Since the early 2000s, South Korea welcomed a new group of writers who delved into their unique experiences as Korean millennials, as well as the horrors and joys of modern Korean life.
Among them, one of the most prominent writers is Kim Ae-ran, who rose to instant literary stardom in 2003 when her short story, “No Knocking in this House,” won the Daesan Literary Award.
Kim Ae-ran (Yes 24)
It depicted the life of five young women who live in separate rooms at a boarding house but have minimal contact with each other. The literary piece, which unfolds as one of the women suspects the other residents of stealing her underwear, was recognized for exploring modern communication, subconscious surveillance and the loneliness of urban life. When she made her sensational debut, Kim was only 23 years old.
Since then, she has been writing extensively about Korean twentysomethings who have moved to Seoul from other parts of the country. Some of her characters include a student who works as a part-time cashier at a convenience store, a young woman who wants to buy a piano that would not fit in her small, half-basement studio in Seoul, and a financially struggling woman who tries to get her nails done at a salon but ends up in a rather embarrassing situation.
Her writing style ― humorous, playful and often lighthearted ― has been noted as something new in Korea’s literary scene, where some of the most prominent themes included the aftermath of the Korean War and the rapid industrialization, often delivered in a serious, solemn manner.
While not everyone appreciated her works ― renowned writer Yi Chong-jun said her stories were like TV drama series without much depth ― Kim has swept eight awards since her debut, including the Yi Sang Literary Award, one of the country’s most prestigious literary awards. Her 2011 novel “My Palpitating Life” ― the moving story of a 17-year-old who suffers from progeria, a disease that causes rapid aging, and his farewell to his parents who had him as teenagers ― was turned into a film in 2014.
Following Kim’s success, Korea saw the emergence of new writers with distinctive writing style and flair. In 2007, Jeong Yu-jeong, a medical nurse at the time, made her debut with her first novel “The Spring Camp of My Life” ― a story about a teenager who lost her father during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising.
Jeong Yu-jeong (EunHaengNaMu Publishing)
She got a big breakthrough in 2009 with her full-length novel “Shoot Me in the Heart,” which was about two young men’s escape from a mental institution. It was eventually made into a movie, and won the Segye Literary Award recognized for its engaging narrative and style.
In 2011, she released “A Night of Seven Years,” another full-length novel about a murderer’s son and his assistant, who together investigate a gruesome serial-murder case that took place seven years earlier. The crime thriller was noted for its suspenseful plot, well-constructed narrative and the surprising, powerful final twist, which were seen as distinctive and original.
In 2013, she released another thriller, “28,” which was inspired by the real-life foot-and-mouth outbreak in South Korea, which led to the culling of hundreds of thousands of pigs in 2011. The disaster thriller, which takes place in a world on the brink of collapse where a fatal infectious disease with almost 100 percent mortality rate spreads between humans and dogs, was recognized for its portrayal of the humanity’s desperate, selfish and often inhumane attempts to survive.
Since 2010, Korea has welcomed works that are highly conscious of the contemporary politics and modern tragedies, including youth unemployment, high suicide rates and violence.
In 2010, author Sohn A-ram published “The Unfair,” a novel loosely based on the 2009 Yongsan disaster, which claimed the lives of five evictees and one police officer. The tragedy occurred after a fire erupted during a violent predawn raid of the top floor of a four-story building, which the residents were occupying to protest against the government’s redevelopment plan. The novel’s movie adaptation was released this year and it was a box-office success.
Sohn A-ram (DULNYUOK)
In 2011, Jang Gang-myung, who was a full-time journalist at the time, published his full-length novel “Pyobaek” (Bleaching).The award-winning novel is a highly entertaining and disturbing tale of the young Korean elite in their 20s, who opt to kill themselves to resist against the older generation after failing to find a purpose in life.
This year, he published another novel “Because I Hate Korea,” which is the tale of a financially struggling young Korean woman who decides to immigrate to Australia after being completely disillusioned by her own country. After his early works enjoyed much popularity and commercial success, Jang quit his reporting job in 2013 and became a full-time fiction writer.
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)