To America and Beyond: Diaspora in Korean American Writing

The currency of diaspora as a critical term in literary studies dates back to the early 1990s when literary critics such as Stuart Hall and Rey Chow began to use it as a key concept in their respective analyses of Caribbean cultural identity and diasporic Chinese intellectuals. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies, an academic journal devoted expressly to the subject, was launched in 1991. By the early 2000s, major collections of critical essays on the subject, such as Theorizing Diaspora (2003), were being used in classrooms. The critical moment of diaspora coincides with the spread of other linked critical discourses in the literary field, such as postcolonialism and transnationalism. Together these critical discourses point to the insufficiency of nation-based definitions of political and cultural identity for understanding the complexity of contemporary culture in the wake of the mass migrations and transnational flows of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

What are the advantages, we may ask, of talking about literature of the Korean diaspora in the U.S. instead of, for instance, Korean American literature? This question will depend on the position from which one asks this question. For a Korean American, the category of Korean American literature remains important for U.S. minority politics and the fight for civic and political recognition on American soil. From this vantage point, talking about Korean American literature as diasporic Korean literature may seem politically recessive. However, talking about Korean American literature as part of a larger body of literature of and from the Korean diaspora can also have many advantages. It can reconnect the early history of Korean migration to the U.S. to other early 20th century histories of Korean migration to Russia, China, and Japan. It can also contextualize the Korean American immigrant experience within a larger global history of international migration and interrogate the comparative cultural hegemony that can be enjoyed by Korean American writers today as citizens of the most powerful nation in the world.

The sense of a diasporic connection to Korea is very strong in the earliest works to emerge out of Korean America. Writers such as Younghill Kang and Richard Kim (Kim Eun Kook) wrote works that were set in Korea, featured Korean protagonists, and described alternately a lost Korea from an autobiographical past or ongoing political turmoil on the Korean peninsula. Kang’s The Grass Roof (1931) and Kim’s The Martyred (1964) express a continuing diasporic connection to Korea as the writers’ native homeland. Already in Kang’s later East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee (1937), however, we see Korean identity being held in acute tension with the dictates of American culture and citizenship.

A strong diasporic Korean identity is evident not only in these works written by first-generation writers, but in many “1.5 generation” (born in Korea but raised primarily in the U.S.) as well as second-generation (born in the U.S.) Korean American writers who, like Kang, have chronicled the historical, socioeconomic, political, and cultural challenges of living in the U.S. as a member of a racial and cultural minority.

The 1980s saw several important literary achievements by Korean American writers. In Clay Walls (1987), Ronyoung Kim (also known as Gloria Hahn) provided a narrative of a family’s multi-generational experience of migration and settlement in Los Angeles, one of the largest and most important sites of migration from Korea. The award-winning poetry collection Picture Bride (1983) by Cathy Song brought to the fore the history of Korean women’s emigration to Hawaii in the form of “picture brides,” or marriage spouses selected on the basis of photographs by Korean migrant men who had already settled there as sugar plantation workers. Arguably the most challenging Korean American writer to date, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha defied generic conventions to produce in DICTEE (1982) a rich pictorial and textual collage of material drawn from he...