I have decided that I would touch on some books on here that I think deserve a little more room than what I am allotted on Instagram. I also think the commenting system on here would make it a little easier to see anyone else’s opinions on these texts, so we will see how this goes! I have been reading Intimate Empire by Nayoung Aimee Kwon for a (shamefully) long time now, but since it was fall break for us and I had a little more wiggle room in my schedule, I decided to devote some time to it. I will begin by briefly saying, for anyone not aware of what I study, I work on Modern Japanese Literature, which overlaps with the period leading up to WWII. In the past I also did a lot of work on postcolonial theory from the Western context, but I have switched my position to that of the periphery and I now consider imperialism in terms of Japanese colonialism of Korea and Manchuria, as well as Japan’s precarious position as an intellectually colonized society by the West.
Needless to say, this book fits snugly into that very specific network of interests.
What I find the most compelling about Kwon’s approach here is that she is trying to move away from rhetoric that is binary. Oftentimes, postcolonial issues fall into a collaboration/resistance dichotomy in terms of the colonized. Not only does this approach simplify an incredibly drawn-out and complex historical period, it also erases the nuances of human agency. The world is not made up of collaborators and resisters only, just as the world is not made up of only good guys and bad guys.
Kwon rightfully draws attention to the idea of intimacy, by highlighting the different factors at play behind imperialism. As she writes, the idea of intimacy here “allows us to cut across the impasses of imperial and nationalist binary rhetoric to redefine intimacy as an unstable play of affects informed by desire, longing, and affection – all of which coexisted with the better-known violence and coercion undergirding empire” (8, emphasis mine). I am someone who puts a lot of emphasis on affect; for instance, I like seeing how literature both works on us, but also like how we work on literature and Kwon’s study perfectly fits into what I find compelling in literature. This is where I think we can find the deeper workings of empire, in cultural production and aesthetic objects, and the ways these things (books, in this instance) produce forms of knowledge that help perpetuate colonization.
The book considers the relationship between Japan and Korea in terms of a shared network of literature. You have Korean authors who grew up under colonialism using Japanese (as it was the forced official language of the colonized) and writing in Japanese, but who were still seen as speaking for the Korean experience by those in power. For instance, the I-novel (私小説) usually told in the first person, tended to highlight the individuality of the author as an authentic subject and creative genius. The focus in these texts is on individuality and subjectivity. However, when a Korean author wrote in the same style the novel was seen by one critic as “an I-novel containing the entire tragic fate of an entire people” (55). Thus, Korean authors of the time found themselves in the position of being reduced to a “collective essence” and thereby misrecognized by the imbalance of power inherent in empire.
I enjoyed reading this book because it provided further proof for my research that colonization impacts both the colonized and the colonizer – though again in an imbalanced manner. It is interesting to see how many of these examples of intellectual imperialism repeat themselves – the Japanese experienced (and continue to experience) the same misrecognition and essentialism under the West that they imposed on their near-neighbors in the East. I don’t think we can ever undo the tragedies of imperialism, which is why I think it is important to return to these moments and consider them carefully in order to see how we should proceed. I admit that it is not fun to read about the atrocities Japan has committed in Asia, but it does a disservice to all of us to ignore these moments or to forget them. Texts like these help remind me that my work is nowhere near complete and that we must return again and again to continue learning from the past.
If you are interested in postcolonial studies, I suggest picking up this book because it provides you with a historical example that is not often studied, unless the course focuses on Asia specifically. However, the relationship between Japan and Korea brings different elements of colonization that don’t always get touched on in other historical contexts. I think this is a moment in history that can continue to teach us a lot about how imperialism works in ways that go beyond (or beneath) physical violence. Violence must be confronted, of course, and recognized for what it is. However, if we focus only on the violence, we will miss the ways that empire continues to linger long after the colonizers have left.
There is so much more to Kwon’s book, but I wanted to provide a little snippet here to tease someone into reading it for themselves. As I have gushed many times throughout this post, I highly recommend this book if you are at all intrigued!