations for the History Nerds
It is mandatory for anyone travelling to Korea to read at least one book about the ongoing situation between North and South Korea. We live in exciting times, as we hope to see the end of the Korean War, that saw the country divided in the 1950’s. If you want to get a little more information than what you hear in the news, I highly recommend choosing one of the many memoirs available from North Korean defectors.
North Korea remains almost completely cut off from the rest of the world to this day, and the country has suffered through famines and hardships under their current dictatorship. It has become easy to mock the people and leadership of the country, both for their devotion to Dear Leader, as well as for the outlandish antics of the dictator himself. What is missing in our laughter and derision, is the seriousness of the suffering of the North Korean people.
As we look forward to hopefully reunifying Korea and once more opening up the country to trade and resources, I believe it’s vital to understand just how hard life has been for common people under the rule of the Kims. The book I recommend for introductory reading on the topic is In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park.
In Order to Live is a harrowing story, following Park’s life and escape from North Korea. It really opened my eyes to the realities of life in the North, and although the book ends on a positive note, it is tough to stomach what Park goes through in order to get her life back. There is mention of sexual assault and abuse, so be aware that this book may be difficult to read. Ultimately though, it is a book about resilience and the triumph of the human spirit, and it is at the top of my Korean book recommendations for history and social justice buffs.
I want to also mention two other books that are sitting in my Kindle library and have had great reviews so far: Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee, and If You Leave Me, by Crystal Hana Kim. Pachinko is a sweeping historical novel starting back in 1911 and spanning four generations. With the main characters moving to Japan, it is another important book for understanding Korean history, as Japan has invaded Korea many times over centuries, and there is still tension between the two countries today.
If You Leave Me deals more directly with the Korean War, and is a heartbreaking love story that turns traditional refugee narratives on their head. This one looks to be a feminist manifesto, dealing with a woman’s search for autonomy in a time where patriarchy was basically law. I’m looking forward to devouring this one soon!
Korean Book Recommendations for Modern Problems
As we deal with the fallout of the devastating UN climate change report, it’s easy to become disillusioned and feel powerless to create any real change. Korean literature, luckily, is an unlikely source of hope and motivation. Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-Yong is one of the most unusual books I have read in ages, and it has stuck with me in the months since I’ve finished it. Set on the outskirts of Seoul in a landfill, the story follows the life of a 14 year old boy who finds himself working with his mother on the landfill to eke out a living.
It is at times an uncomfortable read, as you are forced to confront the wasteful consumption that marks modern life. But it is also a call to action, a call to return to older, kinder ways, and ultimately a call to create change before it is too late. Familiar Things is an absolute triumph, and I definitely recommend putting it on your TBR list, or gifting it to your environmentally minded friends.
“Even now I think maybe my family is just a random collection of people I knew long ago and will never happen upon again, and people I don’t know yet but will meet by chance one day.”
Nowhere To Be Found is an absolute gem of a read by Bae Suah that you can read in an afternoon and ruminate on for weeks. Following the life of a nameless narrator through the drudgery of modern living, Nowhere To Be Found is irreverent and haunting in equal measure. I’m not even sure I completely understand the book, but I do know that it had a profound effect on me for ages afterwards. If you’ve ever felt completely disconnected with life, and found yourself just going through the motions in order to get through, this is the book for you. It is one of the deepest short Korean book recommendations I have, and I promise it won’t disappoint. (Also it’s selling for around a dollar on Kindle at the moment, so it’s the cheapest of my Korean book recommendations!)
Korean Book Recommendations for Feminists
Han Kang is one of the most famous female authors of our time. She is controversial, outspoken, and undeniably feminist in her writing. She won the 2016 International Man Booker Prize for her novel The Vegetarian, which Chris loved and I have yet to delve into. But I want to focus on her more recent novella, The White Book.
The White Book is a meditation on grief and loss, and it focuses on the story of Kang’s sister who died just hours after she was born. Kang lists white things, and ruminates on their meaning in her life, from frost to handkerchiefs, and imagines the life her sister may have lived, and the life she has because of the loss of her sister all those years ago. It is a short read, but again, one that sticks with you far longer.
“Each moment is a leap forwards from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far, and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way.”
The Future Of Silence is a collection of short stories by female Korean authors from the 1970s to the 2010s. I absolutely loved this collection of stories, and as different as they are, they each have an amazing strangeness that makes Korean literature so distinct. Don’t expect any neat endings and satisfying conclusions with this collection. Rather, rejoice in the oddities and be challenged by the unique viewpoints given in the stories.
Expect topics such as family conflict, mental health issues, violence, biracial childhood experience, and all the complexity of modern Korean life. As a lover of weird fiction, these stories made me uncomfortable and disturbed in just the right way. This collection is definitely a must-read, and it will give you insight into Korea, as well as how modern life affects us all.
Quick interject on The Vegetarian from Chris
The Vegetarian was my first dive into Korean book recommendations from my English co-teacher. It was a great but disturbing read about Yeong-hye and told through 3 very differing perspectives at different times in her life. After a bad nightmare Yeong-hye completely renounces the eating of meat, an act which throws her family and her husband into complete disarray. What stood out to me in the book was how the entire issue could have been avoided if her husband and family had been more understanding. But she was treated with extreme cruelty for an act that was seen as dishonouring the family. I felt that it was highlighting the patriarchal and rigid family structures in traditional Korean households.
Korean literature is diverse and beautiful, as much as it is disquieting and uncomfortable. Certainly the Korean book recommendations that I have given here are not easy Summer reads, but they are intense and multilayered, and force us to reflect on ourselves in ways that are not always easy. If moving to Korea was the best decision we ever made, reading Korean literature was the best bookish choice I’ve made in years. Be prepared to be challenged and a little bit shocked, but above all, to find a different perspective on life in one of the most gorgeous places in the world. We’re ending our two year love affair with Korea, but I hope that as you start yours, these Korean book recommendations will help you find that same love for your journey.
“Sometimes I think of myself as a medium for all the light in the world, a strip of cellophane through which everything passes. I’m a proxy for the desires of others. I’m their alter ego, optimized to their desires, getting thinner and thinner, ever more transparent. Everything flies in from out there, passes through me, and flies off in the opposite direction. And I’m untransformed-everything’s the same, I don’t grow, I don’t shrink. I’m the Transparent Man.” -Kim Sagwa, It’s one of those the-more-I’m-in-motion-the-weirder-it-gets-days, and it’s really blowing my mind from The Future of Silence.
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