about the AUTHOR
Joo Ok Kim is Assistant Professor of American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Kansas. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Asian American Studies and Verge: Studies in Global Asias. Her book project, Warring Genealogies: Race, Kinship, and the Korean War, examines the racial legacies of the Korean War through Chicano cultural production and U.S. archives of white supremacy. She is also the author of “Declining Misery: Rural Florida’s Hmong & Korean Farmers,” which appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of south.
Sharon P. Holland (spH), UNC – Chapel Hill
Joo Ok Kim (JK), University of Kansas
spH: Joo Ok so good to be speaking with you today, thank you for joining me and agreeing to do this short interview for UNC Press’s blog.
JK: Thank you for having me I am so excited to be part of this.
spH: I just wanted to start out by asking you a little bit about the piece. What would you want readers to take away from the essay you published [with] south in 2016?
JK: Ah, that’s a good question. I think in terms of the narrative itself, I am just thinking about the kinds of labor that people are always performing in spaces like rural central Florida. I think those histories of displacement are especially important and urgent. So, while this piece looks at, in particular Hmong farmers, my sense is that in fact Florida and many other places in the United States and globally – where folks have been displaced from all over the globe – that’s not something which comes to mind immediately when thinking about spaces such as rural Florida. So, again in terms of the narrative, and the content of the story, that’s what I hope readers take away. The second part is somewhat related. It has to do with methodology and epistemology. In the article, I had the chance to briefly meditate on Hmong feminist methodologies, from Ma Vang, even the notion of how we come to ask the questions that we ask. Even just in terms of method, I know that it’s a very unusual piece to be in an academic journal.
spH: Yes! And we are very proud to showcase it because I think it really dovetails well with south’s eclectic nature.
JK: Yes, and I am thrilled to have placed it in south. And so, maybe in terms of pushing what might be considered scholarly, or another way of phrasing it is pushing against the sense that only creative writers do this, you know? Or scholars who have “made it” do this, and I wonder if there’s a way of employing a writing practice that deviates in really important ways from standard academic writing.
spH: I am glad you said that because what I really admire about the piece is a decision that you made, that you requested of us and that we complied with, not to have captions for the photos and to let the photos speak to each and every reader, differently, collectively . . . And I want you to speak a little bit to that creative process. I feel like the photographs throughout the essay really do capture the piece’s location in what one would call “rural economies” for lack of a better term, but they also speak to dislocation; we are not really sure where we are, or who we are with, right?
JK: So, the decision not to use captions and the decision to have the photographs and subjects bear some proximity to the narratives, is on the one hand…a visual document that comes into play when looking through the visual vernacular of those different narratives. As far as displacement, for sure, I think they offer the kind of displacement that the story itself offers. The scary scarecrow, [for example].
spH: I know! [laughs]
JK: [Laughs] That’s the only kind of representation of a face which is not a face of a person, it’s kind of a disembodied Halloween mask and that really speaks to the deep gothic that I want to invoke in the narrative as well.
spH: Speak to that deep gothic in the piece. Because it’s definitely there; when I got to the photos of the scarecrow figures, there’s this one line “the walking dead,” right? And that gothic narrative is so so embedded in southern fiction and southern narrative. And in what ways do you hope, not just the piece that you placed with south, but its part in your larger project, in what ways do you hope it kind of pushes that narrative?
JK: The gothic . . . thinking about the southern writers, and thinkers who have theorized this. I am thinking of Toni Morrison, Saidiya Hartman, to a certain extent Avery Gordon, Dennis Childs, and perhaps scholars such as Grace Cho, the idea of haunting, the true terror and the true gothic of the south has everything to do with settler colonialism, racial slavery and its aftermaths, the on-going hauntings of U.S. empire overseas. And so, I’m wanting to…think of a continuum alongside these thinkers on the one hand. . . I think I’m offering a lot of hands here, but then I don’t think I’m offering the other hand. . . [laughs].
In terms of my larger project . . . it’s about the Korean War and the subterranean histories of the Korean War, but I had not thought of [until now] my own larger project as a narrative of the gothic, does that make sense?
spH: Yes, yes.
JK: I had thought about hauntings, but I wasn’t thinking about the [southern] gothic, particularly. And so this is very exciting. All of a sudden there’s an aperture to think about the Korean War as taking part in the global gothic formation of U.S. empire.
spH: It’s often thought of as the shadow U.S. imperialist war of the 20th century. One seldom hears about subjects, not only . . . I believe that my father served in that war.
spH: But I’m not necessarily sure if he actually served in the Korean War, or if he was . . . because the rumors are that he was stationed in Mexico during the Korean War. So, my first question is what was he doing in Mexico during the Korean War, right?
spH: That’s also another question, but it gets to the actual positionality of that war among others in the 20th century, you know, speaks to the type of haunting – and I don’t even want to call it a metaphor, right? I think there’s a deliberateness about its placement as the ghost among other “real conflicts.”
JK: Yes, absolutely. The so-called absent presence of that War. The haunting not even as metaphor, but . . . has that war been ghosted? And if so what does it in fact mean for scholars who are working – and there are several scholars working on the Korean War right now in transliterary production, transcultural production. What does it mean to then resurrect that kind of war in our contemporary moment, too? This is all really exciting, I can overdo it!
spH: That’s okay, that’s okay. That’s what the interview is for, I mean, I think that’s what we try to do at south: some of the questions that we ask cannot be answered, but they must be asked nevertheless.
JK: Yes. Yes. But, if I can comment on the Korean War shadow in your father’s own history? And what was he doing in Mexico? I think the response to that would be: not being in Korea!
spH: I know, right? Not having to be another man of color fighting in a white man’s war. I always [knew] he was in the Navy, and he served in the Navy during that war, but he was in Mexico. . . was he working with some other body involved with that global conflict? I have always wondered. . .
What he brought back, interesting enough, for my work in Food Studies was a recipe. He brought back the best tamale pie I’ve ever had. A kind of anglicized version, I’m sure, something that he created from his time. . .I asked him [when I was seventeen], “where does this come from?” And he said, “when I was in the Korean War.” And I was like, “how does that make sense?”
JK: [Laughs with Holland]
spH: Right? And since my parents were divorced and I spent little time with my father in discussions of that nature, I’ll never know. But, maybe I will know one day, right? [laughs].
JK: I would very much like to find out along with you.
spH: That would be an amazing journey! I wanted to ask you one last question. I feel that it’s so important, and becomes so vital now for scholars to speak not only to the kind of intellectual work they want to do but also the place of home within that intellectual work. And so, there’s a personal element to the essay for you that you don’t necessarily talk about directly, it’s not part of the ongoing narrative but it’s clear for readers. And I want, if you care to, for you to speak to that – I guess I want to say – that constituency of the personal as an [author] who is combining critical, creative and personal narrative in the piece.
JK: That’s a great question, a really beautiful question. I will share maybe two things. The first is that as I state at the beginning in the piece, I had not at all intended for the research to take this form. In fact, I was playing oral historian and I had a set of research questions and therefore a set of presumed responses. . . frankly even my own questions were engineered toward a response that was critical of U.S. empire. And you know that’s the worst way to do an interview! [laughs].
spH: I know, right? [laughs].
JK: Even my intent to play oral historian . . . I realized once I began having conversations that there was no way that I could not also situate myself within this discourse. That I was engaging with all of these amazing farmers, each and every one of them, as an academic. At that time, I was a postdoctoral fellow at UC-Irvine and my ability to fly in and to be invited into their lives – that was not something that I could take for granted. That should be also known.
And the other response, [the second one] as far as my parents go, the point . . . this isn’t just about a thing that happened, that their work with Hmong farmers and their access to a plot of land to work together. It was really important for me – I don’t know how to say this – but I know that my own parents who have really interesting hauntings themselves, that they will never have the kinds of access to print culture, to venues that I had at that moment to narrate these stories. And that they would narrate them in a language that’s not English. And it seemed to me that there was something very special happening in 2014 and 2015 in Florida in terms of alliance. A show of the communal support and sort of – I don’t want to even say a refusal to engage within a larger neoliberal economy – but, a desire to move forward with something that will not bypass it, but nonetheless has ignored it. We are going to grow these beautiful crops and it is going to be really seriously difficult labor all the time, but this is essential to my life. That was…incredibly important to me as a scholar and a person.
spH: Wow. It looks like our brief interview time is up, and I wish I could talk to you for another 30 minutes because that piece was so evocative and the writing was so beautiful and I just want to thank you for placing your work with south. Is there anything else you’d like to say as we end?
JK: I am just so honored to have this piece placed in south: a scholarly journal. I cannot imagine it would be feel homed anywhere else.