Recollections from “Trauma and Diaspora”5 min read

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Hello Ricepaper readers! Some of you may remember that last-last month, my fellow RP intern Stephanie did a post on the seminar series hosted by the writer-in-residence Shyam Selvadurai over at Green College. I actually attended the first of these seminars, titled “Trauma and Diaspora,” and although it’s kind of two months late, it was way too awesome of an experience for me to keep to myself forever. Better late than never, right?

There were several reasons why I chose to go to this seminar. First, ‘diaspora’ is a word familiar to many Korean abroad, partly because of the widespread tendency of the Korean immigrant churches to bridge this phenomena of Koreans studying and working abroad with the plight of the Jews in the Old Testament. According to Merriam-Webster Online (I don’t have an OED membership, alright? Sniff.) one definition is “the settling of scattered colonies of Jews outside Palestine after the Babylonian exile,” but another is also “the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland.” Since I’m a Canadian citizen of immigrant origins, I have long considered myself part of the Korean diaspora, though also precariously perched in the home I have in Canada.

I didn’t know how unstable this arrangement was, though, until I took my Canadian Literature course at UBC this year, which would be the second reason I took this course. I was expecting ENG470 to be a crash course on the achievements of Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Carol Shields (yes, my personal understanding of ‘CanLit’ prior to this course). Actually, I’d jumped head-first into an intellectually, existentially stimulating class that questioned every aspect of what I had been told was “Canadian.” In front of our coursepack read “Race, Memory, Citizenship.”

It was in this class that I was made to read Kyo Maclear’s The Letter Opener, which is a novel that involves the Japanese internment issue. I was so angry when I read Maclear’s analogy between the internment and the Holocaust. I was angry that Maclear would make Japanese internment an issue at all. Why? Because I was a terrible person?

Maybe. But took careful note of these emotional responses, and hypothesized that it might have something to do with my  sense of self, and my national identity. Naturally, the title “Trauma and Diaspora” spoke out to me as soon as I saw the poster.

The seminar took a while to start. I noted with anxiety that I seemed to be the youngest person there. I had no idea what Green College was all about, although I vaguely knew that it was on the UBC premises. While the event was officially to be from 8-9PM, in reality it went from 8:30-10:20PM. But that’s OK! I stayed for the whole thing and every single panel was worth it.

First, Dr. Janet MacArthur from the UBC Okanagan campus spoke on Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I’d read it before, but the speaker made it such a more meaningful work than I had ever considered it to be. I learned much on her points about “inherited trauma” and how she deciphered the effects that a parent’s stories could have on a young child who had experienced nothing. The physical ordeal had not been felt, but to the recipient of such second-hand trauma, the specter of these atrocities remained. Wow. I could relate!

Next, the photographer Tamio Wakayama went up to present on his experience as a baby during the Japanese internment. Uh oh! Was I going to have politically incorrect sentiments again? His panel was on how the Japanese internment allowed him to empathize with the apartheid movement in the States when he was in his 20s.

After that, Judy Fong Bates gave a touching narrative of uncovering the concealed past through her account of trying to come to terms with why her father had committed suicide. She mused on how he, as the owner of a drycleaner’s, had to grapple with the humiliation of “washing other people’s shit-stains,” and how she had never realized the sacrifices her parents had made, and how she had to struggle with assimilating to Canadian culture. “Was I abandoning my parents? Was I adding to their cumulative trauma?” and in the end, she concluded, “I can no longer deny the emotional trauma that I inherited from my parents, no less than I can deny the blood that courses through my veins.”

Such beautiful words. I remember that she was the author of a story I had to read for my English 10 provincial in high school. And I can still recall what the story was about – it was that good. No joke!

For the last performer, many rose to leave for the night. I’d been planning to leave myself, but I felt so bad that I stayed. And it was the right choice to make! Performer Yalini Dreams’ amazing one-woman play was a full-bodied expression of everything that had been touched on that night. With song, dance, and spoken word, she enunciated bullet sounds and the cry of a refugee mother. We saw the physical manifestation of trauma and we were absolutely blown away.

I’m so glad that I was able to attend this seminar. Thank you to all the wonderful panelists and writer-in-residence Shyam Selvadurai for making it possible!

And there you have it, Ricepaper readers. From that night at Green College, I received more insights about my own perspective towards my Korean origins and my grasp on the post-colonial trauma which haunts my roots still.  So keep an eye out for all those random seminar posters, because you never know what you might get out of them.

For example, a picture with JUDY FONG BATES! *Squee*

Article by Julia Park.

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