Diaspora, Our Modern Fate

  • onNovember 15, 2014
  • Vol.24 Summer 2014
  • byKang Young-sook

I am writing this in San Francisco, California. San Francisco is populated by a multiethnic, multicultural group of people who have experienced various kinds of diaspora. A few days ago, there was a Daesan-Berkeley Writer-in-Residence Event hosted by the Center for Korean Studies at UC Berkeley. One person in the audience, a Korean who’d immigrated to the United States 10 years ago, asked why Korean literature does not draw from the lives of immigrants like them. “We have so many stories to tell,” she said. 

Perhaps because of the generation difference, the juniors and seniors at Berkeley, who were in the “Modern Korean Fiction” class I participated in, tended to think of diaspora as an interesting new challenge and an opportunity to grow. The class was a mix of students from Korea, Korean-Americans, and Americans of other ethnicities who seemed to be the products of voluntary diaspora. I wonder what kinds of stories they will produce when they start writing their own stories. I also wonder how the personal histories of biracial Koreans with Southeast Asian parents who grew up in the Korean countryside will be recorded when they write their stories in Korean.

My novel, Rina, is a story about a girl who escapes from a country loosely based on North Korea and traverses the tough landscape of Asia. Rina, the main character, is reminiscent of a North Korean defector, but could in fact be any woman in our globalized reality who is crossing borders as we speak, braving all manners of voluntary and involuntary diaspora. I thought about everything that could possibly happen when a girl who was born and raised in the margins of Asia tries to cross a national border. There’s no guarantee that all kinds of horrible things such as starvation, murder, drug abuse, prostitution, trafficking, explosions, fraud, or betrayal would not befall her. And the replacement families, love, death, and parting that take place under these horrid circumstances are also things she would not be able to avoid. Rina could be read as a bildungsroman since Rina grows up as she journeys across borders. I dealt with big, delicate topics such as division, capitalism, industrialized mechanized civilization, environmental issues, culture and customs, gender, and the body. In any case, I wanted to create a narrative that deals with diaspora, borders, and women in a unique tone. 

In the future, the topic of diaspora will evolve from its original meaning of displacement to include elements in everyday life. The scope will broaden and awareness and sensitivity will increase. Many stories can be derived from it, such as the misunderstandings or limits of cultural assimilation, where adjusting to the society and becoming fluent in the language is not enough to form a sense of belonging. Since the social class of the agent of diaspora affects the situation after the displacement, polarization in a diasporic community will also be an interesting topic. Whatever the reason, the nomadic lifestyle—freedom to frequently relocate, traveling to find work—will spread much more quickly in the future. Diaspora has become the fate of our society today, but it continues to intrigue as both a literary topic and a life choice. 


by Kang Young-sook

Author's Profile

Kang Young-sook (b. 1967) is the author of three novels, Rina (2006), The Writing Club (2010), and Sad and Delightful Teletubby Girl (2013), and five short story collections, including Shaken (2002) and Gray Literature (2016). Rina was published in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2015 and The Writing Club in Japanese by Gendaikikakushitsu in 2017. Kang participated in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2009 and the Daesan-Berkeley Writer-in-Residence Program in 2014.