What brings a city to life in fiction? Written by expat writers in South Korea, the stories in A City of Han lead the reader past the opulent towers and neon-lit facades towards lonely apartment buildings and small alleyways hidden away from view. Each show an excellent command of the short story form and much like the city itself, these stories reveal that there is more than what first meets the eye: an argument for how predicaments and preoccupations of a city’s inhabitants do more than physical markers in defining the character of a place. 

Kim Ayami is a twenty-eight year old woman and law-school dropout who wants to be an actress, but appears to have been not very good at it, as she has only acted in one production and is now working at a theatre for the blind in Seoul after a number of stints as a waitress. It’s her last day there, though, because the theatre, the only one of its kind, is closing down and Ayami faces the uncertainty of unemployment, as she has no formal qualifications for another job.

Although today Samsung stands astride the global consumer electronics markets, as well as some others, it was not all that long ago that the idea that a Korean company could deploy a brand with global reach and dominance would have seemed unlikely, except perhaps among regional experts (or partisans).

When Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 was published in South Korea several years ago, it took the country by storm, selling more than a million copies and becoming the most popular book in over a decade. Applauded by many women, those who do not support feminism have spoken out against it. Last year, the film version again caused controversy between those who want South Korean sexism to change and those who think the status quo is just fine. Now available in an English translation by Jamie Chang, English-language readers get a chance to understand this divide firsthand.

At the beginning of Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, a fierce social commentary about gender roles, class divisions and, yes, plastic surgery in South Korea, Kyuri is seated at her plastic surgeon’s office and spots the K-Pop star whose look she copied for her many surgeries. The K-Pop star looks as if she’d been crying and pulls a cap down over her face when Kyuri peers over at her. When the star is called back into an exam room, the two women lock eyes.

Ideology grappled geography in a civil war with no end. As the Korean War froze along the trenches and barbed wire entanglements, harbingers of the final line of control that was to divide North from South for a lifetime, the United States fought and sought a political triumph as a surrogate for military failure on the battlefield. Armistice talks in May 1951 started, hiccuped, stopped and then were reborn and recycled as Washington stubbornly—to the chagrin and incredulity of its own negotiators—refused to abide by the 1949 Geneva Convention requiring the simple repatriation of prisoners of war (POWs) at the end of military conflict. 

Rated R Boy: Growing Up Korean in 1980s Queens, Yongsoo Park (Piggycorn, March 2020)
Rated R Boy: Growing Up Korean in 1980s Queens, Yongsoo Park (Piggycorn, March 2020)

Rated R Boy: Growing Up Korean in 1980s Queens is a memoir of one family’s move from South Korea to the United States. Told by its child narrator, it describes life in mid-1970s Korea and compares it to life in America, where he is exposed to things that challenge what he’d held to be sacrosanct.