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Postmemory in Contemporary Korean Literature

This was submitted as an essay and recieved a first-class mark and was presented at the CCLPS Postgraduate Conference at SOAS in 2018.

During the late 20th century and the early 21st century, the world was witness to numerous genocides, massacres and other acts of extreme violence. This period of time was coined by Eva Hoffman as the “era of memory”[1]. While many people were directly involved in these catastrophes, there exists a subsequent generation, referred to as the second generation, that did not personally witness these atrocities.  A second generation member can be the relative of a victim or survivor, as well as one who personally identifies with those who experienced the trauma. Although such violent acts preceded their births, memories of these situations have nevertheless been “transmitted to them so deeply as to seem to constitute memories in their own right”[2].

This idea has raised many questions amongst scholars. How can we carry a victim’s story without appropriating it and them? How is it possible to grieve for something we never experienced? Or in the words of scholar Seo-Young Chu, “What right does one have to feel traumatized by a catastrophe from which one was spared?”[3]. Scholars Gary Weissman and Ernst van Alphen have challenged this type of memory by firmly asserting that children of victims and survivors can be influenced by history, but that trauma cannot be transmitted between generations. Van Alphen clarifies that the second generation has a relationship to the past based on “fundamentally different semiotic principles” and that the “indexical relationship that defines memory” cannot truly exist[4]. However, this criticism has been challenged and further explored through the theory of ‘postmemory’; an influential type of cultural memory coined by Marianne Hirsch.

Postmemory is, as defined by Hirsch, “…the relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before, experiences that they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up.”[5]

In simpler terms, it is the “transgenerational transmission of trauma”[6]. As trauma within postmemory has the capability to recollect and recall the experiences of another, it defies traditional concepts of historical archival methodologies. Hirsch reminds critics that postmemory naturally cannot be identical to memory, but is rather post in that it “approximates memory in its affective force”[7]. Despite such incidents occurring in the past, the descendants of victims and survivors remain affected in the present and future.

Although Hirsch specializes in Holocaust studies, she contends that postmemory is an after-effect of any trauma. The Korean Peninsula is undoubtedly included in areas that experienced extreme violence within the previous century. Amongst Japanese Colonisation, civil war, government-initiated massacre and authoritarian rule, the Korean Peninsula has no doubt gathered its fair share of collective memory grounded in trauma. Many second generation Koreans are known for their art, film and literature that have allowed them to express the mental, and oftentimes physical, connection they have with these past events.

In order to look at this theory in more coherent detail, two representative pieces will be examined: Han Kang’s Human Acts and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. Three elements that express transgenerational postmemory will be explored: the supernatural, photography, and second-person narrative tense.

Expressions of the supernatural within literature may refer to depictions of ghosts, hallucinations and physical possession. Literature containing elements of the supernatural can be described as “a mimetic genre whose objects of representation are non-imaginary yet cognitively estranging”[8]. The supernatural elements presented within Human Acts and Dictee help to emphasize the authors’ display of postmemory through their characters’ mental and physical connection to the afterlife.

In Han Kang’s Human Acts, we enter the world of 1980s Gwangju, South Korea, where governmental forces are massacring pro-democracy demonstrators of all ages and backgrounds. The book is divided into seven parts that flow between fiction and nonfiction, but all stories are tied to a 15 year-old boy named Dong-ho, who cares for the corpses of victims until his own eventual death in the massacre. In the second section of the book, we are confronted with the voice of a spirit as the narrator. His name is Jeong-dae, the former best friend of Dong-ho. When we are first introduced to him, it is clear that Jeong-dae is a spirit stuck in the physical world after his death in the protests. Unfortunately, the spirit finds himself unable to move and is thereby forced, along with other anonymous spirits, to gaze upon their mutilated and rotting corpses.

Han’s descriptive and eloquent writing style brings the reader directly beside them. We can hear Jeong-dae’s inner thoughts: “If we’d been given a little more time, might we have arrived, eventually, at a moment of understanding?”[9. We can see his memories through reflections of his childhood. We can also hear his hopes and dreams, continued even after his death, of wanting to search for his family and friends.

Additionally, in the section of the book narrated by Dong-ho’s mother, she continuously speaks to her deceased son and often sees him walking the streets. This direct link to the afterlife is not something that reads as discomforting, frightening, or even unusual. To quote Dong-ho directly, “The soldiers are the scary ones […] What’s frightening about the dead?”[10]. This emotional sensibility with which Han writes allows the reader to fully connect with the deceased and to remind oneself that they were human, and perhaps still are, despite their apparition form. Providing the dead with a voice is a gesture towards peace and clarity for those dealing with postmemory trauma in the second generation.
Supernatural elements in Dictee are presented in quite a different way. Theresa Cha was born in Busan, South Korea in 1951, but grew up in the United States and was considered to be Korean-American. In the case of her autobiography Dictee, which acts more as a collection of various art pieces including poems, photographs, and narratives, Cha’s Korean identity and link to her ancestors is at the forefront of the book’s focus. Dictee expresses postmemory through the supernatural via the concept of “the literalized invocation of the muse”, where a ghost uses a descendant’s organs to vocalize memories predating the descendant’s birth[11]. In the opening pages of the book, through an experience similar to paranormal possession, Cha’s ancestors enter her body and twist her vocal cords to make their own heard:

“She allows herself caught in their threading, anonymously in their thick motion in the weight of their utterance…. Inside her. Now. This very moment. Now. She takes rapidly in the air, in gulfs, in preparation for the distances to come. The pause ends. The voice wraps another layer. Thicker now even. From the waiting. The wait from pain to say. To not say. Say….”[12]

While on the surface this may read as disturbing, the act is actually uniting Cha directly with her ancestors through physical sensation, arguably the most intimate form of communication. By lending her body to the spirits of her ancestors, Cha’s lost family members that suffered under colonization, war, and authoritarianism become alive and present; they defy death, ignorance and silence. Despite not having a first-hand experience of the atrocities her relatives experienced, these memories appear to have always been a part of her body, literally “inscribed in her DNA”[13]. Supernatural elements allow even diaspora Koreans such as Cha to reconnect with memories from their homeland, securing its place as a powerful expression of postmemory.

The second way in which postmemory is addressed is through the books’ inclusion of photography. Whether this refers to the mention of a photograph or the actual implementation of one within a text, both are equally as significant to demonstrating postmemory. Hirsh has always recognized the value of photography within her research by stating that, “[Photographs] enable us, in the present, not only to see and touch that past but also to try and reanimate it by undoing the finality of the photographic ‘take’.”[14] Photographs help to clarify connections between the past and present while also authenticating the past’s existence. Additionally, the boxed limitations of a photograph alongside its literal 2-D flatness emphasize the distance between generations, thereby heightening the second generation’s desire to more intimately understand these previous events. Subsequently, this flatness and fragmented imagery make a photograph “open to narrative elaboration and embroidery and symbolization”[15]. The space that a photograph leaves for the embellishment of its history is exactly what Cha and Han utilize.

As mentioned before, Human Acts is a novel that shifts between fiction and nonfiction. Han was born in Gwangju in 1970 but moved to Seoul in 1980, just several months before the uprising took place. She even states within the novel: “As it turned out, none of my relatives died; none were even injured or arrested”[16]. At the age of 12, her father purchased a memorial photo book of the massacre and hid it within the family bookshelf, so as to not disturb the children with its gruesome images. Curious as she was, Han discovered it and was forever haunted by the photo of a mutilated girl. This true story is mirrored in the epilogue of Human Acts, where the writer narrator says upon discovering the photograph, “Soundlessly, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there.”[17]. In an interview with The Guardian, Han further expressed that, “The shocking find [of the photo] transformed a public trauma into an intensely personal one.”[18] While never knowing the mutilated girl directly, Han has never let the sight slip from her conscience. A single photograph led Han to question the morals of the massacre, to return to Gwangju as an adult only to find the surviving brother of Dong-ho, and to learn of the boy’s story that inspired Human Acts. This life-long connection to an image is a prominent element within postmemory theory. Hirsch contends that members of the second generation look “…to be shocked, touched, wounded, and pricked, torn apart”, and that photographs in particular act as screens for the projection of such emotions[19].

In Cha’s Dictee, photographs of heroes rest beside those with a more personal link to the author. While Cha includes black-and-white headshots of numerous Korean women, including Yu Guan Goon, a revolutionary executed for her resistance against Japanese colonizers, she also includes a photo of her mother. Despite their differing roles in Cha’s life, all of the women throughout Dictee stimulate postmemory by linking her to the Korean Peninsula and consequently its collective memory. What is unique about these photographs is that they are never captioned, nor do they appear consecutively and are instead scattered throughout the book, thus creating “the effect of hallucinatory visions erupting from nowhere into consciousness”[20]. The lack of explanation and sequence reiterates the relationship between sight and “affective memory” as examined by Jill Bennet: “images have the capacity to address the spectator’s own bodily memory; to touch the viewer who feels rather than simply sees the event”; a physical response, therefore, precedes any inscription of narrative[21].

Similarly, Cha presents us with the map of the divided Korean Peninsula alongside an anatomical diagram of human vocal chords with needle-like lines denoting their names. The proximity of the two images mirror each other in an abstract way; the lines of the diagram seem to violently pierce the body, just as the DMZ border appears to strangle the peninsula[22]. The two images function in the same way as the photograph in relation to their expression of postmemory: they signify a physical response to the traumas of Korea. In this way, both photographs and images within Dictee demonstrate a separation from one’s homeland that appears in the text as unexpectedly and incoherently as postmemory may appear to a descendant.

My final note on how these books express postmemory is through their narrative form and voice. The way in which a book is written can greatly emphasise the postmemory that runs through it. Whether this is seen through features such as character selection, chapter titles, use of dialect or narrative tense, there are many ways in which second generation authors have connected to the past via written form. In the case of Han and Cha, their use of second-person narrative tense heightens the connection between author and reader with past generations.

In Human Acts, the first chapter of the story is told from the boy Dong-ho’s perspective, albeit using second-person narrative voice. The reader literally becomes Dong-ho throughout the book via the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘your’. It brings the reader into the massacre so intensely that it has the power to evoke both an emotional and physical response from the reader through phrases such as, “… a mass rally of corpses who were all there by pre-arrangement, whose only action was the production of that horrible putrid smell”[23]. The reader is also able to witness Dong-ho’s impact on others’ lives after reading about ‘their’ (Dong-ho’s) death. Providing a direct link between the reader and a teenage boy was likely not chosen at random. Han, being the single parent of a young son, was presumably inspired by her personal situation as a choice for the book’s focus character. By the reader temporarily stepping in the shoes of a deceased child, Kang shifts our view of looking at violence painfully and instead lets the boy’s hand pull us towards a more innocent, brighter side. Han is able to relate to the loss of children during the massacre due to her experiences as a mother, reiterating the fact that her choice of narrative voice and tense is directly affected by postmemory.

Throughout Dictee, narrative voice alternates between first and second-person in order to express postmemory “as a form of telepathy transcending the dichotomy between ‘I’ and ‘you’.”[24] With the unclear genre of Dictee, ranging from autobiography to scrapbook, alongside its unclear narrator, Cha suggests that postmemory literature can transcend ordinary grammar altogether. We can see this more clearly in the section of the book where she shares a language translation exercise. It includes sentences such as, “I want you to speak”, “Are you afraid he will speak?” and “It will be better for him to speak to us”[25]. Another case of Cha using second-person present tense is when she writes about her mother’s experiences as an exiled woman in Manchuria during Japanese occupation. Denied the right to speak her native language, Cha’s mother begins to grow physically and mentally ill. This is represented through second-person narrative: “Fever and chill possess your body at the same time […] You are giving in […] They force their speech on you and direct your speech only to them”[26]. Both addressee and subject are present and concrete within the book purely through the choice of narrative tense. By evading traditional and conventional language tools, postmemory through narrative choice can exist in the past, present and future. Cha and Han’s narratives are both “passive and active”, “indicative and hypothetical”, simultaneously “first- and second-person, singular and plural”[27], and are thereby representational of postmemory.

Although this essay focuses specifically on the works of Han and Cha, there are numerous other examples of postmemory expression throughout contemporary Korean literature. Some of the best-known Korean authors, including Hwang Sok-yong, can include their literature within this genre. For example, Hwang’s Princess Bari also utilises supernatural expression through shamanistic practices that bring the title character in communication with her deceased family. The story’s setting in North Korea also echoes Hwang’s own childhood in Pyongyang, a place he left at the age of four, but still feels an attachment to and possesses postmemories about. Additionally, novels about Japanese occupation such as Linda Sue Park’s My name was Keoko or Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman explore this dark period of Korean history in order to create a bridge between the past and the present, to allow the living to comprehend what the deceased suffered.

Postmemory theory can be applied to various artistic mediums as a way for the following generations to physically and mentally share the experiences of their ancestors. Although some scholars still question how one can truly possess the recollection of an event they never witnessed, perhaps the question we should truly be asking is – can postmemories of trauma be transformed into positive acts of resistance and change? By providing a voice to the silent victims, individuals removed from the grand narratives of history, the novels of Kang and Cha seem to take this step towards the enlightenment and healing of past traumas. To summarise this hopeful idea in the words of Dong-ho: “Why are we talking in the dark, let’s go over there, where the flowers are blooming.”[28]

[1] Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 1.

[2] Hirsch, The Generation, 3.

[3] Seo-Young Chu, “Science Fiction and Postmemory Han in Contemporary Korean American Literature”, MELUS 33, no. 4 (2008): 97.

[4] Ernst van Alphen, “Second-Generation Testimony, the Transmission of Trauma, and Postmemory”, Poetics Today 27, no. 2 (2006): 486.

[5] Marianne Hirsch, “The Generation of Postmemory”, Poetics Today 29, no. 1 (2008): 106.

[6] Hirsch, “The Generation”, 103.

[7] Hirsch, “The Generation”, 109.

[8] Chu, “Science Fiction”, 99.

[9] Han Kang, Human Acts (London: Portobello Books, 2014), 64.

[10] Han, Human Acts, 31.

[11] Chu, “Science Fiction”, 111.

[12] Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982): 4.

[13] Chu, “Science Fiction,” 107.

[14] Hirsch, “The Generation”, 115.

[15] Hirsch, “The Generation”, 117.

[16] Han, Human Acts, 217.

[17] Han, Human Acts, 207.

[18] Armitstead, “Han Kang”.

[19] Hirsch, “The Generation”, 116.

[20] Chu, “Science Fiction”, 118.

[21] Jill Bennet, Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art, (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2005), 36.

[22] Cha, Dictee 74.

[23] Han, Human Acts, 22.

[24] Chu, “Science Fiction”, 113.

[25] Cha, Dictee, 8.

[26] Cha, Dictee, 50.

[27] Chu, “Science Fiction”, 113-114.

[28] Han, Human Acts, 201.

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