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The “Most Korean” Features Penetrate the World




I met Kristen Vida Alfaro, CEO of Tilted Axis Press, in the UK last September. Tilted Axis Press is the publisher set up by Debora Smith, who won the International Booker Prize with Han Kang. The company introduced Love in the Big City (Changbi Publishers) written by Park Sang-Young and translated by Anton Hur to the UK, and the book put its name on the Booker Prize Longlist this year. Also, translated by the same translator, Chung Bora’s Cursed Bunny (Arzak) was selected for the Booker Prize Shortlist. As such, Korean literature – or K-literature – has recently been creating a sensation in English-speaking countries. If you take a closer look at the phenomenon, you will realize that diaspora literature written by Korean-Americans is at the center of popularity, such as Lee Min-Jin’s Pachinko and Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart.


* K-Book Trends Vol. 47 – Go to the interview with writer Chung Bora


* K-Book Trends Vol. 48 – Go to the interview with writer Park Sang-Young


* K-Book Trends Vol. 37 – Go to the introduction of translator Anton Hur


* K-Book Trends Vol. 47 – Go to the article about Korean books recommended by translator Anton Hur



Crying in H Mart



Mentioning the two books, I asked Kristen, “In which direction can Korean literature grow overseas in the future?” And she replied, “Korean literature is going to extend further than now and at a steady pace. The two books, Crying in H Mart and Pachinko, are common in that they touch on diaspora. In this respect, other Asian Americans and Asian Canadians have a deep connection to books, in addition to second- and third-generation Korean Americans. And I think the market will continue to grow in response to this interest. Also, as proof of this, Korean restaurants are continually popping up in various countries, and Crying in H Mart has been a huge success in London.”
In short, diaspora literature written by Korean Americans is generating worldwide interest not only in Korean literature, but also in Korean food. Then, what kind of stories do they have, which were strong enough to move the global market?


On the Boundary between Korea and the US


One of the hottest issues in and outside the publishing market is the “historicization of personal narratives.” It means looking at the generational flow and the global trend of a certain era through an individual’s story that was obviously not at the center of the grand history. A good example of this is Pachinko by Lee Min-Jin, which was serialized on Apple TV as a drama as well. The book is a full-length novel that features the lives of ordinary people who had no choice but to overcome a national tragedy. It describes the story of a Korean family, who moved to Japan and lived there over four generations. The family history spanning 4 generations, which begins with Sunja’s story and moves on to Noa, Mozasu, and Solomon, is in the historical flow, stretching from the Japanese colonization of Korea to the Korean War, as well as the bubble economy in Japan. For the “story of ordinary individuals facing a historical catastrophe,” writer Lee Min-Jin revised the original draft where she initially set Solomon, the 3rd generation, as the main character. The protagonist was changed to Sunja, and the title, too, was changed from “Motherland” to “Pachinko.” The title “Pachinko” reflects the tragic life of Koreans living in Japan, who had to choose the pachinko business as the only means to survive in a foreign country full of unpredictable uncertainty, hatred, and prejudice.
Sunja, the main character, begins her story in Yeongdo, an island at the far end of Busan. The story takes place at the time of the Japanese occupation. Sunja’s father, Hoon, who has a lip disfigurement, runs a boarding house with his wife Yangjin, a tough and independent woman, to give the best care for their daughter Sunja. After Hoon dies of tuberculosis, 16-year-old Sunja is left alone with her mother. She later falls in love with Koh Hansu, a Korean fish broker from Jeju, working in Japan. She then has his child, but around the time when she finds out that Hansu is a married man, Baek Isak, a pastor, appears and proposes to her to come and live with him in Japan. 17-year-old Sunja says yes, and the couple moves to Osaka.


Pachinko draws on the tragic life of Koreans living in Japan,
who had to live through a world full of hatred and prejudice.


After its publication in the US in 2017, Pachinko was selected as a “book of the year” by over 75 major media outlets, including the New York Times, USA Today, and BBC. In addition, it was nominated as a finalist for the National Book Award. Writer Lee Min-Jin put her name on the NYS Writer Hall of Fame in 2022, and won the Manhae Prize for Literature and the Bucheon Diaspora Literary Award in Korea. The judging committee of the Bucheon Diaspora Literary Award commented, “This desperate story of survival represents the ‘diaspora’ of ‘wanderers’ around the world, who, for unavoidable reasons, are destined to move around unfamiliar lands, while implying the hardships of the motherland, “Joseon (the previous name of Korea),” which became isolated due to constant foreign invasions.”
The reason why Pachinko was under the spotlight in the US publishing market can be found in the one-line comment of writer Junot Diaz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. “Luminous... a powerful meditation on what immigrants sacrifice to achieve a home in the world,” he said. Thinking of the American sentiment which equates the story of immigrants with the history of their own country, Pachinko, which features a chronicle of an immigrant family that thrives by managing their lives steadfastly without succumbing to the vast waves of history, is good enough to draw sympathy from American people. This is also in line with their sentiment, where they are enthusiastic about “Western films” that are mainly about immigrants settling down in unfamiliar places.
Meanwhile, writer Gary Shteyngart asked a question about Pachinko, “What does it mean to become a member of a country?” This is a big question asked to those living in this global era and the spirit of the times.


Because it is “Our” Story, After All


Going back in time, there was the movie “Minari” before the popularity of the drama “Pachinko.” This movie, an autobiographical story of director Chung Isaac who was born into a Korean family that immigrated to the US, is a mixture of things unique to Korea and the US. After all, the movie used these elements as a weapon to captivate the minds of both Koreans and Americans, pressing that “button” in the heart imprinted with immigrants’ DNA.



Poster of the movie “Minari”



After being released in 2021, the movie “Minari” handed over the baton of success to Pachinko in 2022. The driver behind the novel Pachinko’s popularity was the same-title drama aired on Apple TV. The novel climbed up the bestsellers’ list only after the news that actress Yoon Yeo-Jung, winner of the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role at the Academy Awards in 2021 for her acting in “Minari,” was participating in the drama “Pachinko.” Then, things rolled out seamlessly, and as the drama drew great popularity, it affected the Korean market leading to the original novel’s further success in Korea.




Poster of the drama “Pachinko” and its original novel Pachinko



Encountering the original book, readers came to know that Pachinko reflects characteristics unique to Korea. As can be seen from the winner’s comment of the National Book Awards, the pain described in Pachinko is a “unique pain” suffered by those struggling to find a home that they can belong to amidst the vortex of war and conflict between Korea and Japan. And, if you look deeper into this pain, you will see history, family, love, loss, and money that contain the joys and sorrows of Koreans – those that any Korean would relate to.


Inheriting the popularity of the movie “Minari,”
Pachinko drew global attention, starting from its drama to the original novel.


Another book similar to Pachinko is Beasts of a Little Land, written by Kim Joo-Hye. It was translated and published in Korea this September. The writer, who migrated to the US at the age of 9 and is a 1.5-generation immigrant, announced this full-length novel in December, 2021. While sharing similar backgrounds, such as “Korean-American” and the Japanese occupation of Korea, it is comparable to Pachinko in that the story is narrated from the viewpoint of the Joseon people. Regarding this, the writer said, “I think that if Pachinko is a story of survival for family, Beasts of a Little Land is a story of fierce struggle for the nation,” at the press conference held on the day when the book was published. “The driving force behind writing this novel was growing up listening to the story of my maternal grandfather, who helped Kim Gu (pen name: Baekbeom) in the independence movement since childhood. Taking the Japanese colonial period as the background, the stories created by Koreans and Japanese intertwined continues until after liberation, depicting the lives of various people who had to live in such a turbulent era.



Beasts of a Little Land



Watching how humanity has existed, and exists, in the world through the lives of individuals in the vast history continues until today. Kristen Vida Alfaro, CEO of Tilted Axis Press, who I mentioned earlier in this article, appraised that “Korea has so many works that surpass contemporaneity introduced so far with its long, rich history, that excels “Hallyu (Korean Wave)” that has emerged rapidly in recent years.” Also, editor Park Ha-Bin at Dasan Books, who edited Beasts of a Little Land, left a comment on the 571st volume of Gihoeghoeui (meaning “planning meeting” in Korean) issued on November 5, titled “A Story that Begins in Korea During the Japanese Colonial Period, Passes Through the United States, and Ends in Korea in 2022.” “Once this book crosses the border called ‘Korea,’ it turns into ‘history’ from a mere ‘fiction.’ Even if there is no definition or proof, Koreans will all agree that this story is ‘their story.’” So, while these two people commented on the books about the joys and sorrows of Koreans that migrated to other countries and settled from a foreigner’s and Korean’s perspective, respectively, they highlight one thing in common – special “colors” intrinsic to Korea, be they the unique historical experience or stories about Korea. In short, it can be reduced to a single answer: the most “Korean” content works both in Korea and internationally.



Written by Kim Mi-Hyang (Publication critic and chief editor of publishing magazine Gihoeghoeui)



Kim Mi-Hyang (Publication critic and chief editor of publishing magazine Gihoeghoeui)

#Pachinko#Beasts of a Little Land#Minari#Hallyu#History
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