The best debut novels by Korean American writers

The Books I Picked & Why

Native Speaker

By Chang-Rae Lee

Book cover of Native Speaker

Why this book?

This novel was published a year after my college graduation, and even now, almost thirty years later, I can recall seeing the book at the neighborhood Waldenbooks. By this point I’d dreamed of becoming a writer myself, but who was I, a Korean-American kid, kidding? The only Asian-themed book I knew was The Good Earth, and it was written by Pearl S. Buck, who I assure you was not remotely Korean. So to have Native Speaker in print meant the world to me, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s also just a really engrossing book. With the self-doubting protagonist Henry Kim at its center, I adored how very Korean this book was. I still do.

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The Foreign Student

By Susan Choi

Book cover of The Foreign Student

Why this book?

I never ran into Susan, but I could have. While attending Cornell as an undergrad, she was earning her Master's in Fine Arts right there in Ithaca, NY.  But I knew her work way before this novel came out, because in 1992 I read a short story of hers in Epoch, Cornell’s graduate literary magazine. Now I know nothing of Susan’s personal history, but I had a feeling when I read The Foreign Student that this story, a torrid romance between a Korean man and a Caucasian woman in the mid-1950s Deep South, was truly hers. I’m not saying she wrote about her parents or her own past – what I mean is that it felt like she did. There’s something inescapably genuine embedded in this novel, an effect I hoped to replicate in my own work.

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By Alexander Chee

Book cover of Edinburgh

Why this book?

A year before I embarked upon my MFA, I found Alex’s book. Edinburgh is one of those rare novels you feel more than you read, if that makes sense. Probably doesn’t, which is why I urge you to pick this up. I don’t know if you are familiar with the phrase “exquisite corpse” – it’s a method where you collaborate on a story with others by only seeing the last sentence and then writing your own – but I actually want you to take those two words at face value. This book is an exquisite corpse – it is both beautiful and terrifying, about a young gay Korean boy and how his pedophiliac relationship with an older man develops into a twisted nexus of pain and catharsis. The sentences in this book are almost a performance.

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In Full Bloom

By Caroline Hwang

Book cover of In Full Bloom

Why this book?

The year is 2003, and I’m finishing up my first year at NYU’s Creative Writing Program. And a colleague of mine tells me a recent Korean-American graduate will be publishing her first novel. He tells me that Caroline’s book is a romantic comedy in novel form. And I pause for a moment – ten years ago I could not name a single Korean American writer, and now we have our own Jennifer Weiner? How cool is that? And how cool is In Full Bloom? You probably have never heard of this novel, and now that you have, you will thank me when you race through these hilarious pages. Ginger Lee is our heroine, and yes, that type of punny humor is de rigueur in this book. I don’t know who I love more, Ginger or her mother. Probably her mother. 

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Free Food for Millionaires

By Min Jin Lee

Book cover of Free Food for Millionaires

Why this book?

And now the year is 2007, and here’s the big-ass Korean-American book we’ve all been waiting for – Free Food for Millionaires. In baseball terms: while the rest of us first-time novelists choked up our bats and hit our singles and doubles, Min Jin swung for the fences. At the center of the novel is Casey Kim and her quest to find her passion, never mind the consequences of being basically disowned by her parents, but make no mistake: the scope of this book is like that of Casey’s favorite authors, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, and Anthony Trollope. There are multiple generations of Koreans at work and play here. It’s exactly the type of book I love to read and never even consider writing, because I just don’t have that kind of ambition. Thank goodness some do!

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