Historically known as the Hermit Kingdom for turning away western envoys, as well as the Land of the Morning Calm for its regal mountain ranges and tranquil valleys, South Korea has become a nation famous for its cutting-edge technology and pop-star mania, and continuously features in news headlines for its tense relations with its neighbour, North Korea. At the end of the Korean war in 1953, South Korea was one of the poorest nations in the world. Its people were starving and its cities were in ruins. Following a succession of civilian governments overtaken by military regimes and autocrats, South Korea’s Sixth Republic has finally established a liberal democracy that has seen its nation flourish. Today, many South Koreans are looking back at their nation’s past to make sense of the world they now find themselves in. The stark differences make the stories we read about this fascinating country all the more appealing.
While researching Korean history for my novel White Chrysanthemum, I was interested in both modern and historical material for the dual timelines. I came across many books that quickly became favourites – fiction and non-fiction. Each of them takes the reader into the South Korean psyche, often exploring the past and the present country. The country has a strong literary tradition, and with increasing interest in the country, translations of Korean works into other languages have given the rest of the world the chance to view it through the eyes and words of its own people.
1. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (2011), translated by Chi-Young Kim
An elderly woman, visiting her family in Seoul, is separated from them on a metro platform. When the train pulls away, her family are mortified to realise she has been left behind. Shin reveals the relationships between the mother, her husband and their life in the countryside, as well as with each of her children as they all search for their missing matriarch. It reveals the lives of young and old, while asking big questions about the bonds of family and the struggles with the passage of time. It was a bestseller in South Korea and won the 2012 Man Asian literary prize.
2. The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong (2005), translated by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West
Hwang’s fascinating life reads like a novel. Born in Chinese Manchuria, his family moved to South Korea at the end of the Korean war. He reluctantly fought for the US in Vietnam, and later became a writer and political activist. He was jailed twice for his political beliefs, all the while writing and publishing novels, short stories, and plays. The Guest tells the story of a preacher visiting his childhood village in North Korea, and powerfully reveals that a massacre historically attributed to American soldiers was in fact perpetrated by Korean Christians from his village.
3. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang (2014), translated by Chi-Young Kim
A quirky book that has been compared to Animal Farm and Charlottes’s Web. It follows a hen forced to lay eggs that will never hatch because they are destined to be sold at market, but she dreams of having a chick of her own. She escapes from her pen and sets out in search of her dream. This story explores notions of freedom, motherhood, diversity and sacrifice, and has been adapted into a successful cartoon film, play, musical and comic book.
4. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim (2007), translated by Chi-Young Kim
This is Kim’s first novel and has been translated into 10 languages. The story follows a man who is both a would-be novelist and “suicide assistant” – a serial killer who stalks potential victims who have nothing to look forward to in life, so that he can offer to facilitate their suicide for a fee. He then writes their stories down in a manuscript he plans to submit anonymously to publishers. We meet his victims as well as those whose paths they cross. Kim’s dark yet beautifully written novel reveals a modern Seoul, full of intriguing characters often tied up in failed love affairs.
5. Songs for Tomorrow: A Collection of Poems 1960-2002 by Ko Un (2008), translated by Brother Anthony, Young-moo Kim and Gary Gach
Ko is South Korea’s most prominent poet. He once studied to become a Buddhist monk, was imprisoned numerous times for his political stances, and while incarcerated wrote the famous Ten Thousand Lives, about every person he had met in his lifetime. He is a force to be reckoned with, both as a proponent of reunification and democracy and as a poet and novelist. This collection covers four decades, revealing the transformations of his style as the focus of his poems evolved. To read his poems is to read South Korean history.
6. No Flower Blooms Without Wavering by Jong-Hwan Do (2016), translated by Brother Anthony and Jina Park
Do is an award-winning poet who is beloved by South Koreans. His poems are noted for their beautiful cadences, enduring images, and encouragement to persevere through difficult times. His most famous poems, many of which are included here, were about his wife, who died soon after their marriage. They evoke feelings of grief, longing, anger and deep sadness, while also describing the beauty found in his natural surroundings.
7. The Great Soul of Siberia: In Search of the Elusive Siberian Tiger by SooYong Park (2015), translated by Jamie Chang
The forests of the Korean peninsula were once known for their prowling tigers, until the forests were stripped for timber during the Japanese occupation, forcing the cats to migrate north. Today, there are no tigers in South Korea, and very few left anywhere. As well as a vivid storyteller, Park is a documentary film-maker and the foremost researcher of the critically endangered Siberian tiger. This book tells the true story of the lives of one family of tigers and their battle to survive in a diminishing ecosystem.
8. The Vegetarian by Han Kang (2015), translated by Deborah Smith
Originally published in South Korea in 2007, The Vegetarian was translated into English in 2015 and went on to win the Man Booker International prize. The protagonist chooses to stop eating meat, considered highly odd behaviour in a country where vegetarianism is virtually unknown. Her unusual behaviour soon catches the attention of her family, who cannot understand her choice and deem her mentally unstable. The lyricism of the prose makes this unusual book come across as a poetic tale of one woman’s attempt to follow her heart in a society wholly unprepared to comprehend an act of individualism.
9. Lost Names by Richard E Kim (1971)
Kim lived through Korea’s colonial period, and this novel is a first-hand account of a boy’s struggle against the ruling Japanese regime. Lost Names refers to the practice of forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese names in an attempt to erase all memory of Korean culture. It is heartbreaking to read about the repression, but the strength of the Korean people is also captured in this captivating story of resilience and ultimate triumph.
10. The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture by Euny Hong (2014)
Born in the US to South Korean parents, Hong moved with her family to their homeland when she was 12. She grew up in Seoul’s Gangnam district and was privy to the rapid cultural and economic changes occurring in the late 80s and early 90s. Hong is a cosmopolitan writer with a sharp wit. Her book is an entertaining look at how the country has wilfully modernised to become the 15th-largest economy in the world. The Hermit Kingdom is no more.
- White Chrysanthemum by Mary Lynn Bracht is published by Chatto & Windus, priced £12.99. It is available from the Guardian Bookshop for £11.04, including free UK p&p.
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