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Apple TV+’s Pachinko is completely captivating. The story traces three generations of a Korean family, beginning in the 1910s in a small fishing village through the 1980s in Osaka, Japan. Featuring an all-star cast—including Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung, South Korean superstar Lee Min-ho, Broadway veteran Jin Ha, and newcomer Minha Lee—the eight episode series is surely poised to become an awards juggernaut.
The show, and Min Jin Lee’s novel of the same name, are praised for highlighting the story of Zainichi (literally, “residing in Japan,” or resident) Koreans. These are ethnic Koreans who live in Japan—belonging neither to Korea or Japan, but existing in some in-between space. For Zainichi Koreans, a route to economic success was running pachinko (a pinball-type game) parlors. In the show, Mozasu (Soji Arai) owns a pachinko parlor.
To write Pachinko, Lee interviewed dozens of Zainichi women, writing in the acknowledgements, “The Korean Japanese may have been historical victims, but when I met them in person, none of them were as simple as that.” Showrunner Soo Hugh, too, spoke with as many Zainichi women as possible to inform the show.
If you watch, or are watching, Pachinko and have the urge to learn and read more about Korean history and Korean diaspora identity: You have come to the right place. Here are 15 books by Korean and Korean American authors that you should add to your bookshelf ASAP.
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If you’re watching Pachinko and haven’t read Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel the show was based on yet, what are you waiting for? Pachinko It became a national bestseller when it was first published in 2017. The epic historical novel traces the same story in the TV show, following one Korean family over a century, from 1883 to 1989. The story begins with Hoonie, a poor fisherman in the Korean fishing village of Yeongdo, and then follows his daughter, Sunja, who becomes pregnant at age 16 and leaves for Japan, then her sons, Noa and Mozasu, and finally, Mozasu’s son, Solomon, who leaves for America but ultimately returns to Japan. There’s more plot in the book than in season one of Pachinkobut hopefully, future seasons will cover Noa and Mozasu’s stories.
Beasts of a Little Land
If the epic historical sweep of Pachinko‘s story is what appeals to you, check out Juhea Kim’s debut novel Beasts of a Little Land. As the description reads, Beasts of a Little Land is “an epic story of love, war, and redemption set against the backdrop of the Korean independence movement, following the intertwined fates of a young girl sold to a courtesan school and the penniless son of a hunter.” The story begins in 1917, when a hunter saves a young Japanese solider from an attacking tiger, and soon takes the readers from “the perfumed chambers of a courtesan school in Pyongyang to the glamorous cafes of a modernizing Seoul and the boreal forests of Manchuria. “
The Island of Sea Women
In the first episode of Pachinkowe watch a young Sunju (Yu-na Jeon) diving in the waters off the shore of her village—a scene that reminds viewers of Korea’s diverse environment, and the little girl’s moments of freedom and joy. Lisa See’s novel, The Island of Sea Women, is set on it on Jeju Island and tells a tale of haeyneyo, the women divers of the island. The story follows best friends Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls who live on Jeju and start working in the sea with the diving collective, through the Japanese occupation of Korea, through World War II, the Korean War, and beyond. As the description writes, “Little do the two friends know that after surviving hundreds of dives and developing the closest of bonds, forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.”
This is a Korean history novel not set in Korea. Let me explain: In 1904, in the wake of the Russo-Japanese War, thousands of Koreans left their home for lands near and far. A thousand or so Koreans traveled to Mexico, where they worked under brutal conditions on henequen (an agave plant) plantations. By the time their four or five-year contracts ended, they did not have enough money to return to Korea and stayed in Mexico. Young-ha Kim’s BlackFlower tells the tale of these men and women who have, until now, been lost to history.
Go: A Coming of Age Novel
Pachinko deliberately focuses on the tale of Zainichi Koreans, aka ethnic Koreans living in Japan. In Goa young adult novel by Zainichi Korean writer Kazuki Kaneshiro, readers follow the story of Sugihara, a Korean student in a Japanese high school. Sugihara falls in love with Sakurai, a Japanese girl, who doesn’t know he isn’t Japanese. After he (spoiler) reveals his identity de ella to her, the description writes, “Sugihara must decide who he wants to be and where he wants to go next. Will Sakurai be able to confront her own bias de ella and accompany him on his journey of her?”
Kaneshiro won Japan’s presigious Naoki Prize for Goand the film adaptation won every major award in Japan in 2002.
Pachinko’s storyline does not make it to modern day, instead ending in the 1980s, but that doesn’t mean books about modern Korean and Korean American identity aren’t relevant here. In Michelle Zauner’s powerful debut memoir, she writes about growing up mixed-race in Oregon, and losing her Korean mother. The memoir began as a story in the new yorkerwhich you can read here.
Catherine Chung’s debut novel, Forgotten Country, weaves Korean folklore within a modern narrative of immigration and identity. It’s a tale of endurance, traditions, and the familial bonds that hold us together. Here’s the book’s description: “The night before Janie’s sister, Hannah, is born, her grandmother tells her a story: Since the Japanese occupation of Korea, their family has lost a daughter in every generation, and Janie is told to keep Hannah safe. Years later, when Hannah inexplicably cuts all ties and disappears, Janie goes to find her.Thus begins a journey that will force her to confront her family’s painful silence, the truth behind her parents’ sudden move to America twenty years earlier, and her own conflicted feelings toward Hannah.”
Kim Ji Young, Born 1982 is the story of the life of a South Korean woman Kim Jiyoung, a housewife and stay-at-home mother who struggles with depression and recounts the everyday sexism she encounters. After its publication in 2016, it soon exploded in popularity in South Korea, hailed as a timely feminist novel. Author Cho Nam-Joo said this was her intention of her, explaining to the New York Times“I wanted to write about issues that women could not speak about before, because they were taken for granted.”
“I wanted to write about the everyday and common but nonetheless undeserved experience of women around me, about the despair, exhaustion and fear that we feel for no reason other than that we’re women,” Cho added. “I also wanted this story to not just be a work of fiction, but a very likely true-to-life biography of someone out there.”
If you’re interested in diving deeper into Korean history in the historical fiction genre, Kyung-Sook Shin’s The Court Dancer tells the true story of Yi Jin, a 22-year-old court dancer in the palace of the Korean king and queen in 1891. She ends up in Paris, France, but as the only Korean woman there, her very existence draws attention. Ace NPR writes in its review, “Sorrow threads itself through the pages of The Court Dancer, yet there is a richness both to the period and the narrative as beautiful as any silk fan. Kyung-Sook Shin has become one of South Korea’s most popular authors, and for good reason. Her deep understanding of the subtleties of the human heart effortlessly crosses borders and informs her of her portrait of a different place and a faraway time.
The Loneliest Americans
Pachinko author Min Jin Lee blurbed Jay Caspian Kang’s The Loneliest Americanswriting the novel is “a smart, vulnerable, and incisive exploration of what it means for this brilliant and honest writer—a child of Korean immigrants—to assimilate and aspire while being critical of his membership in his community of origin, in his political tribe, and in America.” The book is a blend of family history (Kang’s family immigrated from South Korea to the United States) and original reportage that dives into modern Asian American identity—a racial identity that doesn’t fit into the nation’s Black and white binary.
The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories
Caroline Kim’s short stories explore identity throughout the Korean diaspora, focusing on characters who stayed on the peninsula and ones who left. As Kim writes, the twelve stories are inspired by her own identity: “About a decade and a half ago, I found myself going through a serious identity crisis. I kept wondering what my life would have been like had my family decided to stay in Korea. What would the Korean version of me be like? Would I look different? Would I like different things?”
Zainichi Korean Women in Japan: Voices
The only nonfiction book on this list, this is for those who want to dive further into the story of Zainichi women. As the description reads, “Presenting the voices of a unique group within contemporary Japanese society—Zainichi women—this book provides a fresh insight into their experiences of oppression and marginalization that over time have led to liberation and empowerment. Often viewed as unimportant and inconsequential.” , these women’s stories and activism are now proving to be an integral part of both the Zainichi Korean community and Japanese society.”
Free Food for Millionaires
Pachinko author Min Jin Lee’s debut novel is worth your time. Though extremely different than the historical fiction epic, Free Food for Millionaires touches on similar themes of maintaining one’s identity in a foreign world. Except here, the foreign world is New York. The story is set in the 1990s follows protagonist Casey Han, the daughter of Korean immigrants, as she enters the upper echelons of American society following her graduation from Princeton. Similar to Solomon in Pachinko gaining access to that world via his job at a bank, Casey struggles to reconcile her identity, her parent’s expectations, and her career.
The Kinship Of Secrets
The Kinship Of Secrets is a historical fiction tale of two sisters raised in different countries, and kept apart by the Korean War. “In 1948 Najin and Calvin Cho, with their young daughter Miran, travel from South Korea to the United States in search of new opportunities. Wary of the challenges they know will face them, Najin and Calvin make the difficult decision to leave their infant daughter , Inja, behind with their extended family; soon, they hope, they will return to her,” reads the description on the book jacket. “But then war breaks out in Korea, and there is no end in sight to the separation. Miran grows up in prosperous American suburbia, under the shadow of the daughter left behind, as Inja grapples in her war-torn land with ties to a family she doesn’t remember.” Min Jin Lee calls the novel “a gorgeous achievement.”
Last but certainly not least on this list is a classic book by Younghill Kang, one of the first Korean American writers. His seminal works of him are The Grass Roofpublished 1931, and its sequel East Goes West, published in 1937. The books are fictionalized memoirs that follow Chungpa Han, a young, idealistic Korean man who is against the Japanese occupation of Korea. He arrives in New York, hoping for a new life in the West, but is disappointed. “Part picaresque adventure, part shrewd social commentary, East Goes West casts a sharply satirical eye on the demands and perils of assimilation. It is a masterpiece not only of Asian American literature but also of American literature,” Penguin Random House writes. Korean American author Alexander Chee calls the novel “a Nabakovian stylistic tour de force, from start to finish.”
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