[images from Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha's Dictee, 1982]
This is a list of Korean-American writers of fiction, poetry, memoirs, creative non-fiction, young adult fiction, and children’s fiction who have had single-authored books or collections published by major presses. I have included individuals of Korean descent, including multiracial Koreans and adopted persons, who write in English and were either born in the United States or have lived in the United States for a substantial amount of time. I have not included works translated from Korean. Though the list consists primarily of living writers, I have also included several influential and/or pioneer Korean-American writers who are deceased, such as Younghill Kang, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Mary Paik Lee, Ronyoung Kim, and Richard Eun Kook Kim.
In April 2015, Professor Pyong Gap Min asked me to compile a list of Korean-American novelists and poets who have published single-authored books. As a nearly lifelong writer (and reader) of fiction and poetry, as well as a former English major at Oberlin College and Georgia State University, I was more than happy to undertake this task. With the exception of Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston (both of whom are Chinese-American), Asian-American creative writers are virtually invisible in the mainstream American media and consciousness. Chang Rae Lee, perhaps the most successful and prolific Korean-American novelist to date, barely even registers as a blip on most people’s radars. Asian Americans have long been associated with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), medicine/healthcare, law, business, and other fields that are perceived as lacking in emotion or creativity, and Korean Americans have been no exception to these stereotypes. Additionally, mainstream Western media has imposed two opposing extremes of sexuality onto Asian/Korean Americans: (1) the hypersexualized, fetishized, subservient “Suzie Wong”1 female archetype and (2) the weak, asexual, nerdy male archetype. These sorts of involuntary designations of identity have begged the emergence of artists and spokespeople to give voice to a seemingly unheard and underrepresented group. If I—a U.S.-born Korean who studied literature and creative writing—had never even heard of a Korean-American writer until taking an introductory creative writing course with the poet Myung Mi Kim in 1995 and reading Chang Rae Lee’s Native Speaker in 1996 during college, what was the likelihood that anyone else even knew that there was such a thing?
While doing research to compile this list, I quickly learned that Korean-American writers have been around for almost as long as Korean Americans have been in the United States. Early twentieth-century Korean-American writers such as Younghill Kang, Ilhan New, and Easurk Emsen Charr focused on writing memoirs or autobiographical fiction about childhoods spent in Korea, immigration, and trying to assimilate into American society. Since the time of those pioneer writers, Korean Americans with creative inclinations have written novels, poems, plays, short story collections, memoirs, graphic novels, young adult fiction, children’s books, and how-to books, not to mention a vast array of academic and/or scientific books and articles. During my research, I even stumbled upon a work of “hypertext fiction” (which I had never even heard of) called Lust, written by Mary Kim-Arnold. “Hypertext fiction” is like a cross between a modern electronic version of the Choose Your Own Adventure books that I was fond of for a spell during my childhood and the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Additionally, many Korean-American writers are journalists, college professors, writing instructors, and even heads or chairs of writing programs at colleges and universities.
The styles, subject matter, and contexts of Korean-American writing are varied and complex. Race and ethnicity are undeniably prevalent in many of the works, but Korean-American literature is also about gender, being an adoptee, sexuality, history, identity, “othering,” being a refugee, being multiracial, expectations, or being rejected for one reason or another. However, sometimes those things are barely even mentioned. In Leonard Chang’s Allen Choice crime novel series, it is relatively inconsequential that the protagonist happens to be Korean American; in fact, the protagonist Anglicizes his surname from “Choi” to “Choice.” In her seminal avant-garde work Dictée, deceased writer, filmmaker, visual artist, and performance artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (who was raped and murdered just before Dictée was released in 1982) uses visual art, Constructivism, Jungianism, psychoanalysis, French grammar exercises, semiotics, and Greek mythology, the sum of which is a far cry from the perceived notion of Korean- or Asian-American literature. Of course, I am merely using these two examples to illustrate the diversity of Korean-American literature.
In compiling this list, I used several different sources, including The Fourth Kingdom2, a website called “Korean American Readings”3, the Wikipedia entry for “List of American writers of Korean descent”4, an issue of The Sigur Center Asia Papers titled “Korean American Literature”5, and a chapter titled “Korean American Authors” from Asian American Society: An Encyclopedia.6 I hope that this list is a useful resource, and I will revise and update it from time to time. If you feel so inclined to notify me about relevant works that I have missed or new published works, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Thomas Chung, June 22, 2015
1The World of Suzie Wong is a 1957 novel written by South African-British author Richard Mason. The central characters in the book are Suzie Wong, a Chinese prostitute, and Robert Lomax, an English National Service officer-cum-artist.
2The Fourth Kingdom is a private Facebook group created by Alexander Chee, consisting of Korean-American writers. The Fourth Kingdom includes many published creative writers, but it also includes journalists, bloggers, and unpublished writers.
5Number 20, 2004, published by The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University and edited by Young-Key Kim-Renaud, R. Richard Grinker, and Kirk W. Larsen
6Asian American Society: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Mary Yu Danico. Sage Publications. 2014.