I love, love, love watching the Olympics – especially the Winter Olympics!! It’s all so exciting, so many cool new things I’ve never seen and don’t know. (I’ll never understand curling – but I will watch it for hours!)
And it’s fun to learn some things about each country. Check out this article from The Guardian, by Mary Lynn Bracht with some suggested books about South Korea, and how incredibly fast-paced and dynamic this country really is.
“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.
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.”
Read the rest of this article, and get all the book suggestions!