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Korean Enough: Alexander Chee on New Korean American Fiction

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June 14, 2008

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I lived my first three years in Korea, in my grandfather’s house in Seoul, before we moved to Truk, Hawaii, Guam, then Maine. My mother tells me that the first written words I ever read aloud were “Obi Mechu”, the Korean version of, if your American child looked up at you and said, “Schlitz Beer.” I was on her lap, looking over her shoulder at billboards as we drove through Seoul.

My father’s family in Korea keeps traditions they brought with them from China in the 15th Century that the Chinese no longer keep; they use an archaic Chinese script in the keeping of our family’s records. They perform, inside the confines of my family, these rituals of this lost homeland—even as they tell me they fear I’m “not Korean enough,” with no sense of irony whatsoever.

If I were, say, to be as like them as they asked when I was younger—if I were to be “Korean enough,” I still would never be Korean enough for some. I would still go to my grave an alien. I think of them, though, now that I live in America. I wonder if what we do as Korean Americans is so very different from what they do in Korea with the traditions of China. If we are headed towards becoming a performance of the myths of the homeland that would be bizarre and even antiquated to the people who live there now.

If there’s one experience common to being Korean American, it seems to me, it is that we all put each other through a test of authenticity, at least once. Do you speak Korean? Did you go to Korean school? Korean language camp? Can you curse in Korean? How spicy can you take your food? I remember asking a group of Korean acquaintances, at a bar night out in Koreatown, in New York, for the translation of a word. They said, Oh sure. Chok-ka. Which means, more or less, Take out your dick. It wasn’t the word I was looking for.

Luckily, I had learned to fact-check.

Koreans in Korea aren’t like this. In the many times I’ve visited, I’ve never been tested by them, and my shortcomings as a Korean American were often laughed off. If anything, I’m treated as simply American: they explain what we’re eating, even though I’ve been eating it as long as I’ve known them, since birth. This is Kimchi, it’s kind of spicy, they tell me. They want me to know what they know, and I watch as they eventually contradict each other.

My sense of Korea is a highly subjective one, related to me by my family, and as such, imperfect and partial. My visits to them, living with them, that was my Korean school. It included not being taught Korean. I was supposed to exhibit certain Korean ideals (be hardworking, good, sober, top of your class) but as an American (you speak English, you fit in, you have friends).

There is a mistake in my first novel about Korean religious history that comes from something my grandfather in Seoul told me with great authority, and I’ll correct it in future editions. This was my lesson in learning to fact-check my relatives. But this is not what Koreans do. What Koreans, and Korean Americans, do, is what people of every ethnicity do: they create highly subjective, imperfect and partial narratives, in our case, about Korea and Koreans, that will at times fail a fact check, and yet will tell the truth of some Korean, somewhere. What my grandfather said to me was true for him as a believer, if not factually true. For myself, as someone who was mixed race, Hapa, I came to know that all ethnicity was, at least at the level of content, an intensely personal fiction. As a writer, in some ways, what I do, what we all do, is simply make the personal into the literal. Literature.

When I was a child, I became an inveterate bookworm. I read constantly, whether it was enormous science fiction novels like Frank Herbert’s Dune, or Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle. I read books found in old summer camps we rented, I went to libraries and tried, in childish hubris, to be a completist, to check every book out. And yet I didn’t read anything by an Asian American writer until I was in college. And when I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, it changed my life forever, as much as David Leavitt’s Family Dancing did—fiction that affirmed to me that I could be a literary writer and be gay, as well as a literary writer who was Asian American.

When I was coming of age as a young writer, hanging out at the Asian American Writers Workshop, the Korean American writers whose work I knew and loved were Chang-rae Lee, Heinz Insu Fenkl, Susan Choi, Nora Okja Keller and Theresa Hak Yung Cha. These were among the published, though. Of the writers I knew who weren’t published at that time, there were, for example, my students there, like Ishle Park, who became the poet laureate of Queens, or Elaine H. Kim (not the academic), included in the fiction I’ve gathered here, with an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, Gwangju. There was Min Jin Lee, whose novel Free Food For Millionaires was one of last year’s biggest fiction debuts. After reading my way through a mountain of books to find even the first one of them, they’re all precious to me, even as I also find the contemporary brand of the Asian America writer a problem.

When I became a writer, I had a single aesthetic ideal: to write stories as complicated as I knew the world to be. As a teacher of creative writing now, it’s been disturbing to me to watch some of my most talented young students in the last two years, young writers of color, turn to the writing of science fiction, where they invent worlds without the ethnic troubles of our own. Something, somewhere, is going wrong, and when I urge them to write about their own ethnicities, they look at me as if I’m speaking to them in something like Korean. But I also remember being full of rage as a young student writer, when I’d tell people stories of my family in Korea, and they’d say to me, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of material.” Or, “Write that down.” I didn’t want to believe that my future as a writer relied on me selling my life’s content. It made me feel like my future was the literary equivalent of a yard sale.

The solution for me as a writer, the way I didn’t lose my mind or my sense of my own dignity, was through a question of content vs. sensibility. Is it a Korean American novel because there’s kimchi, or is it a Korean American novel because it’s informed by someone who grew up with even a distant sense of Han? My first novel, Edinburgh, for example, is in one way a reinterpretation of the Korean and Japanese myths of the fox, plotted using Aristotle’s principles for tragedy. In writing it, I was drawn to the idea of these “mistakes”—when your grandfather tells you something and then you go to college and find out it is something else. Where does his truth come from? That was where my first novel went, following after that.

When we become writers, we are asked, Is it an Asian American novel? This is a literal question, not at all a rhetorical one. What I fear my students resist is how we are made to work inside of a brand, whether we want to or not: “Asian American Fiction,” and in fact, a subset of that brand: “Korean American Fiction.” We worry if they will “chink” the book up, put chopsticks and teacups on the cover, or dragons, or an Asian woman. Will we be described, against our will, as immigrants, when we were born here? Will we be accused of trying to “make the book marketable” if there’s Asian content? Will we be branded as sell outs if there’s not “enough” Korean content? And if we write work that isn’t what people expect of us, of our brand, will we find an audience, or even be allowed to find an audience? A question you might want to ask yourself sometime is, What are the novels and stories we don’t see because someone doesn’t fit the brand? What, in other words, would have become of Theresa Hak Yung Cha if she had tried to be a writer after the establishing of the brand?

A recent discovery for me is Younghill Kang, one of the first, if not the first, of Korean American writers. A1933 Guggenheim fellow and a protégé of Thomas Wolfe, his fictionalized memoir, East Goes West: The Making of an Oriental Yankee, tells what we now know to be the immigrant’s tale, and it ends with what he calls “the death of the state of exile”. It is a Nabakovian stylistic tour de force, from start to finish. To read East Goes West is to visit a writer who has no idea of what Asian American lit as we know it is—he has no sense of the tropes or of avoiding the tropes, he doesn’t imagine reviewers expecting him to address this or that, he doesn’t write waiting to get letters telling him he’s betrayed his people by not being Korean enough. He uses words such as “oriental” with no irony. What fascinates me about him, or Theresa Hak Yung Cha, or Nora Okja Keller, or newer writers, like Nami Mun and Paul Yoon, or the writers I’ve brought here—Catherine Chung, Jin Young Sohn, Elaine H. Kim—is not the Korean American content, but the sensibility that emerges from their fictions. The way the world looks to them, through them. Catherine Chung is at work on a novel tentatively called Burial. In this excerpt, her narrator relates stories that date to the conflict that drove Younghill Kang out of Korea—Catherine is writing of a woman who, in one way, is trying to understand how the Korean nationalist struggle wounded her Korean family, and in a very real sense, her. Jin Young Sohn is telling stories about gay Korean Americans in Orange County, looking for each other, and finding each other on Craigslist, in this excerpt from his story NOGM. And Elaine H. Kim’s novel in progress, Gwangju, is set after the Gwangju student massacres in 1980. Her excerpt here is a woman’s meditation on the death of her son in the riots.

In 2003, two years after my own debut, an interviewer asked me about the future of Korean American fiction. If you could see what I see, I said, you’d know it’s in good shape. I was referring to my students, to the writers I heard at readings, the writers coming up into print. And so I mean for this to be a glimpse into what I meant then: Catherine Chung, Jin Young Sohn, Elaine H. Kim, their work to me is like a rough draft of the future. The connections between them are not obvious ones. And that, it seems to me, is exactly how it should be.

–Alexander Chee
 

JUNE FICTION CHOSEN BY ALEXANDER CHEE

Catherine Chung
Elaine H. Kim
Jin Young Sohn

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