In preparation for my stay at the Toji Cultural Center, I dove into the diverse world of Korean literature in translation.
I already read and loved the novels by Han Kang (1970), especially her International Booker Prize winning The Vegetarian, a speculative take on the role of wives in contemporary society. But The White Book (comparable in beauty and depth to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets) and Human Acts (on the deadly student uprising in Gwangju in 1980) are terrific, too. I have yet to read her latest Greek Lessons, which promises to be a love letter to language (!).
Recently, I adored listening to Please Look After Mother by Kyung Sook Shin (1963), a story told by the family members of a woman whose mind slowly slips away until she disappears physically and starts to show up spectrally. The book gives you an idea of the changing values in Korean society through multiple perspectives.
I also recommend In Order to Live: a North-Korean girl’s journey to freedom by Yeonmi Park (1993), a devastating read and highly insightful on what it means to live with extreme hunger under a reign of fear.
I enjoyed the excellent Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-Jin (1983), told from the perspective of a good-natured mother who has difficulty accepting her daughter’s unconventional choices and makes a much-needed and believable transformation.
Kwon Ji Ye
Sharing the Toji residency with me was the award-winning author Kwon Ji Ye, whose work has been translated into French and Japanese, but not yet into English, except for one short story. She let me read “The Last Piece,” translated by Anton Hur. The story starts quietly and appears to be about a menopausal woman suffering from a mean husband, rude stepdaughter, and a bunch of sinister cats. Yet good literature is like life in Korea: Nothing is as you expect it to be. The unnamed protagonist is haunted by repressed memories, and the inhibition to mourn her loss will drive her to a desperate act.
Last but not least, I want to highly recommend The Age of Doubt, a recently released collection of early stories by Pak Kyongni (1926-2008), the founder of the residency. She wrote these stories in the years following the Korean War and through decades of martial law. I’ve written a full review (yet to be published), but let me say this: Pak strikingly reveals the inner lives of women struggling as much with the scarcities and cruelties of the postwar era as with society’s restraints on whom they are allowed to love. Pak is also a master of metaphors.
More fiction recommendations? Read my words on:
- Sidle Creek by Jolene McIlwain
- Chouette by Claire Oshetsky
- End of the World House by Adrienne Celt
- This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
- Let Our Bodies Be Returned to Us by Lynn Mundell
- The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman