when i say “korean/korean-american literature,” i don’t mean literature written by koreans/korean-americans strictly about koreans/korean-americans or about the korean/korean-american experience. one of the things about life (and art) is that we aren’t restricted to “what we know,” that we are more than our ethnic or lingual identities, and this has been the really cool part of reading more from korean/korean-americans (“kor-/kor-am” from hereon out), that we write across a wide variety of topics in a wide variety of styles and voices and perspectives.
that might sound like an obvious thing, but [mainstream] publishing is not one that has been friendly to diversity — and, taking it further, to diversity within diversity. it’s still the case that certain narratives are desired, that certain expectations and burdens are placed upon the shoulders of writers of color, that we’re expected to play within these lines and deliver stories that fit within the narratives shoved onto us, oftentimes immigrant narratives, narratives of hardship and racism and prejudice.
* also, if you haven’t read this fabulous essay by jenny zhang, you should.
it’s fun to see what writers of color are doing, the stories they’re telling, their obsessions and interests, the weird things that make them tick. it’s also a relief to find a general understanding of intersectionality amongst writers of color, that we are not one thing but many things, that we are not only people of color but that we are also, i.e., queer people of color, that we are the sum of our parts. it’s also fun to see how we don’t restrict ourselves only to narratives that involve “our experience;” like, i love that alexander chee wrote a massive novel about a french opera singer in the nineteenth-century. all these things might sound like nothing but aren’t.
it’s also fun to see what’s making it into english translation from korea. i’m thrilled that the korean government is finally investing in its literature and actively trying to get more korean literature into translation and to make it more visible throughout the world. i was also so, so happy that the vegetarian recently won the man booker international prize, not only because it was written by a korean woman but also because it’s this weird, dark, korean novel that i’m also impressed and thrilled has picked up a lot of attention, even before the man booker win, in the book community.
and, so, here’s some book talk.
mise en place is french for “everything in its place,” and i fully blame top chef for my current obsession with it. (and for my current obsession with baking asian sponge cakes, no electric mixer involved.)
a big part of it is my love and appreciation for the aesthetics of order; there’s something so visually satisfying about having “everything in its place.” another part is that it makes cooking a lot easier once everything has been chopped, measured, separated because all the mechanical labor is out of the way. what any of this has to do with kor/kor-am literature is anyone’s guess.
i do sometimes question my strong interest in kor/kor-am literature (i think it’s worth examining our obsessions and gravitations from time-to-time). i acknowledge that a significant part of it is informed by the fact that i am korean-american, that i am bilingual and bicultural, that i am consequently very interested in the gap and disconnect that often occurs between my korean and american sides. naturally, i turn to literature to see how we, as this tangle of thinly-related groups, wrestle with and negotiate identity, and i’m interested in exploring that tension, seeing how others struggle with it, the various results of that struggle.
that, partly, is why i started making more deliberate attempts to read from kor/kor-am authors, though, to be honest, another incentive was guilt. i’d always followed korean pop and cinema and television (and still do), but, a few years ago, i knew almost nothing about korean literature, which would give me twinges of shame because i have always loved books and yet had nothing to say when it came to korean literature because of my own ignorance. once i started reading, though, from both korean and korean-american authors, i fell in love, enchanted by how richly and differently these authors saw the world and expressed themselves, and it’s what’s brought me here and keeps me diving deeper and wanting more and wanting to put these incredible books out there into the world as much as i can.
i might live and breathe books, but i also think a lot about food.
it’s a mystery to my family where my love for food comes from, and they find it simultaneously amusing and distressing that i love it so and think about it constantly, what i want to eat for my next meal, what i want to cook, what i want to try baking. (right now, i’m playing with the idea of breaking down a whole chicken, brining and searing the breasts, freezing the wings, frying the legs, and roasting the carcass to make broth. i’ve roasted whole chickens before, but i haven’t broken one down yet, and i find the prospect so exciting, especially when the result is homemade broth.)
food is the thing i loved most about han kang’s the vegetarian — that all that unravelling begins to exhibit in yeong-hye’s sudden refusal to eat animals. while meat isn’t a huge part of korean cuisine, korean food is not one i’ve necessarily thought of as vegetarian-friendly, despite people (usually not korean) trying to herald it as such; we use anchovy broth for our stews, beef broth for our soups, shrimp paste in our kimchi; and i don’t mean this to say that korean food can’t be made vegetarian, simply that, in its current form best known to me, it is not one that is inherently accessible to vegetarians, at least not in the ways people seem to assume.
which is a total tangent because the vegetarian is not a novel about vegetarianism — or even, food. instead, han uses korean food culture to get to issues in korean culture overall, whether it be the patriarchy, conformity, the unit over the individual, and this is what i love so much about food culture in general, how much it absorbs so much of culture and reflects it back or subverts it and makes it into something else.
in this case, though, it’s the former, and han delivers a wallop of a criticism against patriarchal korean society. (i should probably say i’m focusing mostly on the first part of the novel.) not only is it narrated by yeong-hye’s husband (except for dream segments), thus placing her in position to someone else, but the fall-out from yeong-hye’s refusal to eat meat is defined entirely in how it affects the men in her life, specifically her husband and her father.
her husband is angry because his wife is no longer performing her wifely duties by preparing him meals with meat and declining to have sex, and he’s shamed because her vegetarianism (really, veganism) sets her apart from everyone else. when he takes her to dinner with his boss and coworkers and their wives, yeong-hye refuses to eat meat and sits there, silent and not eating, marking herself as willfully different and outside social norms as she refuses to bend even to social etiquette and social niceties. that isolates her husband as well because his wife isn’t like other wives, which means that he’s also no longer welcome, because social norms and etiquette and niceties are the glue that holds korean society together. it’s a conformist world, one driven by trends and sameness, the group over the individual, and yeong-hye’s refusal to participate in food culture places her outside that world.
her father is enraged, too, because he’s the patriarchal head of the family and should be obeyed. if he tells his daughter to eat meat, she should eat meat, and he shouldn’t be shamed by the actions of a contrary daughter. her failures to perform her wifely duties shame him as well; the best thing a daughter can be is a good wife; so yeong-hye is an embarrassment, ungrateful and rude — yeong-hye’s rejection of the oysters and food and black goat her family offers her is gravely rude and offensive; in korea, when someone senior to you offers you something, you take it, no questions asked.
it’s funny because what i love so much about korean food culture is everything that maybe runs against korean culture. i love how the 밥상 can often represent a safe space for strangers and outsiders, for people to find refuge and forge and solidify new connections, to create family where blood does not flow. i love the emotional significance of being invited to someone’s 밥상, of being given a place of your own, a rice bowl of your own, an invitation to share a meal (and very literally share a meal — korean food is communal, doesn’t come neatly plated) — and maybe this sounds romanticized and idealized, but, as someone who has taken part of this very culture, who has shared 밥상s with people and created them for people, it’s a very real, very precious thing to me.
that’s likely why the first part of the vegetarian had the strongest impact on me (and why it’s the only part i’m really discussing here). like i said, han uses korean food culture to point at ugly aspects of korean culture overall, namely the intense patriarchy, the casual acceptance of violence, the extent to which any kind of individualism or any kind of deviation from the norm is shunned. korea is still a xenophobic, homophobic country, obsessed with academic excellence, a single standard of beauty, and, sometimes, i wonder at the kind of fear that keeps koreans so compliant to this social conformity, that keeps them working themselves to death since childhood to get into SKY, get that job at samsung, get that face, that apartment, that family, that lifestyle.
and so, underneath it all, underneath the extreme reactions to yeong-hye’s vegetarianism lies that fear. it’s a fear of the unknown, of the different, of someone’s rejection of the norm and the accepted and expected. it still boggles my mind that people fear (and hate) difference so much, to the point that they will ruthlessly, deliberately murder people because of it, because they so fear any disruption of the so-called norm, of the status quo — i will simply never understand this insane fear. like, what makes you, the [hetero]normative majority so great that you feel everyone must fit into your single goddamn mold?
here are 13 recommendations for books by korean/korean-american authors in alphabetical order by last name (korean names are formatted the korean way, family name first):
- choe yun, there a petal silently falls (columbia university press, 2008) [link]
- susan choi, my education (viking, 2014) [link]
- catherine chung, forgotten country (riverhead, 2012) [link] 
- han kang, human acts (portobello, 2015) [link] 
- jung eun-jin, no one writes back (dalkey archive press, 2013) [link] 
- lady hyegyong, the memoirs of lady hyegyong (university of california press, 2013)
- chang-rae lee, a gesture life (riverhead, 2000) [link]
- krys lee, how i became a north korean (viking, 2016) [link]
- park min-gyu, pavane for a dead princess (dalkey archive press, 2014) [link]
- patricia park, re jane (pamela dorman books, 2015) [link]
- shin kyung-sook, i’ll be right there (unnamed press, 2014) [link]
- unknown, the story of hong gildong (penguin classics, 2016) [link]
- jung yun, shelter (picador, 2015) [link]
why these thirteen? what were the criteria? how did i select them? is it terrible if i admit that i chose them a little arbitrarily? and that there’s also kind of a cheat in there because i haven’t actually finished reading the memoirs of lady hyegyong yet?
reading is an intellectual act, but it’s also a visceral and emotional act. (it’s also, partly, a visual experience.) we respond to different things, connect with different characters, identify with different conflicts and struggles, and these are simply books that have resonated with me for one reason or another. some of them also have what i call staying power, books that have stayed with me since i read them, even if i might not have felt super strongly or positively about them after i’d initially read them.
the one rule i did follow is that i only allowed one title per author*, and i did try to provide titles by an equal number of korean authors and korean-american authors. if i reviewed or wrote about a title, whether via instagram or on this site, i linked them as well because i’m not going to go into in-depth reviews here.
this is not a comprehensive list by any means, and it is entirely 100% subjective. however, i can assure you that they are all well-written, smart, thoughtful books, and i think they each add to the general dialogue of literature, of korean/korean-american literature, of translated literature. some of them (there a petal silently falls, human acts, a gesture life, i’ll be right there) consider human brutality within history; others (forgotten country, re jane, shelter) consider korean-americanism, what that means and how that fits into and impacts people’s lives in different ways; and even others (no one writes back, pavane for a dead princess) look at contemporary korean society and its ailments. and then there’s how i became a north korean, which is currently by far my book of the year, a brilliant, heart-breaking story of north korean refugees, as well as a searing indictment of everyone (and i mean everyone) in the exploitation, abuse, and mistreatment of north korean refugees.
* if i hadn’t given myself that rule, i would have also included krys lee’s drifting house (viking, 2012), han kang’s the vegetarian (hogarth, 2016), susan choi’s the foreign student (harper perennial, 2004), and shin kyung-sook’s please look after mom (vintage, 2012).
so there we have it! thanks for reading, and please do feel free to share any thoughts, especially if you do pick up or have read any of the books mentioned/listed!