THAT Question: “What book should I read to begin Korean literature” (and how it can’t be answered)

What?Because I write a website on Korean literature in translation (, people often email me with questions (often questions I am completely unqualified to answer!). But far and away the question that most people ask is, “I’m interested in Korean literature, what book should I read?” Today, the exact question was. “Hey, If you could suggest a book for a total beginner in Korean literature what would it be?!!”

That question was FaceBooked to me this morning by Cami Wii from Algeria, and as usual it stopped me in my tracks. It is a question that would have been hard enough to answer 20 years ago, when the broad outline of Korean fiction was much simpler, but it is a nearly impossible question to answer today. I attempt to explain the problem by turning the question around. What answer could I possibly give if someone asked “I am interested in English literature, what book should I read first?” The question really means, “What is a good introduction to English literature?” Unfortunately, the answer is impossible. In English literature you might like Emily Dickinson, you might like Hemingway, you might like James Joyce, you might like Jane Austen, you might like Anne Rice, Amy Tan, Stephen King, or William Shakespeare, the Bard himself.

The point is that there is no single entry point to any literature. And while it is true that English literature is broader than Korean literature due to its ubiquity and wider range of possible authors (here the Korean prize-system for authors must take substantial blame), the same problems are true for Korean literature. Even when it was ‘simple’ it was complicated..

Twenty years ago, I would have noted that there were a small number of very broad genres of Korean literature, Japanese colonolization, pundan munhak (separation literature). “modern” novels, “new “ novels preceeding them, and novels about the social costs of modernization, and from amongst those categories I would have simply picked the works that I felt were most accessible to non-Korean audiences. As Korea is relatively small, homogenous, mono-cultural, and high-context (everyone knows the same things). For “modern” fiction dealing with the colonial era I’d have chosen Yi Kwangsu’s The Soil and warned the reader that it is a bit melodramatic and full of unlikely coincidences – in fact a literary predecessor to the Korean television dramas that are so popular today. Perhaps I might recommend Yi Sang’s Wings, with the warning that it is experimental and existential. “Do you like humor,” I might ask? Read Ch’ae Man-shik’s Peace Under Heaven. In other words, I would not necessarily focus on “the literature” of Korea, as much as I would focus first on the kind of literature the potential reader would like.

Do you want to understand the effects of the war, or pundan munhak? Read Land of the Banished by Cho Chong-rae. Why? Because not only is it an immaculately constructed novella with characters with strong motivations. Without the slightest knowledge of the Korean Civil War or its causes and effects, one cannot help but be touched by this story of a man attempting to assure the future of his son. And as that story is read, slowly, without even conscious awareness, a large slice of the history and meaning of a country in separation is built in the reader’s mind. Yi Munyol’s An Appointment With my Brother accomplishes a similar task at a later time, slyly slipping a historical and ideological lesson about Korean history into the story of two Korean brothers re-uniting after the 38th parallel has been established.

For the cost of the “miracle on the Han” Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf is a nearly morbidly dark novel about a family utterly collapsing under the pressure of the government’s forced modernization of industry and housing. But again, it is a family story and accessible through that lens. Similar, but in a lighter vein, Yang Gui-Ja’s A Distant and Beautiful Place considers an unofficial kind of economic/social exile engendered by economic success. In an entirely different way Eun Hye-kyung and Park Wan-suh render bleak stories of the cost of ripping out the traditional relationships by which women fit in society and replacing them with a simple commodification.

The previous paragraphs, a clever reader will note, are based on historical eras, which in early Korean modern literature were what constituted ‘genres’ as we might think of them in English terms. And even so, the question “what should I begin with” has to be turned around on the reader to be “what do you like to read?” Only once that is clear can anyone recommend a Korean translation. And then, the recommendee can avoid suggestions that are “too” Korean in the sense that they rely on a shared Koreanness for understanding. Once a reader is engaged with the more universal works of Korean literature he or she then becomes susceptible to “falling down the rabbit hole” of Korean literature. While a Korean might suggest Three Generations (삼대) as a good start to Korean literature, it is in fact a horrible point of entry, as it deals with three generations of a Korean family, each generation intended to stand in for a different historical era and experience that will be opaque to most non-Korean readers. Begin with the accessible and work towards the deeply cultural.

The situation has only become more complicated in the last 20 years as the range of translations, themes, and topics in Korean literature have all vastly expanded. But the essential issue remains the same, as does the essential answer. The questions, “What is the key work for a beginner to understand Korean literature” should only elicit the response, “Like any other literature, there is no one key.”

So, before you ask yourself, someone else, the Wikipedia, or even an article like this, what you should read in translated Korean literature, ask yourself what you like to read, then ask, “where can I find this kind of literature” amongst Korean literary translations. That is a question that can be answered.^^

At the risk of becoming too list-oriented, and cribbed from my website, I suggest the following entry points:

Did you like The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman? Then Han Kang’s Vegetarian will be perfect. It is also perfect if you like uncertain narrators, shocking events, and a certain kind of insane but unassailable logic. To follow this up, Kang has released the surreal and shocking Human Acts, a real and surreal novel about the Gwangju Massacre. It’s available now in the US and UK and is shockingly good.  Both of these books are literary as well as commercial fiction.

Speaking of logic – do you like logical premises expanded so far to their logical conclusions that they explode, taking everyone around with them? Rush out and get most anything by Park Min-gyu. Nonsensical post-modernism?

Like family saga’s? The aforementioned Peace Under Heaven or even, heavens forfend, Three Generations. Like Amy Tan? Get Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin. Crime procedurals? The Investigation or Your Empire is Calling You (also a spy novel).

Particularly in the last two decades the Korean literary scene has exploded to the point that the question, “what should I read” has become an almost meaningless one. Tell me what you like in literature and I will suggest something to your taste.

Poke around on Good Reads and Amazon (follow the trail of “recommendations” at the bottom of each page) and soon enough you’ll find something along the lines you like. The great thing is, that this book will hint at things in Korean culture and history that can pull you along to the next book, and the next book and the next book.

Then, someday, when someone asks you, “Hey, where should I start in Korean literature?” You can answer, “Well, what kind of books do you like?” And a good conversation about the many things Korean literature has to offer can ensue. With that said, of course as I mentioned, I do have a page of what you might read.


Because some people like lists.^^

But do yourself a favor, before you ask what you should read in translation, ask what you already like, and what you might want to explore (since we often read translations precisely because they are different). Then the answers you get can be focused and make sense.