20 Must-Read Japanese Books by Women in Translation

I’ve long loved Japanese literature and over the years with each passing August I’ve picked up more and more books translated from Japanese for Women in Translation Month. Hiromi Kawakami, Yuko Tsushima, Yoko Ogawa, and so many others have become some of the authors I recommend and return to most often. Here I’ve collected some of my contemporary favorites, 20 must-read Japanese books by women in translation. And if you’re looking to read a book on Japanese translation itself, I highly recommend Polly Barton’s brilliant and stunning reflection of language and life, Fifty Sounds.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima, translated by Geraldine Harcourt

Territory of Light follows a woman starting her life over again with her young daughter after being left by her husband. Her new Tokyo apartment is awash in light but she finds herself falling further into darkness and depression. As time passes, she confronts her new reality and makes plans for the future. It is a painful and honest journey, one that will ring true to many who have had to remake their life in a new image after loss, but it’s so beautifully told. The translation is particularly exquisite. “At once tender and lacerating, luminous and unsettling, Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light is a novel of abandonment, desire, and transformation.”

Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Michael Emmerich

Twelve years have past since Kei’s husband disappeared and left her alone with their 3-year-old daughter, Momo. Still haunted by the disappearance, Kei keeps returning to the seaside town of Manazuru to remember and connect to something just out of reach. Manazuru is a beautifully subtle and profound story of loss and memory. There’s this restless quality to the novel that’s utterly gorgeous and—as is usually the case with Kawakami—there’s a strange, unusual element that I wouldn’t dare spoil for you! Find your way into the other works of Hiromi Kawakami with this reading pathways post.

The Lonesome Bodybuilder: Stories by Yukiko Motoya, translated by Asa Yoneda

I loved this collection of strange and wonderful stories. Winner of the Akutagawa Prize and the Kenzaburo Oe Prize, Motoya is a magician—she takes mundane, daily life and just twists it into these amazingly clever and fantastic tales. In these stories, a newlywed notices that her husband’s features are sneakily sliding around his face to match hers, umbrellas are more than they seem, women are challenging their boyfriends to duels, and you might want to reconsider dating the girl next door.

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd

In Hiroko Oyamada’s English language debut The Factory, three characters find work at a sprawling industrial factory. They settle into their new jobs and they soon realize that their lives have slowly (or is it quickly? Time doesn’t seem to make sense any more) been taken over by the factory. Reality dissolves, strange creatures begin to appear, and the list of unanswered questions about this unusual factory grows longer. Winner of the Shincho Prize for New Writers.

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd

The Hole is a surreal and atmospheric novel reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, David Lynch, and Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. Asa and her husband move to a remote home in the countryside after her husband transfers jobs. A chance encounter with a strange creature leads Asa to a series of bizarre circumstances as she tries to find her place in this new world. It’s especially impressive to see Oyamada create such a sensory rural novel, full of the lethargic, sticky heat of summer and the buzz of cicadas, after seamlessly crafting the industrial setting in her debut novel The Factory, also translated by David Boyd.

Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd

Published in Japan in 2008, Mieko Kawakami’s novella Breasts and Eggs won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize and the praise of authors like Yoko Ogawa and Haruki Murakami. This newly expanded novel is Kawakami’s first to be published in English and has already been hailed as a “feminist masterwork.” Breasts and Eggs is an intimate and striking novel of women’s bodies and agency in modern Japan, following three women—sisters Natsu and Makiko and Makiko’s daughter Midoriko—as they reflect on and determine their futures.

The Sky Is Blue With A Single Cloud by Kuniko Tsurita, translated by Ryan Holmberg

Drawn & Quarterly has the most fantastic offerings of literature in translation and so I was thrilled to hear about The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud, the first collection of stories by the “visionary and iconoclastic feminist cartoonist” Kuniko Tsurita to be available in English. Tsurita was the first and only regular female contributor in the legendary alt-manga monthly Garo and this collection reclaims her historical and literary importance. I particularly loved Gabrielle Bellot’s piece in The Atlantic about the collection—in her thoughtful review, Bellot discusses the ways in which Tsurita broke both gender and genre norms in her art.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles

Kazu is a ghost that haunts Ueno Park—where he had previously lived in one of its homeless villages until the time of his death—but when you’ve finished this elusive and devastating novel, Kazu will begin to haunt you too. Described as a work of “post-tsunami literature and a protest against the 2020 Tokyo Olympics” and a novel for our times for its scathing critiques of the imperialist and capitalist systems, Tokyo Ueno Station hits even harder in the wake of the pandemic as vulnerable populations worldwide have been impacted disproportionately and the gulf between rich and poor grows at alarming rates.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

Keiko Furukura has worked at a convenience store for 18 years, comfortable in the patterns and norms of the store and its customers but aware of her family and society’s general disappointment in her. When a young man enters her life she has the chance to change everything—if she wants to. From one of Japan’s most exciting contemporary writers, Convenience Store Woman is a dark, funny, and compelling novel with a heroine that defies convention and description.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

In this hotly anticipated followup to Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata and translator Ginny Tapley Takemori return with another strange and unconventional novel of what it means to be an outsider. Eleven-year old Natsuki has always felt different, but finds solace in her plush hedgehog Piyuut and summers with her cousin Yuu. The pair come to believe that they are aliens (as is Piyuut, from the planet Popinpobopia) and this belief and their bond begins a bizarre and at times shocking coming-of-age story. Like Convenience Store WomanEarthlings looks closely at societal expectations and pressures to conform to dizzying effect.

Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki, translated by Polly Barton

Spring Garden follows Toro, a divorced man living in an older apartment complex that’s about to be demolished in a rapidly urbanizing Japan. Toro is drawn into an unusual relationship with Nishi, an artist living upstairs who tells him about her interest in the sky-blue house next door to the complex. The house soon becomes symbolic to both Taro and Nishi “of what is lost, of what has been destroyed, and of what hope may yet lie in the future for both of them.” This poignant novella of memory and loss left me stunned. Part of Pushkin Press’s incredible Japanese Novellas Series, which I’ve found to be a great resource for discovering new authors.

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Yoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton

This surprising and clever collection of stories draws inspiration from traditional Japanese ghost and yōkai tales, many of which have been immortalized as kabuki or rakugo theatrical performances. Strange, poignant, and at times delightfully funny, these feminist retellings explore and critique roles and expectations for women in contemporary Japan and beyond. I’d recommend it to fans of The Lonesome Bodybuilder: Stories by Yukiko Motoya, translated by Asa Yoneda.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

I’m in awe of Yoko Ogawa and always excited to see her newest project—her range is incredible, from books like her touching novel The Housekeeper and the Professor to her terrifying collection of stories Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, and now The Memory Police. On an unnamed island, objects are disappearing. First it’s small things that go missing and many of the people on the island are unaware of the changes. But it soon escalates and the citizens who can recall the lost objects live in fear of the Memory Police. Ogawa’s writing is always stunning—haunting in its own spare, powerful way—and The Memory Police is a masterful take on an Orwellian novel of state surveillance.

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

Revenge is an intricately interwoven collection of stories about grief, death, and yes, revenge, where each story stands alone but also connects in surprising ways to its fellows. This layered effect coupled with the subtle calm of Yoko Ogawa’s prose in a thrilling translation by acclaimed translator Stephen Snyder makes the disturbing elements of these stories feel even more chilling. If you like Revenge, I would recommend Ogawa’s The Diving Pool: Three Novellas and Hotel Iris, both also translated by Snyder.

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter

While this much loved and admired novel is often described as a loose retelling of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights set in Japan, A True Novel is so much more than that. First serialized in the monthly literary journal Shincho and published in two volumes, A True Novel is a rich and and masterfully crafted story of lovers set against a fascinating and important moment in Japanese history. It is a powerful and haunting examination of Japan’s post-war westernization and its struggle to retain its identity in a moment of economic upheaval. And new from Minae Mizumura and translator Juliet Winters Carpenter, I’d also recommend An I-Novel, a semi-autobiographical and “formally daring novel that radically broke with Japanese literary tradition” when it was published in 1995.

Toddler Hunting and Other Stories by Taeko Kong, translated by Lucy North and Lucy Lower

Kenzaburo Oe calls Taeko Kono—winner of Japan’s top literary prizes: the Akutagawa, the Tanizaki, the Noma, and the Yomiuri—“the most carnally direct and the most lucidly intelligent woman writing in Japan,” and it’s hard to disagree after reading the unsettling and striking stories in Toddler Hunting. Pleasure and pain mix in the lives of the women and girls of Taeko Kono’s stories, as scenes of sadomasochism and obsession veil her sharp attacks at the ideals of motherhood and femininity.

Lady Joker Volume 1 by Kaoru Takamura, translated by Allison Markin Powell and Marie Iida

Kaoru Takamura has been hailed as “one of Japan’s great modern masters” and since its 1997 publication, Lady Joker has become a cultural touchstone in Japan, taught in classrooms and adapted for film and television, with millions of copies sold. It was inspired by the unsolved and real-life Gilco-Moringa kidnapping case perpetrated by “the Monster with 21 Faces.” An immense and extraordinary feat of writing and translation that has been long-awaited in English, Lady Joker is at once a thriller and a sweeping cultural history of Japan, a love story and a work of poignant social commentary. The second volume is set to be published in summer 2022.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami, translated by Allison Markin Powell

Shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the International Foreign Fiction Prize, Strange Weather in Tokyo is a sweet and poignant story of love and loneliness. Tsukiko is 38, lives alone, works in an office, and is not entirely satisfied with her life when she runs into a former high school teacher, who she knows as sensei, at a bar one night. They talk and over time this hesitant intimacy grows into something more. It’s a “moving, funny, and immersive tale of modern Japan and old-fashioned romance” while also managing to be this quiet, understated beauty of a book. 

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Megan Backus

Banana Yoshimoto is one of the most popular Japanese novelists around the world and despite her extensive catalog, her debut novel Kitchenremains her best-loved book. First published in 1988, Kitchen caused such a frenzy that the media dubbed the buzz around her work “Bananamania” and its English translation by Megan Backus followed in 1993—published with a companion story “Moonlight Shadow.” A beautiful and tender story of transience and love, Kitchen examines the exhaustion of young people in contemporary Japan and the ways that tragedy shapes a person’s life through the stories of heroine Mikage and her friend Yoichi and his mother, who take Mikage in when her grandmother dies.

The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, translated by Margaret Mitsutani

Yoko Tawada is one of the most fascinating writers of our time, writing stories, novels, poems, plays, and essays in both Japanese and German. Winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature, The Emissary is her most recent novel. After an unnamed but possibly nuclear disaster, Japan has cut itself off from the rest of the world. Children are now born ancient and frail and rely entirely on their newly vigorous grandparents to care for them. In Tawada and translator Margaret Mitsutani’s gifted hands this dystopian meditation on mortality and modern Japan is both chilling and tender, haunting and hopeful.

This post was originally published on Book Riot.

Best Fall 2020 Books In Translation

With new releases from Elena Ferrante, Scholastique Mukasonga, Sayaka Murata, Dubravka Ugresic, and acclaimed translators Ann Goldstein, Jordan Stump, Ginny Tapley Takemori, and Ellen Elias-Bursać, this past fall was always going to be an astonishingly good season for new books in translation but it blew away even my high expectations! I’m thrilled to select some of the best fall 2020 books in translation and highlight the incredible range of titles available—including fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd

The Hole is a surreal and atmospheric novel reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, David Lynch, and Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro. Asa and her husband move to a remote home in the countryside after her husband transfers jobs. A chance encounter with a strange creature leads Asa to a series of bizarre circumstances as she tries to find her place in this new world. It’s especially impressive to see Oyamada create such a sensory rural novel, full of the lethargic, sticky heat of summer and the buzz of cicadas, after seamlessly crafting the industrial setting in her debut novel The Factory, also translated by David Boyd. Oyamada won the Shincho Prize for New Writers for The Factory and the Akutagawa Prize for The Hole and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Fauna by Christiane Vadnais, translated by Pablo Strauss

In her first work of fiction, Christiane Vadnais depicts a lush and eerie vision of a near-future marked by climate change. In ten linked pieces, translated by Pablo Strauss, she writes of contaminated and overflowing bodies of water, new and increasingly strange creatures, and an overwhelming wildness that hangs over everything. A lone biologist trying to understand and survive this new world is the thread that holds the pieces together. Everything is alive in Fauna. And uncertain. “But there is a peace of sorts at the heart of a downpour so precious and violent.”

Grieving: Dispatches From a Wounded Country by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker

Cristina Rivera Garza’s latest book Grieving is a hybrid collection of short crónicas, journalism, and personal essays on systemic violence in contemporary Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border. She writes that grieving, and collective grief, is an act of resistance against state and systemic violence and details the importance of art, specifically writing, in a grieving process that is also a “powerful mode of seeking social justice.” For fans of her complicated and striking works of fiction The Iliac Crest and The Taiga SyndromeGrieving may seem like a departure but instead it only feels like an extension of Rivera’s Garza’s genius. 

Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña París, translated by Christina MacSweeney

Twenty-three years after the disappearance of his mother, the nameless narrator of Ramifications is self-confined to his bed. He spends his days folding origami, extracting the symmetrical veins from leaves, and going over the details of the summer his mother disappeared to join the Zapatista uprising, or so he’s been led to believe. That is, until he makes a surprising discovery. From one of the rising stars of Latin American literature, Ramifications is a rich and enthralling examination of memory, masculinity, and trauma.

Home: New Arabic Poems by Iman Mersal, Samir Abu Hawwash, Ines Abassi & Others, translated by Hodna Nuernberg & Others

Home: New Arabic Poems is the second book in Two Line Press’s new Calico series, following That We May Live: Speculative Chinese Fiction. The series presents vanguard works of translated literature in strikingly designed (and eminently collectible) editions. This beautiful bilingual collection features nine poets from all over the Arabic speaking world and eleven translators. I was overwhelmed by these powerful poems, yes, of politics, war, and migration, but more importantly of the everyday, of home—making it unlike any contemporary collection of Arabic poetry I’ve ever read. 

Stone-Garland: Six Poets from the Greek Literary Tradition, translated by Dan Beachy-Quick

“Of the first poets, we hear rumors, but have no poems.” And so begins acclaimed poet and translator Dan Beachy-Quick in his introduction to his translation of six poets of the Greek lyric tradition: Simonides, Anacreon, Archilochus, Theognis, Alcman, and Callimachus. Beachy-Quick remedies this loss with a thoughtfully collected anthology of poems of the ancients—poems that despite their age sing with a fresh vibrancy. Beachy-Quick is both translator and guide through the stone ruins and his insightful and beautiful introductions to each poet are a joy in and of themselves. Part of Milkweed’s Seedbank Series that aims to preserve and bring ancient, historical, and contemporary works from cultures around the world to readers, Stone-Garland is a collection to cherish.

Nineteen by Anncco, translated by Janet Hong

Building on the brilliance that is Bad Friends—also translated by Janet Hong—Nineteen is a collection of short coming-of-age stories that Korean cartoonist Ancco created over the course of her early 20s. These stories have all of the raw tenderness and strength of Bad Friends but portray a wider array of families and relationships. If Bad Friends is the first striking piece of art that captures your attention when you walk into the room, then Nineteen with its varying artistic styles and clamor of voices, is the wider exhibition of Annco’s work that keeps you endlessly looping around the gallery.

Where the Wild Ladies Are by Aoko Matsuda, translated by Polly Barton

This surprising and clever collection of stories draws inspiration from traditional Japanese ghost and yōkai tales, many of which have been immortalized as kabuki or rakugo theatrical performances. Strange, poignant, and at times delightfully funny, these feminist retellings explore and critique roles and expectations for women in contemporary Japan and beyond. I’d recommend it to fans of The Lonesome Bodybuilder: Stories by Yukiko Motoya, translated by Asa Yoneda

Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Jordan Stump

In her new collection of stories, critically acclaimed author of Cockroaches and most recently The Barefoot Women, Scholastique Mukasonga writes of Rwanda—its people and animals and the land itself. In deeply moving and beautiful prose, Mukasonga writes semi-autobiographically of the power of women and family and the resilience of the Tutsi people. You see and feel everything in Mukasonga’s prose, translated by the renowned Jordan Stump, the scents and sounds of the cows and the solemn, spiritual moment of milking, the warmth of the sun, and the inconceivable pain, but also resolve, of a survivor. 

The Age of Skin: Essays by Dubravka Ugresic, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać

“These essays are written on the skin of the times.” Winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, Dubravka Ugresic returns with another astonishing collection of essays. In turns wickedly funny and then startlingly bleak, Ugresic writes brilliantly of modern life and culture, of politics and people, with surprising cultural references ranging from Lenin’s corpse to La La Land and the World Cup. But it’s her penetrating critique of nationalism and historical revisionism that carries through the collection and strikes closest to the heart. 

That Time of Year by Marie NDiaye, translated by Jordan Stump

Tourist season is over. The weather has turned. And Herman’s wife and child are missing. For the first time ever, the family extended their stay, in the village where they spend their summers, into September rather than returning to Paris. Is this, he wonders, why his family has mysteriously vanished? Herman’s search for his family leads him deeper into a community with strange customs and even stranger people. A psychologically chilling and masterful story of power, privilege, and entitlement.

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein

Elena Ferrante fans will rejoice to see The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante’s first novel in five years, since the conclusion of the Neapolitan quartet. Like the Neapolitan novels, The Lying Life is also set in Naples and follows a young girl, Giovanna, from adolescence to adulthood. But The Lying Life is moodier, edgier—an intense and cutting novel of family, class, and womanhood. Giovanna’s story begins when she overhears her beloved father saying that she is “very ugly” and has the face of her estranged Aunt Vittoria. This remark opens up a crack in Giovanna’s life and she begins a desperate search for her Aunt, throwing her headlong into the lives (and lies) of the adults she had loved and trusted mere moments before.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori

In this hotly anticipated followup to Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata and translator Ginny Tapley Takemori return with another strange and unconventional novel of what it means to be an outsider. Eleven-year old Natsuki has always felt different but finds solace in her plush hedgehog Piyuut and summers with her cousin Yuu. The pair come to believe that they are aliens (as is Piyuut, from the planet Popinpobopia) and this belief and their bond begins a bizarre and at times shocking coming-of-age story. Like Convenience Store WomanEarthlings looks closely at societal expectations and pressures to conform to dizzying effect. 

This post was originally published on Book Riot.

7 Summer 2020 New Releases by Women in Translation

Women in Translation Month has ended but the joy of celebrating and reading women in translation doesn’t have to. With great summer 2020 releases like these, you’ll be able to stock up well into next year.

The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud by Kuniko Tsurita, translated by Ryan Holmberg

Drawn & Quarterly has the most fantastic offerings of literature in translation and so I was thrilled to hear about The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud, the first collection of stories by the “visionary and iconoclastic feminist cartoonist” Kuniko Tsurita to be available in English. Tsurita was the first and only regular female contributor in the legendary alt-manga monthly Garo and this collection reclaims her historical and literary importance. I particularly loved Gabrielle Bellot’s piece in The Atlantic about the collection—in her thoughtful review, Bellot discusses the ways in which Tsurita broke both gender and genre norms in her art.

Vernon Subutex 2 by Virginie Despentes, translated by Frank Wynne

Vernon Subutex 1 was a wild, provocative, rock and roll romp around Paris and its people and I’m so thrilled to see this next part in writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes’s trilogy arrive in the U.S. In this second novel, we continue to follow former record shop owner Vernon Subutex as all of Paris (or so it feels) swirls around him, searching for answers that only he can provide. Despentes’s satire—expertly translated by the great Frank Wynne—is tongue in cheek if you’re biting your cheek so hard it bleeds, oh and with a cigarette thrown in for good measure. 

The Frightened Ones by Dima Wannous, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

Dima Wannous’s English-language debut The Frightened Ones is a haunting novel of present-day Syria and collective trauma, told through alternating chapters from the point of view of Suleima, the novel’s protagonist, and a woman in an unfinished manuscript that feels eerily similar. I’d recommend this radical and disorienting psychological novel to fans of the The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, also translated by Elisabeth Jaquette, and Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa, translated by Leri Price—specifically if you’re looking for more novels sets in contemporary Syria. This book was a Finalist for the 2018 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun, translated by Lizzie Buehler

Jungle is a travel agency that specializes in disaster tourism and as one of its top top employees, Yona crafts travel packages to places wrecked by disasters ranging from tsunamis and earthquakes to nuclear disasters and war. Until, that is, she tries to stop her supervisor from sexually harassing her and ends up with a paid “vacation” to assess a poorly reviewed and unprofitable vacation package. The Disaster Tourist is a clever and darkly compelling eco-thriller and satire of the exploitation—of people, nations, and the natural world—inherent in tourism and our society generally.

Bezoar: And Other Unsettling Stories by Guadalupe Nettel, translated by Suzanne Jill Levine

If you’ve been dying for more Guadalupe Nettel after reading the sharp and stunning After the Winter, translated by Rosalind Harvey, then you’re in luck. In the vein of Silvina Ocampo, Cristina Rivera Garza, and Samanta Schweblin, each story in this collection is beautifully crafted and uniquely unsettling. The stories are varied—a medical photographer is infatuated with the eyelid of a young woman, a man comes to a new understanding of the natural world and his own marriage after meeting a gardener, a woman’s odor in an unlikely place drives a man to search for her—but feel connected by Nettel’s elusive prose and their strange, sensory, and obsessive nature.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles

Kazu is a ghost that haunts Ueno Park—where he had previously lived in one of its homeless villages until the time of his death—but when you’ve finished this elusive and devastating novel, Kazu will begin to haunt you too. Described as a work of “post-tsunami literature and a protest against the 2020 Tokyo Olympics” and a novel of our times for its scathing critiques of the imperialist and capitalist systems, Tokyo Ueno Station hits even harder in the wake of the pandemic as vulnerable populations worldwide have been impacted disproportionately and the gulf between rich and poor grows at alarming rates.

Bluebeard’s First Wife by Ha Seong-nan, translated by Janet Hong

In this hotly anticipated follow up to Flowers of Mold, Ha Seong-nan and translator Janet Hong return with another unnerving collection of stories that proves to be even more psychologically chilling than the first. It’s Ha Seong-nan’s subject matter that surprises, it all feels so normal, so possible. There is no haunted house in Ha Seong-nan’s stories—it’s your own house, your own neighbor, your own life where Ha Seong-nan’s horror lies. And what could be more truly terrifying?

Looking for even more great new releases? Check out the Indie Press Roundup: 10 Great New Releases for Summer, featuring more Women in Translation recommendations like Grove by Esther Kinsky, translated by Caroline Schmidt!

This post was originally published on Book Riot.

10 Works of Korean Literature in Translation for Fans of Parasite

If you loved the critically acclaimed and astonishing film Parasite—directed by Bong Joon-ho, with a screenplay cowritten by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won—and you’re looking for more great Korean artistry to scratch that itch, look no further than the incredible books in translation coming out of South Korea right now. Many of these novels have themes similar to the ones explored in Parasite, some capture the tone and mood of the film, and others feel quite different but have the genius, the same ingenuity of Parasite

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

I love Man Booker International Prize winner The Vegetarian by Han Kang and it’s a great place to start this list. It’s a beautiful and provocative story about a woman, Yeong-hye, who begins to have horrible nightmares of blood and carnage, and in order to clear her mind and rid herself of these dreams she becomes a vegetarian. The story becomes one of control and power as her husband and family try to break her into submission, back into the norms of Korean society. To further emphasize her lack of control, Yeong-hye’s own story is told by others, in three parts, first by her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally by her sister. It’s a dark, fascinating book that you won’t be able to stop thinking about it

Mina by Kim Sagwa, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton

Author and translator Don Lee Choi calls Kim Sagwa “South Korea’s young, brilliant, fearless writer” and it’s hard to argue after reading Sagwa’s shocking and powerful debut, Mina. Sagwa captures all that’s complicated about adolescence in Mina but goes further, portraying a disaffected generation cracking under the pressures of perfection and the drive for success in a time that could only be our own. If you want more Kim Sagwa, pick up her newest release (also about young adults) B, Book, and Me translated by Sunhee Jeong.

Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi

“While I was writing these poems, I was probably possessed by a ghost, listening to death, then I held death in my hand and entered the house of death.” In 49 poems—one for each day that the spirit roams after death before it enters the cycle of reincarnation—Kim Hyesoon writes of death, tragedy, and trauma. Powerful and haunting, this collection translated by Don Mee Choi “gives voice to those unjustly killed during Korea’s violent contemporary history” and grapples with the “structure of death” that we’re all living in, individually and collectively. Complete with striking drawings by Fi Jae Lee and a fascinating interview and translator’s note that captures the fierce intelligence of both author and translator, Autobiography of Death feels like one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

Blood Sisters by Yideum Kim, translated by Jiyoon Lee

Blood Sisters, the debut novel from celebrated poet Kim Yideum, tells the story of Jeong Yeoul, a college student coping with the aftermath of the violent suppression of student demonstrations in South Korea. With painfully honest and vivid prose, Yideum paints the picture of the environment Jeong Yeoul faces. It’s an all too familiar narrative, the mistreatment and devaluation of women and the constant threat of sexual violence. In the midst of this undercurrent of unrest, Jeong Yeoul is trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be⁠—a thought provoking and powerful novel

Flowers of Mold & Other Stories by Seong-Nan Ha, translated by Janet Hong

“If you’re looking for a book that will make you gasp out loud, you’ve found it.” So says Kirkus and dozens of other publications and reviewers who can’t stop talking about Flowers of Mold, myself included. Unnerving, haunting, captivating, these ten stories follow ordinary characters going about their lives—they have a nightmare, lend their neighbor a spatula, or find out their landlord wants to sell their building. But something disturbing lies just below the surface. One small crack and everything’s unleashed. “The latest in the trend of brilliant female Korean authors to appear in English, Ha cuts like a surgeon, and even the most mundane objects become menacing and unfamiliar under her scalpel.” And stay tuned for Bluebeard’s First Wife, another collection by Seong-Nan Han and translated by Janet Hong that comes out in June

The White Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith 

Han Kang has followed up her Booker Prize–winning novel The Vegetarian with some truly astonishing books, including Human Acts and the much-anticipated The White Book, her newest release. While on a writer’s residency, a nameless narrator reckons with the death of her older sister, who died only a few hours old and left an inedible mark on the narrator and her family. She writes about this tragedy in a series of unique and profound reflections “through the prism of the color white.” The White Book is a gorgeous and startling meditation on death and grief.

Human Acts by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

In the midst of a student uprising, a young boy is killed. His story and the events following the uprising are told in a series of narratives—each chapter from a different perspective: his best friend, his heartbroken mother, a factory worker, an editor facing down government censorship. Together these narratives form a fictionalized account of the South Korean Gwangju Uprising in 1980. Horrific and brutal, Human Acts is not for the faint of heart but it is so beautifully written. I would pair reading it with another book on this list, Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon and translated by Don Mee Choi, a poetry collection that also touches on issues of trauma and history.

The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun, translated by Sora Kim-Russell

In this intense, psychological thriller, Oghi has woken up in the hospital after a car accident that took his wife’s life and left him severely injured and incapacitated. His mother-in-law becomes his caretaker and moves him home, only to neglect him as she throws herself into digging a hole, a giant pit, in the front yard, where her daughter’s beloved garden once thrived. Here the genius of the book becomes fully evident, as Hye-Young Pyun creates a fast-paced and all consuming story with a bedridden narrator. Unable to move or communicate, Oghi searches desperately for a way to escape while also going over the difficult truths of his life and marriage—truths his mother-in-law is now well-aware of. A novel of secrets, isolation, and grief, The Hole is a tightly-executed feat of writing.

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated by Sora Kim-Russell 

Nowhere to Be Found follows a nameless narrator’s search not for meaning, but for meaninglessness, in contemporary South Korea. Bae Suah’s young narrator describes her empty existence as she travels through life, barely moved by the disintegrated state of her family and her own poverty and loneliness. Translator Sora Kim-Russell describes it as “a road novel turned inside out, a story of a woman’s journey out of and into desire told as only Bae Suah could tell it.” Blurred descriptions of a life full of trivial banalities are thrown against dark, sadomasochistic sex scenes. The abrupt shifts are disorienting and Suah breaks boundaries, constantly, between recollection and memory, facts, and fiction.

North Station by Bae Suah, translated by Deborah Smith

Bae Suah is one of the hottest, most experimental voices coming out of South Korea right now. She’s published numerous novels (including Nowhere to Be Found, also on this list) and short story collections and has won several prestigious awards. Suah is heavily influenced by her work as a translator, having translated several books from German, including works by W.G. Sebald, Franz Kafka, and Jenny Erpenbeck. North Station, translated by Deborah Smith, is a collection of stories that embodies all that Suah is known for in her writing—subverting time and narrative, intellectually stimulating questions of art and life, and epically gorgeous writing.

This post was originally published on Book Riot.

5 Poetry Collections by Women in Translation

Looking to read more poetry in translation? It was one of my reading goals this year, and I knew that I specifically wanted to read more poetry by women in translation. It was some of the most rewarding reading of my life and I’m thrilled to share these recommendations. From Vietnam to Denmark, these collections are from all over the world and are full of the power and brilliance I’ve come to associate with the stellar poetry being published in English translation right now, often by small independent publishers. So much gratitude to them and all those involved in the publication of these incredible collections!

The Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid

I’ve been eyeing Dunya Mikhail’s poetry collections for a while now and was finally spurred on to pick them up after seeing her new and fourth collection, In Her Feminine Sign, in bookstores. Her third collection, The Iraqi Nights, is a beautiful and poignant examination of violence and war but also a story of hope and endurance. Mikhail references The One Thousand and One Nights in her title and takes the book and the figure of Scheherazade as a focal point—her poems similarly spinning stories to help those affected endure the long night that is war. In addition to being an acclaimed poet, Mikhail’s also a journalist and the author of The Beekeeper: Rescuing the Stolen Women of Iraq, translated by Mikhail and Max Weiss.

Third-Millennium Heart by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, translated by Katrine Øgaard Jensen

Winner of the 2018 National Translation Award, Third-Millennium Heart is a radical and compelling exploration of desire, power, and creation from one of Denmark’s most important contemporary poets. The poems are sparse and aggressive, often building on each other, but in turn also dismantling previous ideas, an aptly described series of “declarations and retractions” in which Olsen takes on the patriarchal and capitalist structures of the Western world. I found myself racing through these poems, driven on by Katrine Øgaard Jensen’s masterful translation and the pulsing thrill of the collection. On finishing the book I felt lightheaded—totally overwhelmed and enthralled by its power, I hadn’t even realized I had been holding my breath.

Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hô Xuân Huong, translated by John Balaban

This collection and its author—an 18th century concubine who went on to become one of the most important and well-known poets in Vietnam—are endlessly fascinating. Hidden within demure and often picturesque descriptions of everyday life and nature are racy and suggestive poems “which used double entendre and sexual innuendo as a vehicle for social, religious, and political commentary”—a feat that held personal risk for the poet. The poems are immensely clever and I’m in awe of her skill, layering meaning and defying conventions in each and every piece. This collection is also unique in that it presents the English translation alongside the calligraphic Nôm writing system in which the poems were written and their modern Vietnamese equivalent.

Autobiography of Death by Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi

“While I was writing these poems, I was probably possessed by a ghost, listening to death, then I held death in my hand and entered the house of death.” In 49 poems—one for each day that the spirit roams after death before it enters the cycle of reincarnation—Kim Hyesoon writes of death, tragedy, and trauma. Powerful and haunting, this collection translated by Don Mee Choi “gives voice to those unjustly killed during Korea’s violent contemporary history” and grapples with the “structure of death” that we’re all living in, individually and collectively. Complete with striking drawings by Fi Jae Lee and a fascinating interview and translator’s note that captures the fierce intelligence of both author and translator, Autobiography of Death feels like one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

Caravan Lullabies by Ilzė Butkutė, translated by Rimas Uzgiris

I was recently introduced to Periscope, an imprint from A Midsummer Night’s Press entirely devoted to poetry by women in translation, and read through all of their excellent work by women poets around the globe in a joyous mad dash. I’m particularly fond of Caravan Lullabies by the Lithuanian poet Ilzė Butkutė for its striking imagery—magicians, acrobats, circuses, and more traverse through these poems—set against beautiful scenes of home—quiet nights, lullabies, and the odd mischievous cat. One of my favorites in this collection might be the last poem, where the poet asks, “Is it easy to be a poet, / sharing a home with a cat?” and answers with a resounding no.

This post was originally published on Book Riot.