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date: 11 April 2021

The Korean War and Its Literary Legacieslocked

  • Daniel Y. KimDaniel Y. KimBrown University


Since the late 1990s, a growing number of US authors has been drawn to the Korean War, hoping to undo its status as “The Forgotten War.” The fact that it has served as the focus of novels by eminent Korean American authors like Chang-rae Lee and Susan Choi is not entirely surprising, given that they are the children of immigrants whose early lives had been shaped by the conflict. Given the extraordinarily high number of civilian deaths that resulted from the war and the many families that were fractured, the war is clearly a defining event that helped create a Korean diaspora. It has also become the focus, however, of novels by non-Korean American authors, including Toni Morrison, Rolando Hinojosa, and Ha Jin, which testifies to the fact that it was an event in which a number of domestic histories of race and transnational histories of empire converged. The body of literary works that have emerged around this event can be thought of as constituting an archive of what Michael Rothberg has termed “multidirectional memory,” one that suggests the intimacies of multiple histories involving not only Koreans and Korean Americans, but also other US racialized groups including African, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese Americans as well as their connections to the complicated formations of empire that have shaped the relationships between Asian nations. Contending with the complexity and range of literary works that have centered on this event enables a reconsideration and expansion of what the proper subjects and objects of Asian American literary criticism are. If the field has outgrown its origins, in which the projection of a cultural nationalist vision of Asian American identity was a paramount goal, the vibrancy of these works stems from their soundings of a subject that is not univocal but multivocal. The political desires they seek to animate in their readers are not reducible to an agenda of combating domestic racism or consolidating a nativist notion of Asian American cultural identity, though they may contribute to such endeavors. More expansively, however, they articulate a multivalent range of progressive political aspirations and proliferate an array of identificatory possibilities.

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