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Lost in Transnation

Alternative Narrative, National, and Historical Visions of the Korean-American Subject in Select 20th-Century Korean American Novels


David S. Cho

This volume examines the engagement with national histories, citizenship, and the larger transnational contexts in the narrative plot lines in selected twentieth-century Korean American novels. Critics have often expected, or even demanded, that the Korean American novel present the ideal and coherent American citizen-subject in a linear bildungsroman plotline.

Many novels – Younghill Kang’s East Goes West, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee, Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life, to name a few – do deal with the idea of an “American identity”, however, they consistently problematize such identification through multiple and conflicting national memories, historic eras, and geopolitical terrains. The novels are typically set in contemporary America, but they often refer either to the regional context and era of Japan’s colonization of Korea (1910–1945) or the Korean War (1950–1953). The novels’ characters are “lost in transnation”, contextualizing the multiple and multiply-interrelated national contexts and time periods that have formed immigrants and Korean Americans in the twentieth century.

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This book has focused on the continually shifting grounds of representation and self-representation of the Korean American subject in selected 20th-century Korean American novels, often at odds with the “national” grounds typically afforded. I have been able to see the birth and continual evolution of this subject in numerous manifestations. In many ways, like the novels I cite, this project itself has taken me along varying scholarly and literary roads, “national” paradigms, and even at times, differing historical accounts of the same moments; to questions of the conflictual nature of the field of history as a discipline and the creative works of authors, accompanied by the varying, and at times, competing, theoretical paradigms for this subject as compared to the “everyday” experience of the subject matter at hand. The latter, for me, has been the most poignant and harshest lesson: the complex wrinkles and seemingly incommensurate collision of issues of historicity; the larger mapping of nations, their historic inter-relations, and their effects on certain subjects; issues of race and power in the U.S.; the schism in scholarship between the “diasporic” and the subjects’ sense of national belonging that the novels and their intricate narrative patterns portray. In a sense then, these 20th-century Korean American novels represent a prism of sorts in which to unpack these larger questions and discursive formations through their own distinct narrative forms.

More specifically, this project began with two literary trends that I observed when I became a “student” of “Asian American...

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