Focusing on the rigorous K-Pop training system in Seoul, Korea, these two novels break new ground in an already rich body of young-adult fiction by Korean-American authors. Both novels are deeply informed, Shine by virtue of author Jessica Jung’s years with the iconic K-Pop girl group Girls Generation, and K-Pop Confidential benefiting from author Stephan Lee’s five years of reviewing books and movies for Entertainment Weekly. Both works succeed as coming-of-age novels but can also be read as critiques of a society that remains patriarchal and regimented. Also prominent is the class consciousness entrenched in Korean society since the Chosŏn period (1392-1910). Ironically in Shine, protagonist Rachel Kim’s nemesis in her trainee cohort is the daughter of one of the handful of chaebŏl (conglomerate) families that collectively account for more than half of the South Korean gross domestic product. Ironic because the traditional class hierarchy of scholar, farmer, artisan, and merchant would place those involved with commerce at the bottom of this four-rung ladder.
Diaspora is central to both novels as well, a factor in the often tense relationship between Korean and Korean-American trainees. Identity formation is a central theme in Korean-American young adult novels, and in Shine, Rachel recalls “listening to K-Pop for the first time, feeling special to be Korean for the first time” (p. 108).
Gender issues are perhaps most prominent. Korean culture, no less than that of other lands and peoples, continues a tradition of the male appropriation of the female body. The protagonist of each of these novels is female, Rachel Kim in Shine and Candace Park in K-Pop Confidential, and the focus is on girl trainees, with boy trainees in the background. And yet in each novel it is an established male idol who commands the most attention in the entertainment company, and whose public image is paramount, often to the detriment of the girl trainees’ aspirations. Both Rachel and Candace are initially hesitant to leap into a life of almost totalitarian control of body and spirit, and both struggle to adhere to the ban on dating, especially when paired in performance with the male superstar of the company to which they belong. Both must compete with sister trainees who attempt to sabotage them. On the other hand, both novels highlight the solidarity that forms among the trainees with their disparate backgrounds and skills.
Both novels emerge triumphant in the end, but in different ways. Shine ends with Rachel declaring, “This is my time to shine. And I won’t let anyone stop me” (p. 344). K-Pop Confidential for its part ends with a revolutionary public display of integrity by Candace, an act that holds catastrophic risk for her and her family. This bittersweet ending asks all of us who are Korean or have been claimed by Korea and its millennia-old culture to consider what lies ahead for the Land of the Morning Calm.
I found both novels engaging, K-Pop Confidential perhaps more so. It contains ample detail of the 24/7 trainee system—the choreography; the makeup and hair styling; stage attire, complete with “safety shorts”; a diet that leaves the girls hungering for more calories; the auditions; dormitory life. The development of the relationship between Candace and her mother is striking in its overcoming of the expectations of females in what remains to a considerable extent a conservative, elite, image-conscious culture. A delightful glossary of terms relating to the K-pop experience is included. I can only hope that the published version of the novel (I read an unproofed, prepublication version), contains Korean equivalents of the expressions.
In recent years the fallout from the keenly intense trainee experience has begun to come to light. Three well-known idol group stars have taken their lives, one has been accused of human trafficking, another subjected to doubts about his academic resume, yet another labeled a druggie for daring to take prescribed medication for her mental health. Korean netizens are ruthless in their calling out of behavior that flouts the idealized image of the K-Pop idol as a shining cultural ambassador of the nation. Much remains to be written about the K-Pop idol experience; I look forward to more novels like these two, perhaps retrospectives about those who have survived that experience. In the meantime I will adopt K-Pop Confidential for my University of British Columbia seminar course on the Literature of the Korean Diaspora.