A Forgotten Apocalypse

June 25th marked the seventy-first anniversary of the start of the Korean War, a conflict that killed, displaced, orphaned, or otherwise traumatized millions of civilians and set a Korean diaspora in motion. The so-called Forgotten War has remained largely invisible in American culture, despite the conflict’s brutal and enduring consequences. To help take stock of this multifaceted legacy—which stretches into every realm, from the political to the cultural to the personal—we’ve invited three writers and scholars who have recently published books about the war and its aftermath.

Grace M. Cho is a sociologist, artist, and the author of Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War (University of Minnesota Press, 2008). Her new book, published in May by the Feminist Press, is the memoir Tastes Like War, an exploration of food and family history. Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is a widely published poet, editor, interdisciplinary artist, and professor. Her most recent book is Interrogation Room (White Pines Press, 2018), a poetry collection that acts as a lyric interrogation of history and kinship. Daniel Y. Kim is an essayist, a professor at Brown University, and the author of Writing Manhood in Black and Yellow: Ralph Ellison, Frank Chin, and the Literary Politics of Identity (Stanford University Press, 2005) and coeditor of The Cambridge Companion to Asian American Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2015). In 2020, NYU Press published his new book, The Intimacies of Conflict: Cultural Memory and the Korean War, a multidisciplinary study that looks at 1950s media alongside literary works by Toni Morrison, Chang-rae Lee, and Hwang Sok-yong, among others.

Cho, Kwon Dobbs, and Kim recently convened on Zoom for a conversation about their books, the war’s overlapping inheritances, and the work that’s still left to be done.

GRACE M. CHO: To begin, I want each of us to explain the main questions of our work, and what motivates us to ask them. I always start with a personal anecdote, because my work is so motivated by my own history. When I was fifteen, my mother developed what psychiatrists call schizophrenia. So, I’ve always wanted to know what happened to my mother. As a child, I was sort of aware that she had suffered trauma related to the war, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I understood that there were multiple traumas. And there was the silencing of the story about the trauma, so I started to investigate my history. One of the central questions of my first book was how the Korean diaspora is haunted by the things that we’re not allowed to know. Since my discipline is sociology, I also came to understand how sociological narratives about immigration—and how Koreans are supposedly successful in US society—are another layer of that silencing. That book was inspired by, and dedicated to, my mom. It was a way of dealing with the loss of my mother when I was fifteen—the onset of her mental illness really was a loss.

When she died suddenly in 2008, I immediately started to write about her again. To borrow Maggie Nelson’s phrase, the new book is an “unintended sequel” about my mother. This time I was exploring not just what broke her but also all the ways in which she survived. It made me aware of the strength she had, even as she was labeled “dysfunctional” or “disabled.” Another question in the memoir is a rethinking of how we treat people who are neurologically different.

JENNIFER KWON DOBBS: I also have to lead with an anecdote. As a transnationally adopted person, I was in the midst of studying the Korean language while working on my book. After reuniting with my Korean family after searching for thirteen years, learning the language felt like a rewiring of my mouth and body. I found myself confronting body memory and imagination. This was not in an essentialist way of retrieval but rather part of a process to grapple with reunion and to imagine a post-reunion future. In Interrogation Room, that oftentimes meant confronting militarisms and struggling with translation. Reunion widened out to become a type of woundedness, an incompletion that I was constantly tussling with.

DANIEL Y. KIM: You both are gravitating toward the personal dimension, but in my book, I didn't even quite realize that aspect of it until well into the project. The first part of my book is a cultural history of the 1950s and the question animating it was: What did the Korean War look like before it was forgotten? What I found were a lot of stories about race integration that helped solidify the racial liberalism of the ’50s, and a reduction of Koreans to orphans and refugees. There’s a surprising acknowledgement in a lot of these works of the tremendous violence that was inflicted on Korean civilians.

I noticed as I was writing Part Two that more works were coming out about the Korean War that weren’t by Korean American writers. Toni Morrison, and Rolando Hinojosa—a Mexican American writer who had written in the late twentieth century—and I studied Chang-rae Lee and Susan Choi as well. I also found Korean works in translation that started to flesh out a Korean perspective on the war. That’s when I started to confront a bit more of my family’s history. One biographical detail I learned was about my grandfather. The legend was that he died, but there had never been any detail about that. It turns out he fought for the North. My family had to create a fiction that he was dead so they wouldn’t be ostracized or tortured. In the novels I was reading for my research, I saw a shadowy mirror of what I imagined my parents lived through.

CHO: I have a similar story in my family, and I bet every Korean American does, if they dig deep enough. In my family, it was my mother’s brother who had disappeared during the war. It wasn't until I was thirty-seven that I heard my imo say that she thought that he may be in North Korea.

KWON DOBBS: Much of what you’ve both mentioned very much resonates with me. I’ve been involved in activist work, particularly for Korean unwed mothers’ rights, and I’ve also worked with Nodutdol and the Korea Policy Institute. Thinking about transnational adoption not from a US-centered perspective, but alongside the women of my mother’s generation, what comes into view is the ways in which their labor powered up an emerging Republic of Korea and how adoption was a means of keeping them in the factories. Post-reunion, when my mother and I are together, she introduces herself as a divorcée and says that I lived with my father in America; that’s why I lack Korean fluency. I go along with her fiction because I know what it’s doing. It’s enabling our outlaw kinship.

I’m not supposed to be able to create a blended family as an adopted person, because through the US Immigration and Nationality Act, I'm not allowed to sponsor my Korean family for citizenship. In other words, the kind of family that I would be able to create post-reunion is blocked altogether by US immigration law; this is a unique condition on the part of being an adopted person who is rendered socially dead within the Korean context. Trying to bring feeling, imagination, and life to our deadened kinship through creative writing becomes a means of developing agency despite the law.

CHO: That’s a great segue into talking about how our work explores the legacy of the Korean War and the way in which the war fractured or created kinship ties. Jennifer, I have always identified with Korean adoptees. Because of the marginality of your position and my position in relation to Korean society, I’ve always felt this kinship. And for me, the fracturing of family ties is an opportunity to broaden the idea of what kinship is.

KIM: I think trying to find a way to feel Korean and progressive simultaneously is about creating kinds of fictive kinship that feel real. I had a question about kinship in another way altogether. I taught Cathy Park Hong this semester and I have a friend named Mary-Kim Arnold, who is, like Jennifer, both a poet and an adoptee. They both claim kinship, aesthetically artistically, with Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. I noticed that in the work of two of you as well. It’s striking how many people who are Asian American, female poets—particularly Korean American—seem to claim that kinship.

KWON DOBBS: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is very important to me. I think she defies genre in ways that are incredibly significant as an artist and writer working in audio, film, installation, performance, and text—she was absolutely trailblazing, and the loss of her life at such a young age was a horrible tragedy. Dictée gave me permission to think about what a book can be and do in spatial terms, and to consider the birth search as a material excavation and linguistic struggle—approaches that helped me see absence, erasure, and fragmentation as constructions made under the sign of adoption. I think it’s through all of these artistic innovations that Cha continues to be a touchstone for my own creative praxis.

CHO: I have a very explicit homage to her in my first book. When I first read Dictée, I didn’t understand what I was reading at all, but I had this really powerful affective experience. It did something to me. It allowed me to rethink what it means to articulate something or what it means to be articulate. Much of my life I’ve felt inarticulate because my thoughts, emotions, my knowledge about the past—it’s always been so fragmented.

KIM: You are both writers who have put so much of yourselves out there in your work.

CHO: I have some mixed feelings about what I do, but it doesn’t really feel like a choice. I am driven to write these things and make them public. The pain that I carried from both my traumatic experiences and the ones that I’ve absorbed from my mother have been a really generative force. I cannot write anything if I’m not in pain. I don’t see that as something pathological though. It is a force of memory for me, because if I did not do this, who would remember my mother?

KWON DOBBS: Grace, could you talk about cooking and how making food is an act of care? When I think about the personal that’s animating your texts, I see an unflinching commitment to being present—fully embodied and attentive to bodies that have suffered ongoing US militarism. You’re not reporting on that pain or trying to explain it to a white audience. Instead, you’re being intentionally present as an act of love.

CHO: When my mother died, the first memories that came back to me were of her cooking and foraging and all the things she used to do before she became mentally ill. The details and feelings about that had been repressed under the weight of her mental illness for years. After she died, it all came rushing back. The grief allowed me to recover a version of my mother who had this tremendous capacity. She could do all these things and feed people and take care of a community that rejected her and committed violence against her. It allowed me to see that she had a lot of power there. And in the second part of the memoir where the character of Grace is the cook, that happened because she was too sick to cook for herself. I was a little reluctant to take on that role, but once I actually started getting into the rhythm with her, an incredible thing happened: she started to ask for things she wanted. Allowing her to teach me how to cook opened up her ability to start talking about the past.

Jennifer, you have a poem at the end of your book, “How to Eat Your Love.” I would love to hear how food functions for you.

KWON DOBBS: When I wrote that poem, I was truly scared of it. I felt like I was betraying the way in which food has been so important to bringing care, love, and animating energy to my Korean kinships, deadened by transnational adoption. At the same time, though, it felt important to write my mother as complex, not as a fetishized figure, and to look at food and how it enables her to stage acts of agency that are also about consuming me. She has searching hungers and post-reunion dreams for herself and our family that have gendered our kinship. I don’t fully know her dreams. I can’t know. My Korean language skills are limited; our time together is limited. Similar to my lyric essay “Notes from a Missing Person,” which I wrote before reuniting, “How to Eat Your Love,” written after reunion, stages desires and constantly interrupts them to assess: What are these desires? Where are they coming from? Wherefore? So, this poem doesn’t only look at the desires that I’m perceiving my mother as staging, it also implicates me as someone who doesn’t want to consume her, even as I sense that we’re eating each other in order to digest traumas that can’t be digested.

CHO: I wanted to ask who we write for and who our audience is.

KIM: One thing that’s been productive for me is to think of writing as service. When I was writing this book, I had scholars and artists like you in mind. But I also pictured typical American academic readers. I wanted to write to historians and maybe the general reader who’s interested in Korean history. Accessibility was really important for me. To me, this question is also about the kind of writer’s anxiety. And so, this has become a mantra for me (and I try to pass on to my grad students): you don’t need to be the most brilliant person the world when you’re writing, you just need to think about who you want to be of service to. It’s comforting to think it’s an extension of an idea of love as service, which is connected to my family—along with the other, more painful and vexed versions of love that we may get.

CHO: I learned a lot from your book because nobody really knows how the Korean War was portrayed before it was forgotten. And the second part gave me a whole new angle on American race relations. My relationship to the Korean War is more specific, and I hadn’t really thought of it as broadly as you have in this book.

KWON DOBBS: Daniel, I also see a personal commitment driving your work as a reader. This comes through not only in your range of texts but also in the care you bring to your sentences, which have a lyrical quality. They can be read aloud and held in the body and mind.

CHO: The last question I have here is, What is the legacy of the Korean War on American racism and race relations and how does it inform the rise in anti-Asian violence and our responses to it?

KIM: It’s a huge moment. Here’s what I always think about: Viet Thanh Nguyen came to Brown and this couple, who clearly had been antiwar protesters during the Vietnam War, came up and apologized on behalf of the American people. I got the sense from Viet that this response is something he’s become accustomed to. I thought this would never happen to Chang-rae Lee or any Korean American author. It might be because Americans think of South Koreans as a model minority and South Korea as a model minority nation, to use Jin-kyung Lee’s formulation. So even if Americans become aware of what happened in Korea—which was like what happened in Vietnam—there’s still a way to make a “fortunate fall” narrative. And there’s a problem, which is that any racism between Blacks and Koreans in particular tends to be made hyper-visible since the Los Angeles riots, and there’s racism in both those communities against each other. And we don’t have a very good vocabulary for talking about that. But there needs to be a way to understand white supremacy as something that’s not simply about a kind of domestic structure of anti-Black racism—which it certainly is—but to be able to connect that to settler colonialism and all the US wars of imperial aspiration that took place in Asian countries. I think that needs to be developed a little bit more, and one place we can start is with W. E. B. Du Bois, who talked about the color line as a global color line, as well as Vijay Prashad’s work.

KWON DOBBS: I appreciate how your book brings attention to the historical context for Korean anti-Blackness related to concerns about communism—how US militarism positioned African American soldiers as potentially open to communist persuasion due to Jim Crow. South Korean nationals may have responded to Blackness as a possible sign for communism. More of this kind of scholarship could address memories of the Korean War that are latent and unspoken and could create possibilities for community reflection and solidarity building. There’s a lot of work being done to develop a pedagogy of solidarity, like 18 Million Rising’s actions and videos in support of Justice for Akai Gurley and Letters for Black Lives, a multilingual translation project comprised of letters to enable intergenerational conversations. Both projects seek to dismantle anti-Blackness and build solidarity. Bringing it back to your book, Daniel, maybe there needs to be some similar intergenerational writing and translation around anti-Blackness rooted in the Korean War? Perhaps examining and taking this apart could further strengthen activism focused on Koreans for Black Lives?

KIM: Jin-kyung Lee’s book Service Economies helped me figure out that if the Korean War was the invention of a multiracial, multiethnic military force that represented American democracy, then the global expansion of that happened over the course of the Vietnam War. Instead of just, like, Japanese Americans, we had the South Korean army and we had the South Vietnamese army, of course. There were these other armies of color that were enlisted in the US cause, which were made up of foreign nationals. Viet Thanh Nguyen has said that the way to do just memory is to remember our common inhumanity. That’s the work that’s so hard to do.