Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Ask a Korean! Wiki: Novels by Korean Americans

Dear Korean,

Do you have any recommendations of novels written by Korean Americans? Preferably 1.5 or 2nd generation? I've already read
Native Speaker, Free Food for Millionaires, and one more that escape my mind right now.


Dear Amy,

In most cases, the novels that the Korean reads are the ones that are at least 50 years old -- namely, the classics that every educated person should read. That precludes pretty much all Korean American literature. (However, the Korean is certain that he read almost all Korean novels worth reading.) The Korean did read the Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee -- he remembers being unimpressed, except for a few extremely poignant moments of the immigrant experience that were well captured. Lee also made a few errors in Korean language and culture, which annoyed the Korean.

Purely as a side note, the Korean is currently reading The Trial by Kafka, Gulliver's Travel by Jonathan Swift, and Shiji Liezhuan by Sima Zhen.

Readers, got anything? Reviews are also welcome.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Las Cucurachas by Yongsoo Park is a good read. It's a story about a hotheaded kid growing up in a rough neighborhood in NYC in the '80s.

    His other novel, Boy Genius, was just weird. I don't remember much of it other than that.

    I, too, read Native Speaker, and found it unremarkable.

  2. I just finished reading Everything Asian. It is a novel by Sung J. Woo about a teenage boy who moves to America with his parents from Korea. It was pretty good.

  3. It is slightly off exact topic, but here is a good writer who has been completely forgotten -

    Kim Yong-ik.

    I'd say his short stories are better than his novels (Find "They Won't Crack It Open").

    But his personal story is interesting also. He moved to the United States in the 1950s and went to Iowa (which at that time had the only writing camp/program in the States) and began to write entirely in English. Most of his stories take place in Korea, but particularly as he got older, he sited more of them in the US, or with international themes.

    If you are interested in Korean Lit, and some Korean American Lit (like when I get to Kim Yong-Ik) I have a small website at

    Morning Calm on which I'm slowly trying to review all the Korean literature that has been translated into English.

    There's some really good stuff in the work I've already looked at, and it is reveiwed on the site.

  4. I really enjoyed "Our Twisted Hero" - sorry, I can't remember who wrote it.

  5. "Photo Shop Murder" by Kim Young-ha is more a collection of novellas than a novel, but it's good.

  6. I love every single one of the books listed below. Annotations were made in haste, so there are likely to be errors -- please feel free to correct. Also, feel free to fill in blanks where I haven’t yet had time to annotate. In chronological order:

    * East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee (1937) by Younghill Kang -- considered by many to be the first Korean American novel -- can be read as historical document of 1920s U.S., esp. cosmopolitan immigrant subculture in New York City – the prose is rich, sensuous, densely allusive (e.g., Shakespeare, Milton, Chinese poetry), meditative, filled with mixed metaphors (as if to capture the mixedness of cosmopolitan experience)

    * Dictee (1982) by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha -- not exactly a novel (Cha combines and experiments with a variety of forms here, including poetry, memoir, photography, maps, anatomical diagrams) but so beautiful and moving that I must recommend it

    * Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood (1988) by Richard E. Kim -- hybrid novel / autobiography set in Korea during Japanese occupation

    * Year of Impossible Goodbyes (1991) by Sook Nyul Choi – young adult autobiographical novel – set mostly in Korea during Japanese occupation

    * Echoes of the White Giraffe (1993) by Sook Nyul Choi – sequel to Year of Impossible Goodbyes

    * Halmoni and the Picnic (1993) by Sook Nyul Choi – children’s fiction -- features delicious KIMBAP (one of my favorite foods)

    * Native Speaker (1995) by Chang-rae Lee -- resonant, gorgeous, fraught with nuance, challengingly reticent at times, often lyrical

    * The Fruit N’ Food (1996) by Leonard Chang

    * Memories of My Ghost Brother (1996) by Heinz Insu Fenkl -- another hybrid novel / autobiography

    * Comfort Woman (1997) by Nora Okja Keller -- haunting, emotionally intense, occasionally so brutal that the reader wants to look away, yet ultimately cathartic

    * The Foreign Student (1998) by Susan Choi

    * A Gesture Life (1999) by Chang-rae Lee

    * Over the Shoulder: A Novel of Intrigue (2001) by Leonard Chang – mystery/noir – introduces us to Allen Choice (see below)

    * A Single Shard (2001) by Linda Sue Park – young adult historical novel set in 12th-century Korea

    * When My Name Was Keoko (2002) by Linda Sue Park – young adult historical novel set in Korea during Japanese occupation

    * Boy Genius (2002) by Yongsoo Park – surreal, hallucinatory

    * The Interpreter (2003) by Suki Kim

    * American Woman (2003) by Susan Choi

    * The Language of Blood: A Memoir (2003) by Jane Jeong Trenka -- technically nonfiction (Trenka recounts her experiences as an adoptee) but reads like a novel

    * Underkill: An Allen Choice Novel (2003) by Leonard Chang

    * Fade to Clear (2004) by Leonard Chang – another Allen Choice novel

    * Same Difference and Other Stories (2004) by Derek Kirk Kim – graphic novel

    * Secondhand World (2006) by Katherine Min

    * Miles from Nowhere (2008) by Nami Mun

    * A Person of Interest (2008) by Susan Choi

    * Personal Days (2008) by Ed Park -- this definitely qualifies as a "novel by a Korean American" but it isn't exactly Korean American in content – it’s a witty and eloquent and clever and dreamlike account of contemporary office culture

  7. I have some good suggestions for modern Korean-American contemporary fiction.

    "Secondhand World" by Katherine Min (coming of age story where teenage girl struggles to negotiate between her family's Korean past and her American present)

    "The Queens of K-town" by Angela Mi Young Hur (16 year Korean-American girl moves from the Midwest to NYC's K-town)

    "Clay Walls" by Kim Ronyoung (Three generations of Korean families and their struggles in LA)

    "A Cab Called Reliable" by Patti Kim (Female student grows up in suburban Virginia)

    "The Interpreter" by Suki Kim (29 year old Suzy Park is dating two married men and trying to solve her parents murder in NYC's Korean community)

    "Kept" by "Y. Euny Hong" (Korean-American girl in NYC tries to balance her life as a callgirl while dating her Columbia grad boyfriend)

    "Happy Birthday or Whatever" by Annie Choi (a humorous memoir by an LA girl dealing with her infuriating and demanding Korean family)

    For non-novels I really recommend "East to America" by Elaine Kim which is a compilation of 50 personal stories from Koreans across all social boundaries and their lives in America as well as "The Korean American Dream" which discusses Koreans in New York.

    I also just finished a book "Jia" by Hyejin Kim which is an excellent novel about a girl growing up and struggling in North Korea.

  8. Aloft by Chang Rae Lee is also excellent, but it's not about the Korean-American experience. This was the book that got me to re-read Native Speaker again.

  9. Wow, great suggestions by everyone. I wanted to throw in Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home a memoir by Kim Sunée. She is a Korean American adoptee so this suggestion definitely offers a perspective that is different from those coming from the 1.5 or 2.0 generations. Kim Sunée is a foodie so you'll catch some recipes stuck between chapters.

  10. it's already on Seo Jen's list, but Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller is one of my favorite books.

  11. I found When My Name Was Keoko ... overly tidy and, ultimately, it made me a bit angry. This kind of self-silencing is what makes it onto YA/middle-grade library lists?

    One very recent Korean American-authored novel: Good Enough by Paula Yoo.

  12. I read "A Single Shard" and "When my Name was Keoko" (both by Linda Sue Park). I read them with my children. They really enjoyed them. They are simple books, but I thought they were interesting and worth my time. Quick easy reads.

  13. Free Food for Millionaires--best novel on korean american issues (and a whole lot more)

  14. Finding My Hat by John Son.

  15. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim

    Wayfarer: New Fiction by Korean Women by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton


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