Summer is here! With the arrival of warm weather (or in this case, record-breaking heat) usually comes a desire to travel. While many places are starting to open up and loosen public health constraints, international travel is not yet feasible this season. As the Toronto International Festival of Authors team is staying close to home for a second summer, we are turning to books to get away and explore the world.
We asked our friends at Seoul International Writers’ Festival (SIWF) if they had any book recommendations that would transport us to South Korea. They shared five great books and gave us a sneak peek at who will be joining them for their festival this year. Check them out below and let us know which ones you will be reading!
Human Acts (소년이 온다) by Han Kang (한강)
From the internationally bestselling author of The Vegetarian, a “rare and astonishing” (The Observer) portrait of political unrest and the universal struggle for justice.
In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed.
The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho’s best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho’s own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.
An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of a historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.
Han Kang will present the opening keynote speech at SIWF’s festival this year.
The Good Son (종의 기원) by Jeong You Jeong (정유정)
Penguin Books (2018)
Early one morning, twenty-six-year-old Yu-jin wakes up to a strange metallic smell, and a phone call from his brother asking if everything’s all right at home – he missed a call from their mother in the middle of the night. Yu-jin soon discovers her murdered body, lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs of their stylish Seoul duplex. He can’t remember much about the night before; having suffered from seizures for most of his life, Yu-jin often has trouble with his memory. All he has is a faint impression of his mother calling his name. But was she calling for help? Or begging for her life?
Thus begins Yu-jin’s frantic three-day search to uncover what happened that night, and to finally learn the truth about himself and his family. A shocking and addictive psychological thriller, The Good Son explores the mysteries of mind and memory, and the twisted relationship between a mother and son, with incredible urgency.
One Left (한 명) by Kim Soom (김숨)
University of Washington Press (2020)
During the Pacific War, more than 200,000 Korean girls were forced into sexual servitude for Japanese soldiers. They lived in horrific conditions in “comfort stations” across Japanese-occupied territories. Barely 10 percent survived to return to Korea, where they lived as social outcasts. Since then, self-declared comfort women have come forward only to have their testimonies and calls for compensation largely denied by the Japanese government.
Kim Soom tells the story of a woman who was kidnapped at the age of thirteen while gathering snails for her starving family. The horrors of her life as a sex slave follow her back to Korea, where she lives in isolation gripped by the fear that her past will be discovered. Yet, when she learns that the last known comfort woman is dying, she decides to tell her there will still be “one left” after her passing, and embarks on a painful journey.
One Left is a provocative, extensively researched novel constructed from the testimonies of dozens of comfort women. The first Korean novel devoted to this subject, it rekindled conversations about comfort women as well as the violent legacies of Japanese colonialism. This first-ever English translation recovers the overlooked and disavowed stories of Korea’s most marginalized women.
You can meet the author, Kim Soom, at SIWF’s festival this year.
The School Nurse Files (보건교사 안은영) by Chung Serang (정세랑)
The School Nurse Files (2015) focuses on a school nurse named Ahn Eun-yeong, who protects the school with her ability to drive out evil spirits. School nurses are often overlooked in South Korean school environments, where university entrance exams are the primary focus. However, Chung Serang makes the conscious decision to place a school nurse at the center of the story and grant her special powers. In Chung’s world, those in seemingly unremarkable positions who nevertheless diligently do their duty are the ones who make the world a safer and more prosperous place. The fact that the diligent professional in this story is a woman is also significant, as The School Nurse Files gives takes the traditionally masculine role of active commitment to duty and gives it to a female protagonist, allowing her to stand on her own as the lead character.
While the novel has not been published in English yet, it has been adapted into a drama series by Netflix and is available to watch now. Chung Serang gave the closing keynote speech for the 2020 Seoul International Writers’ Festival. You can watch the speech here.
At Dusk (해질 무렵) by Hwang Sok-yong (황석영)
Scribe Publications (2018)
In the evening of his life, a wealthy man begins to wonder if he might have missed the point.
Park Minwoo is, by every measure, a success story. Born into poverty in a miserable neighbourhood of Seoul, he has ridden the wave of development in a rapidly modernising society. Now the director of a large architectural firm, his hard work and ambition have brought him triumph and satisfaction. But when his company is investigated for corruption, he’s forced to reconsider his role in the transformation of his country.
At the same time, he receives an unexpected message from an old friend, Cha Soona, a woman that he had once loved, and then betrayed. As memories return unbidden, Minwoo recalls a world he thought had been left behind — a world he now understands that he has helped to destroy.
From one of Korea’s most renowned and respected authors, At Dusk is a gentle yet urgent tale about the things, and the people, that we give up in our never-ending quest to move forward.
At Dusk has been longlisted for the 2020 National Translation Awards in Prose by the American Literary Translators Association. You can watch Hwang Sok-young give the opening keynote speech for 2020 Seoul International Writers’ Festival here.
If you would like to find out more about the authors, we recommend checking out the Digital Library of Korean Literature here.