Updated: Say Charles, Where Should I Start in Korean Literature?

Waxen Wings

UPDATE: An exciting new collection has been published – it’s the Asia Publishers collection of 15 novellas, and they can be purchased individually or as a collection. They are bilingual and include an author biography as well as a bit of Korean critical response to each story. Like their spiritual predecessor the Portable Library of Korean Fiction, they are a GREAT place to start in Korean literature.

The newest must read book is Krys Lee’s Drifting House  – it is an awesome and sometimes horrific collection of short stories.

Also, along the female-literature lines, Questioning Minds, recently released by Hawaii Press and a good historical outline of the fiction women wrote and the situations they found themselves in in the last century or so in Korea.

Now, back to the original post ——–>

What you should read really depends on what you like. Here’s the bulleted version, with more details on some of the works (links lead to Amazon pages, not my reviews) below:

There’s more.. tons of it, and if you browse through the reviews available through the “Reviews” tab at the top of this page, you can check some of it out. If you have any specific comment, questions, or recommendations, feel free to email me here!

———THE MORE—————


There is one book that is the essential starting point if you want to get into Korean Literature easily:

Waxen Wings: The Acta Korean Anthology of Short Fiction from Korea, edited by Bruce Fulton, is a breakthrough in the translation and publishing of Korean short stories into English. It is the first collection of such stories that I have read in which it seemed that the criteria for choosing works included a simple analysis of whether or not the works would be enjoyable an comprehensible to Western readers who have little innate understanding of Korea or her culture. The beauty of choosing such stories is that they will draw readers in and, with sugar and not medicine, introduce them to Korean culture in general.

For more fun reads, and works with comprehensible contents, beginners should generally turn their eyes to fiction written in the last 25 years or so. What to read depends on your interest. Are you interested in literature in general? Do you like Women’s Lit? Looking for Modern literature with a Korean flavor? Do plucky family stories pluck your heartstrings? Do you like novels? Novellas? Short stories? Ever been in a Turkish prison?

A “Representative” Jimoondang Book Cover

If you’re looking for an introduction to the literature in general, one of the most common ways to get a quick, mostly enjoyable, and fairly representative take on Korean modern fiction is to dive into the Portable Library of Korean Fiction (PLKF). In fact, if you are in Korea, you might even have come across some of these slender, novella-sized books characterized by single-color, non-gloss covers with truly bizarre reversed-hangul designs. The PLKF is 26 books of short stories/novellas by authors of classic Korean modern literature including Yi Sang (The Wings), Kim Yu-jeong (The Camellias), Kim Moon-soo (The Chronicle of Manchwidang), and Ch’oe Yun (The Last of Hanako). While some of these works do focus on the “older” issues of modern literature that I have previously mentioned, they are nonetheless quite interesting and a quick way to be introduced to a range of Korean writers and fiction. They are also quite inexpensive; costing between 5,000 and 7,000 won depending on bookstore. As a bonus these books are like Seoul taxis; compact, and if you don’t like the one in front of you there will be another along shortly.

If you are a short story fan and searching for an inclusive anthology, look no farther than Land of Exile, which remains the accessible standard. Recently re-released to include more modern stories, this excellently translated work is a good starting point for a reader interested in understanding the general outlines of Korean post-WWII literature. It is organized chronologically, which helps demonstrate the general lines upon which Korean modern literature has developed and expanded.

Also quite good is Modern Korean Fiction: An Anthology, which covers some of the same territory as Land of Exile, including sharing a story. This sharing is a relatively common problem with translation of Korean literature: Because there are certain canonical fictions in the Korean mind, some stories get translated and re-translated, often with slightly different translations of the titles, which sometimes makes it difficult to determine where the duplications exist. Always be certain to carefully examine table of contents and also be aware that different romanizations of author’s names can cause confusion.

There are also collections for specific interests. Over half of modern Korean writers are women. At times women have been edited and published quite separately; at times women have been scarcely published at all. But make no mistake, separated or not, female Korean writers pack a punch, while often writing stories that seem more accessible to foreign readers. By combining the traditional concerns of Korean fiction with family and relationship-based themes, female Korean writers often offer up works that are easier to relate to than those of their male counterparts. Perhaps the most a famous collection is

Words of Farewell: Stories by Korean Women Writers, which can be found on Amazon and contains stories written by Sok-Kyong, Chi-Won and Chong-Hui.

Specific female writers to look for include Park Wan-suh and Ch’oe Yun. Park Wan-suh writes stories like Amy Tan might have if half her family had been murdered. And I mean that in a good way. Ch’oe Yun writes often fantastical stories based on historical events.

Just last year Park released, Who Ate Up All The Shinga, which is an excellent mother/daughter semi-autobiographical story set in the time just before the Korean War. Park’s short story collection, Sketch of the Fading Sun is also worth checking out, and contains one of her most famous short stories, During Three Days of Autumn (also known as Three Days in that Autumn and published in the Jimoondang PLKL series). Park has also written Weathered Blossom, the story of a doomed elderly love-affair in a small novella with the Hollym imprint.

A quick note about the Hollym books: The works are chosen carefully, the covers are extraordinary, the bindings tight, the illustrations superb, and each book features the original Korean text as well as a built-in cloth bookmark. If you see one of these, it’s likely to be a good pick-up.

Ch’oe Yun first came to the attention of English readers with the publication of Last of Hanako which was initially published by the PLKL and later added to Land of Exile in its latest edition. The story of youthful friends who are torn apart by circumstance, Last of Hanako depended on a plot twist that might seem obvious to a western reader. But with the 2008 release of the collection, There a Petal Silently Falls Ch’oe stepped firmly into the forefront of international Korean writers. The novella from which the book draws its title is a horrific story of family tragedy (based on real events in Kwangju in 1980) along the traditional plotlines of Korean literature, but Ch’oe invests the story with such surreal tragedy and a hallucinatory writing that the reader is pulled along. Whisper Yet is the slightest work in the book, and The Thirteen Scent Flower is a surreal, happy-yet-sad, story of an unlikely romance enmeshed in the coarse fabric of larger life.

The Red Room

There are other themed collections as well. If you are one of those people who instinctively head towards the sound of sirens, smell of smoke, screams of children or M. Night Shyamalan movies, The Red Room might be just right for you. The red-covered anthology contains three stories that focus on Korean traumas, including the excellent In the Realm of Buddha by Park Wan-suh. This in not particularly cheery stuff and should not be read near sharp objects or gas lines.

Korean literature also abounds with translated novellas and novels, and here it is useful to know the names of a few authors. Who knows, you might be able to drop some of these names and impress people at cocktail parties? Well, Korean cocktail parties, anyway!

Yi Mun-yol is an interesting writer whose work bridges the gap between the more traditional issues of modern Korean fiction and what might be called the cutting edge. Yi’s classic work Our Twisted Hero is a meditation on the uses and misuses of power, which metaphorically explores the Korean political situation of the 1970s and 80s. The Poet tells an even older story of poet Kim Sak-kat who dishonors his grandfather and suffers considerably for it. An Appointment With My Brother is perhaps his most predictable work, telling the story of a family bisected by the Korean War. But Yi is also capable of stunning modern work as his Twofold Song ably demonstrates with its explosive mix of surrealism and love-story. The word in Korean literary circles is that Yi is working on his first new fiction in over a decade, and if that is true, it is a publication to look forward to.

A longish novel, but quite easy to read due to its episodic structure, is Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf. The Dwarf is a tremendously affecting and powerful work of social criticism focusing on the forced redevelopment of Seoul in the 1970s, and the human costs that accompanied it. It combines biting realism with a semi-fractured structure that pulls a reader into the difficult and fragmented era the work describes. Cho combines a kaleidoscopic narrative approach, powerful use of scientific symbols, and a dead-flat and deadeye narrative tone. The Dwarf was enormously popular at its first publication, and its key chapter A Dwarf Launches a Little Ball has been reprinted in Korea 245 times as a short story or novella. A potential reader should be certain to get the complete version of this story, rather than the abridged PLKF version.

Kim Young-ha is a resolutely modern writer whose work features an existential edge. His dreamlike, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, asks questions about art, sex, identity, and death, while speeding through locations in Seoul and overseas. Kim’s deadeye laconic creation of a policeman in Photo Shop Murder (published in the PLKL series in the book Photo Shop Murder) is perfect for anyone who likes the true-crime genre, and as a bonus this book includes the alienated but amusing, What Ever Happened To The Guy In The Elevator? In addition to these, Chi Young-Kim (who translated I Have the Right to Destroy Myself and Lee Dong-ha’s A Toy City) has just translated Kim Young-ha’s latest novel, The Empire of Light (renamed Your Empire is Calling You)

The authors and books mentioned here are only the tip of the translated iceberg, and only intended to be a jumping-off point. I have left out many great authors and great works; I haven’t mentioned Kyung-ran Jo’s Tongue: A Novel, Sok-yong Hwang’s The Guest, the upcoming publication of Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, well.. you get the idea. But once you begin to take a look at modern Korean literature, it becomes your pleasure to track down the rest of it!

PS.. If there is something you feel I missed, or some story or novel you’d like to advocate for? That’s why I have a comment button. 😉

22 thoughts on “Updated: Say Charles, Where Should I Start in Korean Literature?

  1. Perhaps some poems? 🙂 The psychotic poems of Yi Sang were my starting point of appreciating literature as an art rather than a simple act of storytelling.

  2. Also, I would suggest a few more classics from the colonial era, like 꺼삐딴 리 and 운수 좋은 날. Maybe they are already in the short story collection you mentioned.

  3. I like it!

    But these all look like lit fic (literary fiction).

    Now, how about a list of genre fiction (the stuff that really sells!)?

    Mysteries, romance (any Korean bodice-rippers?), science fiction, chick-lit.

    The power categories that fly off the shelves.

    I like and admire lit fic, but it does not sell so well.

    A well-translated book of Korean erotica will likely sell more than a dozen anthologies of poetry put all together.

  4. AAK,

    Poetry, unfortunately, is terra incognito for me, though I bet Yi Sang’s style would actually translate pretty well if it is similar to the er… “dissasociative” style of his fiction. I also like Go Eun’s work, because I think it is universal enough and translates well. Generally though, and I’ve worked on some poetry translations (though all “classic” era), it’s a bastard to translate poetry adequately because of the density of imagery and language-trickery (alliteration, etc) in the source text, compared to the space you have in the target text to try to deal with it. The wordiness of fiction makes it an easier geographical/lexical space to work in.

    LOL.. but mainly, I can’t recommend poetry because I don’t know much about it.^^

    As to “Kapitan Ri,” that’s a great story (It is in the collection “Land of Exile” which is mentioned in this post). in fact I’m writing an article for the Korea Literature Translation Institute about humor in translated Korean fiction, and I think he’s an amusing enough character that he deserves a mention. Thanks for reminding me.

    “A Lucky Day” (Which is in the anthology “Modern Korean Fiction” which is discussed in this post) and “Fire” have been translated in a bunch of collections.. but they are problematic (to me) unless collected with other works, because they are very difficult to take as stories. Don’t get me wrong, they are quite powerful, particularly “A Lucky Day,” but they represent hard slogging for people reading for pleasure.

    I see the success of Korean literature as first coming through popular-lit and then some hard-core folks will venture into the broader areas.. Sort of how hallyu, which is pretty much disposable pop and lightweight drama, introduces East Asia to Korean culture. You don’t see a ton of pansori, or dragon-dances winning overseas. ^^

    Thanks for your dropping by with those suggestions!

  5. Charles,

    You put your finger on the exact problem of genre (remember, I’m working on that conference presentation^^) between the cultures: The mismatches are big. The ones I can respond to a little are:

    Romance: TOTALLY different in the Korean version, when it exists at all. If any bodice is getting ripped, it is likely in the process of a rape – the rest of the fiction is either matter–of-fact (particularly the colonial and pundan) or too chaste to really sell in the west.

    Science Fiction: Pretty rare and when it is written, seems derivative or to be covering territory previously covered in the West. This last point is because the genre is still in development. Gord Sellars has a series of great articles on this at his blog, To see all of Gord’s brilliant analysis of Korean Science Fiction, go here and scroll down to the bottom of the page, where he has linked all of his posts on the subject

    and I put my theories out there: http://www.ktlit.com/?p=349

    And in that second post is a link to a web-page featuring translated Korean science fiction, if you’re interested. I started, but then lost interest in most of it:

    Mysteries: I really haven’t seen any – in all of these cases the ‘national’ nature of Korean literature works against it, as it narrows topics and approaches down. Still, there is one good mystery/horror story in the recent “Waxen Wings” called “Corpses” by Pyeon Hye-yeong, and I’m blanking on an excellent horror-ish story about dogs!!

    Chick-lit: May be coming down the pipe. The stupid “Sex and the City” was a massive hit here and did result in a wave of Korean chick-lit. But my understanding (a Korean colleague at Dongguk is studying this and presented some findings in New Zealand last year) is that it is extremely imitative and does not venture far enough into the romantic arena (see above) to translate well for Western readers who expect a large dose of slap and tickle.

    The national history, as well as the generational sexual and neo-confucian (for whatever that means) structure of society has resulted in quite a different set of genres in Korea.

    This is, of course, less and less true, and I would expect the next generation of Korean writers (for better or worse – there is some scathing criticism of Kim Young-ha and Shin Kyung-sook domestically, precisely because they non-traditional) to be more “in line” with the fiction of the rest of the world. That “Harukami” type of author is out there, somewhere, pecking away. We may just not know who it is, yet.

  6. > Do you like novels? Novellas? Short stories? Ever been in a Turkish prison?

    Hey now, what are you insinuating there? ಠ_ಠ

  7. Pingback: Gina Choe» Blog Archive » Intro to Korean Literature in Translation

  8. I’ve been dying to get my hands on a translated version of Gong Ji-young’s Maundy Thursday/Our Happy Time. I’ve searched all over the internet for a copy but to no avail. Do you by chance know if the novel was actually translated into English? I know it was a bestselling and was turned into a film so I thought the chances would be high. Any ideas how I can find myself a copy?

    Much appreciated!

  9. Jessica,

    Bruce Fulton and I translated Gong Ji-yong’s Our Happy Time, but the American agent refuses to use it.

  10. I hope to speak to you and Bruce about this before you head back to the States. This kind of thing was something I was only vaguely of before the LTI Korea conference.

    Thanks for dropping by. You class the joint up.^^

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  12. I have a comment regarding chick lit. I’ve read only one Korean “chick-lit” novel. It reminded me quite a bit of the drama(?) “The Coffee Prince.” There is an intrepid, puy-upon heroine who runs her father’s dry cleaning shop after he dies. Her family is ashamed to see her because she has suffered so much for their sakes, and her relationship with her mother has deterioriated to the point the heroine calls her own mother “신여사.” I would just translate that as “Mrs. Shin,” but “Lady Sin” is maybe closer to the original. A rich man falls in love with her, and…well. In fact, I think there are parts of this novel a western reader would consider odd. However, there are large tracts of America that are socially conservative, and certainly unhappy with the depiction of sex in the mainstream American media. In fact, I would venture that 30% of America is socially conservative. My mother tends to read children’s novels rather than “adult” novels for the reason that she considers the content offensive. That is why Christian publishing houses enjoy such success. In other words, it is the _Sleepless in Seattle_ like clean fun of this novel along with its madcap fun that may appeal to a minority audience…yes, a minority audience, not a small audience.

  13. Also, I really wanted to express my thanks to Charles for recommending the _Waxen Wings_ anthology. I doubt I would have known about it except for the reviews he wrote on Amazon. The quality of the translation of the stories I have read is just wonderful. I hope it enjoys a broad readership.

  14. Carrie raises 2 interesting points.

    1 — the chick lit book that she read sounds like a chick lit that could be translated.

    2 — the issue of Christian lit. Given all the fervent Protestants in ROK, is there much Christian lit in ROK?

  15. I also would repeat, in light of the large commercial and critical success of this new book


    that it seems really weird that there is seemingly no ROK lit about the DPRK.

    If literature is about conflict, DPRK represents a vast possibility of conflicts, and in every genre.

    If apartheid in South Africa, and the GULag in the USSR spawned a wealth of literature, it seems really strange that an even more extreme situation in DPRK has no interest in ROK.

    It certainly has interest elsewhere.

  16. Dear Kieran,

    Watch this space because the new Asia Publishers and Dalkey/LTI Korea publications are going to completely rewrite what is essential for fans of Korean literature.^^

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  19. Please i’ve been looking for english translation of “HARU” by Kwon Da Yeong and ” the leavinf heat” by Kim Mi Kyung.

    Any help please.

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