The best historical fiction set in Korea by Korean American authors

Who am I?

Eugenia Kim’s debut novel, The Calligrapher’s Daughter, won the 2009 Borders Original Voices Award, was shortlisted for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and was a critic’s pick by the Washington Post. For that novel, which is set during the Japanese Colonial Period in Korea, 1910-1945, and for her second novel (below), whose first half is set during the Korean War, 1950-1953, she read more than 500 books and twice traveled to Korea in order to accurately depict these little-known slices of history.


I wrote...

The Kinship of Secrets

By Eugenia Kim,

Book cover of The Kinship of Secrets

What is my book about?

In 1948 Najin and Calvin Cho, with their young daughter Miran, travel from South Korea to the United States for an extended visit. Wary of the challenges that they will face, they make the difficult decision to leave their infant daughter, Inja, behind with extended family; soon, they hope, they will return to her.

But then war breaks out in Korea, and there is no end in sight to the separation. Miran grows up in prosperous American suburbia, under the shadow of the daughter left behind, as Inja grapples in her war-torn land with ties to a family she doesn’t remember. Najin and Calvin desperately seek a reunion with Inja, but are the bonds of love strong enough to reconnect their family over distance, time, and war? And as deep family secrets are revealed, will everything they long for be upended?

The books I picked & why

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Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee,

Book cover of Pachinko

Why this book?

The accolades for this epic novel are deserved. In her second novel, author Min Jin Lee follows members of a family (and many equally fascinating ancillary characters) from the Japanese Occupation era in Korea, to the Korean diaspora in Japan up to 1989. She manages this expansive timespan through third-person omniscient voice, allowing a kind of economy in the storytelling that would otherwise be limited to structural concerns. It’s both a feat of intricate character development and a rapid-moving plot that makes one love the people, even the antagonist, and live through a hundred fast-moving stories that kept pulling at me long after all the pages were turned. Much is written about her inspiration and about the story itself, soon to be a tv mini-series. If you’re interested in Korean historical fiction, read this stunning epic.

Pachinko

By Min Jin Lee,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked Pachinko as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

* The million-copy bestseller*
* National Book Award finalist *
* One of the New York Times's 10 Best Books of 2017 *
* Selected for Emma Watson's Our Shared Shelf book club *

'This is a captivating book... Min Jin Lee's novel takes us through four generations and each character's search for identity and success. It's a powerful story about resilience and compassion' BARACK OBAMA.

Yeongdo, Korea 1911. In a small fishing village on the banks of the East Sea, a club-footed, cleft-lipped man marries a fifteen-year-old girl. The couple have one child, their beloved daughter Sunja. When Sunja…


The Surrendered

By Chang-Rae Lee,

Book cover of The Surrendered

Why this book?

What happens after you survive the atrocities and randomness of war? Chang-rae Lee examines the deep intricacies of this question and its ramifications, portraying three survivors (Korean War, Sino-Japan War) whose lives mesh at an orphanage somewhere in South Korea after liberation. From that common crossroad, the lives of Sylvie, a missionary wife, Hector, a G.I., and June, a Korean orphan, are forever intertwined, shadowed by pervasive doom pitted against the human need to endure. Lee’s intense focus on physicality seems to reflect the characters’ bodily will to continue life, even as their hearts are blackened by tragedy. It is an intense and absorbing read, frightening for what we do to ourselves and how, despite all the darkness and violence we create in the name of war, some continue to persist in a semblance of life, and helplessly pass along the damage of war to those they touch as they reach out with a last shred of hopefulness. Is it all in vain? That’s the question Lee poses in this masterpiece of writing.

The Surrendered

By Chang-Rae Lee,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Surrendered as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

June Han has forged a life thousands of miles from her birthplace: she has built a business in New York, survived a husband, borne a child. But her past holds more secrets than she has ever been able to tell, and thirty years after her escape from war-ravaged Korea, the time has come for her to confront them.

Hector Brennan, fighter, drinker and 'failure grand and total', is the man who long ago saved June's life. And between them lies the story of the beautiful, damaged Sylvie Tanner, whose elusive love they both once sought. On a journey that takes…


This Burns My Heart

By Samuel Park,

Book cover of This Burns My Heart

Why this book?

This book will capture you with a heroine who is both irresistible and flawed, and will engross you with increasing twists in a triangle of love and sacrifice. The story explores how a fateful choice colors a decade of marriage, and challenges a young woman’s ambition already constrained by traditional Korean culture. Sam Park paints all the flavors of post-war Korea in this vivid debut, and his understanding and expression of the human heart is universal.

This Burns My Heart

By Samuel Park,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked This Burns My Heart as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Chamara is difficult to translate from Korean to English: To stand it, to bear it, to grit your teeth and not cry out? To hold on, to wait until the worst is over? Such is the burden Samuel Park's audacious, beautiful, and strong heroine, Soo-Ja Choi, faces in This Burns My Heart, an epic love story set in the intriguing landscape of postwar South Korea. On the eve of marriage to her weak, timid fiance, Soo-Ja falls in love with a young medical student. But out of duty to her family and her culture she turns him away, choosing instead…


The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories

By Caroline Kim,

Book cover of The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories

Why this book?

Caroline Kim’s captivating story collection gathers an entrancing variety of voices spread across time and place. These diverse viewpoints reveal cohesive threads that address clashes of culture, of generations, of relationships, of history, carrying us from medieval Korea to the Korean War and our own contemporary then-future world, and strikingly reflects us all in riveting microcosms of story. Deeply moving and affecting, these stories and their heartfelt characters will linger long after the last page is turned.

The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories

By Caroline Kim,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Exploring what it means to be human through the Korean diaspora, Caroline Kim's stories feature many voices. From a teenage girl in 1980's America, to a boy growing up in the middle of the Korean War, to an immigrant father struggling to be closer to his adult daughter, or to a suburban housewife whose equilibrium depends upon a therapy robot, each character must face their less-than-ideal circumstances and find a way to overcome them without losing themselves. Language often acts as a barrier as characters try, fail, and momentarily succeed in connecting with each other. With humor, insight, and curiosity,…


The Grass Roof

By Younghill Kang,

Book cover of The Grass Roof

Why this book?

This is an autobiographical novel of a scholar’s son’s coming of age in a small village during the Japanese occupation, though that is felt with some distance. Kang focuses on classical education in that era, traditions for holidays and ceremonies, schooling, friends, family dynamic, a detailed account of the March First Independence Movement Day, and finally emigration to America as a young man. It is a little-known prequel to Kang's book, East Goes West, a seminal work in Korean American literature, which covers his immigration to New York in the 1920s through the war years.

The Grass Roof

By Younghill Kang,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Grass Roof as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Text: English, German (translation)


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