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Top 3 books by Korean Women Writers: Pioneers, Voices, and Perspectives

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

The Korean entertainment industry is spreading its wings all around the world, and so is its literary counterpart. Korean Literature has provided some of the most ground-breaking books of all time. Most of these are penned by women with a deep understanding of the social struggles, the urge to change the existing patriarchal viewpoints and a strong drive to place women’s voices at the forefront. These books deal with subjects like motherhood, self-discovery, depression and religion and have heavily impacted the literary industry.

1. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam Joo

Translated by Jamie Chang

Before we discuss this book, it is important to understand the Korean #MeToo movement as it forms the basis of this text.

The Korean #MeToo movement in 2018 saw a rise in women confessing to being a victim of some form of sexual assault. Before, gender inequality was at large in Korean society. Women were mocked and then silenced when they raised their voices opposing such treatment. But in 2018, these snow mountains shook and soon an avalanche occurred. It started with one brave individual, Seo Ji-Hyeon who came forward during a live interview on a news channel that a former South Korean Ministry of Justice official, Ahn Tae-Geun, groped her during a funeral in 2010. This started an unstoppable wave with hundreds of women narrating their stories of abuse and assault. Allegations against a presidential hopeful, Ahn Hee-Jung, an esteemed poet, Ko Un, and an award-winning movie director, Kim Ki-Duk, poured more fuel on the fire. March 2018 saw the #MeToo movement hold its marathon protest in downtown Seoul when almost 200 women took to the streets to narrate horrific experiences.

This is a very important novel. It was one of the loudest waves that became the backbone of the Korean #MeToo movement and protests. This novel deals with the themes of sexism, patriarchy and mental health struggles. It depicts what the life of an average Korean woman looks and has looked like for the past fifty years.

Having sold millions of copies, in 2020, the novel became longlisted for the U.S. National Book Award for Translated Literature and the French Emile Guimet Prize for Asian Literature. It was also adapted into a movie that was released in October 2019.

This story starts with the protagonist (Kim Jiyoung) being given an appointment to see a psychiatrist because of a condition she develops wherein she impersonates the personalities and voices of all the women she has met in her life, whether alive or dead.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a feminist fiction to its very core and must be read accordingly. It brings to light the struggles that every woman has faced. It narrates the story of a girl who grows into a woman and ultimately embraces the role of a mother. It makes us think about the lives of women and how they live.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a novel that should not be approached as a form of entertainment. It is the scream of every abuse victim. It is the voice of every woman, who faces discrimination and sexism in their homes, offices, on subways, and in restaurants. It is the repressed anger of all the females who are taught to dress a particular way, to gulp down all their protests and to help a man with everything he needs whether he respects them or not. It is the tears of every mother who is always treated as an inferior and is taken for granted. It is the howl of every woman when she loses her dreams.

This book is every bit of misogyny stored in society and how it affects women. It is a book meant to provoke rage in its readers. It is written with the intent to wake people from the fickle dream they are living to see the stark reality of today.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a book that needs to be read. Every single eligible adult needs to know and understand what this book stands for as misogyny not only prevails in Korea but has breeding grounds worldwide.

2. Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung Soo

Translated by Kim Chi-Young

Please Look After Mom is a novel by South Korean author Shin Kyung-Sook. It sold a million copies within 10 months of release in 2009 in South Korea and is critically acclaimed internationally. The English translation by Kim Chi-young won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. The novel has been adapted as a stage play and musical.

When sixty-nine-year-old So-Nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves and the family is forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called their Mother? The novel explores the loss, self-recrimination, and in some cases, self-discovery caused by the mother's disappearance. The novel also considers themes related to the self-sacrifice of mothers in general (and in Korea in particular), the relationship between memories of the past and realities of the present, and the ever-changing aspects of identity. The novel tries to explore complex familial ties and character dimensions. It is an intensely moving and thought-provoking piece of literature that is narrated almost entirely in the second person.

“To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mom was Mom. She was born as Mom.”

This is a quote from the book that encompasses the entire message it tries to give out. A woman, when she becomes a mother, loses her entire identity beyond that role. We never stop to think that she too had dreams, she too had aspirations of her own. She is expected to live and breathe for her family.

One is forced to recognize the sacrifices mothers make daily, their loss of identity, and the treatment they receive as a part of society. One is made to realise the reality of how mothers choose to suffer silently for their family’s sake than voice their concerns or how their problems are either ignored or overlooked as being minor and not of importance.

3. I Want to Die, But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Baek Se Hee

Translated by Anton Hur

Written by the author with the goal to share her story with others and assure people that they are not the only ones suffering through it, this book is a depiction of what it feels like to live with depression, embracing it and taking the right steps to overcome it. Depression can be lonely, without anyone to reach out to. It is scary and frightening. This book is an attempt by the author to convey her feelings and connect with the readers.

I Want to Die, But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki is defined by many readers as a book “to keep close and reach for in the times of darkness.” It is the author’s honest effort to communicate her feelings to the readers.

It was written to provide comfort to the reader and it does that job fantastically. Having someone to relate to you, comfort you and tell you that you are okay is the support everyone needs. Any mental health issue demands a lot from the body and can be quite taxing. We are not in the right shape to motivate ourselves. Reading this book in such times provides the readers with the hope that they are not as broken as they believe to be and can be saved. This book is a catharsis of Baek Se Hee’s struggles. It is a step towards breaking free from the social stigma of mental illnesses and suffering in silence.

We hope this blog helped you choose your next read.
Which one do you feel compelled to read?
Let us know! ~Mrinmayee Anaspure.

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