The best books about contemporary Korean society

Who am I?

Fresh from college, I arrived in South Korea in 1976 to teach English as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and despite my naivete, or maybe because of it, I fell in love with the country—the people, the food, the culture, the history. I have since lived and worked in many other countries, but Korea will always be my first love and I have returned many times for both work and pleasure. When I became a fiction writer, I was keen to read the work of Korean novelists who, naturally, had an even better understanding of their culture than I did, and I love staying connected to the country in this way.

I wrote...

The Shaman of Turtle Valley

By Clifford Garstang,

Book cover of The Shaman of Turtle Valley

What is my book about?

When Gulf War veteran, Aiken Alexander, brings his young and pregnant South Korean bride home to Virginia, he hopes they can both find acceptance. However, Soon-hee, can’t—or won’t—adjust to life in America. When Soon-hee disappears with their son, Aiken’s life and dreams fall apart—he loses his job and falls prey to his worst impulses. It is at this low point that Aiken’s story becomes interwoven with the Alexander family history going back generations, one that pitted brother against brother and now cousin against cousin, in a perfect storm of violence and dysfunction. Drawing on Korean beliefs in spirits and shamanism, how Aiken solves these problems—both corporeal and spiritual—is at the center of this dynamic and beautifully written debut novel.

The books I picked & why

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Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

By Cho Nam Joo, Jamie Chang (translator),

Book cover of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Why this book?

It came as no surprise to me, having spent so much time in the country, that Korea has long been and still is a sexist society, and this book illustrates that sexism brutally. When I lived there, my good friend, a woman, was a professor of biochemistry, and she struggled in her career the way men didn’t have to. Also, while people thought nothing of my going out to a pub with my male friends, it was somewhat scandalous when I did the same with this woman. In this novel, set in more recent times, a young woman has similar troubles trying to find her way. For many readers, it has served as a wake-up call for Korean society.

Human Acts

By Han Kang,

Book cover of Human Acts

Why this book?

I first became aware of Han Kang through her terrific novel The Vegetarian, so when this novel came out, I was keen to read it. I was especially drawn to it because it involves Korean characters looking back at the Gwangju massacre, a horrific event that took place in 1980, just two years after I left Korea following my Peace Corps service there. When I taught at a university, anti-government demonstrations by students were already being tightly watched, and one of my students vanished in a crackdown. I never learned what happened to him, but he didn’t return to school. It was therefore fascinating to me to read these fictionalized accounts of both the incident in Gwangju and the long-term effects on survivors.


By Kwon Yeo-Sun, Janet Hong (translator),

Book cover of Lemon

Why this book?

This novel is a murder mystery, of sorts, that also has a lot to say about socio-economic divides in contemporary Korea. This was particularly interesting to me because when I lived there in the 1970s, everyone was poor. No one owned a motorbike, much less a car, and they were all barely scraping by. Now, though, great wealth and privilege have emerged alongside persistent poverty, and that class divide looks too familiar to Americans. The rich are privileged and have access to things the poor do not, including justice.

Untold Night and Day

By Suah Bae,

Book cover of Untold Night and Day

Why this book?

This is a surreal novel that suggests a complexity to modern Korean life that I can’t say that I’ve witnessed. It’s a novel of patterns—repeated images and passages that may be indicative of what it’s like to live in Seoul at this point in time. The main character has lost her job—and an odd job it was—but she is now even more immersed in the world of artists and writers, which is another reason the book spoke to me. The book was something of a challenge, given its shifts and ghost-like characters, but that too made it more exciting.

Friend: A Novel from North Korea

By Nam-Nyong Paek, Immanuel Kim (translator),

Book cover of Friend: A Novel from North Korea

Why this book?

This one is set in North Korea and is by a sanctioned North Korean writer. As a result, there is no criticism directed at the North’s restrictive society and on the surface it isn’t at all political. Instead, it shows the mundane existence of a judge and his wife, ordinary people who work hard to contribute to the development of the nation. It seems to be about traditional values, and the rising prevalence of divorce is seen as a problem. Those of us who follow Korea rarely get this kind of insight into what life in the North is really like, and while these characters may be relatively privileged, their existence is tellingly monochromatic.

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