Ten Works of Contemporary Korean Literature in Translation [in The Booklist Reader]
Despite Maureen Corrigan’s rather nasty NPR review of Korean author Kyung-sook Shin’s 2011 Stateside debut, Please Look After Mom – her phrase “cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction” caused particular affront – Mom became a major bestseller. In a stroke of well-deserved vindication, Shin became the first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize and has been credited with revitalizing the Korean publishing industry when her international critical success and strong sales figures sparked a worldwide interest Korean fiction.
In 2013, Dalkey Archive Press, in partnership with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, began publishing the Library of Korean Literature, intended to present “modern classics of Korean literature in translation, featuring the best Korean authors from the late modern period through the present day.” The collection now has 25 novels and story collections readily available to anglophone readers.
Black Flower by Young-ha Kim, translated by Charles La Shure
Longlisted for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, Black Flower is a fictionalized account of little-known, yet utterly fascinating historical events. In 1905, 1,033 Koreans left the port of Jemulpo (today’s Incheon) on the Ilford, a British merchant ship, and arrived (after two deaths, one birth) in Mexico’s Yucatán as indentured laborers to be parceled out to henequen plantations. The Koreans believed they were escaping the brutal Japanese colonization of their homeland; instead, they were sold into slave-like servitude. Within the Koreans’ experience, Kim (The Republic Is Calling You) also bears witness to local Mexican history, including the abuses of colonial Christianity, the mistreatment of the indigenous Mayans, and the Mexican Revolution, which eventually (surprisingly!) involves a small band of Korean nationals. Kim explains in his ending “Author’s Note” that the genesis of Black Flower is rooted in a second-hand airplane conversation that seemed “too mythical,” and eventually led Kim to Mérida in Mexico’s Yucatán, then Tikal and Antigua in Guatemala, to research this “forgotten historical moment.”
The Boy Who Escaped Paradise by J. M. Lee, translated by Chi-Young Kim
Lee’s silent protagonist sits in a New York City cell, accused of murder and terrorism. His more notable possessions include four fake passports and 19 pages of mathematical formulas written in an unidentifiable language. The nurse in charge interrupts an aggressive FBI interrogation to care for the protagonist’s gunshot wound. Under her ministrations, the suspect will divulge the details a quest that originated in North Korea and lands in North America. He moves through a prison camp, casinos, hotel rooms, action flicks, and international markets – all to fulfill a childhood promise of everlasting care (and love). “There’s magic in this world. And miracles,” Lee (The Investigation) writes. By the end of the book, you’ll believe him.
The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa, translated by Lauren Na
The first book in the manhwa trilogy – which also includes The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven – introduces English readers to two generations of strong women, a beautiful widowed mother and her blossoming teenage daughter, who share their lives in early 20th-century Korea. The series follows the mother, who runs the village tavern and finally finds love with a handsome traveling salesman, and daughter Ewha, who eventually discovers first love. Their dual story is told through intricate, exquisite panels of Kim’s gorgeous black-and-white pencil drawings.
The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun, translated by Sora Kim-Russell
When Oghi wakes from his coma, the world doesn’t align with his last memories. He survived a car accident, but his wife is dead, and he’s completely paralyzed. Oghi is parentless, childless, and 47, with few friends among his colleagues at the university. His widowed mother-in-law is now “his only family and legal guardian.” In his mother-in-law’s care, silently trapped in his damaged body, Oghi loses all control of what happens around, to, and because of him. As he remembers more about the accident, his mother-in-law learns intimate details about her deceased daughter’s life. The facade of their happy union cracks and crumbles, with terrifying results.
Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith
In her follow-up to The Vegetarian, Han drops readers into a mass of deteriorating corpses that came to a gruesome end: the student demonstrators of South Korea’s 1980 Gwangju Uprising. A 15-year-old boy searching for his missing friend enters a school where bodies are being collected and doesn’t leave alive. In the five chapters that follow, using Rashomon-like shifts in perspective, Han bears witness to what happened inside the death-filled building, as well as the decades-long, hellish aftermath for those who managed to get out. A Gwangju native, Had adds her own urgent history in the epilogue, erasing any remotely comforting distance the word “novel” might have provided. Lest readers think these events are specific to this place, this time, these people, Han demonstrates how inhumane human acts are “imprinted in our genetic code,” citing massacres in Nanjing, Bosnia, and “all across the American continent when it was still known as the New World.”
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, translated by Chi-Young Kim, illustrated by Nomoco
At a mere 134 pages, Hen is perfect to read in a single sitting, although the story’s loving spirit is sure to linger. Confined to a tiny space all her life, Sprout decides one day that she will never lay another egg. She’s soon culled from her coop, but survives the “Hole of Death,” even escaping the murderous weasel with the help of a friend. In spite of her initial fear and worry, Sprout is newly empowered on her own. Out in the “vast fields” in which she can roam free, “Sprout stood tall and proud, clucking joyfully.” Then her wildest dream comes true when she finds another animal’s still-warm egg, protecting and nurturing it until Baby arrives to make her world wondrous and tragic, joyful and wrenching, and everything in between. In simple sentences, Hwang creates a multi-layered tale of the most improbable connections that make up a family. An international bestseller with over two million copies sold, Hen arrived in the United States more than a decade after its native South Korean publication. Pair with Hwang’s latest-in-translation, The Dog Who Dared to Dream.
Meeting with My Brother by Yi Mun-yol, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl and Yoosup Chang
“The Korean War displaced and fragmented more than ten million families,” writes Fenkl in his introduction to his (and Chang’s) new translation of Yi’s novella about the first meeting between two adult brothers. Yi, one of Korea’s most prominent literary figures, was victimized by the division of Korea. His father abandoned his mother and five young children to defect to the north in 1950, marking the family as guilty-by-communist-association targets. Yi learned of his father’s fate in the mid-1980s: 30 years in prison camps, a second wife, five more children. Yi expands on his own history through a fictional alter ego who travels from Seoul to the Chinese-North Korean border to meet the eldest North Korean son of his late father. Their shared parentage contrasts sharply with their divergent experiences on either side of the DMZ.
Our Happy Time by Gong Ji-young, translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Yunsu sits on death row, condemned for committing multiple murders. Yujeong lies in a hospital bed after her third suicide attempt. Yunsu confesses to a tragically difficult life in numbered Blue Notes; Yujeong reveals the meaninglessness of her overprivileged existence. On condition of her medical release – and to bypass further psychiatric treatment which has clearly failed her – Yujeong agrees to accompany her maternal Aunt Monica, a nun, on her weekly visits to death row inmates. And so the two souls – both so damaged beyond their youth – meet, share, understand, and slowly begin to heal through a story told in alternating chapters.
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin, translated by Chi-Young Kim
The Korean title of this indelible novel, Omma rul put’ak hae, contains a sense of commanding trust that is missing in its English translation: “I entrust Mommy [to you].” That trust is irreparably splintered when ‘Mom’ disappears after becoming separated from her husband on a busy Seoul Station platform. In four distinct voices, the character of Mom – a rural farmwoman whose “hands could nurture any life” – is reassembled by her eldest daughter, whose books Mom couldn’t read; her eldest son, for whom she could never do enough; her husband, who never slowed down; and finally, Mom herself, as she wanders through memories both strange and familiar. Shin’s breathtaking novel is an acute reminder of how easily a family can fracture, how little we truly know one another, and how desperate need can sometimes overshadow even the deepest love.
Recitation by Bae Suah, translated by Deborah Smith
For Kyung-hee, a self-described “theatre actor specializing in recitation,” the “roving life” proves to be the only antidote to “everything [being] irresolvably vague and depressing.” Traveling through Europe and Asia, she shares experiences and memories with new acquaintances and intimate friends. Wandering without any particular plans, she is often the beneficiary of the kindness of strangers for shelter, companionship, and connection. From the Starbucks logo as a familiar “international ideograph,” to dysfunctional families in which a sibling can choose to disappear literally overnight, to arbiters of culture as varied as Reader’s Digest and Swiss novelist / playwright Max Frisch, Bae explores, examines, and ultimately challenges today’s global (non-) citizen. The author’s unforeseen metamorphosis in the final chapter as a subversively unreliable narrator is an exceptionally adroit achievement.