Anton Hur

Writer, translator

Korean Literature 101: A Reading List

*My high school English teacher asked me to put together a reading list of mostly contemporary Korean literature. This is what I gave him:

1. <100도씨> 100 Degrees Celsius by Choi Kyu-seok

Genre: Graphic novel (historic fiction)

Every list on contemporary Korean literature should start with this work, which describes the events leading up to the June Democracy Movement of 1987. Readers are given both historical and visual insight into postwar Korea, which is especially helpful for foreign readers for visualizing this key era that crops up again and again in contemporary Korean fiction. The Korea Democracy Foundation has made the entirety of the work available for free online at (book version available from Changbi Publishing).

Availability in English: No

If you liked it, try: The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-yong

2. <외딴방> The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung-Sook Shin

Genre: Fiction (autobiographical)

This novel is the most important work of fiction to emerge from postwar Korea. It is set during the peak of Korea’s economic development phase in the late seventies, and is the story of a teenage girl who leaves her home in the provinces to work in the factories by day and attend high school by night. Throughout her traumatic ordeals she holds a secret, seemingly impossible dream of becoming a writer, but even after her dreams come true, her past comes back to haunt her.

Availability in English: Yes

If you liked it, try: I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin, Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

3. <한중록> The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea

Genre: Memoir

Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1815) wrote these memoirs looking back on a life where, among other things, her father-in-law the King murdered her husband, the Crown Prince of the Joseon Dynasty at the time. I strongly recommend reading them in modernized Korean or in English, the latter of which an excellent translation exists courtesy of the late Professor JaHyun Kim Haboush. This is the book that inspired The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble, a cross-cultural work of historic fiction.

Availability in English: Yes

If you liked it, try: The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin, Jewel in the Palace (TV drama)

4. <입 속의 검은 잎> A Song of Melancholy Youth: Black Leaf in My Mouth by Ki Hyongdo

Genre: Poetry

Black Leaf in My Mouth is Korea’s bestselling collection of poetry by a single author. An industrialization-era poet of magnetic lyricism, the collection continues to enthrall readers decades after the poet’s early death in 1989. There is also quite a lot of discussion surrounding the poet’s autobiographical background; all is not as it seems.

Availability in English: No (only in bits and pieces)

If you liked it, try: A Dictionary Composed of Seven Words by Jin Eun-Young, Sky, Wind and Stars by Yun Dong-ju

5. <채식주의자> The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Genre: Fiction

Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Award, this critically acclaimed novel is the story of a woman who decides to become a vegetarian and how she is victimized for her decision (and for more than her decision). Relevant: according to the UNODC, Korea has one of the highest proportion of female victims of violent crimes in the world.

Availability in English: Yes

If you liked it, try: The White Book by Han Kang, Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-yong

About Me

I am a writer and translator working in Seoul. I was born in Stockholm, Sweden, and raised in British Hong Kong, Ethiopia, and Thailand, but mostly in Korea, where I’ve lived for thirty years. I was awarded the title of Person of Distinguished Service to the Nation after serving in the Korean Army. Repped by Jon Wood at RCW.

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