TEN BOOKS TO READ BEFORE VISITING SOUTH KOREA
Preparing for a visit to a foreign country can be overwhelming. Travel blogs and guide books are always useful resources, but fiction and non-fiction can be as helpful in understanding the destination's history and culture, and set a tone for the trip. Let literature to be your guide and read some of these hand-picked selections before you embark on your journey to South Korea.
For travel tips about Seoul, read our post here:
PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM
BY KYUNG-SOOK SHIN
Kyung-sook Shin is one of South Korea's most widely read and acclaimed novelists and first woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 for Please Look After Mom.
The book is about an illiterate peasant woman who goes missing at Seoul station as she comes bags full of kimchi to visit her grown-up children. As the family search for her, they have to ask themselves serious questions about how well they actually knew her. The novel addresses a series of issues from ageing parents to homesickness and coping with the hectic pace of urban life.
You realize that you habitually thought of Mom when something in your life was not going well, because when you thought of her it was as though something got back on track, and you felt re-energized.
BY HAN KANG
The Seoul-based novelist, Han Kang's, book touches on a traumatic legacy of the Gwangju massacre in 1980 in Seoul when students gathered to protest the martial law that had been extended across the country, the closing of universities, the restrictions on press freedom. The government responded by sending in soldiers who opened fire on the crowds. The author skips the event itself and begins her novel with corpses stacked up in a school gymnasium. There are narratives from different characters: we hear from a boy, Dong-ho, his friend's spirit, the mother of a dead boy, an editor trapped under censorship, a torture victim remembering her captivity for political activities, and finally the epilogue is the author's story.
Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species?... To be degraded, slaughtered - is this the essential of humankind, one which history has confirmed as inevitable?
BY MIN JIN LEE
Min Jin Lee is a Korean American writer and her profoundly moving novel, Pachinko, traces the life, joys, and struggles of an immigrant Korean family in Japan.
This extraordinary family saga begins in a small Korean fishing village in 1911, where an older man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. They have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. The book follows four generations from thereon through Japanese occupation, wars, seeking a better life in Japan, and witnessing their home divided into two countries. In every family parents sacrificed for their children, in every family the children were unable to recognize the cost. But through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs they are bound together by deep roots.
Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.
STILL LIFE WITH RICE
by Helie Lee
The author was born in Seoul but grew up and still lives in Los Angeles. In her first novel, Still Life with Rice, she writes in the voice of her grandmother who grew up in a unified but socially repressive Korea.
As a girl, her grandmother had her roles cut out for her: obedient daughter, demure wife, efficient household manager. Born in 1912 into a well-to-do family, she married into an arranged marriage. It is a gripping tale about her hardships during the Japanese occupation and then, the civil war. Her resourcefulness helped her provide for her family running a successful restaurant, a sesame oil business, later an opium business, and becoming skilled in the healing art of Chiryo.
A woman must always be the strong stone, for she is the foundation of a family. However, your husband must never be threatened by your power and will. Let him believe it is his.
WHEN MY NAME WAS KEOKO
BY LINDA SUE PARK
Linda Sue Park is an American author, daughter of Korean immigrants. Her young adult novel narrated by two Korean siblings, Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul, is set during the Japanese occupation. Sun-hee is quiet and reflective whereas Tae-yul is more impulsive. We learn Sun-hee's inner thoughts and feelings from her diary and follow her as she changes from an insecure young girl to a confidante trusted with Tae-yul's motive for volunteering to fight in the war. Tae-Yul, fascinated by airplanes, joined the Japanese youth air corps. When he is sent on a kamikaze mission he intends to sabotage it but through luck alone, he survives and returns home, although his family at first thinks he is dead.
A mistake made with good in your heart is still a mistake, but it is one for which you must forgive yourself.
THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN
BY LISA SEE
Lisa See is a Chinese American author, but her latest novel, published in 2019, highlights the lives of haenyeos – women from the South Korean island of Jeju who support their families by deep-diving for fish, while their husbands stay home taking care of the children
Set over several decades from the 1930s to modern times, the book follows two childhood friends—Young-sook, whose ambition is to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a diver and her best friend, Mi-ja, an orphan who lives with her uncaring aunt and uncle. Her father had been a collaborator for the hated Japanese, and she is forever marked by this association. The two young women remain friends despite misunderstandings until Mi-ja does something unfathomable and unforgivable.
They did this to me. They did that to me. A woman who thinks that way will never overcome her anger. You are not being punished for your anger. You're being punished by your anger.
BY MARY LYNN BRACHT
Mary Lynn Bracht is an American-born author of Korean descent who now lives in London. Her debut novel, White Chrysanthemum, was published in January 2018 and is a story of two sisters born in Japanese-occupied Korea prior to WWII. The novel introduces 16-year-old Hana who, while protecting her little sister Emi, is forcibly taken away by a Japanese soldier to become a “comfort woman” for the Japanese army. They are from a fiercely proud lineage of haenyeo on Japanese-occupied Jeju Island. The narrative moves between Hana’s struggle to survive in the 1940s, and Emi’s struggle with survivor’s guilt as an elderly woman.
Everyone had suffered during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Many had suffered the WWII only to die in the Korean War. But if, like Emi, they had managed to live through both, they forever after carried a burden of helplessness and overwhelming regret.
THE CALLIGRAPHER'S DAUGHTER
BY EUGENIA KIM
Eugenia Kim is a Korean American author who lives in Washington, DC. Her debut novel was inspired by the life of the author’s mother who was born in Korea. The narrator, Najin, is the privileged daughter of a calligrapher from the traditional yangban literati class. She is not named when she is born, because her birth occurs when the Japanese first occupy Korea and she comes to be known by the name of the town of her mother’s birth. Najin’s mother encourages her independent thinking while her father desperately clings to tradition and the dying monarchy that has defined Korean culture for centuries. As the Japanese gain control of Korea, Najin is constantly pulled between tradition and modern thinking.
Without having to confine my dreams to the destiny outlined in one’s name and the expectations bestowed during one’s naming, I was left free to embrace the natural turns of my character and to determine my own future, drawing from the deepest well on unnamed possibilities
BY HAN KANG
Another novel by Han Kang, the Vegetarian, was initially received as very extreme and bizarre in Korea. But in 2016, it became the first Korean-language novel to win the Man Booker International Prize and has since become a cult bestseller. The novel tells the story of Yeong-hye who, haunted by grotesque dreams, first chooses to stop eating meat, then food altogether in an extreme attempt to turn her back on human cruelty and destruction. In a society where vegetarianism is virtually unknown, her choices worry her family so much that they deem her mentally unstable. They try everything from force-feeding to institutionalization. It is a poetic tale of one woman’s attempt to follow her heart in a society wholly unprepared to comprehend an act of individualism, and an allegorical tale about modern day South Korea.
She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure.
THE BIRTH OF KOREAN COOL
BY EUNY HONG
Born in the US , Hong moved with her family to their homeland Korea when she was 12 and grew up in Seoul’s Gangnam district in an era of rapid cultural and economic changes occurring in Korea in the late 80s and early 90s. Her book, The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, is an entertaining look at how the country has become a global leader in education and technology, how a really uncool country became cool, and how a nation that once banned miniskirts, long hair on men, and rock ‘n' roll could come to mass produce boy bands, soap operas, and smart phones.
If Korea were a person, it would be diagnosed as a neurotic, with both an inferiority and a superiority complex.