I’m hoping that, as in previous years, by posting my own list of upcoming literature and fiction titles – pulled together by some targeted searching on Amazon and a trawl through Barbara J Zitwer’s website – I might persuade others to supplement it from their own specialist knowledge. Whatever happens, books inevitably fall through the cracks and appear on bookshelves or online without much prior fanfare, catching me by surprise.
I’ve divided the list in two: firstly literature and fiction by Korean authors in translation, and then fiction and poetry in English or other languages.
1. Literature in translation
While most of the authors are contemporary, one is from the fifteenth century. And it’s the latter that I’m particularly interested in, though it’s from an academic publisher and hence quite pricey. Dennis Wuerthner, the translator and commentator of Tales of the Strange, by a Korean Confucian Monk, gave a fascinating talk on the tales’ author, Kim Siseup, last year at SOAS, which really whetted the appetite.
Moving to the present day, there’s a couple of well known authors with their equally well-known translators – Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day from Deborah Smith and Pyun Hye-young’s The Law of Lines from Sora Kim-Russell – both of which I’m looking forward to, but for different reasons. I suspect I’ll enjoy the Pyun Hye-young, while Bae’s novel is meant to be her best so far.
More than either of them, though, I’ll be making sure I get hold of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 (tr Jamie Chang) as soon as it comes out. Maybe we’ll get to see a screening of the recently-released film adaptation too. And while on the subject of film adaptations, having seen Choo Chang-min’s movie adaptation that had its European premiere at the 2018 London Korean Film Festival, I’m looking forward to Jeong You-jeong’s original novel Seven Years of Darkness, coming out in June thanks to Chi-Young Kim. Another thriller-writer, Seo Miae, gets her first English translation courtesy of Yewon Jung.
Slightly more unusual are the last three on the list, each of which has possibilities: a translation of a North Korean best-seller, a cynical look at the travel industry, and an award-winning debut aimed at the young adult market.
Thanks to Barry Welsh for four additions to the list. Fans of Kim Sagwa and Ha Seong-nan look as if they will be getting what they know and like. I’m sorry I missed Hong Yeon-sik’s English debut Uncomfortably Happily – highlighted by Barry in his review of 2018. The follow-up, Umma’s Table, will definitely be on my reading list as the theme looks rather touching. The fourth, a graphic novel by Robin Ha whose theme is the Korean immigrant experience in the US, is included in the English language section lower down this post.
A second update, courtesy of Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton. This one looks interesting, and will probably the first one I tackle of all this year’s publications as it’s available in paperback during January (while the hotly-anticipated Bae Suah novel is only available in hardback, so won’t make it onto my reading pile any time soon). As far as I am aware this is the first full-length novel of Cheon Un-yeong to be translated, though her Ali Skips Rope was included in the excellent collection The Future of Silence. The Catcher in the Loft is a translation of her 2011 novel 생강. University of Michigan’s Youngju Ryu calls the book “searing” and “haunting” on the back cover, and while I find those adjectives devalued by their overuse in book blurbs, given the subject matter of the novel I think they could be justified in this instance.
Below are the titles and estimated publication dates, together with some commentary taken from the descriptions on Amazon.
Cheon Unyeong, tr Bruce + Juchan Fulton
The Catcher in the Loft
Codhill paperback, 200 pages
Inspired by the case of a torture specialist in 1980s South Korea who from 1988 to 2000 was a fugitive in his own house, The Catcher in the Loft is in equal parts a portrait of a man coming to terms with his notorious past and a coming-of-age story centered in his dependent relationship with his college-age daughter, who has always thought of him as a patriotic policeman.
Bae Suah, tr Deborah Smith
Untold Night and Day
Jonathan Cape hardback, 160 pages
A hypnotic, disorienting story of parallel lives unfolding over a day and a night in the sweltering heat of Seoul’s summer. Blisteringly original, Untold Night and Day is a high-wire feat of storytelling that explores the possibility of worlds beyond the one we see and feel – and shows why Bae Suah is considered one of the boldest voices in Korean literature today.
Cho Nam-Joo, tr Jamie Chang
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
Scribner UK paperback, 176 pages
The South Korean sensation that has got the whole world talking. The life story of one young woman born at the end of the twentieth century raises questions about endemic misogyny and institutional oppression that are relevant to us all.
Kim Sagwa, tr Sunhee Jeong
b, Book, and Me
Two Lines Press paperback, 160 pages
Best friends b and Rang are all each other have. Their parents are absent, their teachers avert their eyes when they walk by. Everyone else in town acts like they live in Seoul even though it’s painfully obvious they don’t. When Rang begins to be bullied horribly by the boys in baseball hats, b fends them off. But one day Rang unintentionally tells the whole class about b’s dying sister and how her family is poor, and each of them finds herself desperately alone. In a piercing, heartbreaking, and astonishingly honest voice, Kim Sagwa’s b, Book, and Me walks the precipice between youth and adulthood, reminding us how perilous the edge can be.
Seo Miae, tr Yewon Jung
The Only Child
Point Blank paperback 304 pages
Criminal psychologist Seonkyeong has two new people in her life. A serial killer whose gruesome murders shook the world but who has steadfastly remained silent. Until now. A young, innocent looking stepdaughter from her husband’s previous marriage, who unexpectedly turns up at the door after the sudden death of her grandparents. Both are unsettling. Both are deeply troubled. And both seem to want something from her. Can she work out just who is the victim in all of this? Before it’s too late…
Hong Yeon-Sik, tr Janet Hong
Drawn and Quarterly paperback, 360 pages
Following his acclaimed English language debut Uncomfortably Happily, Yeon-sik Hong returns with a graphic novel that is as insightful as wrenching as it probes life with aging parents and how we support the people we love. With an unassuming wisdom, Umma’s Table serves as a reflection on the enduring nature of family and the power of tradition.
Paek Nam–nyong, tr Immanuel Kim
Friend – A Novel from North Korea
Columbia UP (Weatherhead Books on Asia) paperback 288 pages
A tale of marital intrigue, abuse, and divorce in North Korea. A woman in her thirties comes to a courthouse petitioning for a divorce. As the judge who hears her statement begins to investigate the case, the story unfolds into a broader consideration of love and marriage. A best-seller in North Korea, where Paek continues to live and write, Friend illuminates a side of life in the DPRK that Western readers have never before encountered. Far from being a propagandistic screed in praise of the Great Leader, Friend describes the lives of people who struggle with everyday problems such as marital woes and workplace conflicts.
Kim Si-seup, tr Dennis Wuerthner
Kŭmo Sinhwa: Tales of the Strange, by a Korean Confucian Monk
University of Hawai’i Press, hardback, 456 pages (cheaper Kindle version also available)
One of the most important and celebrated works of premodern Korean prose fiction, Keumo sinhwa (금오신화 – New Tales of the Golden Turtle) is a collection of five tales of the strange artfully written in literary Chinese by Kim Siseup (1435-1493). Kim was a major intellectual and poet of the early Choson dynasty (1392-1897), and this book is widely recognised as marking the beginning of classical fiction in Korea.
Pyun Hye-young, tr Sora Kim-Russell
The Law of Lines
Arcade Publishing hardback, 288 pages
Winner of several of Korea’s top literary awards, The Law of Lines follows the parallel stories of two young women whose lives are upended by sudden loss. Like Pyun Hye-young’s Shirley Jackson Award-winning novel The Hole, an immersive thriller that explores the edges of criminality, the unseen forces in our most intimate lives, and grief and debt.
Jeong You-jeong, tr Chi-Young Kim
Seven Years of Darkness
Penguin paperback, 352 pages
A chilling psychological thriller about how far some will go to maintain control–and exact revenge. When a young girl is found dead in Seryong Lake, a reservoir in a remote South Korean village, the police immediately begin their investigation. At the same time, three men–Yongje, the girl’s father, and two security guards at the nearby dam, each of whom has something to hide about the night of her death–find themselves in an elaborate game of cat and mouse as they race to uncover what happened to her, without revealing their own closely guarded secrets.
Ha Seong-nan, tr Janet Hong
Bluebeard’s First Wife
Open Letter paperback, 243 pages
Disasters, accidents, and deaths abound in Bluebeard’s First Wife. A woman spends a night with her fiancé and his friends, and overhears a terrible secret that has bound them together since high school. A man grows increasingly agitated by the apartment noise made by a young family living upstairs and arouses the suspicion of his own wife when the neighbours meet a string of unlucky incidents. A couple moves into a picture-perfect country house, but when their new dog is stolen, they become obsessed with finding the thief, and in the process, neglect their child. Ha’s paranoia-inducing, heart-quickening stories will have you reconsidering your own neighbours.
Yun Ko-eun, tr Lizzie Buehler
The Disaster Tourist
Serpent’s Tail hardback, 192 pages (paperback scheduled for Aug)
Yona has been stuck behind a desk for years working as a programming coordinator for Jungle, a travel company specialising in package holidays to destinations ravaged by disaster. When a senior colleague touches her inappropriately she tries to complain, and in an attempt to bury her allegations, the company make her an attractive proposition: a free ticket for one of their most sought-after trips, to the desert island of Mui…
Sohn Won-pyung, tr Joosun Lee
Harpervia hardback, 256 pages
“This story is, in short, about a monster meeting another monster. One of the monsters is me.” The Emissary meets The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime in this poignant and triumphant story about how love, friendship, and persistence can change a life forever.
And two that I only discovered when researching this article, came out in 2019: Lee Ji-min’s Starlet and the Spy and Hwang Sun-mi’s Miracle on Cherry Hill, both translated by Kim Chi-young. In addition, Barry recommends a graphic novel I missed from last year’s list: Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s Grass (tr Janet Hong) on a Comfort Women theme.
2. Fiction, poetry and memoirs in English or other languages
Of the texts in Engish, the memoir in letters by Eunji Koh looks the most immediately appealing to me. Nice cover, too.
Eunji (EJ) Koh
The Magical Language of Others: A Memoir
Tin House Books hardback, 203 pages
A powerful and aching love story in letters, from mother to daughter. After living in America for over a decade, Eun Ji Koh’s parents return to South Korea for work, leaving fifteen-year-old Eun Ji and her brother behind in California. Overnight, Eun Ji finds herself abandoned and adrift in a world made strange by her mother’s absence. Her mother writes letters, in Korean, over the years seeking forgiveness and love–letters Eun Ji cannot fully understand until she finds them years later hidden in a box.
Your House Will Pay
Faber & Faber paperback 320 pages
One desperate to remember, the other to forget.
Will the truth burn them both?
Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir
Balzer & Bray/Harperteen paperback, 240 pages
A powerful and moving teen graphic novel memoir about immigration, belonging, and how arts can save a life
Elisa Shua Dusapin, tr Aneesa Abbas Higgins
Winter in Sokcho
Daunt paperback, 224 pages
It’s winter in Sokcho, a tourist town on the border between South and North Korea. The cold slows everything down: the fish turn venomous, bodies are red and raw, beyond the beach guns point out from the North s watchtowers. A young French Korean woman works as a receptionist in a tired guesthouse. One evening, an unexpected guest arrives, a French cartoonist determined to find inspiration in this desolate landscape.
Suji Kwock Kim
Notes from the North
Smith/Doorstop paperback, 32 pages
Winner in the 2018/2019 Poetry Business International Book and Pamphlet Competition.
Don Mee Choi
Wave Book paperback, 152 pages
Woven from poems, prose, photographs, and drawings, Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony is a tour de force of personal and political reckoning set over eight acts. Evincing the power of translation as a poetic device to navigate historical and linguistic borders, it explores Edward Said’s notion of “the intertwined and overlapping histories” in regards to South Korea and the United States through innovative deployments of voice, story, and poetics. Like its sister book, Hardly War, it holds history accountable, its very presence a resistance to empire and a hope in humankind.
And going on the reading list from last year are Martin Limon’s GI Confidential (that series is great holiday reading) and Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek, now out in paperback having won a Time accolade of Must-Read Book of 2019.
Do let me know of any omissions and I’ll update the list accordingly.