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Korean Lit. Starter Pack



I know, I know – it has been ages. To be fair a few things have happened since I got home from Seoul. I have been meaning to make this post for a long time, but I felt like I didn’t have a large enough sample to write about. I wanted to be able to have a little of everything so that there is a chance for everyone to find something they might love. I have a much, much longer list of Korean literature on Goodreads (the books in this post are some of the ones I own so that I wouldn’t have to steal pictures). This list includes poetry, historical fiction, regular fiction, mysteries (of a sort), and a memoir.

Poetry:

A Letter Not Sent by Jeong Ho-Seung (부치지 않은 편지 – 정호승)

This collection of poems was created from Jeong Ho-Seung’s 40-year body of work. Each poem is in both Korean and English. While I am usually not a huge poetry lover there were many poems in this collection that I really loved and still sometimes think about. Jeong is one of Korea’s most famous poets, so if you are trying to get a glimpse into that sphere of poetry this book is a good place to start.

Love is the Pain of Feverish Flowers by Kwon Cheonhak (사랑은 꽃몸살 – 권천학)

Another collection of poems in both Korean and English, this small book of poetry is very different than that of Jeong Ho-Seung. In my opinion, the translations in this collection stay truer to the feelings transmitted by the Korean originals.

Memoir:

The White Book by Han Kang (흰 – 한강)

In “The White Book” Han Kang (who wrote another book on this list as well as the very excellent book “The Vegetarian”) writes a book that is a mix between novel and memoir. It is centered around the color white and touches on many different themes. As I was reading, I was reminded of Rupi Kaur’s “Milk and Honey” in the way it was written as well as the subject of many of the chapters (I use chapter very loosely).

Historical Fiction:

The Guest by Hwang Sok-yong (손님 – 황석영)

“The Guest” centers around a massacre that occurred in North Korea during the Korean War. The book is about a minister who returns to his hometown, the place of the massacre, and confronts the reality of his brother’s role in the massacre as well as the spirits of those who were killed.

Human Acts by Han Kang (소년이 온다 – 한강)

In “Human Acts,” Han Kang tells the story of the Gwangju Uprising through the experiences of several different people who all knew a young boy who was killed. This is the first book that ever made me cry, it really is that good and that hard. It is a devastating book about the realities of oppression and the realities of dealing with trauma.

Mysteries:

The Hole by Pyun Hye-young (홀 – 편혜영)

This book starts off seeming very much like “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in that the main character, Ogi, has a stroke and seems to be unable to communicate with anyone. His mother-in-law comes to take care of him and starts to dig large holes in the garden that his wife loved.

Son of Man by Yi Mun-yol (사람의 아들 – 이문열)

Half murder mystery half exploration of an alternate Christ, “Son of Man” travels two parallel narratives as the detective tries to uncover the murderer. “Son of Man” is not really for the casual reader as it goes very deep into theology and the origins of Jesus. Side note, Yi Mun-yol is a very famous Korean author and his other works are also excellent.

Fiction:

Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-yong (바리데기 – 황석영)

A story about a young woman’s escape from North Korea and her subsequent trials in China and the UK, Princess Bari discusses pain and the desire to find a better life and love whenever possible. This book is also a hard read as some of the things that happen to Bari in her journey in and away from North Korea are part of a very real reality for North Korean refugees.

The Book of Masks by Hwang Sun-won (탈: 황순원 단편집 – 황순원)

This book is a collection of short stories about Korean life today. Honestly, I think that this book is an excellent example of the Korean style of literature – a little dark, a little depressing, and a bit heavy.

Miracle on Cherry Hill by Hwang Sun-mi (뒤뜰에 골칫거리가 산다 – 황선미)

“Miracle on Cherry Hill” is by far the most uplifting book on this list. It is a very nice story about an old man and his house on top of a hill. His life is continually invaded by others as they use his property for a variety of things, and he grows to accept these small intrusions into his life.

Many of the authors on this list have other excellent works that I have read which I would also recommend. There are many more works that I have read and thoroughly enjoyed. I am enjoying exploring Korean literature and I am trying to read more classics and reading whatever translations I can get my hands on.

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