Discomforting Knowledge or Korean comfort women and asian americanist critical practice

Discomforting Knowledge or Korean comfort women and asian americanist critical practice

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DISCOMFORTING KNOWLEDGE, Or, Korean “comfort women” and Asian Americanist critical practice 1 kandice chuh JAAS FEBRUARY 2003 • 5–23 © THE JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY PRESS [T]he production of knowledge about the past . . . is always enmeshed in the exercise of power and is always accompanied by elements of repression. —Lisa Yoneyama, Hiroshima Traces (1999) The repeated rallying cries of ‘breaking silence,’ ‘coming to voice,’ and ‘making visible’ presuppose some absence, repression, and marginalization as the ontological rationale and political motivation for particular articulations of self and community. As more and more Asian/American women study and make knowledge claims about (other) Asian/American women, it is important to be mindful that this making of ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’ is multiply idiosyncratic and not necessarily liberatory. —Laura Hyun Yi Kang, Compositional Subjects (2002) T HIS ESSAY REPRESENTS AN ONGOING conversation “about” “comfort women” that for me began a number of years ago at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian American studies held in Scottsdale, Arizona. There, I was part of the audience at a session dedicated to exam- ining the then recently emergent stories of and with thematic interest in “comfort women.” The panel considered oral histories and other auto- biographical materials as well as novels like Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman and Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life . 2 The session grew increas- ingly emotionally charged as presenters and audience revisited the in-
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6 JAAS 6:1 tense history that gives meaning to the nomer, “comfort woman.” As I listened to the presentations, I was caught especially by the kinds of ques- tions that Daniel Kim posed in his consideration of the representations of “comfort women” in these novels. Paraphrasing retrospectively, I re- member him broadly as asking after the functions of those representa- tions in Asian Americanist discourse. Kim asked us, in other words, to consider our investments in the figure of the “comfort woman,” a chal- lenge that seemed and continues to strike me as especially important to face when affective responses are so strong that they may overshadow the need and ability to pose critical questions. A few years after that AAAS meeting, I had occasion myself to be a panelist at an American Studies Association convention session centered on “comfort women,” chaired by Leti Volpp, along with Lisa Yoneyama, who convened the session, and Laura Hyun Yi Kang. This conversation has continued amongst us, and, retrospectively, I have come to under- stand that its resonance issues in part from the work of my fellow panel- ists. Their scholarship provides us with principles of evaluation that are illluminating in confronting the challenge that Daniel Kim posed. Laura Hyun Yi Kang’s work, for example, helps us to see the ways that the figure of the “Asian/American woman” may be understood as an epistemic ob-
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Discomforting Knowledge or Korean comfort women and asian americanist critical practice

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