To America and Beyond: Diaspora in Korean American Writing

  • onOctober 30, 2014
  • Vol.25 Autumn 2014
  • byMin Eun Kyung

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 her personal and familial history in sites as various as Yong Jung (Manchuria), Seoul, and San Francisco. In these works, Kim, Song, and Cha limn the gendered contours of Korean American experience in powerful ways.

Since the 1990s and 2000s, many other voices have emerged to tell yet more diverse stories of the Korean diaspora—stories long suppressed in both the Korean and the Korean American consciousness. Heinz Insu Fenkl’s Memories of My Ghost Brother (1996) narrates a young boy’s experience of growing up as a mixed-race child on a military base in Korea. Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman (1997) describes the traumatic history of Korean women forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation of Korea through a dialogue between a Korean mother and her American daughter. Finally, Jane Jeong Trenka, who has emerged as one of the most important voices of her generation, offers in The Language of Blood (2003) a searing testimony about growing up as a transracial, international adoptee in Minnesota. These works remind us of the dangers of imagining that evoking the category of the Korean diaspora is a transparent act. The Korean diaspora has never been all-inclusive as a category. Even within the Korean diaspora, there have been groups and populations who have been marginalized and silenced.

That said, we should note that there is no reason to single out diasporic consciousness as the overriding criterion in judging and evaluating works by Korean American writers who may or may not be comfortable with the label of “Korean American” or “diasporic Korean.” As the history of Korean American experience grows, it is likely that Korean American writers will find new ways of defining themselves and produce eclectic works that will challenge, bend, and perhaps even burst the already flexible definitions of the Korean diaspora. Today novelists such as Alexander Chee, Sook Nyul Choi, Susan Choi, Willyce Kim, Chang-rae Lee, Don Lee, Marie Lee, Min Jin Lee, Gary Pak, and Linda Sue Park have achieved both critical and commercial success in the American publishing market that is increasingly receptive to Asian American writers. Their work as a whole defies categories: they write not just about familiar characters such as first-generation Korean immigrants but also about lesbian adventurers and radicals; they write not only autobiographical fiction but also mysteries and thrillers. Poets such as Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Lee Herrick, Cathy Park Hong, Myung Mi Kim, Suji Kwock Kim, Walter K. Lew, Ishle Yi Park, and Sun Yung Shin are breaking new ground in their heterogeneous work. Playwrights such as Julia Cho, Mia Chung, Young Jean Lee, Sung Rno, and Lloyd Suh are expanding the Korean American cultural repertoire in unexpected ways as well.

To readers interested in exploring the broad range of English writing from Korean America, I would recommend, in additional to the writers mentioned above, the following collections: East to America: Korean American Life Stories (1996), a rich collection of Korean American oral histories, and Kŏri: The Beacon Anthology of Korean American Fiction (2001). It would be interesting to compare the histories and narratives that have emerged out of Korean America with the stories of the diasporic people of Japan, China, and Russia. Today there are many Korean migrants in Europe, South America, and Southeast Asia. Their stories are beginning to be told as well. A recent issue of Words without Borders introduced a young writer, Larissa Min, who was born in Brazil, emigrated to the U.S., and now travels the world, photographing and writing about Antartica, the Amazon, and other far-flung places. The Korean diaspora gives us one way to meet new writers who are showing us how to write across not one or two but multiple borders and languages. The original meaning of diaspora, let us recall, is “scattered seeds.” We are today witnessing a rich harvest. 


by Min Eun Kyung
Professor of English Language and Literature
Seoul National University