The Future of Korean American Literature

a talk presented for

The 10th Annual Hahn Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities: "One Hundred Years of Korean American Literature." Saturday, October 25, 2003, George Washington University.

Heinz Insu Fenkl

State University of New York, New Paltz


1. Introduction

In the past year or so there have been numerous high-profile Korean American works visible in commercial literary contexts. The New York Times Book Review, in fact, just covered Susan Choi's second novel, American Woman this week; Suki Kim's first novel, The Interpreter was also covered in The New York Times Book Review. Linda Sue Park's Young Adult novel, A Single Shard, won last year's prestigious Newbery Award and her books are so successful that they are now practically ubiquitous in the children's section of Barnes and Noble. Nora Okja Keller's second novel, Fox Girl, and Don Lee's short story collection, Yellow, were also recent prominent works coming from the mainstream presses.

The past couple of years have also seen the publication of anthologies such as Kori: The Beacon Anthology of Korean American Fiction (2001), edited by myself and Walter K. Lew; Century of the Tiger: One Hundred Years of Korean Culture in America 1903-2003, special issue of the journal Manoa coedited by Jenny Ryun Foster, Frank Stewart and myself; Echoes Upon Echoes: New Korean American Writings (2003), from the Asian American Writers Workshop, edited by Elaine Kim and Laura Kang; Yobo: Korean American Writing in Hawaii, an anthology from Bamboo Ridge, for which Nora Okja Keller was one of the co-editors (along with Brenda Kwon, Sun Namkung, Gary Pak, and Cathy Song); and finally, Surfacing Sadness: A Centennial of Korean-American Literature 1903-2003, edited by Yearn Hong Choi and Haeng Ja Kim. Most of these collections were timed to correspond with this year's centennial of Korean immigration to the United States.

Also, currently in the pipeline, or just recently released by small presses, are three works that represent other new directions and trends. Jane Jeong Trenka's memoir, The Language of Blood (2003), was published by Borealis, which is an imprint of the Minnesota Historical Society Press; Gary Pak's next novel, with the working title Children of a Fireland, will be released by University of Hawaii Press probably next year; and also a strange collection of stories and essays by Minsoo Kang, a graduate student in History at UCLA, called Of Tales and Enigmas, will be released later this year by Prime Books, a small fringe press that specializes in edgy and innovative Science Fiction and Fantasy. This book is especially interesting because it doesn't even fit the niche in which it is being published.

2. Self-reference and Genrefication

When an initially marginal literature finally establishes itself as prominent through a combination of critical recognition in the academy and commercial success in the mainstream (Korean American writers are a veritable Who's Who of award winners) future works in that category tend to demonstrate a heightened self-consciousness of their subtexts. The works tend to become intertextual performances, and the intertextuality begins to cross the boundaries of genre and form. This is especially true these days with the increasing prevalence of mixed-media and web-based works (which are typically a mixture of still and moving visual images, sound, and text).

In the early days of Korean American literature, when Younghill Kang was the only significant voice, there was no model, no set of pre-existing Korean American subtexts to which new Korean American writers could make explicit or implicit allusion. Kang's own subtexts were a complex combination of classical and canonical Asian and European works, and his mode of allusion was not adequately understood by his audience at the time. Today, texts like The Grass Roof (1931) and East Goes West (1937) seem more innovative because, due to the trends in transcultural and comparative literary studies, we can more readily see what Kang was doing. But at the same time Kang's tropes, now that they are more visible, have also lost some of their original subtlety.

When Richard Kim wrote thirty years later, he was seen as alluding to European Existentialism. He was often compared to Camus, for example, especially for The Martyred (1964) because his readers were not aware of how modern Korean literature had engaged with European philosophical traditions, particularly where their intersection with Christianity was concerned, and how a writer could resonate with European philosophy while alluding to Korean subtexts. The Martyred and The Innocent (1968) can now be read, and are read by some, in the reformed Korean academy, as postwar Korean literature in the same vein as Kim Sung-ok's "Seoul, 1964, Winter."

There is a large lacuna between Richard Kim and the next prominent Korean American writer, Kim Ronyoung. Her novel, Clay Walls (1986) which in many ways is a very Korean work in the particular way it merged autobiography and fiction, was one of the only Korean American text used in college courses for many years after the Asian American explosion of the late '70s. This was after Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976) had pretty much single-handedly opened up a new category of writing now known as Asian American literature. These days, for Korean literary scholars, Clay Walls fits nicely into the history of Korean literature as an example of kyopo munhak.

Between the early prominent Korean American male/masculine literary presences like Younghill Kang and Richard Kim and the new generation of diverse voices that emerged in the mid '90s, there was an important -- and for a time relatively unknown -- transitional figure. This is the artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whose book DICTEE literally came out of left field in 1982. DICTEE was a work that defied classification when it appeared and continues to be a deeply resonant and iconic touchstone in Korean American letters today, more than two decades later.

Cha's work, as you know, was influenced by French Feminism, particularly by the work of writers like Monique Wittig and by Avant Garde film. DICTEE was presented in an enigmatic form; it included historical Korean photos, an acupuncture diagram paralleled with constellations, and calligraphy; these components arranged into a sort of postmodern collage that defied classification and yet resonated with a range of literatures and tropes. Readers could not explain why it was so captivating. Some became almost obsessed with DICTEE, which was taught in a surprising range of courses including Feminist Theory, Asian American literature, Lesbian Literature, and Postmodern Theory.

In sharp contrast to Cha, whose work, despite its high status, still resides in the periphery, is Chang-rae Lee, the most prominent Korean American writer currently in the literary mainstream. His first novel, Native Speaker (1995) as you probably recall, was deceptively marketed as the first Korean American novel (despite the fact that Younghill Kang's works were bestsellers published by Scribners and edited by Maxwell Perkins, the editor of Ernest Hemingway), but it was, in fact, a novelty in ethnic literature. Native Speaker was an odd hybrid, combining the qualities of a -- by then -- typical Asian American memoir/novel and a political espionage thriller. This combination proved to be marketable and accessible even to an audience not inherently interested in ethnic literature.

Leonard Chang takes this marketable hybridity to the next level of popular accessibility with his third novel, Over the Shoulder (2001), a sort of consciously Hollywoodized amplification of the tropes in Native Speaker, more story-centered and less self-reflective, yet with a lightly veiled ironic or sarcastic symbolism. His publisher marketed it as a mystery novel, and Chang has embraced his new identity as a genre writer.

When we get to novels like Suki Kim's The Interpreter (2003) what we find is another interesting sort of hybrid work, borrowing its central premise from "The Court Reporter," a short story by Ty Pak, which appeared in his collection Moonbay (1999). To the story of a young Korean American interpreter who finds herself in an unexpected position of power and moral conflict, Kim applies a more conventional story of a misguided and disaffected woman searching for love and identity.

Nora Okja Keller's Fox Girl (2002) which is a kind of historical extension of the elegant Comfort Woman (1997) draws on both Asian American subtexts and Korean subtexts, those available in English translations. Some of the details and background of Fox Girl come from Korean short stories: O Chong-hui's "Chinatown" and Kim Chi-won's "Days and Dreams," both translated by Bruce and Ju Chan Fulton in their collection Words of Farewell (1989). The conscious use of modern Korean literary subtexts is something relatively new -- and an evolution, I think, from the typical use of historical and ethnographic research among this generation of Korean American writers. These literary allusions are, of course, invisible to the mainstream American reader, but for Korean scholars, they are far more resonant than for the western scholar, who might simply look at a novel like Fox Girl in an Asian American trajectory.

In the world of mainstream publishing there is a tacit demand for easy accessibility that causes editors to encourage (or enforce) the kind of writing that we in the academy would like to view as a thing of the past. For example, Marie Lee's early works (like Finding My Voice, [1994]) have set up expectations for a particular kind of Korean American ethnic identity novel. So successfully, in fact, that despite many attempts to write more literary "adult" fiction Lee found herself trapped for more than a decade in the Young Adult category she had herself helped create. Lee recently succeeded in placing her first adult book, Somebody's Daughter -- a complex work that examines both the mother's and daughter's side of a Korean adoptee narrative -- by approaching Beacon, a small press with an imprint for literary works by women of color.

Although relatively complex work's like An Na's A Step from Heaven (2002) are beginning finally to emerge in the Young Adult category, they are still overshadowed by works typified by those of Linda Sue Park, which are sincere, but which buy into the demands of mainstream publishing. For example, Park's Newbery Award-winning book, A Single Shard (2001) is a story built around the history of celadon-making. Park does not read Korean and does not know much about Korean history or literature. Her research for the history of Korean celadon is limited to common sources available in a good pubic library -- adequate for a children's book, but superficial by academic standards. But the story and the rendition of Korean culture and language -- all accessible to a young reader -- exemplify the kind of exotification and Orientalism that makes literary scholars wince.

Asian American literature has become, de facto, a genre as far as the publishing business is concerned, with some unintended consequences in the academy. To give a particularly ludicrous example, I located two Asian American literature courses in which David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars (1994) was taught as an Asian American novel because the professors had simply assumed, from the way the book had been marketed, that the author was Asian American. One of the professors rationalized the error by saying that Guterson's book was an Asian American novel, but that we needed to define Asian American differently. By these terms, if "Asian American" is a genre label, then other white writers like Danielle Steele -- who also has a novel dealing with the Japanese American internment experience -- can write it as well, in the same way that writers of any race may write a Mystery or Science Fiction novel. Such rationalization presents a troubling, somewhat "in your face" redefinition of our inquiry.

But ironically, the strange logic of mainstream publishing has also helped give rise to a large and diverse range of expression in the category of Asian American, among which Korean Americans have tended to be especially innovative.

3. Self-redefinition and Interstitiality

Recent Korean American works have been quite diverse in a way that resists the kind of essentialist typecasting of writers (and their subject matter) characteristic of the publishing business.

Don Lee's short story collection, Yellow (2003), represents this trend very well. Lee writes with a clear awareness not only of what is going on in Asian American literary expression in general, but also of what is happening in the literary mainstream. Some of his stories have a deceptively slick, entertaining, and accessible surface; and while they while perform many of the same self-reflective tropes one finds in earlier memoirs and memoir-like novels, those tropes are performed very differently, and under the surface, one often detects a sly subversion of reader's expectations.

Other Korean American writers have tried to move away from ethnic typecasting in more overt ways. Both Chang-rae Lee and Susan Choi have Japanese Americans as central characters in their most recent novels. Franklin Hata, the main character in A Gesture Life (1999), is a Japanese of Korean ancestry (and in his next novel, Aloft, Lee's narrator is not Asian). The central character in American Woman (2003) is Jenny Shimada, a Japanese American based on Wendy Yoshimura, the SLA member assigned to watch Patty Hearst while she was held captive in the mid-'70s. American Woman is almost a public expression of the Choi's redefinition of her own identity as a writer.

With her first novel, The Foreign Student (1998), Choi had been classified, much against her will, as an Asian American writer. The content of The Foreign Student, whose main character is a Korean man, made that classification inescapable. When she spoke at the Korea Society last year in conjunction with Ty Pak and myself at a reading from the Kori anthology, Choi said she saw herself more as a Southern writer and a Jewish writer than as a Korean American writer, a label she finds too limiting. (Chang-rae Lee and Leonard Chang have also expressed similar sentiments regarding the labeling of ethnic writers in numerous interviews.)

Obviously, such definition and redefinition of the writerly self plays out in sharply different ways according to context. For Korean academics, continuing to struggle with the legacy of recent colonial history and nationalist politics, gestures such as Choi's and Chang-rae Lee's self-redefinition might seem especially charged, particularly when they write novels that focus on Japanese American characters.

Meanwhile, there are Korean American writers who have continued to push boundaries in other ways that make their works increasingly interstitial. Let me give you a quick definition of the term "interstitial" because it is distinctly different from "hybrid." "Interstice" literally means "to stand between," and it generally refers to the space between things. Interstitial works are those that go beyond concepts like hybridity and liminality; interstitial writing defies genre classification or attempts at "high concept" descriptions that merely rely on a merging of two or more forms or qualities. In the mainstream world there are numerous works that have a high concept hybrid quality. Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker, for example, could be pitched as an ethnic memoir combined with an espionage novel, thereby appealing to a readership larger than that of a single-genre work, but an interstitial work resists being categorized that way because it is too complex to classify as a mere combination of two or more things. Theresa Cha's DICTEE is a superb case in point. There are so many potential engagements that it's impossible and, in fact, counterproductive to attempt to define DICTEE as a particular thing in terms of mere hybridity or intersection. The most insightful explication of DICTEE has been a response-in-kind, Walter K. Lew's Excerpts from: D IKTH DIKTE, for DICTEE (1982).

For literary scholars, the term "liminality," as used in the field of cultural studies, might be more familiar, so let me refer to it as a starting point for understanding the kind of interstitiality one finds in Korean American writing, since it also relies on the notion of interstices. Homi K. Bhabha, in his introduction to The Location of Culture, says, "It is in the emergence of the interstices -- the overlap and displacement of domains of difference -- that the intersubjective and collective experiences of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated." For ethnic literatures, the key term here is "negotiated." Later in the introduction, Bhabha says,

How are subjects formed 'in-between', or in excess of, the sum of the 'parts' of difference (usually intoned as race/class/gender, etc.)? How do strategies of representation or empowerment come to be formulated in the competing claims of communities where, despite shared histories of deprivation and discrimination, the exchange of values, meanings and priorities may not always be collaborative and dialogical, but may be profoundly antagonistic, conflictual and even incommensurable?
And finally,
The social articulation of difference, from the minority perspective, is a complex, on-going negotiation that seeks to authorize cultural hybridities that emerge in moments of historical transformation.

All of what Bhabha says above applies very directly to interstitiality, one of the increasingly visible features of recent Korean American literature. But keep in mind that whereas liminality suggests an eventual arrival at another state, one of the underlying impulses of interstitial works is to remain poised in that in-between state.

Let me give three examples, beginning with the work of Minsoo Kang.

Of Tales and Enigmas (2004) is a combination of strange stories and essays reminiscent of the works of Jorge Luis Borges, though many of Kang's pieces draw from Korean history and Korean popular culture. The pieces in Kang's collection are purposely enigmatic. They resonate with multiple cultures, they are open-ended, they don't resolve themselves with a conventional plot. Contemporary stories are combined with elements of traditional folktales; the tragic tale of the Virgin Arang is recast as a kind of urban legend in the vein of the American vanishing hitchhiker legends -- the ghost of a young seduces a man, thereby saving his life while she fulfills her Confucian mission so that her spirit can move on. The final piece in the collection, "Kyongbok Palace: History, Controversy, Geomancy," is an essay in the old sense of the word, reminiscent of Montaigne. Instead of pursuing a thesis, it engages in an interwoven exploration of ideas about geomancy and feng shui, describing the dismantling of the large Japanese administrative building that used to obstruct the view of Chongro. Kang refers to rumors (or perhaps they were only legends) about how the Japanese had sent geomancers to interrupt the flow of Korea's national ch'i by driving metal spikes into the tops of certain mountains. But at the end of the essay, though he points out that 6,000 mysterious metal spikes were found in the foundation of that building when it was dismantled, he leaves the question open-ended.

Of Tales and Enigmas was not classifiable into an easy marketing category, and Kang could not place it with a mainstream press. It is being published by Prime Books, a press most noted for its fringe Science Fiction (and it doesn't even fit easily into their line). It is fortunate that there are now regional and small presses that can take a risk on an idiosyncratic work like Kang's, and it will be interesting to see how this work will be reviewed -- whether the literary community or the Asian American community will even register it on their radar.

Jane Jeong Trenka's memoir, The Language of Blood, is another example of the kind of interstitial work that has begun to emerge, but this one is more accessible, and its major influences can be traced directly back to DICTEE and prominent trends in more mainstream Asian American fiction. For example, the book opens with the same epigraph that begins Joy Kogawa's Obasan (1981). But whereas Kogawa is purposely vague about attributing the text (for thematic reasons), Trenka gives the specific chapter and verse. Trenka's memoir is presented as an intermingling of various forms -- an ethnic identity jigsaw puzzle, a menu, a screenplay -- with chapter division in unglossed Chinese characters. Each single structural feature is one locatable in an earlier prominent Asian American work in the past fifteen years. But the general architecture of Trenka's accessible memoir gestures specifically toward DICTEE, a much more enigmatic predecessor, as if to remedy DICTEE's impenetrability while pointing to it as relevant to Trenka's own particular notion of identity. Once again, we can see why such a book would be published by a small regional imprint and not a mainstream press. A mainstream editor would find The Language of Blood too complex for a memoir, a category of writing with a high truth claim and allowing for only a small amount of experimentation (particularly for the ethnic writer).

Gary Pak's novel-in-progress, Children of a Fireland -- with its stream of consciousness, newspaper clippings, and teleplays -- is structurally similar to The Language of Blood but, as a narrative, it comes very solidly out of a local Hawaiian tradition. (If we look at Pak's earlier works, The Watcher of Waipuna and Other Stories [1992] and Ricepaper Airplane [1998], we can see the trajectory of Pak's literary experimentation.) Children of a Fireland begins as a mystery story that at first appears to account for the supernatural in a rational way, but as it continues, the novel undermines that expectation in refreshing ways. Not only do we ultimately get a ghost story, but it is one intimately familiar with popular culture subtexts (The X-Files, the Hollywood film, Ghost) and the Hawaiian shamanic tradition. And underneath its interstitial structure, Children of a Fireland is a deeply humanistic novel that gives life to a community of working class people.


4. The Role of the Korean Academy & New Definitions of Korean American

For a long time, Korean American writers like Younghill Kang and Richard Kim were not recognized as Korean writers because they wrote in English. The Korean academy went through phases during which it was sometimes even hostile to them. But recently, there has been a marked change in the academic atmosphere and Korean American writers are finally welcome under a new and more inclusive vision of Korean literature.

Dafna Zur of the University of British Columbia characterizes this new attitude in her essay, "Covert Language Ideologies in Korean American Literature." Zur points out that, in recent years, Korean scholars have begun to "graciously embrace Korean American writers as an obvious and natural part of Korean literature." They now feel that "Korean American literature is a branch of Korean literature written in English but nonetheless Korean in the issues discussed." That is to say, to the Korean academy, Korean American literature is now Korean Anglophone literature, a classification that doesn't quite make sense to some American scholars.

Zur summarizes the three main points of this new attitude in the Korean academy:

(1) that Korean American literature has an educational, didactic value to it, in that it informs non-Korean readers about Korea (by employing, for example, Korean words and phrases in the English text);

Those of you at the reading last night at the Smithsonian probably noticed that all three of us who read from our fiction did this. But in light of some of the works I have discussed above, the next two points seem somewhat limiting:

(2) that Korean American literature attests to and performs ‘Koreanness’ thus preserving Korean culture for future generations to come; and that (3) Korean American literature is a part of Korean literature because it discusses issues relevant to Korean culture, namely the process of immigration and the negotiation of identities of Koreans abroad.

The tacit definition applied to Korean American literature by American scholars is that it is writing, in English, by Americans of Korean origin. It is typically assumed that this writing is somehow connected to issues of ethnicity or at least includes a character or narrator who is Korean or Korean American. Whether this literature serves the interests of Koreans is not generally an issue. In light of the above, the work that best characterizes the three considerations of the Korean academy is probably not what the Korean or American academics had in mind.

If you follow the Korean rhetoric back to America, it brings us to the anthology Surfacing Sadness: A Centennial of Korean-American Literature 1903-2003, whose contents were translated from the Korean into English (perhaps its most remarkable feature). This type of writing is a category likely to become more prevalent in the near future.

In the Afterword to Surfacing Sadness, Yearn Hong Choi, one of the co-editors, implicitly defines Korean American literature as works by Korean Americans written in Korean, which goes contrary to the general view that Korean American literature is written in English. Choi also reveals a nationalist rhetoric quite familiar to those in Korean literary studies. He says, "In the intellectual void of the 1970s and 1980s, Korean poets and writers in the United States published their works in Korean-language newspapers, attended Korean churches utilizing their native language, and organized Korean literary societies in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; New York; Atlanta; Chicago; and San Francisco." He goes on to talk about some of these literary movements and their products, such as Jipyongsun, Miju Munhak, Woollim, Munhak Saega, and Oaegi, but it is the last two titles that have a distinctly odd and exciting sound to them: Washington Munhak and New York Munhak. These are all venues through which Korean Americans writing in Korean can get published, but the titles of the last two finally represent, and draw long-overdue attention to, the increasing international culture of Koreans and Korean Americans.

Choi has a set of complaints, partially directed at the American academy. For example, he says, "I was greatly disappointed by Marshall Pihl's total ignorance of Korean Literature in the United States, even though he was one of America's most prominent Korean scholars." Choi also complains about Cornell University's East Asia Series, which publishes Korean novels and poetry collections, "but [has] yet to publish Korean American literature." He talks about Korean Studies programs and literature courses in which classic works like the Ch'unhyangjon and Hong'giltongjon are studied but contemporary Korean American works are not. He says that "the students' parents are paying their sons' and daughters' tuition yet they are not introduced to their parental works at all. This is a sad state."

Choi's concerns exemplify how the rhetorics and the definitions can be surprisingly disjunctive even when they appear to refer to things that fall into the same category. But his concerns also draw much needed attention to the complex layers of politics concerning Korean American literature.

5. Conclusion

The interests of Korean American writers, Korean scholars and critics, American scholars and critics, the Korean and American readerships, and finally, the publishers, are interwoven in complex ways. As I've shown, even something that appears as relatively straightforward as the definition of Korean American becomes quite complex in light of particular contexts and the interests they represent.

Writers like Susan Choi may (and probably will) end up entirely shifting categories as far as the world of publishing is concerned. Her trajectory and Chang-rae Lee's (and even Leonard Chang's) might be characterized as a literary evolution but also as a suggestion that Korean American writers are successfully assimilating into the mainstream of American literature, writing simply as a writers and not as ethnic writers. Choi, Lee, and Chang have all expressed this desire in the first place. How critics, academics, and readers respond to such gestures remains to be seen, but it is clear that Korean American writers are attempting to have more control over their public personae. As they engage their various readerships, the controversy and discourse generated by their works will only increase the vitality of Korean American writing.

Publishing has changed quite markedly even in the past five years, and I think we will be seeing many more experimental and unclassifiable works coming from small fringe presses and some even through self-publication via print-on-demand technology. This means that the control of mainstream publishers, critics, and academics have over literary representation will diminish as regional, local, and even neighborhood presses re-emerge.

Perhaps it is my own wishful projection, but one thing I look forward to is a renewed vitality like that of the old mimeograph culture, the 'zine culture of Factsheet Five, or the samistat of the former Soviet Union -- writing that isn't simply out to make money or establish reputations, but to be read, to be responded to in kind. That is what I hope will characterize Korean American literature in the future.

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