The best first novels by now-established Korean American authors

Don Lee Author Of The Partition
By Don Lee

The Books I Picked & Why

Native Speaker

By Chang-Rae Lee

Book cover of Native Speaker

Why this book?

I feel Chang-Rae Lee broke out of the mold of Asian American books that always dealt with immigration or stories set in Old Asia. A young man, Henry Park, is hired to infiltrate the campaign of a Korean American running for mayor in New York City. Yes, this delves into the issues of assimilation and alienation, but the novel is about so much more. It’s lyrical and poignant and universal in its explorations of familial and marital love. 

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Snow Hunters

By Paul Yoon

Book cover of Snow Hunters

Why this book?

This stunning, superlative novel soars in its lyricism. In just 194 pages, we get a lifetime. Yohan leaves the Korean peninsula after the war and becomes an apprentice to a Japanese tailor in Brazil. This story is quiet, without a lot of fireworks, but it’s nonetheless haunting and just gorgeous. 

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The Foreign Student

By Susan Choi

Book cover of The Foreign Student

Why this book?

In 1950s Sewanee, Chang and Katherine slowly fall in love and find that the Souths of Korea and Tennessee are not that different after all, both subject to lingering issues of class, family, race, and civil war. I love the poetic language in this novel, as well as its ambitious story and the complexity invested in every relation.

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By Alexander Chee

Book cover of Edinburgh

Why this book?

This coming-of-age novel was groundbreaking, as it concerns a shy Korean American boy who grows up in Maine, singing in a boys’ choir, who has to figure out how to navigate the aftermath of sexual molestation. But then the book takes a startling, provocative turn, with the narrator becoming a young man and teaching at a private school, where he discovers one of his students is his molester’s son. Edinburgh is achingly beautiful.

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The Incendiaries

By R.O. Kwon

Book cover of The Incendiaries

Why this book?

This powerful novel involves a young man, Will, who falls in love with a woman named Phoebe in college in Upstate New York. Phoebe is indoctrinated into a religious cult that ends up bombing several buildings, killing five people. Phoebe then disappears, and Will becomes intent on finding her, wanting to figure out her involvement in the terrorist acts. The story’s propulsive and electric, diving into everything from first love to religion to politics. It’s also a personal story. R. O. Kwon herself was, as she phrases it, “a Jesus freak,” though she lost her faith in high school.

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