Sarah Shin is a publisher, curator and writer. She co-founded the independent feminist publisher, Silver Press, and Ignota Books, ‘an experiment in the techniques of awakening’. She is also the founder of New Suns, a curation and storytelling project from feminist perspectives and practices.
Grace M. Cho is the author of the hybrid memoir Tastes Like War (Feminist Press, 2021) and Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War (University of Minnesota, 2008). She is associate professor of sociology and anthropology at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.
They wrote to one another in the summer of 2021, discussing ghosts, transgenerational mourning and communal cooking as a way of passing on meaning and memory.
I always find it difficult to decide where to begin; the imperative ‘to begin at the beginning’ would suggest that there is a single point of origin, and a linear arc of narrative. It seems more accurate to say that there are many beginnings and many threads, some of which break and some of which loop, perhaps especially for those of the diaspora, whose origin stories are complicated or obscured by migration, or ‘For those of us who live at the shoreline’, to quote Audre Lorde’s poem ‘A Litany for Survival’, as you do in your latest book. But for this conversation, since we haven’t met, I thought I might give a bit of context to how I came to read your work.
I read your book Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War (2008) just weeks after the mass shootings in Atlanta on 16 March 2021, which targeted Asian-run massage parlours. Six of the eight people who lost their lives were Asian women, four of whom were Korean. Your work gives the backstory to why Asian women, and specifically Korean women, who perform sexual labour, are dehumanised in this way. It’s a history that is hardly known here in the UK. There’s a convenient collective amnesia about the role of the British in the Korean War (otherwise known as the ‘Forgotten War’), despite British troops making up the second largest contingent of foreign forces after the Americans, driven by profound anti-Communist interests in the context of the Cold War. Your life’s work has been about making connections between structures of power and their manifestations in individual and cultural bodies – I’d love to invite you to introduce it for new readers.
Grace M. Cho:
It’s no surprise that the Korean War is unknown in Britain, because it’s also largely unknown in the United States, even though the US has (in my opinion) the biggest share of responsibility for that war and its devastating consequences because of its decision to divide the peninsula in 1945, then occupy the southern half, thus laying the groundwork for the war. It reminds me of something that I heard Bapsi Sidhwa say when I saw her speak many years ago: ‘the splitting of land always demands blood.’ During the official period of the war, from 25 June 1950 until 27 July 1953, approximately 3 million civilians were killed, 10 percent of the civilian population, the majority of whom were killed by the use of the US’s new weapon of mass destruction: napalm. We typically associate napalm with what Westerners call ‘the Vietnam War’ and the Vietnamese call ‘the American War’, but Korea was a living laboratory for the use and development of napalm. It was a testing ground for various methods of communist containment, including the targeting of civilians. What this meant in practice is that 600,000 tons of napalm were ‘splashed’ over the landscape, to use Winston Churchill’s language, an approach which according to General Curtis LeMay of the American Air Force, served to ‘burn down every town in North Korea, and in South Korea too.’ This mass destruction took place in a mere three years, much of it concentrated within the first six months. By the time the armistice was signed in 1953, the conditions of mass death and ruin in Korea gave life to a new system of sexual labour around US military bases, first as part of an informal economy of survival, and later as part of a state-sanctioned effort to provide ‘entertainment’ to American troops as a means of bolstering South Korea’s national security.
It’s funny that you began by complicating the notion of ‘beginning’, because I also explore questions of temporality in relation to the war and sex work for the US military. Although I just told you that the ‘beginning’ of organised sex work for the US military in Korea was after the war, it actually goes back to the occupation in 1945 when the US government outlawed prostitution for Koreans, but nevertheless took over the ‘comfort stations’ (some would call them ‘rape camps’) that had been set up by the Japanese for their own personnel. There was in fact continuity between Japanese and US occupations, demonstrated by the ‘comfort stations’ seamlessly changing hands.
Of course, there was also survival sex taking place between Korean women and American soldiers during the war itself, but it proliferated after the armistice when civilians flocked to the bases looking for work and resources. The formal system of sex work established in the 1960s continues to this day, but the contemporary sex worker is a migrant woman to Korea. As South Korea grew richer, fewer Korean women turned to sex work for American soldiers, yet the US troop presence remained. By the 1990s, the South Korean government began recruiting women from Russia and Southeast Asia to fill the gap. Today nearly all sex workers at the bases in Korea are migrants.
Most people I talk to about my research think that militarised sex work in Korea is a phenomenon only of the 1950s and 60s and are shocked to hear that it still exists. The fighting ended in an armistice, signed by the US and North Korea, but the peace treaty that was meant to follow never happened. Because the war was never resolved, US troops have remained and so have all of the institutions providing them ‘entertainment’ and ‘comfort’.
Instead, the Korean peninsula has been in a permanent state of war, temporarily suspended, and because of that, there have also been millions of families separated because they ended up on opposite sides of the border when it was closed.
The diaspora has paid a psychic price for the war because the grief and loss that our parents and grandparents can’t talk about get passed down to us. That’s the idea behind transgenerational haunting – that our parents’ traumas are so shrouded in secrecy that they become ‘phantomogenic’, to use Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s word. It’s no wonder that the Atlanta murders were so poorly understood – the historical context for sexualised violence against Korean women is unknown to most Americans because it has been erased from any official narrative of the relations between the US and Korea, and also, most families don’t want to talk about it because of the stigma attached to sex work. My work as a writer and scholar is to release those phantoms into the public.
What you say about continuity and recurrence makes me think of the structure of your second book, Tastes Like War, recently published by Feminist Press, who describes it as ‘a hybrid text about a daughter’s search for the roots of her mother’s schizophrenia’. In it you follow a ‘trail of crumbs’, in the form of stories about food, told by your mother, leading you towards your family history. These crumbs, as well as suggesting appetite, which features in your book as a strong indicator of health, also reminded me of detective stories, where one follows a story through small, scattered clues. You mentioned Maggie Nelson’s Jane in your preface, which, like your book, is a multilayered hybrid form engaging with the true crime genre in order to circle around absence.
What does writing offer for working with memories and absences? I am also thinking of Walter Benjamin’s essay on Proust, in which he describes ‘the weaving of his memory, the Penelope work of recollection’ – and its relation to involuntary memory, which we encounter repeatedly in your book through the evocative, sensory powers of food.
It’s an interesting question because most of the memories in the book were involuntary. I began writing the day after my mother died, when my grief opened up a floodgate of memories from my early years. They were memories of my childhood mother – who I call my ‘first mother’ – who was always cooking or foraging, and feeding others in one way or another. She had this tremendous capacity, and I wanted to capture those memories before they slipped away from me. As I wrote my recollections down, the act of writing opened up even more memories.
So this project began as a series of vignettes to memorialise the mother I had lost at the age of fifteen. As I began workshopping some of the pieces, questions arose about the bigger story, the one that I had already written in Haunting. I decided to use some of the research from my first book, along with new research on schizophrenia and the racist history of my hometown, as a parallel story to the one that I had originally started. I wanted to construct a narrative about all the social forces that had destroyed my first mother, but not through a smooth and linear narrative. Most memoirs are written in a way that immerses the reader in a story and tries to keep them there for the duration. I prefer the kind that constantly disrupts and subverts its own narrative by introducing other voices and perspectives, which is what I’ve done. I can’t tell you how many times I received feedback in workshops that said, ‘this part takes me out of the story,’ but that was exactly what I wanted to do. It was a way of simulating the experience of the ‘trailing of crumbs’ – the way in which I made sense of my mother’s history through all these tiny fragments of information, scattered across decades, in which each new piece of information demanded that I revise the storyline. I also wanted to create a kind of voice-hearing in the text, to challenge the idea that voices are meaningless, nothing more than a symptom of a ‘broken brain’. The style is similar to that of Haunting, in which I tried to show how the ugly parts of our collective history cannot be repressed. They might appear to be at first, but then they come back forty years later through the unconscious of the next generation.
Yes, this attention and care given to the unconscious is something you describe as a methodology that got you into trouble as a young sociologist. In one of the scenes in Tastes Like War, you described the defence of your PhD dissertation while your mother is in hospital receiving treatment for schizophrenia for the first time. In the defence, your proposed methods, including ‘dream work, experimental writing, and performance – methods of the unconscious – to make unspeakable traumas audible and hauntings visible’, caused quite a controversy among your examiners. The august sociologists are horrified by the lack of quantifiable data, and predict ‘career suicide’. ‘They think you should be counting ghosts,’ your PhD adviser laughs, afterwards. As well as dismissing the reality of the hallucinatory experiences of people who are categorised as mentally ill, this kind of approach reveals its own limitations, bound by the episteme of quantification. Despite pretending to objectivity, scientific disciplines are also culturally specific – as you say, ghosts are commonplace in Asian American Studies. Could you speak about how you came to your practices?
My adviser in graduate school, Patricia Clough, introduced me to these experimental methodologies, and which opened a door for me in terms of trying to make sense of my mother’s history, and so my first book was primarily an academic book with pieces of auto-ethnography, fiction and performance texts mixed in. While Tastes Like War is labelled a memoir, it’s also a hybrid text that mixes genres. In a way it’s a continuation of Haunting, but with an explicit focus on the personal. Calling it a memoir is what gave me permission to not hold back and allow myself to be fully vulnerable in telling this story about the loss of my mother, and the ways in which I was able to recover parts of her. There was the loss of my first mother to madness when I was fifteen, which I grieved for many years even as she was still alive. My ‘second mother’ was the one who was tortured by her voices, and as I wrote in my prologue, once I began going down these two parallel paths of cooking for my mother and investigating my family history through my research and writing, a third mother emerged. The third mother began to recover in small but significant ways – she was still deemed schizophrenic and was a shut-in, but sharing these meals with her, and learning to cook my grandmother’s dishes, allowed us both to hold space for her voices. The voices were not simply symptoms of a ‘broken brain’, but signals of past traumas that needed attention. In the same way that my first book engages ghosts, my new book engages voices. Both are dismissed by sociologists as irrational. I guess I’m drawn to the irrational because it has the potential to radicalise our senses.
I love your articulation, that irrationality can ‘radicalise the senses’. Talking about how Westernised modernity could be said to be ‘ocularcentric’, Anna Tsing said, ‘Smell, which makes us jump from one domain to another without even realising that we’ve moved into another domain, is a great asset to that unlearning of a particular set of modernist visual prejudices.’ Could hauntings, being non-rational and non-linear, and not always visible, be a force for radicalisation?
I think of ghosts in two ways. The first is that they’re a manifestation of the ‘unspeakable secret’ (Abraham and Torok), and the second is that they’re a reminder of a wrongful death or other life-crushing injustice. In my work, there are millions of examples of them – all the civilians massacred in the Korean War, the survivors permanently separated from their families, the women and girls whose sexual labour was stolen or exploited through colonisation, or in service of nation building. Ghosts are the residues of each of these things. They cannot be ‘seen’ or ‘counted’ in the Western, ocularcentric, positivist way, but they are felt. Both the literature on haunting and the oral histories and creative works by the children of war survivors referred to a ‘felt sense’ of the haunting. So I write to make ghosts more present, so that they can be a force of memory. We cannot put them to rest until we fully attend to them and make reparations, which is a long-term project. For now, I do not want to put them to rest, but rather harness their disruptive power towards dismantling our oppressive social structures.
In this second year of the coronavirus pandemic, there are many factors that speak directly to some of these concerns that have always been a focus of your work – the complex of political, material and social forces that intersect with health, in particular. What do you think this moment means collectively and what has been your personal experience of it? I feel that it’s been like a pressure cooker – all the ingredients were already inside the pot, and the pandemic cranked up the pressure.
For sure. The pandemic has exposed so many of our societal vulnerabilities in terms of structural and environmental racism. In the US and across the globe, we see over and over again that the people who are most likely to die of Covid-19 are Black and Brown, or working class. They’ve suffered years of stress on their bodies because of inadequate health care or lack of access to the vaccines, or because they’re put at greater risk of exposure because they’re ‘essential’ workers. In the US there’s also a deep distrust of the medical establishment among Black and Brown communities. As Jonathan Metzl wrote in The Protest Psychosis, the early drugs for schizophrenia, such as Haldol, were marketed as a form of social control in a bottle to squash civil unrest and Black Power movements of the 1960s. His work really spoke to me, and I drew on it in Tastes Like War.
My mother’s experience with the American mental-health care system was quite awful. It took eight years for her to get any treatment, and the drugs she took initially made her feel much worse. Seeing the effects of the drugs on her made the idea of chemical incarceration so concrete for me, because it was like she was imprisoned by her own body. The struggle that my family went through in getting health care for my mother makes me empathise with others who are experiencing similar barriers now, during the pandemic. Public health is about much more than producing drug treatments and vaccines. We need to create a system that actually focuses on care in the broader sense of the word. My hope is that the pandemic can make us more attentive to these issues.
Something I experienced, which I’ll ascribe to the pandemic, was that my memory has become even more disrupted. Precious things that I assumed I would remember, such as the stories my grandmother told me as a child, became harder to reach. And this really brought up yet more layers of grief for me; she was a mother to me, too. Grief changes with time and sometimes comes back afresh; reading Tastes Like War, I was reminded of Jenny Diski’s review of Barbara Taylor’s The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times, in which she says, ‘I was struck by the thought that rather than a professional, or even adult reading, I was grabbing a miniature shadow-analysis for myself.’ I wondered if I was doing some kind of shadow-grieving and was, once again, struck by how there aren’t many resources around grieving or mourning rituals here where I am in the UK, which now seem likely to be more necessary given the enormity of our collective loss.
I wondered if there is a connection to be made with what remains unmourned? Is transgenerational haunting something that demands transgenerational mourning?
I don’t know that much about mourning rituals, but in my limited experience, Koreans grieve much more openly and intensely than do Westerners. There’s an aversion to that kind of public grief in many Western cultures, and particularly in the US, where you can be diagnosed with major depression if you’re grief-stricken for more than two weeks. There’s this idea that you should ‘just get over it’, but I don’t see mourning as something that’s finite. It’s been thirteen years since my mother died, and I still sometimes get these memory flashes that make the loss feel fresh again.
We should also ask ourselves why we would ever want to ‘get over it’? Is the pain that intolerable? Or can it serve us? In Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, he interviewed a psychologist specialising in traumatic bereavement, who worked with people who had lost loved ones in the most horrible ways, and who herself had lost a child. She was very clear that she didn’t want to get over that loss, because the pain is what honours the memory of her daughter, and also what allows her to empathise with her clients’ pain. Therefore, grief can function as a kind of care work when we’re willing to feel the pain of others. So yes, I love the idea of transgenerational mourning for its potential.
As we see in your memoir so richly, food is a conductor of meaning and memory. We ingest it and it becomes a part of us as it is metabolised and transformed into who we are. So, would you like to share a recipe?
I don’t have any written recipes; everything I learned to cook from my mother, I learned through these instances of her calling out instructions from the other room, such as ‘Don’t be ashamed to use sesame oil. Put in garlic, plenty of garlic. Now don’t be ashamed to use that either.’ These were for a fish and radish stew called saengtae jjigae, which I had never eaten in my life. In my book I said: ‘add fish, dashi broth, scallions, gukganjang, and gochu-garu. Bring to a low boil and serve with rice.’ The first time I cooked it, my mother tasted it, sighed and said, ‘I haven’t tasted this in forty years.’ It was something that she herself had never cooked, but that my grandmother cooked for her when she was young. For me, it was this moment of recovering a past that I never imagined I’d have access to, of my mother and grandmother from a time before I was born. It was a powerful sensory experience of tasting my family history, and I think, for my mother, eating the stew had the effect of allowing her to engage with the past in the safest way possible, because it reminded her of her own mother’s care. The more she ate these foods, the more she asked me to cook Korean food for her. Her instructions always used the phrase, ‘don’t be ashamed.’ When I was a child and young adult, she would never allow me in the kitchen, and in particular, she refused to give me recipes for Korean food. Initially, she said it was ‘a waste of time’ and that I should be studying instead, but now I think it had more to do with the way she had internalised the shame of being Korean in America. She probably thought that discouraging me from cooking Korean food was helping to Americanise me, and that assimilation was the right path forward in the xenophobic environment of my childhood. But after years of us cooking and sharing these Korean meals, she began to reject that shame. By saying ‘don’t be ashamed to use garlic,’ she was essentially saying ‘don’t be ashamed to be Korean.’ ‘Don’t be ashamed of who we are.’ Our culinary heritage and family history became our greatest source of strength.
Images © Robin Silas Christian and Patrick Bower