Jinah Kim’s Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas / Karen Huang

Picture by Wolfgang Hasselmann.

Jinah Kim. Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.

In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Sigmund Freud distinguishes between the two titular concepts. In mourning, the loss of an object of attachment entails a withdrawal of the libido from that attachment — a difficult process that is nonetheless considered a natural response to loss. Melancholia, on the other hand, is a pathological state in which someone suffers an unconscious object-loss, after which they turn inward, redirecting reproaches intended for the lost love object toward one’s own ego.

These conceptualizations form one of the central theoretical underpinnings of Jinah Kim’s Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas (2019), a text which exhumes the vestiges of U.S. state violence and military imperialism after World War II. Although Kim is especially interested in cultural works from the Japanese and Korean diasporas, her archive of literary texts spans more broadly across what she terms the “Pacific Arena” (18), the zones of U.S. military combat along the Pacific Ocean in the latter half of the twentieth century. Kim’s titular term focuses on the “palimpsestic haunting” of U.S. imperialism on the postcolonial present in the Pacific Arena (2), whereby grief persists as a melancholic attachment to losses suffered under colonial violence and generates fear of a violent future. Postcolonial Grief also recuperates melancholia, however, as a productive affective state that is potentially insurgent, in ensuring that the colonial and militaristic violence perpetuated by the U.S. empire across the Pacific Arena in the twentieth century is not forgotten.

In the introduction, Kim asserts that U.S. militarism and empire-building in the Pacific Arena constitutes a prohibition to mourning the dead victims, since to do so would be to acknowledge the imperialistic roots of American prosperity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She argues that the American empire that emerged after World War II was built on the ruins of Japanese imperialism, noting that the installation of U.S. military bases throughout the Pacific Arena at the end of World War II ensured that former Japanese colonies never had an opportunity to decolonize. Further, she connects the American empire of bases across the Pacific and Asia to U.S. military interventionism in Latin America, considering how the latter “shapes the injunction to prohibit mourning that is linked to U.S. Cold War liberal governance and resistance to it in Asia, the Americas, and across the Pacific Islands” (18). Kim embeds her exploration of postcolonial grief in postcolonial and transpacific studies, which help frame her subsequent analyses of depictions of melancholia as an injunction against forgetting the violence of U.S. military imperialism.

Each of the body chapters that follow interweaves analysis of cultural texts with the histories of transpacific imperialism to which they speak, whether directly or obliquely. In chapter 1, Kim reads the final section of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961) as an illumination of how melancholia becomes pathologized by the colonial state. Kim uses Wretchedas a historical and theoretical anchor for her subsequent discussions of postcolonial grief: Fanon recognizes how the French medical establishment rendered Algerian patients indiscriminately melancholic — beings who have no inner lives — whether they killed themselves or others. She then turns to Hisaye Yamamoto’s 1985 short story “A Fire in Fontana,” reading it as a critique of state violence against racialized bodies. Kim emphasizes the ways that “Fire” connects Black dispossession during Jim Crow with Japanese American internment, as the Japanese American narrator both expresses affinity with and yet distances herself from the long history of state-sanctioned anti-Black violence. For Kim, the story’s linkage of these histories of loss and its representation of the past as unresolved and ever-present form a literary counterpart to Japanese American critiques of state-endorsed reparations for Japanese interment in the late twentieth century.

Chapter 2 turns to two canonical texts about the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s 1993 documentary Sa-I-Gu and Héctor Tobar’s 2000 novel The Tattooed Soldier, to highlight how these works represent the riots as an index for U.S. military violence on a global level. The depiction of Los Angeles in the two texts enable, for Kim, a “racial cognitive mapping” of the city, in which LA is “[n]o longer the repository of images and meaning for futurity and survivability,” but rather becomes “a repository for shared traumas across the Pacific Arenas and the Americas” (45). In Sa-I-Gu, the Korean shopkeepers who are interviewed after the looting of their businesses and the abandonment of their communities by the LA police express disillusionment with their former dreams of inclusion in a white-centric America. Meanwhile, in The Tattooed Soldier, the protagonist, displaced from Guatemala during its 36-year-long civil war and living as a homeless person in downtown Los Angeles, enacts revenge on the soldier who killed his wife and child amidst the chaos of the LA Riots. The novel, Kim argues, enacts a racial cognitive mapping of Los Angeles that connects the U.S. military interventionism of the Guatemalan civil war with the ongoing displacement of Black and indigenous bodies within the city, and thus demonstrates how the city is structured by the history of white supremacy and U.S. imperialism across the Pacific Arena.

In chapter 3, Kim examines the literary and film genre of noir’s particular capacity for reckoning with the festering wounds of the Pacific Wars in the mid-twentieth century. She establishes “transpacific noir” as a genre that illuminates how the U.S. is built on the ruins of Japanese imperialism, analyzing Sam Fuller’s 1959 film The Crimson Kimono and Naomi Hirahara’s 2004 novel Summer of the Big Bachi as representations of the impossibility of healing, and the refusal of postcolonial subjects to heal. In Crimson Kimono, Shuto — a Korean character with a Japanese name who is initially suspected of the murder at the center of the plot — embodies the afterlife of the Korean war, and is a reminder of the complicity between Japanese and American imperialisms. Summer of the Big Bachi links Japanese and Korean histories by intertwining the protagonist’s silence on his friend’s death during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima with an attempt to cover up Japanese crimes against Koreans in the colonial era. Kim argues that Hirahara’s novel depicts a version of justice-seeking in which “There is no healing unless the living, the dead, the colonized, the colonizer, and the land on which they all reside are healed at once” (86). This model stands in contrast to recent liberal democratic models of redress and reconciliation, which enacts a narrative of closure and healing in which victims of injustice forgive and overcome the wrongs enacted on them by the nation-state.

Kim broadens her discussion of the afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas in chapter 4 to consider how Asia and Latin America have been analogously subordinated by U.S. imperialism in the late twentieth century. She engages with depictions of the 1996 hostage takeover of the Japanese ambassador’s home in Peru by a Maoist rebel group during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, the first Japanese Peruvian president. Fujimori’s neoliberal and authoritarian regime was endorsed and enabled by the U.S. and Japan because of transpacific economic and political interests in his attempts to transform Peru into a “Pacific Rim capitalist miracle” (91). Accordingly, American depictions of the hostage crisis reinforced a refusal to recognize state terrorisms, rendering Peruvian history as incomprehensible and obscuring U.S. complicity in Peruvian state terrorism. On the other hand, Kim asserts that Teresa Ralli and José Watanabe’s 1999 play Antígona refuses such silencing by centering survivors’ remembrance of the disappeared under Fujimori’s regime, and stages instead the impossibility of closure in the face of state violence.

Postcolonial Grief is impressive in its scope, its interdisciplinarity, and its engagement with multiple and intersecting strands of scholarship ranging from Fanonian anticolonial psychoanalysis to twenty-first-century transnational feminist and queer theory. Scholars interested in Asian American studies, transpacific studies, and affect studies will find it especially insightful. Kim’s analyses of how artists engage with the overlapping histories of U.S. imperialism across the Pacific Arena are rich and provocative, especially in chapters 3 and 4. I’m curious how her interpretation of Sa-I-Gumight extend to Dai Sil Kim-Gibson’s follow-up, the 2004 documentary Wet Sand: Voices from L.A., which more explicitly depicts how Korean Americans and Black Americans were subject to state violence during the LA Riots. But one might just as easily imagine other fruitful ways of expanding Kim’s archive, which altogether speaks to the salience of Kim’s exploration of the insurgent capacity of melancholia to resist hegemonic attempts at erasing histories of imperial violence.

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