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Saturday, April 18, 2009

An Interview with Grace M. Cho, Author ‘ Haunting the Korean Diaspora’

by Uni Park

GRACE M. CHO joined Nodutdol in the summer of 2008 and was a participant on Korea Exposure & Education Program in 2007. She is an associate professor of sociology, anthropology, and women’s studies at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island. She is a contributing performance artist for the art collective Still Present Pasts: Korean Americans and the Forgotten War. Grace’s new book, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War, was recently published in late 2008 by University of Minnesota Press. I finally got a chance to chat with Grace over skype in early April after several emails, coordinating across continents and time zones.

Uni: Grace, first of all, I want to congratulate you on the publication of your new book. I can’t even imagine spending almost a decade on a project. It must have been an arduous process with many ups and downs. What were some of the struggles in writing this book?

Grace: There were many. First of all because it started as my doctoral dissertation, I needed to get institutional support to do this and I faced a lot of criticism because I was doing something quite unorthodox for sociology. I also faced some challenges with a few family members who had objections to me writing this book. And then, it was emotionally taxing to write this book. I found myself holding back a lot because it was so dark sometimes and it was frightening to go into these dark places. But because I was trying to write in a way that also “performed” the trauma I was writing about, I needed to enter those places and feel it myself. I had to face a number of conflicts, both inner and outer. Also, I sometimes wonder if the book is compromised because it is a hybrid between an academic book and a book for a general audience.

Uni: What do you mean precisely by hybrid? Can you elaborate?

Grace: Since it came out of my dissertation, it was shaped a lot by institutional requirements. Then I got a contract with an academic press to publish the book and therefore had to revise it in a way that responded to criticisms of academic reviewers. It was important that I make a new theoretical contribution. The whole time I was very aware that my audience was an academic audience as well as one beyond academia. But I used a lot of different writing styles and research methods, some of them much more akin to creative writing or performance art. That’s what I mean when I call it a hybrid.

Uni: I see. When I read the book, I found it to be a strength that it wasn’t a dry academic read with just a lot of facts and numbers, but that it also had the element of a personal story as well. If it was not published through an academic press, how might you have done things differently?

Grace: I would have written it more for a popular audience rather than an academic audience. Sometimes, to the academics, its not scholarly enough because it includes a personal story. Academia requires a particular process that makes it quite difficult to write primarily to a popular audience.

Uni: It’s great though that you decided to move forward with it despite objections from academia. Why were they so opposed to the personal story? I recall you also mentioned before that there was some resistance to the concept of ‘transgenerational haunting’.

Grace: First, I want to acknowledge that I did get tremendous support from a small group of academics – my advisor, my committee, other up-and-coming sociologists who were doing radical things, and the folks at the press were really enthusiastic about it not being your typical academic text. But to answer your question, you have to understand that the field of sociology in the U.S. has some limited ideas about what counts as empirical. Western science has really influenced sociology in that it uses the same kinds of measures of evidence, data, ways of constructing an argument, etc. You know, it has to be something you can count. Some critics said that my work had “absolutely no empirical basis.” In particular, they took issue with my use of the terms “ghost” and “haunting” or the fact that my object of analysis was “the unconscious.” And not just any unconscious. A “collective unconscious.” A “diasporic unconscious.” And if you’re in the business of counting things, that all sounds like crazy talk. I was told that you can’t really study ghosts as a sociologist, and asked if I really believed in ghosts. You know, in this concerned tone of voice. “Do you really believe in ghosts?” Psychoanalysts have always used ghosts as one of their primary metaphors. And in Asian American Studies, no one questions this language either. I think it’s quite common in Asian cultures to believe in ghosts.

Uni: And do you think, then its more a cultural difference?

Grace: Yes and not just in terms of Asian/non-Asian cultures. There are cultural differences between, say, literature and the social sciences. Social scientists rarely valorize the use of metaphors or any kind of language that sounds the least bit poetic.

Uni: Going back to your comments earlier, in order to reach a general audience, would you have preferred to write a memoir or an autobiography?

Grace: No. Part of my project is that I’m looking not just at individual experience, but at a collective experience, at a transgenerational experience. That’s something that a memoir or an autobiography could not have achieved.

Uni: I felt the book was written in a non-conventional way, which was refreshing and appealed to me as a reader who wanted to know the hard facts about the Korean war, but also about its personal impact. At times the writing is fragmented, going in and out of objective and subjective points of view, especially when piecing together an incomplete story from a fractured memory. Can you talk about any influences you might have had by the artist, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha?

Grace: When I first moved to New York, I studied with bell hooks. At that time, the project was starting to percolate in my mind, although at that time, I had no intention of publishing a book. Anyway, she had given me a copy of Cha’s book Dictee. I read it and there were parts of her work that I connected with, but I didn’t really understand it. However, even the things I didn’t understand got into my unconscious and years later it really influenced the way I expressed my own work. I think the structure and style of Dictee is a brilliant expression of a diasporic unconscious in the way that it’s constantly moving in time and space, and borrows from many different sources of memory. My reference to Dictee was also a conscious theoretical move in away. I mean, it was a book that was disputed as an autobiography, and it spoke to my own desire to experiment with writing in a personal voice that was not always or only my own. The ambiguity in my book owes a lot to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.

Uni: Currently where does the struggle stand for camptown women in South Corea?

Grace: I can’t really say since my research did not involve ethnographic work in camptowns. But I think it’s important to note that the demographic has changed since I started writing the book and now its mostly migrant women working in the camptowns. So on one hand you have to locate the struggle within the current scene of migrant workers’ rights and on the other, it still needs to be part of a feminist debate because camptown sex workers have continued to be marginalized and extremely vulnerable, and it’s often women’s groups that bring attention to these issues. And of course, the ban-mi [anti-base] movement still has an interest in camptown women. So the struggle is at the crossroads of these different movements, but you have to be very careful that using the figure of the camptown sex worker in political organizing is really about empowering women and not just about using the figure for the goals of the organization.

Uni: What advice would you offer other emerging writers?

Grace: Heavy advice, but if you are haunted by something, as I was, you should write. Haunting can be a very powerful and creative force. Also, it’s important to have support from others around you because writing can be a very isolating process as you are in your own head for most of the time.

Uni: Are there any new projects formulating?

Grace: I don’t want to say because I’ve been saying this for a while and I’m not sure when I will ever start it!

Uni: Maybe by telling us, it’ll push you to start / realize the project.

Grace: A food memoir. Stemming from a passion for food, and the unusual experiences with food I had growing up. My mom used to forage for all kinds of things in the forest: blackberries, wild mushrooms, kosari [fiddlehead ferns]. We also used to go to the ocean and fish for smelt, dig clams, pick seaweed. And my dad was a farmer, so we also grew our own vegetables.

Uni: I think a lot of us growing up with Korean moms can relate to the foraging obsession! I recall in my primary school days, my grandmother would pick dandelions in odd places. And now, its one of my favorite types of keem-chi.

Grace: I also moved to New York at a time when agribusiness really exploded and I realized how different the dominant food culture was. I ran a Head Start program when I first moved here and one day I asked the kids if they knew where milk comes from. They all said “the grocery store.” So I decided to take them to a farm to show them that milk comes from a cow. In modern urban life in the US, most people don’t know where their food comes from. My experiences were so different.

We always had huge quantities of food in our house, most of which my mother harvested herself. Some of it was just for us but other things she would sell. Only about 5,000 people lived in my hometown so everyone knew about my mom because she also supplied the town with all kinds of food. We already stood out by being the only Korean family, but then she would also draw more attention to herself by doing things like cover the roof of the house with kosari to dry it in the sun. And the neighbors would say things like, “why is your mom always walking around on the roof?” Back then, I was probably just embarrassed by her, but now I see that she was kind of this small-town celebrity. People used to call her “the blackberry lady” because our house was the only place in town where you could buy wild blackberries. And she also sold mushrooms to a restaurant supplier. Most of the mushrooms used in the area restaurants came from my mom.

Uni: I was going to ask you to share a fond memory you had of your mother. But maybe you can extend the foraging mom story as I find it really endearing.

Grace: A couple years ago I made this mushroom dish with wild chanterelles for Christmas. Actually, it was the last time I spent Christmas with my mother before she died. I told her that Whole Foods sold them for $40 a pound. She was shocked. She said, “$40 a pound?? I used to pick thousands of pounds of those mushrooms!” Thousands of pounds! No exaggeration. The irony is that many people now go to fancy gourmet stores to buy the kinds of foods that were a staple of my diet. In some ways Koreans were way ahead of the curve. It’s funny, but there are these foraging tours in Central Park where the tour guide points out what things are edible and what are not. It has totally become yuppified and before, it was what poor peasants did to subsist. Nowadays you pay top dollar for it.

So the inspiration for the new project also comes from my mom. From both of my parents, but especially my mom. This food memoir is a very different kind of tribute. Haunting the Korean Diaspora demands that we look at “Korean military brides,” the women who are often shunned by their families and communities, who are kept hidden in the shadows. In some ways my mother’s experiences were like that, too. She spent a long period of her life suffering from the long-term effects of trauma and couldn’t function well enough to be a so-called “productive member of society.” The way our society deals with both mental illness and historical trauma is to just not look at it, and treat it as if it’s not really there, and then benefits from that invisibility. Haunting the Korean Diaspora asks readers to look at the effects of making things invisible. Well, now I want to tell another story about my mother. Mentally ill people are all always talked about as burdens to society, but in some ways she defied that discourse. There was a time in her life, in our life, when she was super-productive and very visible. The more I think about the meaning of food for a culture or community, the more I realize that my mother’s contribution was immeasurable. She literally fed the whole community.

Uni: Thank you, Grace, for sharing your story. And I look forward to progress on the food memoir. No pressure or anything.

BOOK REVIEW by Uni Park
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The subject of the Korean War is often times dominated by a distinctly male point of view and limited to cold war ideological debates. The female perspective has been irrelevant and unvoiced. And the uncomfortable topic of sexual relations in geopolitical sphere’s is rarely approached critically. Cho brings to light the thousands of Korean women who have worked inside the camptowns situated on the periphery of the U.S. military bases in South Korea [which once numbered as many as a hundred]. These women have been mostly invisible in the current body of historical literature about the affects of the Korean war. Cho dissects the origins and the complicated role of the ‘Yangongju’, shamed and yet implicit in spurring South Korea from a third world, war-torn, divided nation into one of the fastest grown economies in the developed world.

Through her book, Cho makes a bold attempt to speak about the things which we are told are unspeakable. And in that process of writing, she begins to identify this collective amnesia about the past which continues to seep into the present psyche. Transgenerational haunting is a fairly new concept that many may dismiss as a mere belief in spirits or ghosts which are quite common place in eastern cultures. This concept, first introduced by psychoanalysts studying family members of holocaust survivors, recognized that psychological trauma’s have been unconsciously passed on to generations long after the trauma has been inflicted. The unspoken painful legacies of colonization, war, oppression, injustice, violence all deeply affect our cultural identities. And Cho, by excavating these buried truths, begins to unleash the collective grief and to heal the scars transfered upon the scattered diaspora.

Cho’s poetic and at times fragmented narration, also reveal influences by the late artist, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, whose work touched upon themes that often dealt with loss: of country, language, memory, time. Cho also references quotes from “Dictee”, the artists’ most well known piece that is written in a nonlinear, disconnected manner, and using multiple voices. Cho’s own writing fluctuates out of objective facts to subjective memory, weaving in and out of the cold facts of the forgotten war and at the same time, piecing together a personal story that can never be fully known. One is easily drawn into the dream sequences that Cho so intimately shares with her readers, compelling and effectual in getting a sense of the personal. The style and structure of the book conveys an unconventional experimental approach at ‘unraveling the fabric of erasure’.

As a 1.5 generation Korean-American, my immigration to the U.S. was only made possible through the marriage of an aunt to an American GI, who worked in a U.S. camptown. I am often struck by the gaps in my own family past. Reading ‘Haunting the Korean Diaspora’ is a profound remembrance and acknowledgment of the many thousands of Korean women who survived and their herstories that are both absent and present in our lives.

*Note: If you would like to purchase the book, you can order it on-line through Amazon. As a supporter of Nodutdol, 25% of the author’s proceeds will go towards the organization.

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