Country in Focus: Korea
Ten works of contemporary Korean literature in translation
(From The Booklist Reader. Link to the complete article given below)
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 in 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.
Since Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, even more Korean fiction has made it west. Here are ten titles (linked to their Booklist reviews where available) to expand your reading horizons.
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.”