After co-editing the two major collections of Korean American writing published in the last dozen years,1 I have come to see the compiling of anthologies as a kind of literary anthropology. The 2002 collection Kori (titled after the kŏri of shamanic rituals) was a nod to recovery ethnography, an attempt to show the lay of the land and to reveal the themes that carried over from the “old” to “new” literary cultures. Century of the Tiger, which followed soon after, was designed as a celebration of cultural connections to honor one hundred years of Korean immigration. The following year, I speculated on the future of Korean American literature at the 10th Annual Han Moo-Sook Colloquium in the Korean Humanities.2 It’s been just over a decade, and much of what I predicted then about the impact of the “collapse” of traditional American mainstream publishing, the opportunities of new media, and the emergence of ethnic writers in genre fiction has come to pass. For this special section of AZALEA, my co-editor Minsoo Kang and [End Page 13] I have assembled a spectrum of prose works with this particular context in mind.
Since AZALEA is a journal of Korean literature and culture, in which many contemporary Korean literary works make their debut in translation, it represents a literary cross section, albeit a selective one, of contemporary Korean works made available to an English speaking audience. Given the relatively small number of Korean literary works translated and published in English even today, it is an important source for those looking for contemporary trends and literary trajectories. Meanwhile, post-Hallyu, Korean popular culture is globally recognized, sometimes to an embarrassing degree. Our selections, limited to prose works (poetry being reserved for a future issue), are made with a logic very different from that of a popular anthology aimed at a general audience. On the one hand, Korean readers may be surprised to see certain contemporary narrative themes in Korean fiction reflected in what many Korean scholars now classify as kyopo writing. On the other, readers may see that the manic velocity of change in South Korea is mediated in the U.S., that certain themes seem to play out more slowly here. Yet, at the same time, there are pervasive and deep themes that continue in parallel on both sides of the Pacific and, recently, the beginnings of an increasingly comfortable multilingual and multicultural syncretism.
The most prominent Korean American writers like Chang Rae Lee, Susan Choi, and Don Lee have made a conscious effort to move beyond the constraints of the ethnic label, departing from prominently Korean-associated subject matter to more “universal” literary works they hope will be assessed by aesthetic merits and not issues of ethnic representation. This has been successful to a large degree, although, ironically, the very academy that supports this departure from constricting boundaries continues to identify them as Asian American writers. Meanwhile, contemporary Korean writers—especially the younger generation—are expanding their sense of context and [End Page 14] increasingly see themselves not so much as Korean writers but as international writers.
The pieces we have selected for this issue of AZALEA cover wide-ranging themes. Some of the pieces are still linked to the primary tropes of Korean American literature. Brothers Under a Same Sky for example, offers a vision of the Korean War by Gary Pak, a writer best known for his near ethnographic stories set in Hawaii. Brothers is a marked departure from his earlier work not just for its setting, but for its resonance with Korean fiction set during the war. Yongsoo Park’s Boy Genius, a postmodern autohagiography little known outside a small circle of underground aficionados, is an unexpectedly prophetic reflection of Korea’s Park Chung Hee nostalgia envisioned a decade earlier in America.
While the memoir remains a prominent form in American ethnic literature, for Korean Americans its terms have significantly changed. On one end of the spectrum, the profound impact of Theresa Cha’s postmodern DICTEE still resonates; on the other, simple social facts like the changing adoption laws have made the recovery of adoptees’ identities less difficult...