Hannah's Korean American Favorites
A CURATED LIST FROM WRITER HANNAH BAE
The first time I encountered a work of Korean American literature, in 2006, I was a senior in college. In the 15 years since, I’ve been proud to see this space explode, with countless works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry reflecting back facets of my bicultural experience. By no means a complete list, here are just a few of the books by Korean American authors that have made me feel seen, expanding my definition and understanding of what our literature can be, one page at a time. —Hannah Bae, writer (Twitter, Instagram)
“We are sisters,” Min Jin Lee wrote to me (a stranger at the time), when she signed my first edition of Pachinko at a book launch event back in 2017. It’s this sentiment — that all of us, as members of the Korean diaspora, are connected as family — that courses through this essential, multigenerational epic of Koreans subjugated under Japanese colonization.
Krys Lee was the first Korean American author I ever met in real life, back when I was living in Seoul as a young adult. In her debut collection, Lee’s short stories include characters like an academic prodigy, a pastor (like her father and mine), and North Korean refugees, each rendered in thoughtful, humane detail. This book is a totem of kindness and encouragement to me and my own writing.
Pachinko fans looking for their next read must snap up Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, which frames the Korean War and its aftermath through distinctly female perspectives. This American novel rocked my world by centering Koreanness, refusing to frame our language or our ways of life as “other.”
I still get chills thinking about Jung Yun’s dark domestic thriller, which I stayed up all night to read in one sitting. Domestic strife and economic trouble course through this extraordinary novel that explodes tired ideas of what a “Korean American story” can be.
Quite possibly the first American novel set in modern-day Seoul, If I Had Your Face is a delicious, transporting treat of a novel focused on the friendships between five very different women in one apartment building.
Not all Koreans are “crazy rich Asians,” contrary to the insidious model minority myth. Nancy Jooyoung Kim hammers that point home with her debut novel, which lovingly depicts the lives of a working-class Korean American family in LA, a daughter working to untangle the family secrets behind the rift with her mother. A must read for anyone who’s struggled to understand a parent’s past lives.
The Incendiaries is a sharp knife of a campus novel, in which love and faith clash against extremism and violence. Published in 2018, its themes feel darkly prescient now in 2021, proof of how attuned R.O. Kwon is to the pulse of America’s mood.
“If you are reading this, and you’re a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead.” These words by Alexander Chee were my north star during my darkest days in 2020, and they continue to guide me now.
In her debut book, Nicole Chung — a gifted memoirist, editor and mentor — writes to anyone who has ever felt torn between two worlds, anyone who feels a disconnect with their roots. Adoption is a subject too seldom explored from the child’s perspective, and Chung adds to the Korean American canon with her big-hearted memoir that seeks to define home.
At once heartbreaking and generous, E. J. Koh’s memoir was my favorite book of 2020. Koh, who is also a poet and literary translator, explores her experience of parental separation through her own tender prose and translations of her mother’s handwritten letters in Korean from that painful period of her life. This book lights the path forward for writers like me.
I laughed and I cried while reading Robin Ha’s beautifully illustrated young adult graphic memoir. Ha’s mother told the author they were going on vacation when she uprooted their lives in South Korea to immigrate to Alabama, and this graphic memoir captures Ha’s teenage feelings of displacement and loss, while also vividly showing the way that art can save a young person’s life.
Cartoonist and journalist Dami Lee has spent her whole life crossing cultures, from immigrating to Texas as a kid to moving back to Seoul post-college. Capturing the playful humor and misunderstandings of a multicultural life, Lee’s comics are, in a word, iconic.
Dictee holds a special place in my heart as the first piece of Korean American literature that I ever encountered. This experimental work, blending autobiography, poetry, documents and images, broke major ground when it was published in 1982, just a few days before its author’s violent murder. RIP, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. You have taught every author on this list so much.
Winner of the 2020 National Book Award for poetry, DMZ Colony incorporates Don Mee Choi’s poignant verses and prose with drawings, photographs and oral histories to explore the decades-long division of the Korean Peninsula. A new addition to my collection, I find Choi’s work piercing to my heart’s core.
Recently reissued after the warm reception of E. J. Koh’s wonderful debut memoir, The Magical Language of Others, the author’s poetry collection A Lesser Love is a remarkable work of distinctly Korean linguistic precision.
I consider this gorgeous, hefty cookbook the modern compendium of Korean recipes. Author Sohui Kim is chef-owner of Insa Brooklyn, my favorite NYC restaurant for my native cuisine!
Comics are a perfect form for recipes, and no other cookbook demonstrates this better than Robin Ha’s beautiful, colorful ode to Korean food. Easy-to-follow and so charmingly illustrated, Ha’s New York Times bestselling debut is a delight.