Sunday, October 15, 2006

considering immigrant narratives and East Asian Studies programs

This evening I went to the KGB Bar in the East Village to see Katherine Min read an excerpt of her debut novel, "Secondhand World." Having finished "The Interpreter": Suki Kim on Friday, my head is swimming in fictional Korean immigrant narratives written by women. I'm a bit haunted by both and I wish I could have taken that immigrant narrative class taught by Meli Zeiger at Dartmouth and I'm sure there was a similar class at Bryn Mawr by a prof that was perpetually on leave for the duration of my undergraduate years.

I've always been drawn to stories told from an exile's perspective and I am curious to hear what Korean-American readers have to say about these books. I come from a historical perspective, having studied 19th and 20th century history relating to the relationship between colonizers and the colonized. In college, I looked at the Industrial Revolution and the events (cultural, political, otherwise) of the 19th and 20th centuries through this lens of imperialism and its effects. Both historically through primary documents and also through literary and cinematic narratives.

Regardless of my academic work, I myself am obviously an outsider. I was struck by the darkness in these two novels which both hinge upon language (one through poetry, the other through the literal act of translation as occupation) and miscommunication (between children and parents, between the immigrant community and the United States with which they grapple, the lingering effect of shame, silence, betrayal, loyalty, and confusion).

Also, "The Interpreter" offers what could be considered a critique on East Asian Studies programs (in this case, EAS at Columbia University). I don't know if the author does more than raise the issue of the purpose and intent of an East Asian Studies department; however, of the two immigrant daughters in the novel, one persues Religion as a major and the other, East Asian Studies. How much does education, specifically these programs, inform the experience of first generation students? Does it help them better understand themselves and their families or does it just provide a worthless paradigm? What is the work of a program like East Asian Studies, especially when it can hardly be studied as an objective field by students who are so clearly vested in the subject? Again, as an outsider, I'm just curious to know what these fields contribute to a larger sphere than the academy. And do they need to? I have incredible respect for the people I know who studied within this field, and have had the pleasure of knowing several professors from the field, but I've never really interrogated for myself how this field identifies itself and its mission until I read this book. There is a plot twist that forces the reader to wonder how one character's studies within this field have encouraged/discouraged various opportunities in life and what the author is trying to say through this decision.


Post a Comment

<< Home