The Diaspora: Exploring Exile from the Homeland

It is lamentable that people have to leave their homeland due to political, religious, and financial difficulties. These people are victims of history, especially if they were forced to flee because of war or colonization.

Literature about the Korean diaspora simultaneously exposes and heals the sufferings of those who left their homeland and were unable to return. But moreover, it proposes valuable lessons for those of us who have survived being part of the diaspora. Korea was not exempt from the difficulties of the past century. The Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, the Korean War in the 1950s that immediately followed independence from Japan, and the division of the Korean peninsula created a giant wave of departures. Hwang Sok-yong’s Shim Chong (Munhakdongne, 2003), Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower (Munhakdongne, 2003), Lee Ho-cheol’s Southerners, Northerners (Minumsa, 2002) and Ku Hyoseo’s Nagasaki Papa (Edition Ppul, 2008) are four representative novels of the Korean diaspora that explore the lives of those who left the peninsula.

Concerning the time period each novel takes place, Hwang’s Shim Chong comes first. It begins in the 19th century when modernization and westernization were sweeping the country. Shim Chong, a girl born in a small village on the Korean peninsula, is sold to Nanjing, China. From there she moves on to numerous cities in various countries such as Jinjang, Taiwan, Singapore, the Ryuku, and Nagasaki. She is called different names each time she moves to a new city: Lenhwa, Lotus, Renka. The different names show each new life she had to start in every new place and the difficulties that came with such changes.

Shim Chong the novel is not only a narrative of the adversities of Shim Chong the character, but also a narrative of growth that does not pertain solely to the protagonist but also to a larger general populace. As a woman, Shim Chong illustrates the contradictions of modern society and embraces those who have been hurt by those same contradictions:

She thought about all of the places she would not be able to return to once she had left. They felt like a vanishing dream. Like yesterday or the day before yesterday, they were places in time that she could never return to. Chong turned to look at the ships heading northeast towards the horizon. The rising sun obliterated the middle of the horizon into whiteness. Her heart beat fast as she glanced at the sun glittering and breaking over the water. She was setting off for a new land.

Shim Chong’s goal was no longer to return to her hometown but to discover and actualize herself wherever it was that she went. Thus, China, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore do not remain as merely spheres of hardship, but locations of new possibilities.

During the late 19th and early 20th century, the Korean peninsula was subjected to the rule of Japan. At this time, Koreans left their homeland for political and financial reasons and headed towards Manchuria and Japan, and even places further away across the ocean. Kim Young-ha’s Black Flower is a novel about the 1,033 Koreans who boarded the “The Ilford,” a British cargo ship headed for Mexico. The ship’s passengers are composed of fallen aristocrats, ex-soldiers, ex-priests, farmers, and vagrants. The passengers are disappointed when they finally reach Mexican soil and get scattered across the country. As a young writer Kim did not focus on the specific difficulties of the era, but rather on how the experiences of these Koreans demolish and reshape their traditional values:

Whenever the great waves pushed against the sides of the ship, the Koreans confined in the cargo compartment would become entangled with one another and be forced to forget their manners and decorum. The bodies of men and women, nobleman and peasants, collided unceasingly and inappropriately. Chamber pots were knocked over and shattered. Their contents of vomit, urine, and excrement spilled onto the floor of the boat. Cursing, sighing, reproach, and brawls were daily occurrences along with the ceaseless stench.

Such scenes from the British cargo ship crossing the Pacific demonstr...