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Another Korea Wave: New Books in U.S.

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  • Sunny Jo
    Another Korea Wave: New Books in U.S. The flurry of attention that the girl bands Girl’s Generation and Wonder Girls got in South Korea for making
    Message 1 of 1 , May 1, 2012
      Another Korea Wave: New Books in U.S.

      The flurry of attention that the girl bands Girl’s Generation and
      Wonder Girls got in South Korea for making appearances in the U.S.
      earlier this month suggested that Korea’s pop culture was cracking the
      U.S. more than it really is. Ultimately, neither group made it onto
      America’s Top 100 music charts.

      But Korea is getting quite a bit of attention in the U.S. in a
      different medium – books.

      Three important and substantively different books about the Korean
      peninsula are landing in American (and European, and some Asian)
      bookstores at nearly the same time – a trendlet, at least, if not a

      The book getting the most attention at the moment is “The Orphan
      Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson, a fiction writer and creative writing
      teacher at Stanford. It’s on prominent display in many U.S. book
      stores this month and has puzzled and delighted readers and reviewers
      with a mix of narrative styles and timeframes as it tells a betrayal
      tale set in North Korea.

      Some people are reaching to define with it terms like “shape shifting”
      and “trauma narrative” and the action it depicts in the North is often
      brutally violent. The book has also spawned a small controversy within
      the community of North Korea experts and observers, which Mr. Johnson,
      in public appearances, is careful to say he does not consider himself
      a part.

      The author of what is the only ongoing series of thrillers set in
      North Korea, a former American official who dealt with North Korea and
      writes under the pseudonym James Church, took Mr. Johnson’s
      publisher’s to task for promoting “The Orphan Master’s Son” as
      “insight” on North Korea.

      “Buy The Orphan Master’s Son, by all means. Read it for fun. Enjoy it
      or not,” Mr. Church writes on 38 North, the North Korea-focused blog
      of the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS. “Just don’t imagine it opens much
      of a window into North Korea.”

      Readers seeking a window onto both North and South Korea will find it
      in “Drifting House,” a collection of short stories by Krys Lee, a
      Korean-American writer who has been living in Seoul for several years.

      Ms. Lee’s book has been overshadowed a bit by the attention Mr.
      Johnson is getting, but it has gotten sterling reviews. On
      Goodreads.com, the book was called an “unflinching portrayal of the
      Korean immigrant experience,” though most of the nine stories depict
      ordinary people in the two Koreas rather than immigrants to the U.S.

      A reviewer in the San Francisco Chronicle called the author’s “cool
      telling” allows the reader to absorb “the tectonic plates of history,
      social forces and circumstances” moving all around “these striving,
      damaged and unforgettable characters.”

      At a reading in Minneapolis this week, Ms. Lee shared the stage with
      Sun Mee Chomet, a Korean-American actress who was born in Korea but
      put up for adoption and grew up as an adoptee in the U.S. Ms. Chomet
      read from a play she’s writing about her experience searching for her
      birth family in Korea. The audience learned about South Korea through
      the prism of two immigrants who returned; Ms. Lee who has made it her
      second home and Ms. Chomet who has visited only a handful of times.

      Both Ms. Lee and Mr. Johnson will soon be sharing store shelves with a
      book that may get even more attention because its subject matter is
      the darkest secret on the Korean peninsula – the concentration camps
      in North Korea.

      Coming at the end of March is “Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s
      Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West,” the true
      story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who is the only person known to have been
      born in a North Korean gulag and escaped all the way to South Korea.

      Written by Blaine Harden, former East Asia correspondent for the
      Washington Post, the book describes Mr. Shin’s awful, harrowing,
      tragic and ultimately affirming life.

      Combined, the three books illuminate the fundamental condition of the
      Korean peninsula – its forced division – and the effects of that
      condition in a varied and detailed manner, perhaps one that hasn’t
      been seen or available in years for English readers interested in the

      Disclosure: The author of this post is personally and professionally
      acquainted with Ms. Lee and Mr. Harden.

      Adam Johnson,
      Blaine Harden,
      Krys Lee,
      North Korea

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