Sites of Textual Memory and Trauma in Korean American Literature

MLA Convention 2006

Philadelphia, PA

Friday, December 29, 2006

Panel 619, 9:00-10:15 pm, 406 Philadelphia Marriott


This panel explores how Korean American authors, in a variety of genres, remember or memorialize the trauma of war and racialization. While each paper focuses on particular kinds of texts – poetry, novels, children’s literature, and experimental writing – the panel as a whole considers how these different sites of textual memory and trauma function differently in the acts of writing, reading, teaching, and performing. This panel also considers the range of audiences addressed by different texts and the importance understanding these audiences when teaching these texts in the college classroom. The papers draw on current scholarship on memory and literature, placing such discussions in conversation with disciplinary critique, narrative theory, studies of children’s psychology, and psychoanalytic criticism.


The papers on this panel all focus on Korean American texts as an important subset of Asian American literature. Working from the field formation “Asian American studies,” these papers draw on the specific histories of Koreans and Korean Americans as well as the critical practices of reading Asian American literatures through historical contexts. As each paper notes, the Japanese colonial period and Korean War are sensitive and painful topics for many Korean Americans. It was the most traumatic period in modern Korean history and left indelible scars on the Korean conscience. Additionally, the LA riots that made visible a racial rift between Korean American shop owners and African American figures prominently in more recent writing. The papers on this panel foreground the historical moments in these texts, paying close attention not just to how the texts remember but also on how the purpose of remembering shifts across genres.


In “Ishle Yi Park’s Poetic Anger and Interracial Drama,” Paul Lai reads Park’s poetry and listens to her performances on HBO’s Def Poetry series. Park presents a particularly rich example of how the textualization of historical memory gets transmitted in books as well as on cable television (and DVDs). Lai considers how poetry moves between the space of the college classroom and the Brooklyn stage of the Def Poetry series, offering different ways of understanding where textual meaning lies.


In “Gendered Narrative of Trauma in Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life,” Seiwoong Oh notes that father figures are often marginalized and frequently portrayed in stereotypical ways--tyrannical, incompetent, and inscrutable. In narratives of trauma within the genre of literary fiction, in particular, the emphasis has largely been on the immigrant mother, whose emotional and psychological trauma finds healing in being able to tell her life story to her attentive daughter. Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life provides an interesting counter-point in several ways. Not only does it focus on a male immigrant, Doc Hata, whose traumatic experience during the Second World War informs his life in a suburb of New York, but it also locates the trauma not in a victim but in a victimizer. Having been in charge of monitoring the health of military sex slaves, and having failed to protect the honor of his love interest--a sex slave under his charge--Doc Hata suffers from a damaged conscience and lost manhood. He therefore attempts to exonerate himself by considering himself a victim of an imperialist state. In order to re-build his manhood, he adopts a daughter from Korea and raises her under his strict supervision.  By examining the father figure in A Gesture Life, therefore, Oh shows how trauma is perceived, experienced and healed differently by the Asian American male.


In “Silence in Children’s Fiction: Memories of Korea 1935-1953,” Sarah Park examines the specific cultural work of children’s literature in figuring memories of the Korean War. Park notes that since 1991, six children’s fictional books appeared that address this time period in Korea.  Given this emerging presence of Japanese colonialism and Korean War stories, Park asks, “How does children’s literature portray the complexity and tragedy of Japanese Colonialism and the Korean War?”  By adopting theoretical frameworks used to analyze literature about the Holocaust and other traumatic events, she analyzes the literature to see what types of stories are shared, which parts of history are reconstructed through the literature, whose points of view and voices are speaking, and to what extent the stories reveal the violence and oppression of the colonial period and Korean War.  The findings from this study shed light on how trauma regarding modern Korean history is remembered in literature for youth. Park’s research importantly studies literature in the context of library science.


In “Hypnosis and Memory in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee,” Jeehyun Lim takes up Cha’s once-forgotten but now canonical text (within Asian American literary studies) as a way to consider the textualization of history and memory as hypnosis. Lim discusses how Dictee reworks history and memory through a deliberately fragmented narrative structure and explains how this reworking has been central to the way Asian American literary studies has imagined its own turn to a more mediated relationship to historical context. Lim argues that Dictee disavows the hypnotic effects of memory – its ability to lull individuals into states of paralysis – even as it enacts its own hypnosis on the reader. As a hypnotic text itself, then, Dictee stages a particular encounter with readers that is ideal for challenging how memories might lead to injured subjects.




Paul Lai’s research focuses on disciplinary critique and the formation of Asian American studies as an academic field. His interests cross various literary and media forms, and he examines how these forms engage with different audiences, generic conventions, and technologies. His book-length project focuses on how artists and scholars articulate sounds (such as screams and popular music) to the political project of Asian American studies.


Seiwoong Oh has published widely on American and postcolonial multicultural literature. He writes on cross-cultural readings, memory, and ethnicity in literary fiction. His previous research focused on anthropological readings of multicultural literature, particularly as exemplified by the trickster figure.


Sarah Park’s research is in library science and children’s literature. She has created bibliographies of Asian American children’s literature and is currently working on a project examining the representation of Korean adoptees in children’s literature. She has received a grant to encourage young scholars to enter the field of library science, and she presents her research widely as part of this effort.


Jeehyun Lim researches contemporary American literature, focusing primarily on the intersection of Asian American and African American literary studies. Her interests include literary imaginings of history and memory as well as on discourses of race and psychoanalysis. She examines how experimental as well as more mainstream texts enact affective meanings by way of hypnosis and other subjective states.