Korean culture is still obscure to many American readers, but the tide is changing. The sudden rise of K-pop music that began with Psy’s mega-hit ‘Gangnam Style’ brought Korean mass culture front and center to nightclubs, house parties, and kindergartens around the world. The new Korean cinema, led by visionary directors like Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, Snowpiercer), Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), and Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Secret Sunshine, Oasis) have been garnering international accolades for more than a decade. In Korean fiction, the critical and commercial successes of Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mom and Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian have not only turned heads, butmade many readers hungry for more stories from contemporary Korea. In Korean poetry, Don Mee Choi’s translations of Kim Hye Soon’s dark, surreal, and politically conscious verses have been received with enthusiasm and admiration in the United States.
For anyone interested in learning more about Korean literature and culture, knowing where to start can be daunting without a guide. The list that follows is what I would recommend to the curious.
THE VEGETARIAN, By Han Kang (RANDOM HOUSE, 2015)
TRANSLATED BY DEBORAH SMITH
The Vegetarian is a cycle of short stories about a house-wife’s awakening, when she chooses to become a vegetarian as a subversive act within the framework of Korea’s patriarchal family life. When the book won last year’s Man Booker International Prize, the reaction in South Korea was unexpected. It wasn’t surprising that, despite being one of Han Kang’s lesser known works, news of the award helped it skyrocket to the top of bestseller lists. What was notable was the media attention directed towards Han Kang’s translator, Deborah Smith. Since Koreans generally think of their literature and language as untranslatable, natively bound artifacts, that Smith’s translation finally led to international recognition of a Korean work of literature took on unprecedented importance. Kang’s work, in Smith’s translation, conveys a sense of dread and perspective on how oppressive cultural norms can become so pervasive, the very act of choosing what to eat becomes a form of resistance.
THE ACCUSATION, By Bandi (GROVE PRESS, 2017)
TRANSLATED BY DEBORAH SMITH
This is probably the only book I will ever recommend without yet having read it. For years, whenever I told my friends in America I was studying Korean literature, they asked me what North Korean literature was like. By North Korean literature, they meant dissident literature, like the works of Anna Akhamatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I’d answered that there was none, or none that we know of, and even if there were, it would be written in secret.
Now, against all odds, a book of dissident North Korean literature has been smuggled out and published. The collection of stories is the work of a North Korean author known only as Bandi, which means firefly in Korean. There will be plenty of time to assess the literary merit of Bandi’s work, I am merely celebrating the fact of its existence, and its promise of insight into a world we only hear about in terms of its nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and labor camps.
The translator Deborah Smith’s essay on translating North Korean, which has grown apart from its South Korean sibling after more than 70 years of division, is also an enlightening read.
THE MEMOIRS OF LADY HYEGYŎNG (UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 1996)
TRANSLATED BY JAHYUN KIM HABOUSH
The original title of The Memoirs of Lady Hyegŏng is Hanjungrok, which loosely translates to “Records Written in Silence.” The book is often considered the first important literary work to be written in native Korean using the hangul alphabet, and gives us a glimpse into court life for Korean women. But Lady Hyegŏng’s recollections go beyond ethnography. Addressed to her son, the newly crowned King Chungjo, at the center of her memoirs is the tragic and horrifying tale of her husband, Prince Sado and his father, King Injong. Without spoiling too much, what begins as an elegant account of courtly life in the late Chosun dynasty turns into the tale of a serial killer, and a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions that involves one of the most absurd methods of execution in Korean history.
JaHyun Kim Haboush, who taught Korean literature and history at Columbia University until she passed away in 2011, has done a masterful job in translating Korean of the old into modern, accessible English, and captures the mournful tone of the original in this faithful rendition.
EASTERN SENTIMENTS, BY YI T’AEJUN (COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2009)
TRANSLATED BY JANET POOLE
Eastern Sentiments is a collection of essays by Yi T’aejun, a great prose stylist, short story writer, and a member of the influential modernist literary group kuinhoe (the Nine), active in Seoul during Japanese colonization in the mid-to-late 1930s. The essays are often very short, rarely longer than a page, and deal with subjects ranging from nature observations to tips on writing. At first the tone may seem lighthearted, but the collection’s lyricism and kaleidoscopic depth build to become an elegy for the kind of writing Yi T’aejun felt was at risk of disappearing or being destroyed: the newly developed Korean modernist style that accommodated both allusions to classical East Asian learning and the vernacular Korean.
During the Japanese Colonial era, just as many Korean writers and poets began to find their voices, Imperial Japan’s fascist regime attempted to silence them. Most of Yi T’aejun’s closest friends and acquaintances were jailed, tortured, killed, or gave up writing altogether. Later, those who survived would either disappear or meet an untimely end in North Korea. Thankfully, words are stubborn things, and Yi T’aejun’s writings, collected here, give us a taste of early Korean modernism. Janet Poole’s translation is elegant, and brings into English the style of Korean writing that dynamically combines the influences of ancient East Asian texts and modern Western philosophy and culture. Poole’s introduction also provides excellent context for Yi T’aejun’s life and time, giving us a fascinating comparative look at modernist Korean intellectuals and their contemporaries in Europe.
VASELINE BUDDHA, BY JUNG YOUNG MOON (DEEP VELLUM, 2016)
TRANSLATED BY YEWON JUNG
This is one of the strangest books I have read recently. In Jung Young Moon’s Vaseline Buddha, the narrator lurks in every paragraph, constantly disrupting the flow of his own narrative whenever it shows a hint of becoming a full-fledged story. “Free-wheeling” might be too conservative a phrase to capture the excesses the narrator embraces in his chaotic romp. This book is not for those who cherish plot, and most readers will be hard-pressed to summarize the story, even as they recommend it.
The drama of the book lies in the author’s labor to not tell a story, to constantly strip away any structure or form that creeps into his book. On one hand, his efforts show us that pattern recognition in chaos is inevitable, and that our human language will begin to latch on to such patterns to make sense of what we are seeing, to make it more comfortable for us to inhabit the world. By continuing to reject the instinct for the order of things, Jung Young Moon seeks to shed darkness, not light, on glimpses of the void. In these intense moments of deconstruction, the “nothing” that language cannot express can be felt briefly amidst the cascade of words. The translator Yewon Jung should be commended for her efforts to bring this stream of consciousness style into English.
THE STORY OF HONG GILDONG (PENGUIN CLASSICS, 2016)
TRANSLATED BY MINSOO KANG
If you have ever wondered what Robin Hood might be like if he was a Taoist wizard, this is a swashbuckling tale for you. One of the most popular folk heroes in Korea, Hong Gildong has been reimagined countless times through comic books, movies, and TV shows, but Minsoo Kang’s excellent translation goes directly to the 18th century source material. While the popular academic belief is that the writer was Chosun court official and progressive literati member, Heo Gyun, Minsoon Kang’s well-researched introduction reveals the flaws in this theory, leaving the identity of the true author unknown.
The book itself is an edited collection of popular folktales surrounding the mythic-historical figure Hong Gildong. The hero, born a bastard son of a noble family, escapes an assassination attempt by his family members, and goes on a quest to learn magic. Eventually, he forms a group of thieves and fighters to steal from the corrupt and give back to the poor. The rollicking adventure also beats with a passionate heart for social reform, exposing the grotesque injustice of Korean society at the time and envisioning a utopia where a mix of Taoist, Buddhist, and neo-Confucian ideals might be realized.
신과 함께(SHINGWA HAM-GGYE) 주호민 만화 (애니북스 2011)
WITH SPIRIT, BY JOO HO-MIN (ANIBOOKS, 2011)
Not yet translated into English
Ever since reading Dante’s Inferno, I’d wondered what a trip to the underworld in Korean mythology might look like, and if anyone had bothered to write such an epic. As it turns out, Joo Ho-min’s incredible graphic novel, Shingwa Hamggye (With Spirit) is organized around that very premise, and was first published on the online portal site, Naver’s webtoon page. For the uninitiated, webtoon is a relatively new genre in visual arts where you scroll down the web page to read the cartoon. While American webtoons tend to be short and often aim for satirical humor, Korean webtoons have gone, well, epic. From space operas to college romances to ghost stories to gangster dramas to erotica, there’s a webtoon for just about every type of story. Joo Ho-min’s With Spirit, in my opinion, is the unequaled masterpiece among them.
The series is divided into three acts: the first deals with the underworld of Korean mythology; the second is about the household guardians, and the third covers the Korean creation myth and origins of Korean gods. I recommend the whole series, but the first act is a tour-de-force about the various trials a dead soul must pass before they may reach the eternal paradise or be granted reincarnation. Hardly any soul makes it to the end. Throughout each trial, every aspect of a life is reviewed, every lie revealed, every sin accounted for. Once found guilty, the soul must suffer a variety of creative, eternal punishments. Unlike Dante’s Inferno, where souls languish in perpetual states of agony that resemble suffering in real life, the Korean underworld is shown as a place where justice might finally prevail, albeit through struggle, and where the meek may in fact inherit what they deserve for leading a good life. What is even more fascinating about Joo Ho-min’s version, is how he layers the court-like proceedings of his underworld with his frustrations with a modern bureaucratic legal system, which, despite its faults, still seeks to serve justice. For now, this webtoon is not officially translated and published in English, but we can always hope.
Jack Saebyok Jung was born in Seoul, South Korea. He immigrated to the United States with his mother when he was 12 years old, and lived in the cities and towns of the Midwest and New England. He studied English poetry and creative writing at Harvard College, and received a Master’s in Korean Language and Literature from Seoul National University. He will be attending Iowa Writers’ Workshop this coming fall. Currently, he is working on translating the poetry and prose of Korean modernist Yi Sang (1910-1937) with Don Mee Choi, Sawako Nakayasu, and Joyelle McSweeney, to be published by Wave Books in 2019.