Asian American Literature and Korean Literature: Common Problems and Challenges from a Segyehwa Perspective

Weguk Munhak (A Korean Journal of Contemporary World Literature), Fall 1995.

Heinz Insu Fenkl

The world's most noted post-modern anthropologist, founder of the school of "Symbolic Anthropology," Clifford Geertz, has observed that the role of the anthropologist is like that of a literary critic, reading the interwoven traffic of symbols in one culture and interpreting it in a meaningful way for the other culture. (1) This is old news in cultural studies, but its corollary -- the role of literary critic as anthropologist -- has become an important consideration in this time of segyehwa when the need for the competent and innovative interpretation of cultures is both urgent and a cause for grave concern. In anthropology, it has traditionally been the colonizer who has interpreted the colonized, the center that has created and given meaning (sometimes forcibly) to the periphery. In Korea's move towards segyehwa, it would be instructive to keep a cautious eye out for the replication of this phenomenon in order to avoid more of what in the last decade was labeled "cultural imperialism." In this age we are dealing with the insidious power of global capital, not merely with the encroachment of AFKN onto the Korean airwaves, but in any case, it is Koreans who should rightfully maintain control over representations of Koreanness to the world. Korea needs to participate actively in the creation of meanings given its representations abroad, and that entails that Koreans themselves be particularly discerning about how such meanings get reflected back as transformative elements in local Korean culture. As we all know, transculturalism is a potentially dangerous thing, particularly in the shadow of global capital, but those dangers can be reduced and anticipated if one's participation is as conscious and as willfully understood as possible.

In my talk today, I would like to address the issues of cultural interpretation and cultural translation, specifically in terms of literature. I will explore some general parallels which can be found between Asian American literature in the American context and Korean literature in the world context. What I would like to do by the end of my talk is to draw on the commercial and literary history of Asian American writing in the U.S. to suggest some strategies for the most effective dissemination of Korean literature abroad. In the process, I will be speaking about such things as readability, authenticity, marketability, and ultimately, responsibility.

Over the past two decades, literature by Americans of Asian origins has moved from relative obscurity in the American literary landscape to high visibility in the literary mainstream, with works ranging from those acknowledged as commercial best-sellers (e.g., Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club) to ones critically acclaimed by both the academy and the arts community for their innovation and high aesthetic value (e.g., Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee). In the process of moving from the margins to finding their tenuous place in the problematic contours of the mainstream, Asian American writers have faced particular and complex challenges. These generally have to do with making their own cultural experience and relationship to language(s) not only comprehensible and meaningful, but also aesthetically interesting and artistically legitimate to a readership which is predominantly white and English-speaking -- these are issues that might be considered issues of cultural and linguistic translation. Despite significant hurdles, Asian American writers -- a group among which Korean Americans have always been a significant part (and currently are perhaps the most innovative part) -- have overcome many of the challenges of marginalization, at the same time finding common ground among themselves in which to construct and maintain a unique cultural and aesthetic space. In the past year, not a month has gone by without some recently-published Asian American work (a novel, a memoir, a collection of poetry) being promoted in bookstores, often in sections devoted to featuring new writers section or the ethnic literature.

It is important to keep in mind that Asian American literature has always been marginal in the U.S. and that it is probably the commodification of particular books more than the success of multiculturalism or the mythical "melting pot" phenomenon that has brought Asian American literature such recognition in recent years. (2) Early representations of Asians by white writers were terribly racist, and unfortunately, many early works by Asian Americans were successful precisely because they reiterated the broad spectrum of racist ideas already familiar to the white readership.

In their most overt form the racist stereotypes used by Asian Americans themselves mirrored such caricatures as the nefarious Tong master, the aphorism-spouting Confucian father, or the virtuous and yet eroticized China Doll woman. In subtler ways, Asian Americans have also appropriated and reiterated the narrative of victimization, a simplistic trope that meets with near universal approval by a so-called "enlightened" white audience during this time of multicultural ideology in America.

The first "authentic" Asian American works (and I use the term advisedly) built upon racist subtexts whether they wanted to or not. Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior was successful in large measure because her narrative was familiar in its reference to the exoticism of things Chinese; even when it quietly subverted stereotypes of the Chinese, that subversion was not recognized so much as her powerful critique of Chinese misogyny and her very personal and feminist mythification of her own life experiences. It is important, in this respect, to remember that The Woman Warrior was first discovered and used as a feminist text during the height of the late 70's American Women's Movement. It was marketed as an Asian American narrative only after the fact, and re-categorized when the Asian American movement had high visibility.

The more outspoken writers and activists like Frank Chin, author of such works as Chickencoop Chinaman and Donald Duk, succeed precisely because they can respond against both the American racist subtexts (and the new subtext of Asian Americans who serve mainstream tastes). In fact, Chin, although he is far more sophisticated an intellectual, often poses as an anti-feminist Confucian in order to outrage readers into doing their own research (3) and thereby educate themselves directly about Chinese and Chinese American culture instead of relying on representations by popular white-approved writers like Kingston and Tan. (4)

Let me draw some parallels now. In the U.S., and in the world (and this is largely because both the English language and American popular culture are so prominent) the perception of Korea even after the '88 Olympics has largely been controlled by representations in popular media. Shortly before and after 1988, the world was inundated with images of Korea's economic miracle, and during the Olympics there was a corresponding spectacle: Korea's unexpectedly large number of gold medal winnings (although that was mediated somewhat by the other unfortunate spectacle of the boxer who occupied the ring in protest of the referee's decision). (5) But the world forgets quickly. Perceptions have returned to an oddly contradictory mix of the images from M*A*S*H and recent high-visibility news in relation to the nuclear crisis. In the U.S., perceptions of Korea are also linked to the news coverage from the recent past: the aftermath of the L.A. riots (Koreans represented as racist, gun-wielding shopkeepers), and most recently, a New York Magazine article comparing Koreans to the Jews. (6) In fictional representations, Koreans are most closely associated with the recent half-hour sit-com, Margaret Cho's All American Girl, and Chang-Rae Lee's 1995 novel, Native Speaker -- both very problematic texts by Korean Americans who seem to have little concern for their role as prominent representatives of their people. Margaret Cho has made a career of making fun of her Korean parents and their odd customs while Lee has allowed his novel to be misrepresented as the first Korean American novel published by a major press, thereby suppressing the rich history of Korean American writing in the U.S. (7) Cho and Lee have tenuous connections to their Korean heritage, and unfortunately, the predominantly white public that consumes their works find it entertaining and non-threatening to "read" their playing out of their insecurities and their criticisms -- both subtle and overt -- of Korean culture; and unlike the Korean American audience more connected to their culture, they do not notice Cho's and Lee's misrepresentations.

Even a Korean American with a shallow understanding of things Korean could easily spot the fact that the rice eaten by the family in the first episode of All American Girl was cooked improperly and scooped with the wrong utensil, or that it was inappropriate, in another episode, for the grandmother to thank her grandson in honorifics. (8) In Lee's novel, although the protagonist is supposedly a "native speaker," there are many cultural and linguistic things that the narrator cannot properly depict, one prominent example being the narrator's confusion of the words param and parum. Figures like Lee and Cho make use of their Koreanness to achieve their success without following through with their reciprocal obligation to the very culture they appropriate. They ultimately serve the American ideology of assimilation without realizing (or perhaps without caring) that they have been bought out and used against people of their own background who, to the white-dominated studios and publishers, are a mere market share. One might note that when Younghill Kang's East Goes West (perhaps the most important early Asian American novel) was published in the late '30s, critics responded very favorably to his problematizing of Korean culture but found his criticism of American culture distasteful. In the popular media, works like All American Girl (which has fortunately been canceled after its first season) and Native Speaker do more to negate than complement or draw necessary attention to the achievements of writers like Younghill Kang, Richard Kim, Kim Ronyoung, and Theresa Cha.

What I've reviewed thus far probably sounds profoundly pessimistic, but I wanted to point out precisely how it is the interpreter, in this case the white consumer, who to a large degree controls the sorts of representations of otherness that become widely available. I also wanted to recall the parallels between colonialism and cultural exchange. With the pressures of capital controlling both the world of journalism and literary publishing, this is especially true. You've probably noticed by now that what I've mentioned about representations of Korea either have nothing to do with literature and culture (or are related to criticisms or caricatures of a culture which is inadequately understood in the first place). Relying on the interpreter makes one victim to the interpreter's agenda, and that is why Koreans themselves need to become more engaged in the act of interpretation.

In Asian American literature, there is great reward for playing into the interpreter's agenda. Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club relies precisely on well-understood and non-threatening stereotypes of Asians for its great commercial success. It then becomes appropriated into a Hollywood movie with Oliver Stone (a director notorious for appropriating things Asian) as Executive Producer, and yet ironically, the movie plays with great resonance and poignance for those Asian Americans who do not have a close connection to their culture to begin with. Both the novel and the movie received high praise from the white audiences and poor marks from Asian American activists and intellectuals (although many of them also fell victim to the power of formulaic melodrama). On the other hand, there are, in fact, works that have their origins as what one might call more "authentic" endeavors, endeavors in which the author has not bowed to commercial pressures or the needs of white consumers (and publishers) but maintained an intense devotion to personal ideals. One such work, which is gaining more and more prominence in the U.S. and abroad, is Dictee, by the late Theresa Cha. (9)

The history of Asian American literature in the U.S. provides meaningful and useful insights into the current and future status of Korean literature in a global context. While the significance of Korean literature to the world --particularly in this post-colonial and post-modern age -- is unquestionable, the problem is how to make it accessible, how to make Korea's unique culture and language not only recognized and appreciated, but also valued by a world-wide readership. The goal of segyehwa for Korea is to match Korea's economic power with cultural power (10), to get all foreign consumers who drive Hundais to appreciate the brilliance of Hangul and all users of Samsung products to know stories from the Samguk Yusa as well as Koreans know Grimms' Fairy Tales.

Since the figures associated with Koreanness in the popular limelight are so problematic, the burden of conscientious interpretation falls squarely on those with the ability to make the concerns of local Korean culture readable to others. These are the translators of Korean literature, almost all of them working in obscurity, and most of whom do not communicate with each other. (11)

If Asian American writer's are faced with the task of cultural translation in making their stories understood to the American readership, then one can see how the issue of translation is even more essential for Korean literature in the face of segyehwa. In this case it is all the more complicated because there are a greater number of languages involved. Translation into English is particularly important because it is the language most convenient for world-wide dissemination of a literature and also the language essential towards consideration of a writer's works for the Nobel Prize in literature (the most recognized means towards world-wide literary recognition). Translators must be intimately familiar with language and culture for the sake of accuracy, yet at the same time, the aesthetic requirements of translation pose a significant challenges and require compromises.

Good translators -- those who have devoted a large part of their lives to the endeavor -- have themselves achieved world-wide recognition for their work. Yasunari Kawabata would not have won his Nobel Prize without Edward Seidensticker, who has written several respectable books on Japan himself, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez would not have received his without Gregory Rabassa whom some have since called "the finest translator who ever drew breath." Korea has yet to have its Seidensticker or Rabassa, and that is one reason why Korea has not yet matched its world stature in economy an d sports with a world-renowned literature.

I've already talked about how the role of cultural interpreter and translator has been easily appropriated by commercial interests in the case of Asian American literature in the U.S. When the primary artistic or literary impulse becomes compromised by the promise of fame or fortune, the underlying meanings get compromised as well. When the motivational force behind translation originates with the academy or some government ministry (each of which have their agendas), the products are not always of the best quality or compatible with the interests of the target readership.

What I'm suggesting, somewhat obliquely, is that government and academy actively support translation projects but let the translators themselves select the works based on passionate personal interest and commitment. A translator with free rein and personal motivation will always do a better job than one who works under the funding and editorial control of some organization (no matter how significant that funding may be). The ultimate test for a translation is to measure how successful it is in the target language. For example, the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation, for years, has been funding the translation of works by Hwang Sun-won and Kim Dong-ni, but in America the most widely-read Korean works are White Badge by Ahn Jung-hyo and the Words of Farewell anthology containing the works of Kang Sok-kyong, Kim Chi-won, and O Jong-hui. (12) These are not exactly the works that the Korean government or the academy would rank highest priority for translation, but in each case, the books resonate with a particular interest in the American readership; they also reflect the personal interest and commitment of their translators and authors.

Korea will only be able to contribute the valuable lessons in its literature to the world once it understands the complex dynamics of translation. The burden in this is not on the original writers, nor should it be on the academy or some government ministry -- it should be upon the translators to adequately address the issues of language, culture and aesthetics. It is only by creating an appropriate theory and practice of translation, which requires the cooperation of literary and cultural scholars of many nations, that Korea will either find or create the kind of translators necessary to carry out the mandate of segyehwa. But where do the translators come from?

To comfort himself when it was clear that I wouldn't follow in his footsteps, my father, who was a soldier, used to quote an old saying: "We are soldiers so that our sons may be farmers and their sons philosophers." A similar sequence of vocations is playing out among members of the Korean diaspora. First generation immigrants are often shopkeepers, custodians, or factory workers so that their children become doctors, lawyers, and engineers, and their children writers, artists, and musicians. I see this third generation of Korean Americans in the classes I teach at Vassar. In fact, everywhere in the American academy, there are young Korean Americans who are engaging in literature and the arts as they get their undergraduate and graduate degrees, and many of them -- after suffering the often traumatic identity politics of being Korean Americans -- come away with a deep commitment to maintaining and pursuing their connection with their parents' culture. This group of young Korean Americans is an audience that already craves Korean literature, but since most of them have lost touch with their parents' language and are only beginning to learn it in college, it is for them that good translations are first necessary. Also, they are the very audience that is disappointed by the quality of Korean Literature in translation. But they are not only an audience -- they are the very group from which the bilingual and bicultural individuals emerge who will return to their parents' language and culture and help in making Korea find its deserving place in the global culture. (13)



1 See The Interpretation of Cultures, particularly the chapters: "Thick Description" and "Deep Play."

2 As this goes to press, the Regents of the University of California have voted to discontinue afirmative action considerations in admission and hiring.

3 See the interview with Frank Chin in April issue of A Magazine.

4 Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife, is the most prominent example of an Asian America writer whose popularity relies on serving mainstream tastes. She is the best selling Asian American in recent years, and the Oliver Stone production of The Joy Luck Club is the most prominent Asian American film. Among Asian American critics, Tan is most often invoked as an example of "selling out." She is represented by one of the best known literary agents in the U.S.

5 See the opening chapters of Michael Shapior's The Shadow in the Sun: A Korean Year of Love and Sorrow for an excellent description.

6 As I prepare this transcript for submission, CNN which initially covered the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store, focusing on rescue efforts highlighted by the story of the shopgirl who survived 16 days in the rubble, is now covering the riots concerning inadequate rescue efforts. This is an odd and contradictory reference to both Korean resilience and Korean fallibility, but it is typical of American coverage of Korea and Japan. The American media prefers to keep the final images of Korea and Japan somewhat problematic. In coverage of the Kobe earthquate, for example, the American media delighted in making comparisons with the San Francisco quake, always emphasizing Japan's negligence and hubris, focusing particularly on the comparatively low casualty figures in San Francisco.

7 It is ironic that Lee's academic mentor and literary agent are both Japanese Americans while his publicist is Korean American. This does not strike Americans, with their melting pot ideology and their inability to distinguish Asians, as odd in any way, but a Korean cannot help but read this as an example of Japan's power over Korea even in a disaporic context. It is particularly ironic that the subject of Lee's next novel is Korean comfort women.

8 The white producers of the show did not even remember that the family was Korean American. They referred to them simply as "oriental." One of the concerns of Korean Americans was that Margaret Cho was the only Korean American on the cast, which included five other family members. Of course, the simple fact that such interchangeability goes unnoticed by the white audience is one clear sign that Korea has not made a distinct impression of its people or culture on the typical American viewer.

9 See Walter Lew's talk for further discussion of the Korean American writers I mention in this talk.

10 The July 31 issue of BusinessWeek devoted its cover story to Korea's economy, citing some rather startling figures: Korea is now eleventh among the top economic powers in the world, ahead of Australia, Sweden, and the Netherlands. It claims the largest numbers of PhDs per capita in the world. Per capita income is expected to exceed $10,000 within the year. It is the fifth largest auto manufacturer in the world. This is quite a challenge to match on the cultural front.

11 Recognition in Korea is a step in the right direction, but even winners of the Taehan Minguk Munhaksang like Bruce Fulton are still struggling to get major presses to accept Korean books. The recent death of Professor Marshall Pihl is especially saddening, since he was one of the major facilitators of dialogue among translators.

12 In fact, it is rather ironic that White Badge only became a hit in Korea after it was well received in the U.S. A quick look at the inclusion of American reviews at the front of the Korean edition of the novel is enough to show that validation in the U.S. is a great marketing tool in Korea. But under the ideals of segyehwa, shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't novels first validated by the Korean public be the ones to become hits in the U.S.?

13 This is the very audience that has been most responsive to Muae.

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