Academic journal article MELUS

Science Fiction and Postmemory Han in Contemporary Korean American Literature

Academic journal article MELUS

Science Fiction and Postmemory Han in Contemporary Korean American Literature

Article excerpt

As Marianne Hirsch observes in Family Frames (1997), children of Holocaust survivors often "remember" the suffering that their parents endured. The memory of the Holocaust is no less vivid for these children than it is for the mothers and fathers who experienced the tragedy firsthand. Yet while members of the postwar generation--Hirsch among them--mourn what their parents lost, that mourning is inevitably complicated by feelings of doubt, curiosity, and guilt. In Hirsch's words: "What relationship can one have to the traumatic events of one's parents' lives--horror? ambivalence? envy? a negative nostalgia?" How is it possible to grieve for something that one never knew firsthand? What right does one have to feel traumatized by a catastrophe from which one was spared? In addressing such questions, Hirsch likens the Holocaust to "a foreign country" that she and others of her generation "can never hope to visit" yet for which they often feel mysteriously homesick (244). Born after the war, they are exiled from the very experiences that haunt them--exiled by their belatedness, by the fact that the tragedy preceded their births. Such exile, Hirsch contends, is shared not just by children of Holocaust survivors but by the children of those who have survived any collective tragedy (22). To designate this condition of spatial and temporal exile, Hirsch offers the term "postmemory." (1)

In this essay, I explore representations of a specifically Korean American type of postmemory that I call "postmemory han." (2) "Han," a word with no equivalent in English, refers to a Korean form of grief. (3) According to one writer, "All Koreans feel it" because "our country has always had to shut up and listen to bigger countries--Japan, Russia, America. And because of the war that split brother from sister and left everyone's family missing or dead" (I. Park). "Complex" and "dynamic," han "cannot be neatly analyzed" (A. Park). It ranges from "bitter-sweet longing" to despair that "wracks your insides like fire" (Freda; I. Park). Yet han never explodes. Writers repeatedly portray han as something shaped by repressiveness: han is "the unexpressed anger felt inside" (Luke Kim, qtd. in Somers), "a pent-up historical and personal anguish" (I. Park), a "compressed feeling of suffering caused by injustice" (A. Park). Anthropologists have recognized it as a culture-specific medical condition whose symptoms include dyspnea, heart palpitation, and dizziness (Somers). (4) Someone who dies of han is said to have died of hwabyung (E. Kim 215).

Despite evidence that han is a medical condition, the illness remains difficult to categorize. Are the symptoms literal or figurative? Do they originate in the body or are they psychosomatic? The answers are unclear. But if han is problematic, then postmemory han--the han that flows in the blood of Korean Americans--is infinitely more so. A second-generation Korean American might be haunted by her parents' anguish, but she would be equally haunted by the knowledge that she herself was not directly victimized by the circumstances that led to such pain. For example, she is not one of the Korean patriots who, in March of 1919, staged a nationwide peaceful demonstration for Korean independence only to watch powerlessly as fellow protestors were shot to death by the Japanese military. She is not one of the students beaten for speaking their native language, or from one of the families who starved because the imperial government requisitioned crops from Korean farmers, or one of the dysentery-stricken schoolchildren forced to spend months building airfields for kamikaze planes. She is not among the girls who were abducted, sold to military brothels as "comfort women," and routinely gang-raped by Japanese soldiers, nor is she among the millions of Koreans who fled their hometowns in 1950 and walked south for hundreds of miles to avoid being killed by communist troops. How, then, does she "remember" the pain caused by such experiences? …

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