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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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4. “A Circle Within a Circle, a Series of Concentric Circles”: The Manifold Subjectivities of the Korean/Korean American Woman in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee


Chapter Four

“A Circle Within a Circle, a Series of Concentric Circles”: The Manifold Subjectivities of the Korean/Korean American Woman in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee


Many contemporary scholars in Asian and Asian American studies, women’s studies, postcolonial studies, and the related fields of cultural, visual and textual studies have been interested in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee for its multi-faceted portrayal of the multiple dimensions and aesthetic uses of the Korean, Korean American, and Korean diasporic female subject.1 Her book implements a range of references that seem to be at odds with each other, ranging from citations from American historical records to Classical and Chinese literature and philosophy; from portrayals of women martyrs during Korea’s colonial period, to Joan D’Arc and Greek/Roman classical references; postcards from New York, to Chinese acupuncture charts, to name just a few. As Lisa Lowe mentions in her essay, Cha’s novel most definitely embodies being “Unfaithful to the Original,” as the text of Dictee, its references, and allusions, questions any sense of what “an” or “the” “original” might imply along long-held national, literary, or philosophically accepted rationales and categories. In Immigrant Acts, Lisa Lowe states that Cha’s text provides

a conception of history that treats the ‘historical’ not as a continuous narrative of progress, maturity, and increasing rationality, not as a story of great moments and ← 121 | 122 → individuals, but as a surplus of materiality that exceeds textualization, that renders inoperable the vocabularies and grammars...

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