In 1995, when I read Chang-Rae Lee’s impressive debut novel Native Speaker, I was inspired to read every new novel written by a Korean American as it was published. That was not such a difficult task in the 90s, but in the course of the new century, there has been such an explosion of excellent Korean American novels that I have not been able to keep up, with an increasing number of works in my ‘to read’ list.
This is a welcome and fortunate development as it signals not only the growing numbers of talented KA writers telling their stories but also the publishing industry’s willingness to put their writings. For those who are interest in familiarizing themselves with Korean American novels, the following are ten+one essential works they should start with, picked not just for their quality but the sheer variety of works that have been produced by the community.
Kang (1898-1972) immigrated to the United States in 1921 and became a pioneering writer as the first Korean American novelist, starting with his 1931 work The Grass Roof. His second novel, East Goes West, is a fictional account of his experience as an Asian immigrant in the 1920s. Its publishing success played a significant role in the creation of Asian American literature itself, so it is a work of essential importance.
Richard E. Kim (1932-2009) was another pioneer of KA literature who wrote a series of novels that took place in Korea. The Martyred take place during the early days of the Korean War and involves an army officer investigating the mass murder of Christian ministers by communists. In 2011, this novel became the first KA work to be republished as a Penguin Classic.
A riveting story of a Korean American man who is hired to spy on a Korean American community leader. In the course of his work, he has to grapple with memories of his upbringing in an immigrant family. This winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award winner opened up a lot of opportunities for future KA writers.
Leonard Chang, a television writer as well as a novelist, broke new ground with a series of detective novels with a KA private investigator. This early novel of his is a powerful story of racial tension at a grocery store in New York, told from the point of view of a down-and-out employee who develops a complicated relationship with the KA family that owns the store.
Alexander Chee has become a celebrated writer with his best-selling historical novel The Queen of the Night (2016) and his collection of essays How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (2018). His first novel Edinburgh is a searing coming-of-age story of a young gay man dealing with his sexual identity and the impact of childhood sexual abuse.
Min Jin Lee has deservedly garnered a great deal of attention with her National Book shortlisted novel Pachinko (2017), but her debut novel is also well worth reading. It tells a comical and precisely observed tale of a young KA woman, fresh out of an ivy league university, trying to make her way into the high society of New York City.
A gripping story of a horrific crime that is visited upon a KA family. But the crime itself only reveals deeper family issues that had led the main character to be estranged from his parents. A significant achievement in the depiction of family dysfunction.
The story of three friends who attend Seoul National University in the economic boom period of South Korea in the late 1970s. Despite their attempts to pursue their dreams in the country that is getting wealthier but still under a military dictatorship, they find that their differences in social backgrounds still determine their future paths in different ways.
A horrific shooting at a university in Pennsylvania leads the KA people involved back to their time in Seoul during the tumultuous time of political unrest in the early 1980s. A beautifully written work that delves into deep issues of memory, trauma, and identity.
Steph Cha has written a series of terrific noir novels with a female KA private investigator. In her most recent literary novel, she takes on a story based on the real-life shooting of an African-American teenager by a KA store owner in the 1990s. The story provides a powerful meditation on race relations in Los Angles and the legacy of one of the defining events of the era.
Yoon Ha Lee has made an important contribution to KA writing as a successful multiple-award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy novels. This work takes place in a colony of a military empire (based on Korea under the Empire of Japan) where weapons of mass destruction are made through both high technology and magic.
Bonus! Also Recommended (10+1):
Heinz Insu Fenkl, Memories of My Ghost Brother (1996)
Gary Pak, A Ricepaper Airplane (1998)
Suki Kim, The Interpreter (2004)
Nami Mun, Miles From Nowhere (2008)
Catherine Chung, Forgotten Country (2012)
Krys Lee, How I Became a North Korean (2016)
Patty Yumi Cottrell, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (2017)
James Han Mattson, The Lost Prayers of Ricky Graves (2017)
Eugene Lim, Dear Cyborgs (2017)
J. S. Lee, Keurium (2018)
Matthew Salesses, Disappear Dopplegänger Disappear (2020)
Minsoo Kang is a professor in European history, with specialities in the cultural and intellectual history of France, England, and Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. In addition to articles in numerous journals, he is the author of Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (Harvard University Press), The Story of Hong Gildong (Penguin Classics), and Invincible and Righteous Outlaw: The Korean Hero Hong Gildong in Literature, History, and Culture (University of Hawaii Press). His translation of Record of the Virtue of Queen Inhyeon, Lady Min appeared in Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature and Culture.
We hope you like our reviews and recommendations! All products featured on Best of Korea are independently selected by our writers and editors. If you would like to purchase a product, please use our links and we may receive an affiliate commission for your purchase. Best of Korea LLC is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.