On August 2000 I flew to the Republic of Korea to visit my grandparents, and my arrival coincided with the fifty-year anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War. A major part of the commemoration was the highly televised reunification of 100 families between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea.) It was the first time that I, a third generation Korean American, witnessed the real ramifications of that devastating time period. My parents, born one year after the 1953 armistice, never spoke of it. Neither did my grandparents.
My family’s silence about this topic during my youth mirrors the silences in children’s literature. Only within the past decade or two has there been an outpouring of voices telling stories about cruelty, family separation, violence, death, murder, hate, trauma, etc. for young audiences. Some say that children should not be exposed to such atrocity. Others argue that only by sharing trauma will there be healing and social transformation. It’s an ongoing argument. In the meantime, publishers continue to publish books about atrocity – the Holocaust, Hiroshima, colonialism, and so on. Some are about Japanese Colonialism (1910-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953).
Over the past several years I’ve been analyzing the way children’s books portray colonialism and war, but this time was different. Over the past month, I went deeper and wider; I considered how Hiroshima and Japanese internment are depicted in children’s books and have been reading more about the Holocaust in youth literature. And I’m struggling. I struggle reading stories about the brutal oppression of one nation to another; about a family torn apart by war; about ideologies that perpetuate prejudiced and dangerous ways of thinking; about a bomb dropped on an entire city; about the mass murder of millions of people; about the murder of a single person. And I struggle to think, analyze and write about it all. So many times I had to put a book down and walk away.
I really want to get past this intellectual and emotional paralysis, but I can’t force it. The literature simply won’t let me.