Round Up of 2022’s Best Books by Korean Americans

The year 2022 proved to be another impressive one for Korean American literature.  It saw the publication of four major novels, a short story collection, and two works of young adult fiction, by both veteran and debut writers.

Four Novels

1.  Joseph Han, Nuclear Family

The Cho family of Hawai’i runs a chain of Korean plate lunch restaurants in Honolulu, finding success after being featured on the TV program of a celebrity chef. Their world is rocked when their son Jacob, who was working in Seoul as an English teacher, tried to run over to the North Korean side while on a tour of the DMZ.  As his family anxiously await news of Jacob’s fate, they must also deal with local repercussions as they are now held in suspicion by the Korean American community and the rest of the world.

2.  Lydia Kang, The Half-Life of Ruby Fielding

A riveting historical novel set in New York during World War II, the lives of a brother and a sister are upturned when a beautiful woman is found unconscious on their property.  The siblings take her in and nurse her back to health only to become embroiled in the dangerous mystery of her identity, which includes connections to power families of the city as well as the ultra-secret work the brother is doing for the war effort.  

3.  Marie Myung-Ok Lee, The Evening Hero

A Korean American ob/gyn doctor must make a new life for himself after his retirement.  At the insistence of his son, he takes on a position at a startup practice in a mall that is not what he expected it to be.  As the malaise and complications of his situation grow, he thinks back on his past, to his life in Korea before immigrating to the US; the sacrifices he had to make and the betrayals he had to commit in order to pursue the American dream.

4.  Soon Wiley, When We Fell Apart

A biracial Korean-American expatriate working in Seoul is devastated by the apparent suicide of his Korean girlfriend. In alternating chapters we follow his desperate search for the truth behind her death and learn the story from his girlfriend’s perspective.  Their experiences reveal essential truths, many of them dark, about modern Korean society, including its sexism, homophobia, and toxic work culture.

Short Story Collection

1.  Don Lee, Partition

Collected here are nine masterfully written stories of Korean American life by a veteran writer, including the title story ‘Partition,’ about a Korean American academic who is up for tenure after having translated a Korean novel.  Her life and career prospects are thrown into chaos when an accusation is leveled that her work is fraudulent.

Young Adult Fiction

1.  Axie Oh, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

An epic fantasy novel inspired by the traditional folktale ‘Sim Cheong.’  A brave young woman, whose brother is in love with Sim Cheong, decides to take Sim Cheong’s place as a sacrifice to the Sea God in order to prevent her brother from interfering in the ritual.  In her subsequent adventures in the land of spirits beneath the sea, the sister becomes involved in a power struggle among the gods.

2.  Ginger Park, The Hundred Choices Department Store

This novel features a coming-of-age story of a young girl from the northern town of Sinuiju. Follow her journey as she experiences life under Japanese colonial rule, the partition of the country following independence, the Korean War, and the tragedy of family separation as she and her family flee to the south.

minsoo kang

Minsoo Kang is a professor of European history at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.  He is the author of the history books “Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination” (Harvard UP) and “Invincible and Righteous Outlaw: The Korean Hero Hong Gildong in Literature, History and Culture” (U of Hawaii Press) and the collection of short stories “Of Tales and Enigmas” (Prime Books).  He is also the translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the Joseon dynasty novel “The Story of Hong Gildong”.

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