- Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas by Jinah Kim
With her sights narrowed onto a complex target, Jinah Kim in Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas tries to do something special. Tracing the literature, art, and films of U.S. based Asian diasporic [End Page 216] writers, Kim looks at an understated, lost-in-development, and still grieving community. Central to everything here is the feeling of a lack of resolution, a wilful or naïve failure to address the pain of recent history. The challenge, of course, is how this continued suffering ("Melancholia") should be defined ("Afterlives") and understood ("transpacific subjectivities, aesthetics"); how you designate a perpetrator from complex interactions ("U.S. imperialism and militarism"), and what responsibility you insist should be owed for this ("generate transformative antiracist and decolonial politics"). It is the kind of work that implies new moral explanations, new breakthroughs in knowledge, a new understanding of the world, and our place in it.
The relationship between grieving and memory, pain and history, is not a new topic—not even close. There is a worn and uncertain path here. Uncertain, due to the complexities of the human condition, the differences between individuals; and so with this the failures of singular, accurate, universalised approaches. What Kim is trying to do—it is a return to that "collective" element, to understand people, their motivations, their morality, and their suffering, through the groups they belong to. It doesn't start with the events, but with the "afterlives"—the emotions. The intentions, and circumstances in history are less important than the feelings and the memories. And perhaps there is something in this—ontological versus epistemological truth—but there is also something clearly missing.
Postcolonial Grief is largely a literary study, and so its philosophy might understandably be second-hand. But it is still central to the whole enterprise. Kim is not instructing her audience toward a high-brow reading list, but toward the truth she sees in those authors' works. In any event, it's not nearly close enough to what she is hoping to achieve. One or two selected works per chapter is helpful in partitioning her work and the readers mind, but also forces the query "what did she leave out?", "what was the selection criteria?" Every lens here is onto an absolute—a truth that makes the reader think and doubt, but which Kim never offers a proper critical analysis of. Sentences like "The fear that prolonged and unchecked grief will lead to violence is one of the reasons grief is pathologized and surveilled by the state," stop the reader dead in their tracks. It is laden with presuppositions—what is meant by "pathologized" and "surveilled"?—but the time is never given, and the language just moves forward.
Occasionally ideas are built from the ground-up, but the language remains tautological and gimmicky: "the diagnosis of melancholia against the Algerians paradoxically authorizes violence as the sole provenance of the colonial state and now the post-colonial liberal nation-state's domain." Kim is consciously trying to be "intersectional" here—and as is the risk with such an approach, it [End Page 217] comes across as scattergun. The solution? Segway to authority statements, phrases like "… has argued," "… demonstrates" dominate the prose and hinge the book in new directions; but again it is also used as a way to introduce new ideas without spending the necessary time explaining or justifying them.
There is a motivation, an ideological sense, behind this. Kim entertains the claim, at multiple places in the book, that the problem she faces might just be knowledge itself. That knowledge is not universal, but specific to people and places ("as endemic to U.S. knowledge production"). Yet regardless of the victim, the perpetrator here is always capitalism and modernization; as if these are only dogmas and never synonyms for freedoms, progress, and improvements. And with this, history begins to bend: the downfall of imperial Japan becomes an...