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A look back at some of the books of 2016

To cut to the chase, here are my two books of the year for 2016. For more detail, read on.

Books of the year 2016

Literature in translation

The world of translated fiction seems to have been dominated by two names this year, one Korean and one British. The Korean name of course is Han Kang. Just as The Vegetarian was beginning to generate interest in the USA, her Human Acts hit the shops in the UK and immediately became my book of the year (as early as February): I could not imagine that anything published subsequently could match the emotional power of that book (review here). And so it turned out. With luck, interest generated by the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian will bring more readers to Human Acts, which on paper sounds like a pretty grim read.

The British name is Deborah Smith, who as translator of The Vegetarian (and Human Acts) shared the Man Booker with Han Kang, and invested her share of the prize money in her new publishing venture, Tilted Axis Press, devoted to translated fiction. The press’s second title to be released was Hwang Jung-eun’s One Hundred Shadows. Later in the year another Smith translation, Bae Suah’s A Greater Music, hit the bookshops, with another to follow in early 2017, both from Deep Vellum.

But there’s been plenty else happening apart from Han and Smith.

Merwin Asia 2016 titles

My own favourite storyteller amongst writers who are no longer with us is Yi Chong-jun, and it was good to have two of his short stories released by Merwin Asia this year: The Wounded (in a translation by Jennifer M Lee which has found its way into print before – Jimoondang, 2002), and The Abject (tr Grace Jung), which was the source for Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine. Both stories repay repeated reading. In fact Merwin Asia had something of a hyperactive year for Korean translated fiction. In addition to Yi Chong-jun they brought us Bang Hyun-seok’s Time to Eat Lobster (tr Jeon Seung-hee – a collection of short stories about the Korean experience in the Vietnam War), Hwang Sun-won’s The Moving Fortress (tr Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton), Im Cheol-woo’s Farewell Valley (tr Jennifer M. Lee &  Jonathan Ross Bagley) and Son Hong-gyu’s The Muslim Butcher (tr Yu Young-nan). It’s a shame that the listings of some of their titles on Amazon and the University of Hawai’i Press (who handle Merwin’s distribution) don’t have the cover art.

The prolific Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton brought out The Future of Silence, a selection which shows the diversity of nine female authors, from Park Wan-suh to Kim Aeran. (And while on the subject of Park Wan-suh, rather late in the day I caught up with the Dalkey Archive collection Lonesome You, published at the back end of 2013 (review here). If it had been a 2016 publication it would probably given Human Acts a run for its money. As it is, it is easily in retrospect my translated fiction book of the year 2014). Jung young-moon also did well, with two titles released in translation.

More fiction titles

Hoping to follow up on the success of The Hen who Dreamed She could Fly, Abacus published Hwang Sun-mi’s The Dog who Dared to Dream. That one has yet to make it onto my bookshelf, but will do soon. Penguin Classics had a highly enjoyable release, both for the rip-roaring story infused with Confucian morality, and for its accompanying essay: The Story of Hong Gildong, translated and with an introduction by Minsoo Kang (LKL review).

Poetry in translation has also had an excellent year, with collections of poems by Jeong Ho-seung and Do Jong-Hwan from Seoul Selection courtesy of Brother Anthony working with Susan Hwang and Jinna Park respectively. Br Anthony also guest edited (and translated much of) The Colors of Dawn, an anthology of twentieth century Korean poetry from University of Hawaii Press, including work by Kim Chi-ha and Yun Dong-ju.

How I became a North Korean

Fiction in English

I’m unaware of much Korea-related fiction in English published this year. Maybe it’s because Krys Lee’s novel, How I became a North Korean has deservedly taken all the limelight. The novel, told from the perspectives of three very different characters, examines the experiences of North Korean border-crossers, focusing in particular on the role and motivations of evangelical Christians in helping the escapees.


In non-fiction, one book seems to me to stand out from the crowd (at least, of the titles I’ve had time to read): Youngju Ryu’s Writers of the Winter Republic, a highly accessible but informative book, combining social and literary history with an in-depth look at four prominent authors active in the Park Chung-Hee era: Kim Chi-ha, Yi Mun-gu, Cho Se-hui and Hwang Sok-yong. The book provides plenty of scholarly insights while avoiding the use of the impenetrable prose favoured by too many academics, and succeeds in making you want to revisit the primary texts themselves, many of which are available in translation.

Non-fiction titles

For lighter browsing, Brother Anthony’s and Robert Neff’s Brief Encounters (from Seoul Selection) is highly recommended – a fascinating introduction to, with extracts from, early reports of Korea by Westerners, from Hendrick Hamel in the mid 17th century through to an American naval officer in 1884.

For the kitchen, the flow of foreigner friendly cookery books continued with Judy Joo’s Korean Food Made Simple and Da-hae and Gareth West’s K Food: Korean Home Cooking and Street Food.

Of interest to those with a wider Asian interest than Korea is William Empson’s The Face of the Buddha, thought to have been lost for 60 years. “Taking up a teaching appointment in Tokyo in 1931, the English poet and literary critic William Empson found himself captivated by the Buddhist sculptures of ancient Japan, and spent the years that followed in search of similar examples all over Korea, China, Cambodia, Burma, India, and Ceylon, as well as in the great museums of the West.” The book has had rave reviews, but as I only got my copy for Christmas I haven’t had a chance to add to them yet.

Of the other 2016 publications that I haven’t yet had time to read Andrew David Jackson’s The 1728 Musin Rebellion and Jahyun Kim Haboush’s The Great East Asian War and the Birth of the Korean Nation are next on the reading pile. For other titles you might have missed, visit Brother Anthony’s partial list of Korean Studies publications. There are, no doubt, more. If anyone knows of a more comprehensive list, or a way of easily compiling one, please let me know.

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