Jinah Kim

Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas

Duke University Press, 2019

200 Pages


Reviewed by Hartlyn T. Haynes 

Our present world is ​​“bloated with the pressure that the dead”—those killed by US imperial violence—“put on the living.” According to Jinah Kim, author of Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas, grieving for these dead can be productive and even politically insurgent. Kim joins scholars exerting critical pressure on the notion of melancholia, first juxtaposed against mourning by Sigmund Freud in 1918. Freud considers mourning a form of grieving more psychically healthy than melancholia, which he posits is a pathological processing of loss in which the mourner is unable to move on from the past, resolve grief, or achieve closure. Contemporary scholars, however, imagine melancholia as productive rather than pathological; for them, melancholia is “a continuous engagement with loss and its remains. This engagement generates sites for memory and history, for the rewriting of the past as well as the reimagining of the future” (Loss, David Eng and David Kazanjian, 2002). 

Kim engages melancholia, as well as its capacity for rewriting the past and reimagining the future, as she examines the “afterlives” of US imperialism in the Pacific Arena—imperialism that spans the continents of Asia, Australia, and the Americas and islands in the Pacific across the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Her principal contention is that the losses that haunt transpacific memory of US imperialism generate melancholia that contains the potential for insurgency and transformative political affiliations. Though nationalist narratives work diligently to silence imperial pasts (and presents) and forget the dead who have been scrubbed from official archives, those dead are precisely the “condition of possibility for American prosperity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” and persistently haunt its margins. Kim culls various Japanese and Korean diasporic cultural productions to construct a critical alternative archive that is bloated with the postcolonial dead and the productive grief that refuses to forget them. 

Postcolonial Grief is predominantly interested in the period following World War II, which saw the end of formal colonialism but the implementation of a massive, diffuse US empire that deferred true decolonization. The Cold War project was driven by a collusion of state and financial interests, seeking to claim power over fallen regimes, corner newly-unclaimed markets, and contain the ‘insidiousness’ of Communism. The US imperial project was—and continues to be—anchored by racial capitalism, which relies on the stratification between those whose lives are considered valuable under capitalism and those whose lives are not. Insurgent melancholia has the capacity to obstruct such a project, slowing the frantic pace of globalization and remembering violent pasts that created the conditions for state and capitalist expansion. Kim seeks first and foremost to recuperate and remember “the forgotten, the unseen, and the unhealed” of these pasts. In 200 tightly-woven pages, she constructs an alternative archive of melancholic works that unsettle the imperial record. Kim’s archive cultivates a more just representation of these pasts to create space for imagining more just futures. 

In Chapter One, Kim links histories of loss experienced by Japanese and Black Americans in midcentury California by pairing a chapter of Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961) with Hisaye Yamamoto’s short story, “A Fire in Fontana” (1985). Fanon argues that imperial power contains the insurgent potential of melancholia in order to maintain the state’s monopoly on violence, and part of this process includes controlling the official narrative through colonial archives. To subvert the archive by bearing witness to imperial violence “is a dangerous refusal against the state injunction to look away.” Kim argues that short stories like Yamamoto’s perform this witnessing, one that complicates the attempted erasure of Japanese internment and Black dispossession from official US histories. In Chapter Two, Kim frames Los Angeles as a “repository for shared traumas across the Pacific Arena” by juxtaposing the documentary Sa-I-Gu (1993) with Héctor Tobar’s novel The Tattooed Soldier (1998). Kim argues that the LA Riots—made possible by complex histories of Japanese colonialism in Korea, postwar diasporas, US anti-Black racism, and the state’s disinvestment from certain neighborhoods—reveals how the state (de)values people differently, but simultaneously opens ground for new political affiliations. Kim demonstrates the potential fallout of unchecked postcolonial grief, which manifested as marginalized communities committing violence upon one another during the LA Riots as they were pulled into the promises of white supremacy—promises which could never be realized. She argues instead for a racial politics of solidarity, in which communities marked by the melancholia of state violences align to marshal greater political power.​​ 

While the entirety of the book exemplifies multiscalar scholarship, chapters three and four move effortlessly between national and transnational scales to unpack what Kim calls the “Pacific Rim imaginary.” Such an imaginary posits the US and Japan as psychic and economic centers of a transpacific partnership by erasing the violent imperial pasts that secured this power. In Chapter Three, Kim develops the notion of transpacific noir by looking for hibakushas, or people affected by the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at the margins of American noir. Kim examines Sam Fuller’s film The Crimson Kimono (1959) and Naomi Hirahat’s novel Summer of the Big Bachi (2004) to argue that what is silenced in nationalist histories nonetheless manifests in popular culture, even if in the shadows. In The Crimson Kimono, Japanese American detective Joe Kojaku and his white best friend and partner, Charlie Fuller, attack a Korean murder suspect named Shuto, who the film renders enigmatic and unintelligible. Kim reads Joe and Charlie’s relationship as representative of the precarity of the Cold War political alignment between the US and Japan, predicated on the continual creation of a Korean Other represented by Shuto. A shining example of interdisciplinary scholarship, Chapter Three is an especially useful model to cultural studies scholars who seek to contextualize cultural productions within their geopolitical and postcolonial contexts. 

Chapter Four continues this project, mapping out a pathbreaking trans-hemispheric method that adroitly links US imperial histories in East Asia and Latin America. Kim analyzes representations of Peru during Japanese Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori’s draconian rule (1990-2000). She focuses on a months-long hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy enacted by rebel group Movimiento Revolucinario Túpac Amaru (MRTA), which concluded with all fourteen hostage takers killed at the hands of Peruvian Armed Forces commandos, even after they had surrendered. Though the state’s actions were initially lauded, praise soon morphed into harsh criticism of state terrorism against its own citizens. Kim pairs US representations of state violence in Peru—which tend to otherize the nation and erase the long history of American complicity in the implementation of its austere neoliberalism—against Teresa Ralli and José Watanabe’s play Antígona (1999), a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone. In Antígona, Polynices’ body, which remains onstage for the entirety of the performance, stands in for all those dead and disappeared by the Peruvian state and forces a witnessing of their loss. Antígona’s vociferous mourning refuses to allow the state’s monopoly on violence to disappear from view.

Students and scholars across the humanities will find value in this sweeping interdisciplinary work, which expertly puts cultural analysis, political economy, and complex transnational histories in conversation. Kim’s conceptual frameworks will be salient to future studies of US imperialism in the Pacific Arena, particularly those examining the intersections between political-economic formations and the cultural narratives that bolster them. Broad public audiences will find inspiration in Kim’s transformative politic of racial solidarity rooted in melancholia, which holds the capacity to unite marginalized and diasporic communities through shared legacies of imperial violence and create space to dream more just futures.