Welcome to my new segment, Read Your World. Every week for the foreseeable future, I will write about 4 to 5 authors from countries around the world. I do this for the benefit of both myself as well as my readers and followers. The novels and books I choose may be fiction or nonfiction and I recommend them because I have either read them, have wanted to read them for some time, or trusted critics and authors recommend them.
This week I want to highlight books set in or about Korea, both South and North. All the books I chose were written by women, which was unsurprising, but also a happy coincidence.
Kyung-sook Shin – Please Look After Mom
I’ve wanted to read this book for months now. It has sold 10 million copies in Korea and has become a cultural sensation, so this is a must-read if you’re planning a trip to Korea. Perhaps I should call my mother more often…
This is the stunning, deeply moving story of a family’s search for their mother, who goes missing one afternoon amid the crowds of the Seoul Station subway.
Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.
You will never think of your mother the same way again after you read this book
Han Kang – The Vegetarian
I bought this one recently because I became a vegetarian 3 months ago and the premise fascinated me. However, I expect to be unnerved by some of the elements in the story. What does it mean “to embrace a more ‘plant-like’ existence”? And what is this “complete metamorphosis of both mind and body”?
Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.
A disturbing, yet beautifully composed narrative told in three parts, The Vegetarian is an allegorical novel about modern day South Korea, but also a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.
Nora Okja Keller – Comfort Woman
I read this one in college. The title is a euphemism for a woman forced into sexual slavery. Be warned that this will not be a tale that will bring much comfort, but it does provide haunting authenticity.
Comfort Woman is the story of Akiko, a Korean refugee of World War II, and Beccah, her daughter by an American missionary. The two women are living on the edge of society—and sanity—in Honolulu, plagued by Akiko’s periodic encounters with the spirits of the dead, and by Beccah’s struggles to reclaim her mother from her past. Slowly and painfully Akiko reveals her tragic story and the horrifying years she was forced to serve as a “comfort woman” to Japanese soldiers. As Beccah uncovers these truths, she discovers her own strength and the secret of the powers she herself possessed—the precious gifts her mother has given her.
North Korea is a surreal, unsettling place. We don’t get many glimpses into the everyday lives of its people, and perhaps we won’t see an unadulterated view for many years. So I am grateful to Suki Kim for her bravery during her time in North Korea and her boldness in telling this story.
Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, all under the watchful eye of the regime.
Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world’s most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls “soldiers and slaves.”