Roundup of Korean American Literature 2021: 7 Novels, 2 Memoirs, and 2 Story Collections

2021 has been another banner year for Korean American writing with many standout novels, memoirs, and short story collections put out by both major and independent publishers, many of them appearing on ‘best of the year’ lists and one, Grace Cho’s Tastes Like War, becoming a finalist for the National Book Award. 

This is not a comprehensive list of works that have been published in the year but these are the books that have come to my attention and I have been able to read.

Seven Korean American Novels (in alphabetic order of authors’ names):

1.  Wondra Chang, Sonju (Madville Publishing)

A deeply moving narrative of a woman navigating her way from tradition to modernity in the tumultuous years in South Korea from liberation from Japan in 1948 through the Korean War and beyond.  A young woman who is forced into an arranged marriage seeks a different destiny for herself at a time when everything in the country seems to be changing.  She has to face the agony of loss and ostracism, but she also finds opportunities for independence in the new era as well.

2.  Juhea Kim, Beasts of a Little Land (Ecco)

A beautifully realized historical epic of Korea from the colonial era to the new age of independence.  It begins with a riveting account of a hunter’s encounter with a tiger in a mountain, then branches off into multiple narratives of the intertwined lives of an observant girl who grows up among courtesans, the leader of a gang of street kids who turns into a communist activist, a Japanese officer who becomes disillusioned with the empire, and an enterprising young man who dreams of becoming an industrialist.  A superb depiction of the intimate lives of varied people caught in the storm of history.

3.  Gene Kwak Go Home, Ricky! (The Overlook Press)

A hilarious and fast moving but also moving story of a professional wrestler in Omaha, Nebraska whose career is jeopardized by a serious injury.  His subsequent journey in search of his father, accompanied by his eccentric mother, is filled with comic and poignant turns.  The crisis that befalls on the sense of his self, derived from his half Native American ethnicity, leads to insights into the nature of identity.

4.  Janice Lee, Imagine a Death (Texas Review Press)

An experimental novel with an unconventional narrative that is still riveting for the power of its poetic writing.  In a world where everything is falling apart, perhaps heading toward an apocalypse, three people – a female writer, a photographer, and an old man – grapple with the traumas of death, loss, and abuse.  It reads like an extended prose poem that is not afraid to delve into the darkest aspects of the human condition.    

5.  Eugene Lim, Search History (Coffee House Press)

A wildly imaginative science fiction novel that takes place in a time of powerful AIs, sentient robots, and other hybrid beings of the digital age.  There is an attempt to program a computer to write not just a readable novel but a truly great one.  And a Korean American man goes in search of his deceased friend, another Korean American man and a brilliant musician, whom he believes to have been reincarnated as a dog.

6.  James Han Mattson, Reprieve (William Morrow)

A harrowing novel that begins with a murder in a kind of perverted escape house of horrors where the actors are allowed to touch the contestants who are trying to find their way out.  Through police interviews and other narratives, we learn of the lives of the major people involved in the incident.  A disturbing but brilliant meditation on toxic masculinity and the strange attraction to horror in contemporary culture.

7.  Jung Yun, O Beautiful (St. Martin’s Press)

After her extraordinarily powerful debut novel Shelter, Jung Yun has followed up with an equally potent novel that takes place in North Dakota, at a place that the oil industry has turned into an overnight boom town.  A mixed-race Korean American woman who grew up in the area is sent there as a reporter to write about the impact of the changes.  As she interviews the local people, she has to struggle with the painful memories of her growing up there as well as a disturbing incident that occurred on her flight to the place.

Two Memoirs

In recent years, Korean American woman writers have excelled in writing extraordinary memoirs on varied topics and styles – Janice Lee, Reconsolidation (2015), Christine Hyung-Oak Lee, Tell Me Everything I Don’t Remember (2017), Nicole Chung, All You Can Ever Know (2018), E. J. Koh, The Magical Language of Others (2020).  The latest additions are two deeply moving works – Grace Cho’s Tastes Like War (The Feminist Press at CUNY) and Michelle Zauner, Crying at H Mart (Knopf).  On the surface, they seem to deal with the same issues, mixed-race Korean American women struggling with the death of their mothers with cooking Korean food as a major theme.  But the two works feature such distinct voices that narrate very different lives that each clearly stands out on its own.

1.  Grace Cho’s Tastes Like War deals with the author’s experience of her mother’s mental illness and eventual death.  Cho, a professor of sociology, attempts to comprehend her mother through the exploration of her troubled past, in the South Korean service industry catering to members of the US military stationed in the country.  The devasting revelations of the truths she uncovers alternate with memories of cooking in this powerful narrative.

2. Michelle Zauner’s Crying at H Mart begins with a rather magnificent ode to the Korean supermarket H Mart that is also deeply moving for the author’s grief over the death of her mother from cancer.  Cooking again plays a major role in her remembrance as well as healing from the loss.  She also describes her growing up in Oregon as a mixed-race child, her journeys to South Korea to spend time with her relatives, and her rising music career in the indie band Japanese Breakfast.

Two Short Story Collections

Two Korean American writers have produced their debut collections, both displaying great proficiency in the short prose form.  Yoon Choi’s Skinship (Knopf) excels at describing the intimate hopes and unhappiness of ordinary lives in precisely constructed sentences that constantly hint at great revelations that are just out of reach of the characters.  The stories in Caroline Kim’s The Prince of Mournful Thoughts (University of Pittsburg Press) are more varied in background and time, tackling the struggles of people in crisis, set in both South Korea and the immigrant community in the US, one retelling the famous historical tale of an eighteenth century prince who was executed by his royal father.     

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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