Korean American Identity in Literature Analysis


The Western powers attempted to wrest Korea from Chinese influence, but it was Japan, following its victories in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), that finally annexed Korea and subjected it to colonial rule from 1905 to 1945. To suppress Korean resistance, the Japanese purged nationalists, controlled the land system, and imposed rigid rules. The oppression led to the March First Movement of 1919, in which millions of Koreans demonstrated for independence. The Japanese crushed the revolt, and introduced drastic measures such as banning Korean language and even family names to erase their national identity (see Richard E. Kim’s Lost Names: Scenes from a Korean Boyhood, 1970). After Japan was defeated in World War II, Korea split into South Korea and North Korea.

The first hundred Koreans arrived at Hawaiian plantations in 1903, and about eight thousand more departed before Japan took over Korea and stopped Korean emigration in 1905. Thereafter only limited numbers of students, political refugees, and picture brides managed to leave for the United States, where discriminatory practices also applied to Korean immigrants. As a result of their small numbers, the first phase (1903-1945) of the Korean American experience is characterized by the sense of uprootedness and invisibility. The small body of Korean American literature written in this period deals mainly with life in Korea. Examples are New Il-Han’s...

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Post-Korean War Literary Developments

Two developments can be identified in Korean American literature written during the post-Korean War period of immigration. The first development is the continuing reconstruction, whether autobiographical or fictional, of the experience of exile, immigration, and settlement. One example is Peter Hyun’s autobiography, Man Sei! The Making of a Korean American (1986), which describes the author’s childhood in Korea under Japanese occupation, his exile to Shanghai, and his arrival in Hawaii. Kim Ronyoung’s novel Clay Walls (1986) covers the period from 1920 to 1945. In it, the author describes a Korean couple’s immigration to Los Angeles and their attempt to put down roots. Told from the perspectives of characters from different generations, the novel negotiates a tentative Korean American identity by interweaving themes of Korean culture, American racism, Korean nationalism, and Japanese colonialism. Including episodes about espionage (a conscience-stricken Korean captain spies unwillingly for the Japanese), the novel raises many questions about nationality and identity. Mary Paik Lee’s Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America (1990), which details her family’s day-to-day struggles to make a living in various parts of California in the years 1905 to 1990, is a particularly valuable account because Paik Lee’s life coincides with Korean American history generally. The author was born in 1900 and emigrated to the United...

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Suggested Readings

Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Cheung, King-Kok, and Stan Yogi. Asian American Literature: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Modern Language Association, 1988.

Kim, Elaine H. “Asian American Literature.” In Columbia Literary History of the United States, edited by Emory Elliott et al. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Kim, Elaine H. Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1982.

Kim, Elaine H., and Yu Eui-Young, eds. East to America: Korean American Life Stories. New York: The Free Press, 1996.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin. “Twelve Asian American Writers: In Search of Self-Definition.” In Redefining American Literary History, edited by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New York: Modern Language Association, 1990.

Lim, Shirley Geok-lin, and Amy Ling, eds. Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

White-Parks, Annette, et al., eds. A Gathering of Voices on the Asian American Experience. Fort Atkinson, Wis.: Highsmith Press, 1994.

Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. Reading Asian American Literature from Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.