Korean literature is considered to be a hidden realm by many, a realm where people, especially those acquainted with western literature are afraid to dive into. Thus, I will bring to attention 5 of my favourite Korean writers – and some of their phenomenal pieces of literature – whose creations will most likely leave you mesmerized and will probably make you want to know more about their unbeknown world. However, as a word of advice, when reading Asian literature of any sorts, try not to project the European literary standards upon that piece, as the socio-cultural differences can potentially create a state of confusion and can potentially alter your literary experience.
Korean monk and poet, he is a representative figure of modern Korean literature, who masterfully combined elements of the romantic and modernist genre with religious and philosophic ideas, creating a personal eclectic style. Through his own creative universe, he brought forth his nationalist agenda during the Japanese occupation of Korea. My favourite poem from Han Yong-un is `Your Silence`, a literary manifesto that uses powerful images and metaphors, to highlight the loss of identity in a period of imminent crisis.
From an ecclesiastical point of view – and judging by Han’s ideological past -, one can argue that these motives correspond to the concept of cattāri ariyasasccāni, the Buddhist ideal of suffering and acceptance of the suffering. If you want to read this particular poem, you will most definitely be introduced to Han’s amazing lyrical universe.
Kim Dong In (The Pioneer of Korean Naturalism)
Kim Dong In is another amazing Korean writer, unfortunately, unknown to many. Born in Pyongyang in 1900, he pioneered both realism and naturalism in Korean literature. A dire advocate for the `art-for-art’s-sake` movement, he wrote short fiction, usually inspired by the world and people of his time. A wonderful novel you should start with is `Potato`, a representative of Korean naturalist literature. Through his naturalist creation, Kim Dong In rejects by definition romanticism, but especially the outdated Confucian values – thus propagating ideas previously promoted by Yi Kwang Su-, he renounces the ancient rigours and promotes the evolution of literature, as a means of fulfilling the human ideal.
Gong Ji Youn (The One Who Questions Our Moral)
Gong Ji Youn is the third Korean author I want to bring to our attention, as her book `Our Happy Time` brought a revolution into the draconian Korean prison system. Born in Seoul in 1963, Go Ji Youn is a novelist writing about the underprivileged, of them whom we rarely think about as our equals, of those whose human rights are often questioned. Opening a dialogue about morale and human nature, her book presents a double perspective narration, one from the point of view of a prisoner, telling his life and his hardships through some heartbreaking `blue letters` and the other from the perspective of a suicidal painter who assists the prisoner through his final days.
Kim Ae Ran (The Cozy Literature Creator)
Quite a new face on the Korean literary scene, she debuted in 2003 with the short novel `No Knocking in This House`, which gained rapid acclimation and that brought the young writer an important literary award, the Daesan Literary Award. She writes short stories about various topics, finely portraying people, habits and critiquing certain aspects of the Korean society. My favourite short novel from her is by far `Knife Marks` a touching story about the hardships of being a mother and the sole breadwinner in a modern-day Korea stricken by the economic crisis.
This particular novella combines a multitude of complex themes such as transgenerationality of trauma, womanhood and motherhood in a highly patriarchal society. However what makes Kim’s writing special, in my opinion, is the coziness and familiarity of her style which almost resembles a story told by an old woman over a hot bowl of ramyon, who entrusts you with her fond memories, her regrets and her little secrets.
Pak Wan So (The Storyteller of Korean Women’s Experiences)
Our last author is the marvellous Pak Wan So, an outstanding figure in the Korean literary world who wrote about the life of women during the Korean War. She wrote about many things, from the horrendous repercussions of the war to the families it destroyed and the lives it changed. My favourite novel from Pak is `Mother’s Stake` a short story ab
out her childhood told from an eagle-eye perspective, bringing into attention the multiple faces of the Korean women of her time, the constant oscillation between the classic woman -taught how to be a wonderfully obedient wife- and the modern woman – preoccupied of entirely other dwellings.
The novel also brings to attention the `stakes` and confusion her mother imposed on her, in an attempt to make her child a woman of the new world, a daughter who can face the new order of their society.