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  • "I'm Not Here, If This Doesn't Happen"The Korean War and Cold War Epistemologies in Susan Choi's The Foreign Student and Heinz Insu Fenkl's Memories of My Ghost Brother
  • Jodi Kim (bio)

What most Americans know about Korea has been told from the point of view of a U.S. military member or a missionary, about prostitutes, beggars, and orphans, many of them mixed race children, never speaking but always spoken for and about, souls being saved by the civilizing missions of neocolonialism and evangelism. No doubt they would have found it difficult to imagine that one day the voice of the native, having returned to the imperial center, might speak back—in English—from its very different positionality.

Elaine H. Kim1

Post-1945 Korean migration has been shaped by the division and militarization of the Korean peninsula. The Korean War in particular has had a dramatic and profound impact. Most, if not all, of Korean migration since 1950 can be traced to the war and its consequences.

Ji-Yeon Yuh2

In her poem, "fragments of the forgotten war," Korean American poet Suji Kwock Kim "speak[s] back—in English—" to American empire from a "very different positionality." The positionality expressed by the poem encompasses multiple generations of a Korean family divided and scattered by the Korean War: a Korean American daughter who dedicates the poem to her father and writes in his voice, and the father who in turn addresses in the poem the parent(s) he had to leave behind when fleeing [End Page 279] south during the war. Indeed, the poem opens with his address: "You whom I could not protect/ . . . when will I forget the NKPA soldiers who took you away for questioning,/so we never saw you again?/We three sons fled south in January 1951/without you. . . ."3 As one "note" in a collection entitled Notes from the Divided Country (2003), this poem captures the ironic disjuncture of remembering in graphic detail a war that, as the very title of the poem suggests, has been "forgotten." While the Korean War (1950–1953) has been dubbed the "Forgotten War" or the "Unknown War" by Americans, it remains for Koreans and the global Korean diaspora it engendered a defining moment of family and national history. The interrogative, "when will I forget," which opens Kim's poem transforms itself later into a declarative, "I'll never forget." The subject of the poem declares that he will "never forget" the horrors of war: the smells of burning and still living yet rotting flesh, the sight of a boy biting his arm in order to take his mind off the wound in his stomach. . . .4 Yet this first-hand witnessing, experiencing, and knowledge of such suffering exist in sharp contrast to and cannot fill in for that which he does not know: how the parents he was forced to leave behind must have suffered. In the poem, the recollected horrors produce a simultaneous knowing and unknowing: "I know you suffered, but I'll never know how."5

Similarly "speak[ing] back—in English—from [a] very different positionality," in an "Untitled" multimedia work by artist Ji-Young Yoo, one hundred shallow-relief faces, made of white clay and juxtaposed like tiles, act as a screen for the projection of digitized archival footage of the Korean War as well as textual excerpts from an oral history of Korean American memories of the war. One such remembrance, by second-generation Korean American Orson Moon, reads: "Why hold on to the past? For me, it is not the past. The fear and terror of this time period have carried forward into my dad's life. . . . It's carried forward to my sisters' lives, my life, as a hole, a silence." This piece is part of a unique interactive multimedia exhibit entitled "Still Present Pasts: Korean Americans and the 'Forgotten War.'" Ramsay Liem, the exhibit's Project Director, sees the exhibit as "a space of Korean American memory" that "lifts the silence shrouding the Korean War."6 Orson Moon speaks to how the silent memories of the Korean War are carried transgenerationally, passed from father to children...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1096-8598
Print ISSN
1097-2129
Pages
pp. 279-302
Launched on MUSE
2008-11-01
Open Access
No
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