She was about to flush the toilet.
She looked back. There was a head popping out of the toilet, calling for her.
The woman told her family about it.
“It's not like it's laying eggs or anything. Why don't you just leave it alone?"
And that was all her family said of the matter.
The woman avoided going to the bathroom at home.
This is a bit from 'The Head', a story from the 2022 International Booker-shortlisted Korean book, Cursed Bunny. Right at the beginning, its author Bora Chung makes it clear that 'the head' is the antagonist in this plot. As the story progresses, one starts to wonder if the head is a symbol for the spycam epidemic (known as ‘molka’ in Korean), child sexual abuse, stalking, or all of the above and more. Each absurdist tale in this collection of short stories grips you with its usage of surreal as a device to showcase the "real horrors of patriarchy and capitalism in modern society".
Korean dramas had captured the attention of millions around the world thanks to the much-talked-about Hallyu wave. They also continue to hold sway, largely because they provide an escape from reality. Korean literature on the other hand forces us right back in, showing us a rather unvarnished side of the K-wave.
While this may be true of literature in general, it manifests differently in this context because the shiny world of K-dramas is often the first window that many outsiders have into Korean culture. As their curiosity leads some of them to delve into the literature, they become better informed and often less enamoured by the orchestrated aspects of the K-wave.
For instance, In December, Korean American musician Michelle Zauner’s heartwarming memoir, Crying in H Mart, a poignant memoir about growing up Korean-American, was voted the best autobiography in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2021.
In March, a queer coming-of-age-novel set in Seoul, called Love in the Big City, by Park Sang-young and translated into English by Anton Hur, had made it to the International Booker 2022 long list. Cursed Bunny too, is translated by Hur.
Similarly, In The Vegetarian (International Booker winner 2016) written by Han Kang and translated into English by Deborah Smith, a woman faces damaging consequences for deciding to give up meat. In one chapter, a male relative of the protagonist discusses her in a reductive and objectifying way. Reading that chapter feels like being a fly on the wall of a boys’ locker room–the writer and the translator wanting us to feel anger at this casual display of sexism.
Books like these have helped Poorvaja Sundar, a media professional from Chennai understand her favourite Korean dramas better. "Now when I see men in those dramas not objectifying women, I often remind myself that it could be the writers trying to create their ideal type through these shows,” says Sundar, who started her K-reading journey with Pachinko, the 2017 best-selling historical fiction by Korean-American author and journalist Min Jin Lee. This has been recently adapted into a drama series by the same name for Apple TV+.
It is interesting to note that most award-winning literature from Korea comprises stories of women, mostly told by women as well – in addition to The Vegetarian mentioned earlier, this includes Please Look After Mother (Man Asian Literary Prize, 2011) and Kim Ji-young: Born 1982 (Longlisted for the US National Book Award for Translated Literature 2020).
“They are quite slice-of-life, but since they are centred on women, they tackle the social norms and their negative effects that women in Korea experience," says Atulaa Krishnamurthy, a fintech lawyer from Bengaluru and a K-drama fan. "Unlike most popular dramas, they don’t wrap up their stories in a neat bow by the end,” she adds.
Kyung-Sook Shin's Please Look After Mother begins with four siblings figuring out how to start the search for their 69-year-old mother who has gone missing. They discover they don't have any recent pictures of their mother to put on the “Missing” flyers. As you approach the end of the book–translated into English by Chi-young Kim–you're left with a very different picture of your mother. None of these books about women ends on a happy note.
"These books are a hard read, so rooted in reality that it has kept me away from the shiny and glittery parts of the K phenomenon, like K-drama and Kpop," says Shreya Punj, a publisher and content creator @TheEditorRecommends.
In one of the initial chapters of Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, author Cho Nam-Joo shows the eponymous character feeling “aghast” at the way her mother and teacher tell her to deal with a desk-mate who bullies her. Her mother chides her for whinging about a classmate who is “just messing around because he wanted to play”. The teacher, also a woman, tells her the boy is “mean” to her because he likes her. The book, translated into English by Jamie Chang, makes it amply clear that instead of acknowledging the harassment and violence she was subjected to, people around Kim Ji-young made her feel awful about “misunderstanding” someone’s attempts at friendship.
The novel, written like a news feature, frequently quotes actual data to support the narrative. In one of the later chapters, it mentions the gender pay gap was the highest in Korea among the OECD countries in 2014, and that Korea ranked the worst country for working women on the glass-ceiling index published by The Economist in 2016.
In March 2022, The Korean Herald reported: “According to OECD’s latest data, South Korea has the worst gender pay gap at 31.5 per cent among member countries. The country ranked last on The Economist’s Glass Ceiling Index for a ninth consecutive year in 2019.”
A lot of these issues feature in K-dramas as well, but the carefully curated world of most dramas–an impeccable-looking cast, catchy background score and lavishly-designed sets–often creates an atmosphere that can sometimes distract us from the egregious display of regressive behaviour. The books just make it harder to miss.