Another Korea Wave: New Books in U.S.
- 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
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.