Author Archives: edkoo825

Defining Post-Colonial French

Michel-Rolf Trouillot is the author of the first history of Haiti written in Creole… He couldn’t believe that there were no works of history in Creole, the language the slaves used to express themselves, the very ones who struggled to turn the colony into a country. 53

My childhood was filled with stories of slaves whose only weapon was their longing for freedom and a senseless kind of bravery. On summer evenings, my grandmother would tell me of the exploits of our heroes who had to take everything from the enemy weapons and the art of war, for starters. Even the French language was part of “spoils of war.” 75

The class discussion on translation, especially on Homel’s words, gives me a chance to visit the role of languages. Homel states that French is an “external” tongue, and that Creole is the native tongue for Dany Laferriere. This suggests a colonial view of language, which designates different roles for the native and the European language: “external” suggests things like business, and politics, while “native” suggests domestic, spiritual, etc. However, unless Laferriere directly told Homel in those words, I am not sure whether the categorization is satisfactory. At least in my case, language means something different.

It may be argued that the imperial languages, such as English and French, were one of the foundational elements of colonization. In Haiti, the French language was appropriated to uphold the suppressive institutions of slavery and to maintain superiority of the Western culture, systematically eradicating native traditions. A very similar comparison can be made for the English language and the atrocities against First Nations in Canada. It may also be successfully argued that these languages are still used to preserve the institutionalized colonial hegemonies in many places. Therefore, as a response to the encroachment of language, many post-colonial writers choose to write and represent in their native tongues. Trouillot writing the history book in Creole is an apt example.

However, what about Laferriere? Is he trapped within the colonial construct because French is the language he writes in?

Language is more than means of business or social and political representation; it is the basic units of communication that display affection and human emotions. Especially in the present day, when “texting” of different kinds constitute the better part of our daily communication, the role of language in expressing emotions is heightened. While English language may be the very foundational institution that upholds colonial patriarchy in Canada, my relationship with the English language is more complex; it is also the means in which I can best express myself. For me, the English language is the language of affection and wisdom.

There are many things that languages represent. Perhaps for the socio-political scholars who noted the relationship between colonialism and language, it is natural that language signifies political relations. For Granny Laferriere’s generation, “the French language was part of ‘spoils of war’.” For Laferriere, the French language unites him with other post-colonial Francophone writers throughout the world, and makes him beneficiary of the accomplishments of preceding artists like Aime Cesaire.

It may appear paradoxical for writers to use the colonizer’s language for post-colonial representation, but language cannot be restricted or considered as mere means of socio-political representation. Laferriere’s aesthetics is not anti-colonial- it is post-colonial. And his French language, too, speaks beyond the colonial construct.

Works Cited:

Homel, David. “Tin-Flutting It: On Translating Dany Laferriere.” Culture in Transit. Translating the Literature of Quebec. Ed. Sherry Simon. Montreal: Vehicule, 1995. 47-54

Laferriere, Dany; Homel, David. The World is Moving Around Me : A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake. New York: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013. Ebook Library. Web. 07 Nov. 2014.

Escape From Camp 14: Twist on Representation

Escape from Camp 14, the incredible story of survival from a slave death camp in Korea north by Shin Dong-Hyuk told by former Washing Post journalist Blaine Harden, was a story that never really escaped me since reading it. Spieglman’s Maus gave me another chance to look at this narrative from a different perspective, with attention to things like representation and voice.

Dong-Hyuk’s story is unique. Literally.

He is the only person to have escaped and told the story of the infamous slave death camps of Korea north that Kim’s junta categorically denies and UN absolutely confirms. People who are found guilty of crimes against the state (political and ideological crimes, including attempting to escape to China) are sent to concentration camps on forced labour. These harshness of these camps differ in range, and Camp 14 is one of the death camps where prisoners are sent for life. As a “reward” for good behaviour in these camps, inmates are “married” for several days a year. Shin Dong-Hyuk was born from one of these marriages, and his crime was inheriting the sins of his parents. He never talked to the father, and he fought his mother for food as soon as he could feel hunger. Children like Dong-Hyuk are forced into child labour until they can do adult labour at 14~16, if they manage to survive that long: they are slaves bred by the (member of UN) state. He meets an older political prisoner who came out at the wrong end of the endless purges who tells him about the world outside. Inspired by stories of barbequed meat (seriously) Dong-Hyuk escapes the camp, and luckily makes it out to China finding his way into Korea. Until he leaves the camp at age 22, the only food in his life was salted cabbage soup and coarse mixed grain. Field mice that he managed to catch was the only meat he ever tasted. (I saved the best parts, go read it)

Shin Dong-Hyuk originally wrote and published an autobiographical account almost immediately after arriving in Korea. However, his coarse penmanship and lack of understanding of, essentially, the fundamentals of scientific reasoning created a narrative that was not effective in communicating with the Korean audience. However, once Blaine Harden publishes a book based on interviews and consultations with Dong-Hyuk, it becomes a critical and commercial success. With the acclaim in North America, the Korean audience loved it too.

Shin Dong-Hyuk never went to school and is not a good orator. In ways, he is like Vladek. While Art is not a primary source in telling the story of the Holocaust, he might be the more effective source, just as the journalist Blaine Harden was able to be more effective. One thing Harden does is to give multiple accounts when there are contradicting stories in the interviews. Instead of making the story less credible, this allows for a better understanding of the greater picture as details become insignificant. However, a first-hand account cannot be guilty of presenting multiple accounts of a single event.

The authenticity of Shin’s story is sometimes challenged, especially as there is no one to verify it. There is one identified defected officer who worked at a concentration camp, although not a death camp like Camp 14, and he only saw/heard about these death camps on paper. Some critics argue that the authenticity of such traumatized individual cannot be used as grounds for political action. The media of Korea north vehemently denies the existence of these camps and accuses the American and Korean governments for propaganda. As a response, Shin, Harden and his supporters challenge Kim Jung-Eun to prove otherwise. Until then, his account stands. While this is a strange logic, somehow, it makes sense here.


Works cited:

Harden, Blaine. Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. New York: Viking, 2012. Print.

Photo Life Narrative: Jim Wong Chu’s Centre A Exhibit


A special exhibition by Jim Wong Chu chronicling some of the historical events around Chinatown has been held at Centre A, Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.  As second and third generation Asian Canadians, the people in the old photographs were witnesses to the social and cultural development in Vancouver and in Chinatown.  Featured in the exhibit were photos of social activism such as the Quebec-Columbia Connector Freeway protests, drive to save Chinese BBQ, and other snippets of life around Chinatown and its inhabitants.  The pictures, mostly action shots of people in daily activities, assert a communal voice that becomes the narrator in a communal life narrative.

The power of pictures aside, however, I want to turn my attention to the effects of using photographs to tell a life narrative in comparison to using words.  One of the most ironic aspects of a photo exhibit is that while every single shot is taken by the photographer and is, in some way, a reflection and expression of the photographer’s life, the photographer is always absent.  In class, we discussed at length about the factors that affect the authenticity or “truthfulness” of a life narrative, and one of the factors we focused on was whose voices are expressed, why and to what effect.  In the case of Fred Wah, hearing his own words about himself greatly helped to solidify his character; meanwhile, in Sarah DeVries’ case, her person was communicated through the voices of others as well as her own words.  Telling a story through photography, on the other hand, has a different complexity.  While the photographer can choose the subjects and episodes for her/his shot, the message is completely out of her/his control.  The subtle facial expressions and body gestures spontaneously captured in a photograph may contain elements of truth that can never be verbalized, and even betray the intentions of the photographer.  Despite having full control over the setting, and thereby always being able to set the context, the photographer can never be the subject of her/his photo narrative.  This is in contrast to telling story with words in which the writer can clearly express her/his opinions, but often has limited control over the context and how the messages are received.

Today’s exhibit featured photos of Vancouver’s Chinatown in the 1970’s, highlighted by social activism and cultural imprints.  While Jim, the photographer, is not in any of the photos that he took, he still tells his life narrative through the reflections of people he photographed.  A single authoritative voice that writers often look for in a written story may not be present in Jim’s photographs, but by withdrawing that authoritative “I”, Jim’s life narrative becomes naturally placed with the community narrative, and becomes part of communal history.

A group of Chinese Canadians pose in a boxcar as an homage to the complex history between the CPR and the Chinese community.

A group of Chinese Canadians pose in a boxcar as an homage to the complex history between the CPR and the Chinese community. Sean (middle with a shovel) says, “We just got together to take that photo. It was sometime in the 70’s. We told Jim to set the timer, but he wanted to just take the picture.”

Standing In My Doorways

The Lower Mainland is a place of mixed identities, not only racially but also in terms of political thought, lifestyle, etc.  Whether here by choice or not, the residents of Metro Vancouver are exposed to forms of cultural hybridity and must learn to deal with it sooner or later.  Many choose to experience cultural hybridity only at the levels that they are comfortable with, like through an occasional ethnic cuisine.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

However, for 40 plus percent of Metro Vancouverites, the issue of hybridity, the act of balancing the hyphens, is more complicated.  Cultural hybridity can mean (naturally) a variety of things whether it is one’s genetic make-up, cultural and philosophical way of thinking, or interplaying between languages and customs.  Fred Wah’s thoughts on hybridity are formed from his life, his background and his environment; some of his ideas are drastically different from my experiences and understanding of cultural hybridity.

In a recent interview with Ricepaper Magazine, Fred Wah offers his thoughts on hybridity.

“I’m talking about the identity here much beyond the discourse around the race and identity, partly because when we’re talking about hybridity, we have to go beyond notions of mixed blood and mixed race.  My whole pitch about hybridity is that it’s an in-between place, and that is a space that I want to occupy.  I want to be there.  I don’t want to be Chinese or Canadian.  I’m neither.  None of that was a choice that I made.  So one can choose: not choose identity but choose how to be in a place.  How to occupy that space you’re in and claim it as yours is a difficult thing.  Because race is a cultural construction.  “Who are you really? “  Well then that starts to get into more an experiential thing about how we each of us experience whatever percentage of mixed you might be.”

“If you don’t go through the door, if you just stand on the doorway, you are, of course, an obstacle.  People have to go around you or whatever, push you aside.  BY standing in the doorway there’s the advantage of being able to see both rooms.  And I’d like to explore that metaphor in a sense of my view is I think perhaps more fully informed when I occupy that space.” -Ricepaper Magazine 18.4 

Fred claims the space in-between, the space that is hardly talked about and less travelled, as one of the ways he mediates hybridity.  In Diamond Grill, the soda fountain station becomes a physical manifestation of one of these spaces.  Fred proudly claims, “The soda fountain becomes my territory,” and he boasts that his is the “smoothest, shiniest, snazziest soda fountain in town” (41).  As discussed in class, the soda fountain station is a particular installment in the café.  It is hip, modern, popular, and very mainstream Canadian, serving thick milkshakes in “real milkshake glasses,” (32) but it is a snack station, and not even part of the kitchen, a nowhere space that Fred claims, similar to his hybridity.

On the other hand, the comfort diminishes significantly once Fred is out of his private space.  He does not like going to cafes in Chinatown because he feels insecure.  “It’s not safe,” he says, “I don’t know who I am in this territory and maybe don’t want to” (136) because of the unease over the discussion of his ethnic background.  He cannot fully integrate with the Chinese crowd because of the way he looks, and because he lacks other cultural indicators such as language or cultural and historical understanding.  His name, Wah, nevertheless, reminds him that he has Chinese roots, something that has marked him all his life.  He is not ashamed of his mixed background, only “Sometimes… rather be left alone” (54).  However, all his life, growing up as a visible minority in limbo made him conscious of his place, and finds comfort in his private spheres.

I came to Vancouver from Korea when I was 10, and while I am not ethnically hapa, I have my experience of hybridity as well.  I lived in very “white” neighbourhoods, went through the Catholic school system, hardly had any Korean friends, and with my mother not being with me, I was very “mainstream,” to be polite.  When I was 20, due to my Korean citizenship, I went to Korea and served in the Korean Marine Corps.  I also subsequently lived in Korea for a couple of years after being discharged, and I experienced Korea as a society.  The search for identity has always been an issue with me, and it continues to be an ongoing, transforming process.

In terms of my cultural understanding, I suggest a different view from Fred in understanding hybridity.  I view my cultural identity as 100% Canadian AND 100% Korean.  Originally phrased by Sandy Lee, a former MLA and writer from NWT of Korean descent, this view of understanding hybridity liberates cultural dilemmas that people who live within multiple cultures continuously encounter.  First, the mathematics itself (100% + 100% = 100%) is defiant, yet somehow not ridiculous.  Moreover, it liberates me from thinking of my ethnicity as a limitation, and rather as an adaptive tool.  As I am comfortable with the customs of both cultures, I can smoothly code-switch, and take advantage of many circumstances.  Nevertheless, such attitude should accompany my knowledge of both Korean and Canadian culture and identity, and it is my responsibility to refine my understanding of both cultures if I am to claim both identities as Korean and Canadian.  A personal challenge for me is to work on my Korean language because, according to my reasoning, it should be on par with my English despite my proficiency in the Korean language.  Mostly importantly, it gives me a platform to think about how the society should proceed in terms of dealing with ongoing cultural fusion and hybridity.

Unlike Fred who felt comfortable in the “in-between” space, the Metro Vancouver community is ready to claim multiple cultural identities, not only evidenced by the physical ethnic make-up, but also by the active ways in which the young people engage and have esteem and understanding of multiple cultures.  The HapaPalooza Festival is a good example of such demonstration of claiming both mainstream and ethnic space in a way that is harmonized with the rest of the community.  There is no need to faction oneself into a cultural group, nor is it pertinent in 2014, in Vancouver, BC; rather, learning to understand and co-exist with hybridity (whichever way you interpret it) is an insightful way of living on the West Coast.



Works Cited:

Kaye, Anna Ling. “Standing in Doorways: On Hyphens and Hybridity with Poet Fred Wah.” Ricepaper Magazine Mar. 2014: 6-10. Print.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill: 10th Anniversary. Edmonton: NeWest, 2008. Print.