Tag Archives: Fiction

An Annotated Addendum to our Seoul Bibliography

While I’ve always hoped that I’m not the intellectual equivalent of the dullest spoon in your drawer of silverware, I’ve also always known I was not the sharpest blade in the kitchen. The former is aspirational and the latter factual, but the latter also demonstrates a valuable skill: knowing when you don’t know. Bibliographies for our Metropolis of the Month feature are always difficult; one always fears omitting some classic urban work, denying it’s author deserved public admiration and researchers a valuable source.  The reality we must all face as urbanists, however, is that no urban historian can know all cities, but collectively, with your help, we can know many of them better.

Sensing my desperation and performing the ultimate good deed, Stanford History Department PhD candidate and burgeoning Korean expert Russell Burge sent us a much appreciated addendum to our somewhat anemic bibliography. Burge provides a concise and valuable addition to our list and includes Korean language works that we regrettably ignored in our initial bibliography. Of course, Seoul being the entertainment capital of Asia, Burge included films in his list–adding to its interdisciplinary flavor.

Seoul Bibliography

Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbors (1898)

14667Part of a vanished genre of English-language travelogue literature, Bishop’s book is a sprawling tour through Korea, one that moves almost seamlessly between late-Victorian chauvinism and real perceptiveness and affection for Korean geography and history. Korea and Her Neighbors is as valuable today for its colorful descriptions of Seoul as it is for capturing a way of seeing that defined early encounters between Westerners and Koreans.




Keith Pratt, Old Seoul (2002)

51DBFV6KSML._SX307_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgA loving reconstruction of Seoul as it existed on the eve of the twentieth century, this book also uses the city as a microcosm to explore the remnants and broader history of the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910), the last ruling dynasty of Korea. A thoroughly engaging read for anyone who has been to Seoul and attempted to scry its past through the glass and steel palimpsests the city presents today.



Todd Henry, Assimilating Seoul (2014)

9780520293151.jpgThis book is the first of its kind: an English-language monograph of deep original research that takes up the history of Seoul as its object of study. Henry focuses on the colonial history of the city (1910-1945), and sites of encounter between Seoul’s Korean residents and the Japanese colonial state. Paradoxically, this world – with its Shinto shrines and colonial exhibition halls – appears in many ways even more distant to modern eyes than the precolonial past.

Kim Paekyŏng, Chibae wa Konggan (2009)

While English-language works on Seoul are few and far between, the opposite is true in Korean; in South Korea, Seoul has a dominating presence as both an object of study and the setting for art, media, and literature. Still, Kim Paekyŏng’s Chibae wa Konggan (Domination and Space) stands out as a work of scholarship, charting many of the key transformations the city underwent in the colonial period, and its sometimes paradoxical geographies of power.

Mark Gayn, Japan Diary (1948)

contentThis book is better known as an account of Japan following the empire’s defeat in 1945, but a significant portion of Gayn’s work is also dedicated to Korea and the goings-on in and around the political nucleus of Seoul. In many ways Gayn’s account is the inverse of Bishop’s, as the author – a Manchurian émigré and veteran newspaper correspondent – describes with candor and horror the United States’ impact on south Korea following its liberation from Japan.

Chang Yŏngch’ang, Sŏul-ŭn pul t’anda (1978)

The title of Chang’s book – “Seoul is Burning” – sets the tone for this wartime account of Seoul’s occupation by North Korean forces, as well as the protracted UN siege that ultimately broke the North’s grip on the city. By turns lyrical, liturgical, and deeply personal, this obscure and quixotic memoir offers one of the most powerful sketches of what it meant to live in wartime Seoul, a city simultaneously besieged from both within and without.

Cho Sehŭi, The Dwarf (1978)

Available in a 2006 translation from Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, The Dwarf is a classic of modern South Korean fiction, and chronicles Seoul’s rise as a sprawling jungle of exploitation and inequality during the period of rapid development in the 1970s. Many of the issues raised by Cho still haunt South Korean politics and thinking today, and the book remains relevant not only as a work of literature, but also as an introduction to an episteme.

Ch’oe Inho, “Another Man’s Room” (1972)

Perhaps no better paean exists to urban alienation in South Korea. Writing at a time when apartments were still an alien fixture in Seoul’s landscape, Ch’oe follows his protagonist – a married man with a strained and distant relationship to his wife, his neighbors, and his apartment – through increasingly surreal states of hallucination and de-personification that call to mind later work by David Lynch. A translation of this short story by Kevin O’Rourke is available.

Valérie Gelézeau, Ap’at’ŭ Konghwaguk (2007)

Literally meaning “Republic of Apartments,” Ap’at’ŭ Konghwaguk is the Korean-language adaptation (trans. Kil Hyeyŏn) of geographer Gelézeau’s pioneering French-language work Séoul, ville géante, cités radieuses (2003). By turns sociological, ethnographic, and historical, Gelézeau tells the story of a single architectural form – the gray apartment tower – and how it came to stand as an urban vernacular and symbol of prosperity in South Korea.



Dir. Bong Joon-ho, The Host (2006)

Director Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is the story of one family’s struggle against a river monster hell-bent on abducting and devouring as many Seoul citizens as possible. Simultaneously absurdist and terrifying, the real star of this film is Seoul, or rather the Han River that cuts through it and the labyrinthine network of bridges and tunnels that form its literal underbelly.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)

220px-Cloud_atlas.jpgA work of historical and speculative fiction, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas covers an impossibly vast geography of places and times. Still, the setting of futuristic Seoul stands out for its attention to both historical and geographic detail, down to its neighborhood-by-neighborhood commentary on the city. If Tokyo once defined the mood at the heart of cyberpunk, Mitchell makes a similar bid for Seoul in this futuristic epic, though it remains to be seen if other authors will take up the call.




Dir. Kim Kyung-mook, Stateless Things (2011)

Stateless Things is a film about abjection, and the intimate relationships that obtain between the powerful and the powerless. With Seoul as its low-thrumming backdrop, Director Kim Kyung-mook explores rarely-touched topics in mainstream Korean cinema that are a constitutive part of life in the city, such as economic abjection, discrimination against ethnic Korean immigrants from China and North Korea, and queer sexuality.



Dirs. Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong, Bitter, Sweet, Seoul (2014)

One of the more creative initiatives of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon’s administration, Bitter, Sweet, Seoul is far from the typical tourist campaign fare. Edited from 141 selected video clips out of thousands of crowdsourced submissions, the film – directed by Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong – brings together various experiences of life in Seoul in a vision that is altogether more diverse, more melancholy, and more vibrant than any other.

Kilauea PhotoRussell Burge is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at Stanford University, where he focuses on modern Korea. His dissertation examines the history of Seoul in the 1960s and 1970s.

Children’s Fiction in the City

By Avigail Oren, with contributions from Kevin Seal, Melanie Newport, and other #twitterstorians

I’m spending the month of February living in the bedroom I occupied as a teenager, in the house my parents have lived in for almost twenty years, which is mercifully located in the warm and sunny state of Florida. In the parlance of the internet, I just can’t with winter anymore. So here I am, surrounded by the books my parents bought me as a child, brought from Chicago and St. Paul to Gainesville, where I added more to the collection.

When we proposed the City in Fiction series on The Metropole, I did not anticipate that I would simultaneously be editing thoughtful analyses of novels set in the urban landscape and weeding through my own personal archive of fiction. But I have been, and in addition to the books by Judy Blume and Sharon Creech, the volumes of the Anastasia and Alice series, and the bevy of great historical fiction for young readers, I found the seeds of my own personal interest in immigration, race and ethnicity, and the urban environment.

IMG_0598In amongst the Dr. Seuss I found a picture book that fascinated me as a child. In Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, Cassie’s parents take the family out onto the roof of their neighbor’s Harlem apartment building one evening. Cassie and her brother Be Be eat dinner with their parents and Mr. and Mrs. Honey and, as the adults begin playing cards and socializing, Cassie and Be Be lay down on a mattress and go to sleep. Except that Cassie does not go to sleep. The story begins with her recalling how, that night when “the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge,” she imagined flying above the city and taking ownership of all that she could see.

Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical. Lying on the roof in the night, with stars and skyscraper buildings all around me, made me feel rich, like I owned all that I could see. The bridge was my most prized possession. Daddy said that the George Washington Bridge is the longest and most beautiful bridge in the world and that it opened in 1931, on the very day I was born. Daddy worked on that bridge, hoisting cables. Since then, I’ve wanted that bridge to be mine. Now I have claimed it. All I had to do was fly over it for it to be mine forever. I can wear it like a giant diamond necklace, or just fly above it and marvel at its sparkling beauty.

Although the context was lost on me at the time, Cassie’s flight over the city and her repossession of the various infrastructure projects her father helped build was her response to the racism and exclusion her father experienced in the labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s. As a kid, I could understand and relate to Cassie’s worship of her father, a man who “can walk on steel girders high up in the sky and not fall,” earning him the nickname “the Cat.” I also admired my father, whose work as a political scientist was less risky but clearly intriguing enough to me that I followed him into academia. What I do not recall is what, if anything, I understood when my parents read me Cassie’s declaration that her “Daddy is going to own [the new union] building, ‘cause I’m gonna fly over it and give it to him. Then it won’t matter that he’s not in their old union, or whether he’s colored or a half-breed Indian, like they say.” I must have recognized that Cassie and her parents did not look like me, but did I register the unfairness that Cassie felt because of the discrimination her father faced? Did I intuit her need for reparation, and the reason why?

Regardless, I remember wanting to be Cassie and to have the ability to fly above the George Washington Bridge and wear it as a necklace. The idea of sleeping on the rooftop of an apartment building on a hot summer night in the big city was as fantastic to me as dragons and fairy princesses, but unlike dragons I knew that cities were real and that one day I too could move to the big city. And I did, and for two years I lived at the foot of the George Washington Bridge—though I never lay on my own tar beach.

As I became a stronger reader and began tackling chapter books, the American Girl books introduced me to historical fiction and made me fall in love with immigrant stories and American history. At the time, there was only Felicity, Kirsten, Ada, Samantha, and Molly, and I read and loved all of their stories. Molly, whose story was set on the home front during WWII, was my favorite. I eventually became a historian of post-1945 America.

IMG_0599When I moved on to more substantive historical stories, one of my favorites was Joan Lowery Nixon’s Land of Hope—which I just reread. It tells the story of Rebekah Levinsky, who we meet in 1902 as her family is in the woods at the border between Russia and Austria, attempting to sneak across en route to the port of Hamburg. As pogroms crept steadily towards their shtetl, her father decided that his family should join his brother Avram in New York City. Rebekah, at age 15, is brokenhearted to leave the life she knew—but that changes when, onboard the steamship to New York, she finds two spunky girlfriends who help her imagine the life she can have in America. The proto-feminists Kristen Swensen from Sweden and Rose Carney from Ireland encourage Rebekah to pursue her dream to get an education and become a teacher, despite that her parents have prioritized the education of her brothers and need Rebekah to work to support the family. As her family passes through the inspection at Ellis Island, their carefully-laid plans begin to go awry; with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the generous but pragmatic Avram, they begin to adapt to life on the Lower East Side.

The first time I read the book, I remember that I finished the final chapter, sprung out of the teal pleather beanbag chair I was sitting in, and ran to ask my mother when Grandma came over on a boat from Europe. I was crushed to learn that Grandma was born in the Bronx (as was her mother). This most recent re-reading, I had a more pleasant historical realization—the book is remarkably accurate on the facts of European immigration, down to the detail that inspectors at Ellis Island only denied entry to around 2% of migrants. And I say this having taught U.S. Immigration history last semester.

Land of Hope provided a backstory and context for another fictional Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, Sidney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family. I learned the terrain of New York City from Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie. The adventures of the five sisters took them from the local and familiar—school, their Poppa’s junk shop, the candy shop, and the public library—to the faraway and foreign, such as when they rode the train out to Coney Island on a hot summer day, and when eventually the family moved to a nicer apartment in the Bronx. I’m constantly reminded of tiny details from Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books. I can’t go into a candy store without thinking how marvelous it would be if you could buy four candies for a penny. Drinking black tea reminds me of when Henny spilled some on her sister’s white dress, so she dyed the dress in a bathtub filled with tea to match the stain. And when I dust the house I wish that someone had hidden buttons and pennies for me to find. These are the details that captivated me as a girl, that made me fall in love with this family and their lives, and that piqued my curiosity about their particular time and place. Years later, despite coming to graduate school to study something entirely different, I wrote a dissertation about Jews in New York.

I’ve gone through every bookshelf in my parent’s home and cannot find the last novel that made me fall in love with city life: Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s The Egypt Game. Set in the 1960s in what I presume to be Berkeley, though it’s only named as “a large college town in California,” The Egypt Game follows April and Melanie and Marshall and Elizabeth as they build a shrine to Nefertiti in the overgrown yard behind a neighborhood curiosity shop. The devotion of this multiracial group of friends to the study and celebration of ancient Egypt spurred them to search throughout their neighborhood for objects to decorate the shrine and items needed to perform rituals. Their urban neighborhood was one of limitless opportunity, so long as you had imagination and elbow grease. And it’s this possibility and creativity that remains what I most love about cities today.

And some additional recommendations, for those in search of great books to read or gift to kids. This list comes from Kevin Seal, a 4th Grade teacher, native New Yorker, and–in the interest of full disclosure–my husband. These are listed in reverse chronological order.

Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

Set in New York City (get used to that), this middle-grade novel follows blues-loving Clayton in the aftermath of a family tragedy. Seasoned New York subway riders will connect with Clayton’s underground journey. It’s showtime!
Defying the notion that community doesn’t exist in urban areas, this modern throwback follows the Vanderbeeker family in New York City’s Harlem. The Vanderbeekers, beloved members of their neighborhood and all-around lovely family, find out that their landlord will not renew their lease, and turn to community ties, activism, and old-fashioned acts of kindness to turn the tide.
When The Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop by Laban Carrick Hill; illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
An historical fiction picture book, When The Beat Was Born traces the story of hip-hop’s roots from Jamaica to The Bronx. DJ Kool Herc is the star of the show here.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia’s second entry on this list, One Crazy Summer is the story of three sisters moving from New York City to Oakland, California in 1968 to live with their estranged mother. The sisters discover mysterious depths to this seemingly heartless matriarch, and soon find themselves enrolled in and energized by a Black Panther day camp.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Set in Manhattan, this first-person narration features a unique mix of urban, cynical savvy and magical revelations. For a slightly older crowd than previous entries, this book demands to be re-read to fully appreciate what on earth just happened. Stead’s Liar & Spy could just as easily be on this list as well.
Macaroni Boy by Katherine Ayres
This novel is wonderfully confined in place and time: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s working class, immigrant-filled Strip District during the Great Depression. Main character Mike Costa balances working for the family business and dodging bullies with solving a mystery to save his failing grandfather. A great way to learn about an underappreciated neighborhood.
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson
Set in Brooklyn, this novel examines the relationship between 13-year-old protagonist Melanin Sun and his single mother. Their bond is imperiled when the latter reveals that she is gay and dating a white woman. Tackling issues of race, sexuality, and masculinity, Woodson pulls no punches in showing Melanin’s once-simple world spiraling out of control towards a promising but uneasy conclusion. Woodson’s novel in verse Locomotion could also be on this list.
An immigrant story of struggles and triumphs, Lord sets Chinese protagonist Shirley in Brooklyn at the same time that Brooklyn Dodger and civil rights pioneer Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. No real appreciation or knowledge of baseball is required for this one, but it does help a bit to round out the context. May inspire curious minds to learn more about Jackie Robinson or professional sports’ role in America’s racial history.

And finally, some crowd-sourced recommendations from UHA members, #twitterstorians, and enthusiastic readers.

Melanie Newport on Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street

I first read The House on Mango Street at Curtis High School in suburban western Washington. I loved how the book captured the energy of the city and the importance of taking in every detail. I was most excited by the fact that it centered how young women moved through the world. My favorite chapter, “Hips” starts out, “One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?” At a time when I thought my body was in revolt, that passage made me feel powerful. I can see now that The House on Mango Street was a book that made me appreciate that you can love where you came from and still leave.

Katy Peplin (of Thrive PhD) on The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Amanda Kolson Hurley (of CityLab) on David Macaulay and Castle

Art Blake on Time of Trial by Hester Burton

Help us create a valuable resource for parents, teachers, gift-givers, and book lovers! Share your favorites with us on Twitter @UrbanHistoryA or on the UHA Facebook group and we will add them to this post.

Member of the Week: Dakota Irvin

Irvin HS1Dakota Irvin

Doctoral Candidate in History

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I’m currently writing my dissertation on the history of the city of Ekaterinburg, Russia, during the Russian Revolution, Civil War, and first years of Soviet power (1917-1922). My research traces the experience and activities of institutions of municipal government during a time of state collapse and war, and how different regimes utilized local government to transform the urban landscape and shape the lives of its citizens. Essential components of urban life, such as general law and order, public works and construction, food provision, waste removal, and a multitude of others broke down, transformed, and were prioritized by different political factions seeking to build a new administrative state on the shattered foundations of the Russian Empire. I became interested in the topic of the Russian Civil War after I read Mikhail Sholokhov’s classic novel And Quiet Flows the Don. After spending time in the Urals cities of Cheliabinsk and Ekaterinburg for work and study, I decided I wanted to write a dissertation about this area, which is often neglected in the larger scholarship of the revolutionary time period.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

This spring I will be a teaching assistant for a course on how Russia became an empire, from pre-medieval times to the Crimean War of 1853-1856. As well, I am hoping to teach my own course this summer on world history since 1945, where I will emphasize the urban dimension of the time period by assigning books like Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums and Designing Tito’s Capital by Brigitte Le Normand. Cities have been a major driver of the economic, social, and political transformations of the second half of the twentieth century, and I plan to focus on the development of cities such as Shenzhen, Mumbai, Lagos, and many others to help tell the larger story of their countries and global history in general. Admittedly, until now I have been mostly engaged with the historiography of Russia and theoretical writings on the state and state building for my dissertation, but I am looking to expand both my research and teaching horizons by incorporating more concepts from urban history and theory.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

The centennial of the Russian Revolution last year led to an explosion of books, articles, special issues, and conferences, giving me plenty to read. However, most of all I have been looking forward to reading Yuri Slezkine’s 1,000-page epic The House of Government, a kind-of urban history of a major residential building in Moscow during Stalinism. The second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s biography of Stalin is also at the top of my list, but I would recommend his earlier work Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, which is one of the finest urban histories of a Russian city. For the history of the Revolution it seems to me that Laura Engelstein’s Russia in Flames is the most interesting new survey/comprehensive account. Outside of Russian history, I’m intrigued by Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities and Alice Weinreb’s Modern Hungers: Food and Power in Twentieth-Century Germany.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies?

For me, one of the most important aspects of researching my dissertation was spending time in the city I was writing about. Walking the streets of Ekaterinburg not only helped me choose my dissertation topic, but also allowed me to go to the exact location of the events I researched in the archives. My advice would be to select a city or space that you connect with and want to spend time in, as physical presence can help you understand people and events that would not be as clear from afar. Also, I would recommend thinking about cities comparatively and drawing on scholarship from other thematic fields and disciplines. While Russia has often been seen as the “other” compared to the Western world, reading histories of European cities demonstrated that there were nonetheless many universal components of the urban experience.

When you started working on your research topic, did you ever expect Russia would become so central to US political news? Has your approach to your topic shifted at all in the past year? And have noticed a change in how people react when you describe your topic?

This is a great question, and one I have been getting a lot lately since I returned from 16 months of dissertation research in Russia last month. When I first began studying Russia, one of my biggest complaints was that the country was largely ignored by the US media overall, and they were missing out on fascinating developments. However, in hindsight, it seems I got much more than I bargained for, and people are constantly asking me what I think of Vladimir Putin and the 2016 US elections. My approach to the dissertation hasn’t necessarily shifted since this newfound interest began, but I have begun following contemporary Russian politics more closely. I think studying local government and politics from 100 years ago in Russia allows me to better understand the complex inner workings of Russian politics and governance today, and highlights the often-superficial nature of US reporting on the topic. People have always been surprised or skeptical when I tell them I study Russia, but now when anyone asks the conversation immediately shifts to discussion of US politics, which I don’t always appreciate. All that being said, I’m cautiously glad that more people are becoming interested in Russia.