Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Korean literature has gained more recognition as Hallyu globally spreads all aspects of Korean culture. Korean books have transcended borders with their complex treatments of political issues and exploration of humanity. At the same time, those reading Korean literature for the first time will find that they have unique prose and cultural nuances that can help them better understand Korean society. If you’re looking to get into Korean literature, check out these ten books:

Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo (Translated by Jamie Chang)

Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982
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“Kim Ji-Young, Born 1982” is perhaps one of the most talked about Korean novels in recent years, both in South Korea and globally. The novel follows the titular character, Kim Ji-young, who begins to act strangely one day. The story moves back and forth between Ji-young’s past and present experiences of womanhood. Although the novel’s themes have resonated with readers worldwide, it also gained attention from being on the reading lists of famous K-Pop idols such as Choi Soo-young from Girls’ Generation and Irene from Red Velvet. If you can’t get enough of Kim Ji-Young’s story, watch the 2019 film adaptation starring Jung Yu-mi and Gong Yoo.

Moms by Ma Yeong-shin (Translated Janet Hong)

Moms by Yeong-shin Ma
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What happens to moms when their kids are all grown up? In the 2015 graphic novel “Moms,” Ma Yeong-shin tries to answer this question with a cast of middle-aged women at the story’s center. The graphic novel reveals the personal lives of middle-aged women who regain their independence after they’ve fulfilled their societal duties as mothers and wives. The main character, So-yeon, is a divorcee trying to navigate dating, work, and living with her grown-up son. This graphic novel reveals the hardships of womanhood and these women’s strength and complexity.

One Left by Kim Soom (Translated by Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton)

One Left by Kim Soom
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Content Warning: This book description mentions sexual violence.

During World War 2, the Imperial Japanese Army took women and young girls from South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and other countries and forced them into sexual slavery. These women are called comfort women. Kim Soom reminds the world of the horrors that these women endured in her novel “One Left.” The novel, translated into English in 2020, centers on the life of a nameless and unreported comfort woman. Using fiction and facts, Kim rehumanizes the comfort women who carry this trauma.

Almond by Sohn Won-pyung (Translated by Sandy Joosun Lee)

Almond by Sohn Won-Pyung
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“Almond” is author Sohn Won-pyung’s debut novel. The book follows teenage boy Yun-jae, whose small amygdala makes it difficult for him to identify and understand emotions. Yun-jae’s mother and grandmother raised him until a tragic night leaves Yun-jae alone. Yun-jae’s unlikely friendship with another teenage boy named Gon, who often gets into trouble, grounds the novel. As Yun-jae navigates life, he learns what it means to be human and how emotions, or a lack of them, shape who we are. BTS members RM, Suga, and J-Hope have been seen reading this book on “In the Soop”!

Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-Jin (Translated by Jamie Chang)

Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin
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This novella is narrated by a widowed and middle-aged woman whose thirty-something-year-old daughter, Green, moves back in with her. Her daughter is accompanied by her girlfriend. The narrator is not supportive of her daughter’s relationship and fears that she will ruin her life by veering from the norm. However, the narrator’s view is challenged when she advocates for her elderly dementia patient, who had a successful career and has no family to care for her. Focused on the narrator reconciling her contrasting views on the unconventional lives of her patient and her daughter, “Concerning My Daughter” is a story of generational differences, unlearning, and growth.

Mina by Kim Sa-gwa (Translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton)

Mina by Kim Sa-gwa
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Often depicted in films and K-dramas, the South Korean education system is well-known for its competitiveness and intensity. This is depicted in Kim Sa-gwa’s 2008 translated Korean fiction novel “Mina.” In the novel, the main character, Crystal, and her best friend, Mina, seem like normal South Korean teens who spend sunrise to sunset at cram school. The girls’ relationship is tested when a classmate’s death reveals how different they are. “Mina” wraps readers up in the teen protagonist’s extreme pressures, worries, and desires until the shocking end.

Shoko’s Smile by Choi Eunyoung (Translated by Sung Ryu)

Shoko's Smile by Choi Eunyoung
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The seven tranlsated Korean fiction short stories in “Shoko’s Smile” center around female characters and how political issues seep into their personal lives. The titular story, “Shoko’s Smile,” explores the relationship between Soyu, a Korean teen, and Shoko, a Japanese exchange student that Soyu’s family hosts for a week. In “Xin Chao, Xin Chao,” the protagonist’s friendship with a Vietnamese family reveals to her the untaught history of Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Through simple prose, Choi’s stories have left a lasting emotional impact on readers worldwide, including Blackpink’s Jisoo!

Black Flower by Kim Young-Ha (Translated by Charles La Shure)

Black Flower by Km Young-ha
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Kim Young-Ha’s “Black Flower” is set in the early 1900s when the Korean peninsula faced natural disasters and was on the brink of being colonized by the Japanese empire. These conditions motivated one thousand Koreans to board a ship to Mexico. In “Black Flower,” we meet some of these one thousand Koreans from all walks of life. While many went to Mexico hoping to return to Korea eventually, they realized that returning home may not be possible. “Black Flower” illuminates an interesting point of history and explores the subjects of national identity and community.

Cursed Bunny by Chung Bora (Translated by Anton Hur)

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung
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This collection of translated Korean fiction short stories is a mix of the dystopian, horror, and fantasy genres. In one story, a pregnant woman is forced to go on dates to find a father for her baby. In another story, a lamp shaped like a bunny disrupts the home of a CEO. Although Chung’s stories stand out for their other-worldly elements, their impacts lie in how they reveal the all-too-real horrors of today’s society. “Cursed Bunny” was shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize and won a PEN/Haim Translation Grant. With disturbing language and themes, “Cursed Bunny” is certainly not for the faint of heart.

Untold Day and Night by Bae Suah (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah
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“Untold Day and Night” is the most recent translated Korean fiction novel by prominent Korean author Bae Suah. Taking place within 24 hours, the novel follows the protagonist, Ayami, on her last day working at an audio theater in Seoul. At night, Ayami and her former boss search for her elderly friend who has gone missing. During the day, Ayami acts as an interpreter for a visiting German poet.  This surreal story will put readers into a trance and have you questioning what’s real, just like Ayami.

So what are you waiting for? Go grab a copy of one of these translated books and start reading! If you’ve already read some of the books on this list, let us know which one is your favorite in the comments.

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