In “From Gwangju to Brixton: The Impossible Translation of Han Kang’s Human Acts,” Yumi Pak (2020) situates reading and writing in the space and time in which we are. In the essay, Pak explains how her initial attempt at analyzing Han’s Human Acts was thwarted precisely because the form of writing in which she is most familiar with made it “impossible to address the crosscurrents of how the when and where of reading.” As antidote, Pak offers a critical feminist approach akin to what Gloria Anzaldúa describes as a “personal essay that theorizes”[i] to attend to how her subject-location – as a literary scholar of the Black radical tradition; a diasporic subject whose familial lines are made and disappeared by the Korean War; and the embodied context through which she reads and writes (riding in a train) – deeply informs her reading of Han’s novel. In turn, Pak’s writing about Human Acts is mediated through and happens alongside her political/personal history.
I start this essay with Pak’s cultural commentary about the when and where of reading because it resonates with my own encounter with Clara Han’s Seeing Like a Child, a singular text that enacts an acute understanding of how we become in and are undone by the world(s) we inhabit. Specifically, my reading of Seeing Like a Child is indelibly marked by the protracted catastrophe we are and have long been in – an unending cycle of loss, grief, and grieving, amplified by a global pandemic but ultimately tethered to much longer histories of racial capitalism, imperialism, militarization, and sexual, carceral, and ecological violence. I finished reading Seeing Like a Child on March 17th 2021, two days after the white supremacist shootings in the greater Atlanta metropolitan area, which killed 8 people including 6 Asian women who worked at several spa businesses. That morning, I quickly jotted a note to myself: “Is there a ‘before’ or ‘after’ to this grief? It feels heightened at this moment for sure. But what happened in ATL is fundamental to how I know this world. The grief feels less like a sharp edge and more like an unending spilling.”
While Seeing Like a Child takes up very different scenes of violence—a child’s improvisational piecing together of a world through familial afflictions sutured to the Korean War—the book also compels readers to sit with sobering questions that bring focused attention to the when and to the where. How do we respond to lethal and decomposing forms of violence when such cyclic acts do not simply “reside within” discrete bodies but makes the “world… we inhabit” (Han 2021: 115)? And rather than naming acts of violence as individuated events that disrupt the fabric of daily life, how might we meet these moments – for instance, through writing – as part of a world that already bears “traces of war and devastation” (Han 2021: 4)? This is, after all, one of the most compelling offerings of Seeing Like a Child: rather than perceiving the Korean War as a historical exception inherited by and transferred to younger generations as intact kernels of unknowable truth, Han observes that this violence is “completely interspersed within” processes of becoming to the extent that the “inheritance of familial memories of violence” are “embedded in the child’s inhabitation of everyday life” (Han 2021: 4).
In Seeing Like a Child, this inhabitation is everywhere. It is inseparable from the ways in which one understands the “I” within the gendered nexus of relationships; the languages we are forbidden to hear, speak, and learn as children; the immediate and deferred kinship bonds formed with siblings, parents, children, extended family; the medicine carefully administered to loved ones; the labor of caretaking as well as the ways we understand and accept care; the bits and pieces of overheard conversations; and our waking dreams of those who have disappeared. Yet, even while foregrounding the precarity produced by these nested forms of brutality, Seeing Like a Child also asks how we might know differently to potentiate other ways of being and imagining through and against conditions of violence. Again, this query is one that is so particular to this book and one that I have been repeatedly asking myself in this time and space. The when and where of reading Seeing Like a Child.
In considering this last question, I turn to two examples provided by Seeing Like a Child. First, Han writes extensively about language in her book – that is, her complex relationship to the Korean language as well as the multiple languages communicated by silence and our bodies and the language of writing. While Korean is affixed to familial histories of war, devastation, and displacement as well as gendered dynamics within given families (for example, divergent expectations grafted onto the eldest son or daughter within the family hierarchical order), Seeing Like a Child simultaneously situates Korean—its intentional silencing within the childhood home and the arduous task of relearning when we are able to— in relation to love. As shared in the book’s “Part II: A Future in Kinship, A Future in Language,” Clara’s mother’s will to speak in a language (English) that she had not yet fully mastered with her own children— to “become vulnerable… and to speak in a tongue in which one had such difficulty conveying the affects one had for one’s children”— is a commitment of love (Han 2021: 69). Relatedly, the difficult and ongoing process of (re)learning a language forms and reforms kinship bonds to the degree that the world becomes unfamiliar, even possible. The second example arrives near the conclusion of the book as Clara’s daughter, Ella, enters into a playful conversation with her parents and grandfather (Clara’s father) about a pair of fallen trees she has seen on two different occasions. Through the language of storytelling in which trees sleep on the forest floor to become one with the earth, this conversation trails into a simple yet profound discussion about the ways in which dying and death are enmeshed with living and life. More specifically, it is the juxtaposition of discrete scenes—trees lying on their bellies; body movements conditioned by illness; the sitting arrangement at the dinner table; impermanence; happiness— that communicates life’s proximity to death within the tenuous hold of familial relationships.
In closing, I want to circle back to grief and grieving albeit through a different conceptual opening that illuminates the diasporic repercussions of the Korean War – particularly for those of us who are because of the 70-year conflict. In conversation with the generous work of David Eng and Shinee Han, as well as Anne Anlin Cheng, Han contemplates the possibilities, as well as the limitations, of frameworks such as racial melancholia in American Studies.[ii] To a certain extent, racial melancholia might be understood as an integral by-product of the racialized gendered formation of the US settler nation-state: while the nation-state demands its subjects to assimilate into an American settler milieu – imagined as white, heteronormative, patriarchal, and middle-class – this task is impossible for Asian Americans because their bodies are perpetually legislated as alien, queer, non-normative, and outside. For second-generation Asian Americans with immigrant parents, this desire for and failure of seamless integration is reflective of a deeply-felt loss whose origins cannot be fully deciphered – precisely because it is a loss (of language, of kin) encoded in the unconscious and inherited from immigrant parents. And yet, Han is careful to note that this paradigm of racial melancholia depends on a constellation of fixed references (the “family,” the “home”) and eclipses other crucial elements, such as “the various politics voiced within the family,” that cannot be wholly relegated to US racial gendered formation (Han 2021: 91). More specifically, such “politics” exceeds national formation because the protracted ramifications of war, militarized migration, and displacement are beyond and in excess to the nation. Thus, Seeing Like a Child provocatively moves us toward a transborder articulation of loss, grief, and grieving which insists that the inheritance of “Korea and Korean” is less about a formed or forming national identity that hovers “between two cultures” and more about the ways through which our learning of “kinship, illness, dying, and death” is renewed and remade by an unended war (Han 2021: 154)
Crystal Mun-Hye Baik is Associate Professor, Gender & Sexuality Studies, University of California (Riverside), and author most recently of Reencounters: On the Korean War & Diasporic Memory Critique (Temple University Press, 2020).
[i] Pak, note 12 (referencing Anzaldúa’s work in this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation, ed. Gloria Anzaldúa and Ana Louise Keating (2002)), 578.
[ii] See pages 90-91 in Han (2021). Also see Eng and Han (2019) and Cheng (2001).
Anzaldúa, Gloria, and Ana Louise Keating
2002 this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation. New York: Routledge.
Cheng, Anne Anlin
2001 The Melancholy of Race. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Eng, David, and Shinhee Han
2019 Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation. Durham: Duke University Press.
2021 Seeing like a child: Inheriting the Korean War. New York: Fordham University Press.
2020 From Gwangju to Brixton: The Impossible Translation of Han Kang’s Human Acts. Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association 98(2).