The Gender of Memory: Han Kang (b.1970) and Contemporary Korean Literature


Thursday, March 23, 2017, 4:30pm


Thomas Chan-Soo Kang Room (S050), CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

Korea Colloquium
3/23 KC poster
Ji-Eun Lee
Visiting Associate Professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University; Associate Professor of Korean Language and Literature, Washington University in St. Louis

Ji-Eun Lee is the author of Women Pre-Scripted: Forging Modern Roles through Korean Print (University of Hawaii Press, 2015), a monograph on conflicting discourses on modern womanhood from the 1890s to the 1930s. She received a Ph.D. degree from Harvard University and has taught and worked at the University of Toronto, Dartmouth College, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Minnesota. Since 2008, Dr. Lee has been working at Washington University in St. Louis, and is currently Associate Professor of Korean Literature and Language and Head of the Korean Section in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. During her research leave in the Fall 2016, she was affiliated as a visiting scholar at the Korea Institute and worked on her second book project on memory and space in post-Cold War Korean literature. As Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, she is teaching two courses in Spring semester, 2017 - a graduate seminar titled “Readings in Modern Korean Literature” (KORLIT 201) and “Gender in Korean Culture and Film” (KORLIT 105) for undergraduate students at Harvard.

Chaired by Si Nae Park, Assistant Professor of East Asian Language and Civilizations, Harvard University

Human Acts (sonyŏn i onda, 2014, trans. 2016), a novel by South Korean author Han Kang (b.1970), is a fictional account of the 1980 massacre of civilians in the city of Kwangju, a military action that left deep trauma and remorse in its wake. The novel comes 34 years after the tragedy, and offers a story of the last days of Tong-ho, a fifteen year old boy and the main character, along with several others who witnessed the massacre with him. Han Kang (b.1970), who first debuted in 1994 with the story “Red Anchor,” joins a robust group of woman writers in South Korean literature, a generation whose work embodied a dramatic shift in Korean literary and cultural sensibility after Chun Doo Hwan's authoritarian regime ended in 1988. Her predecessors in the 1990s and early 2000s turned a spotlight on woman’s issues and portrayed reinvented individuality in a freer, postmodern South Korea. In the process, depictions of massive historical incidents such as war and massacres – mainstream among an older generation of male writers from the 1970s and 80s – receded into the background. Human Acts deviates from this shift of trends by returning to the lost, forgotten, and forced erasure of “truth” in the context of a tragedy. What remains to tell when a tragedy so massive that it doesn’t allow easy reconstruction to begin with, is then buried for decades? What narrative strategies make it possible to build “memory” in such circumstances? Drawing on theories of gender, masculinity, memory, and trauma, this talk uses Human Acts as a case study in addressing these questions, and places them in turn within the larger context of gender in contemporary Korean literature.

Generously supported by the Sunshik Min Endowment for the Advancement of Korean Literature at the Korea Institute, Harvard University.