Literature, Wars, and the American Body

Reprinted by permission of the authors. Copyright © 2012 by Paul Y. Lai, Susan Muchshima Moynihan, Daniel Young-Hoon Kim, Adrian Khactu, Jodi S. Kim

Part 2. Detailed description of session

The Asian American Literature Division and American Literature Section have selected for a collaborative session three presentations that focus on how American military involvement in other countries has generated significant changes to the American national body, historical narrative, and subject-citizen. This panel foregrounds texts about American engagements in the Asia-Pacific theater in the Cold War. This geopolitical location and the relations between the United States and countries in Asia have been central to the formation and consolidation of the American nation in an imperial and neocolonial era.

Reading literature that represents the trauma of war experience, the papers on this panel explore material bodies--human, textual, and other--that help ground or destabilize a sense of American national identity. Importantly, this panel pushes against understandings of these war-torn bodies and histories as foreign, insisting instead on how they are integral to conceptions of American subjecthood in all its complexly-differentiated racial and gendered forms. The bodies of African American soldiers, of Asian enemy soldiers, or of Asian refugees settling in the United States all frustrate conceptions of the normative, white male American subject. Additionally, the presentations engage with critical questions about the articulation of bodies to emotions, race, or memory.

Susan Muchshima Moynihan in "The Body Under Siege: The Affective Legacy of War in Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered" analyzes how feelings that circulate as a result of the Korean War work to secure and at times to relinquish politically inscribed boundaries of Self and Other. Focusing on Lee's new book The Surrendered (2010), Moynihan considers the emotional impact of the war as it affectively constructs the refugee and American national body, allowing the forgotten history of the war to surface in ways that continue to implicate the United States in this historical moment of a Korean civil war. In this presentation, Moynihan draws on Sara Ahmed's book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, in its move away from popular models of emotions. Ahmed argues "that emotions create the very effect of the surfaces and boundaries that allow us to distinguish an inside and an outside in the first place" (10), and such an "intensification" of what we perceive as stable borders, boundaries, and surfaces are generated effects, indeed often uneven effects, secured by relations of power (24-25). This emphasis on contingency applies even to the perception of the incontrovertible nature of the body. The emphasis here is on the political effect of the movement or circulation of emotion and the resulting emphasis on orientation or what she calls "towardness." The meanings of these moments of contact are shaped by historical relations that may or may not be consciously acknowledged. This approach has implications not only for our understanding of the relations between individuals, but also for the feelings that secure notions of collective bodies, including the nation.

In "The Premilitarized Black Body, the Korean War and Afro-Orientalism in Clarence Adams's An American Dream," Daniel Y. Kim considers the refusal of 21 American GIs to return to the United States after the cessation of hostilities in the Korean War. Labeled "turncoats" and "traitors" by US journalists and politicians, the actions of these soldiers and their statements to the press appeared to confirm two allegations made by Soviet, North Korean and Chinese propaganda: 1) that the United States had been acting as an imperialist aggressor; and 2) that America's descriptions of itself as a bastion of equality and freedom were ludicrous considering the virulent racism to which its black and Asian American citizens had been subjected throughout its history. Kim focuses on a memoir written by one of these black GIs, Clarence Adams, reading his autobiography--An American Dream: The Life of an African American Soldier and POW Who Spent Twelve Years in Communist China (2007)--for the continuities and discontinuities that link three central locations: the segregated Memphis of the 1930s and 40s; the battlefields of Korea; and the prison camp in which Adams spent much of the war. Kim traces how Adams's narrative follows a kind of non-aligned path between communist and liberal American Cold War ideologies, borrowing elements of each. Ultimately, he argues, this text is structured by a conception of race war that resembles the discourse described by Michel Foucault in "Society Must Be Defended." Adams's writing asserts that the psyches of the black men who fought in Korea were turned into subjects and objects of racial violence long before they entered the military--that their bodies were essentially premilitarized. Adams's narrative renders the complex sense of interracial and intraracial violence that structures Afro-Asian formations of conflict and solidarity through its various renderings of black and yellow male bodies engaged in racial warfare.

Finally, Adrian Khactu in "Photographing Ghosts, Memorializing the Body: lê thi diem thúy and the Traumatic Representation of Viet Nam" considers lês semi-autobiographical narrative The Gangster We Are All Looking For (2003) for its frustration of the traditional memoir form and the standard of historical truth. The narrative of an unnamed, newly-arrived Vietnamese girl's transformation into a Vietnamese American, while carefully fabricated, depends on the perceived biographical reflection of the author's life and speaks its truth in maddening ways. Photographic objects become the narrator's Proustian madeleines, and as such, these often-discarded, found photographs form the structure of the book, introducing each new chapter and almost defying the reader to doubt the narrative's pieces of "real," physical evidence. lê’s use of photography in the narrative demonstrates her narrator's growing awareness of being cast as an object of history and of what she must do to create her own subjectivity from what others have already constructed. Also, in defamiliarizing a received American historical narrative through the same visual media that helped create it, the photographs allow lê’s narrator the access needed to claim her own memory as official American history. Using a visual culture critique, Khactu investigates how lês own body becomes a metonym for America, allowing the ghosts of those gangsters, those boat people who did not survive, to be equally represented and seen.