Jinah Kim wants us to think about the transpacific politics of mourning. She opens her new book, Postcolonial Grief: The Afterlives of the Pacific Wars in the Americas, with this provocation: “Politicizing the structure of grief simultaneously requires the recognition that the force of grief does not itself imagine or desire freedom. And yet it is impossible to think about grief and mourning without imagining freedom from loss and thus the impasses and the incommensurability facing the insurgent drive for freedom.” (p. 9)

Postcolonial Grief explores the linkages between grief, loss, and struggles toward freedom across the “Pacific Arena,” a term Kim develops in the book. Kim, an interdisciplinary scholar grounded in Cultural Studies, Communication Studies, and Critical Race Studies, engages the space and spaces of the “Pacific Arena” through textual, literary, and visual analysis of a stunning array of texts, each of which she reads both along and against the grain. The book’s expansive scope—its interdisciplinarity, methodology, and wide-reaching geography—is an invigorating reminder to critical geographers to utilize more of the tools in our toolboxes when exhuming relationships between space, place, emotion, and politics.

Kim’s book unfolds in six chapters, including the introduction “Mourning Empire,” and the epilogue, “Watery Graves,” the latter of which hauntingly concludes the book by “coming full circle, but not enacting closure” (p. 110). In Chapter 1, Kim takes us to Frantz Fanon’s (1963) “Colonial Wars and Mental Disorders” from The Wretched of the Earth, and, through it, reads Hisaye Yamamato’s short story/memoir, “A Fire in Fontana,” about Japanese-American internment and Black dispossession. In Chapter 2, Kim revisits the LA Riots of 1992 through an exploration of two canonical texts, the documentary Sa-I-Gu (1993) and the novel The Tattooed Soldier (2000). In Chapter 3, Kim highlights the longstanding influences of Asian and Pacific themes in film noire, examining how the US atomic bombings in the Asia-Pacific produced “[i]conic images of the mushroom cloud [that] gave birth to an apocalyptic, anxious global structure of feeling, ideal for the genre of noir.” (p. 67) Chapter 4 presents a rereading of the classic Greek tale of Antigone, the woman who publicly mourns her brother Polynices in open defiance of the king who killed him. Kim presents us with more contemporary Antigone parables through Teresa Ralli and José Watanabe’s Antígona (1999), along with the figure of Lori Berenson, the US American political prisoner imprisoned in Peru in the late 1990s and early 2000s for her involvement in the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru (MRTA). This multitude of characters, some historical, some fictional, some allegorical, populate the book’s cartography of postcolonial grief.

Postcolonial Grief remaps the space of the transpacific, expanding a concept which has too often been used as shorthand for the Pacific Islands and the ‘Pacific Rim’ in North America and East Asia. As Wesley Attewell writes in his review of Man in this forum, transpacific geographies have been richly theorized—though largely by non-geographers—to encompass the “cross-hemispheric circulations of bodies, commodities, capital, and discourses that have historically been constitutive of the Pacific world,” touching the spaces within, as well as on the geographic and diasporic margins of, the Pacific Ocean. Kim’s book also spatializes wartime and postwar grief, naming postcolonial grief as a political condition grounded in place. Postcolonial grief “describes a structure of feeling across the Pacific Arena,” one “connect[ed to] the nature of the unhealed, to the zone rendered unhealable.” (p. 66). Kim’s thesis challenges prevailing understandings of grief within Western psychiatric medicine (and even within human geography; see Mitchell-Eaton, 2019): namely, that grief, a commonplace and universal phenomenon experienced by individuals, is not political. Kim reframes grief as collective, inescapably political, and most compellingly, as spatial.

A recent debate within the American Psychiatric Association sheds light on the significance of Kim’s definition of grief. The debate centers around a diagnostic clause called the “bereavement exclusion” (also termed the “grief exception”) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the leading reference handbook for psychiatric clinicians and researchers, as well as pharmaceutical companies and legal systems, in the US. The clause stipulated that individuals in the immediate period of grief should not be diagnosed with depression or adjustment disorders, on the basis that depressive tendencies are a common and normal part of the mourning process, when experienced in the short term. The removal of the clause from the DSM in 2014 has sparked a heated controversy within the field of psychiatry.

What is so fascinating about the bereavement exception, and so revealing of the stakes in the debate surrounding it, is its acknowledgement that depression and adjustment disorders—Fanon might term these conditions “melancholia”—can be caused by external events (like a loved one’s death) and, thus, plausibly even by political events (a loved one’s death at the hands of a firing squad, for example). The possibility that grief could be caused by political and structural factors disrupts the long-standing clinical position that depression is an individual pathology to be diagnosed and treated. Debates over the inclusion of the bereavement exception center on the question of whether certain displays of grief can be categorized as normal, or, conversely, pathological. “Normal bereavement,” according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, is characterized by “preoccupation with thoughts and memories of the deceased” but where the patient “tends to be hopeful,” whereas a patient exhibiting a “major depressive episode” might demonstrate “self-critical or pessimistic thoughts [or] tend to be hopeless.”

Here it is instructive to revisit Fanon’s work on anticolonial psychoanalysis, in which he argues that the pathologization of pessimism and hopelessness is a fundamentally colonial tactic. Colonial systems have always weaponized metrics of normality against oppressed peoples, pathologizing the “condition” of their suffering while naturalizing the oppressive political structures that produce it (Erevelles, 2011; Puar, 2017). In Rich Nisa’s review of Monica Kim’s book, for example, we see how the racialized Asian prisoner is perceived by his U.S. military captor to “[lack] the capacity to self-govern or to truthfully or accurately respond to interrogator prompts.” This logical sequence, which links ‘mental debility’ or ‘feeble-mindedness’ (Clare, 2014) to the ‘incapacity to self-govern,’ was enshrined in U.S. legal precedent in 1901 by the Insular Cases and has explicitly driven U.S. imperial statemaking projects in the Caribbean and the Pacific ever since.

Disability studies scholars have long challenged Western medical diagnostic models, from eugenics to contemporary psychiatry, for upholding racist, colonial hierarchies of the human and the normal (Clare, 2014; Lamp and Cleigh, 2011). Postcolonial Grief disregards these literatures to its own detriment. Many of the book’s most compelling interventions—its critical reframing of “insanity” and pathology through a postcolonial lens, its geopolitical framing of physio-psycho-social malady and “cure,” (see Nisa on psychological warfare used against POWs) and its literary analysis of the entanglement of embodied nationalisms, race, intimacy, and violence (see Attewell on wartime intimacy and gendered base camp labor)—would be strengthened by conversation with feminist disability studies scholars who have collectively dedicated decades and volumes to these themes (Kim, 2017; Kafer, 2013; Minich, 2013). (This same critique can and should be levied against critical human geographers, who overwhelmingly disregard disability studies despite its clear relevance to productions of space, mobility, and embodiment). Had Kim drawn explicitly on disability theory, she might have shown even more convincingly how the very terms of life, death, and grief are shaped by ableist, as well as colonialist, notions of who is (in)human, who is (ab)normal, and which people and peoples are deserving of a future. Despite this gap, the book does well in inviting geographers theorizing grief and trauma to engage in a more sustained way with the scale of the body (or “body-mind”; see Price, 2013) and its relation to the postcolonial condition (Coddington, 2017; Loyd et al., 2018).

It is also worth interrogating, as Fanon did, the institutions of Western colonial knowledge production, such as psychiatry, that have been normalized as “common sense.” Under colonial structures, as Kim’s book demonstrates, the protracted grief of the colonized will be seen as nonsensical as well as pathological. “Common sense,” Kim writes, drawing on Fanon and Gramsci as well as Dylan Rodríguez, is “‘an epistemological obstruction that seeks to be the condition of impossibility for the decolonizing subject” (p. 103). Hence the bind of postcolonial grief: If “common sense” seeks to produce impossibility for the decolonizing subject—and, in effect, for the project of decolonization—then all acts of decolonization will necessarily be seen by the colonizer as senselessness, madness, pathology, chaos. But Kim also flips this logic: for the colonized, performing illegibility or “madness” is a means of asserting sovereignty, not least of all over one’s own narrative. This practice is not without risk, however, as “[s]peaking against this imperial common sense means having to develop new language and metaphors. It is to risk being called crazy and incomprehensible.” (p. 86)

Within the postcolonial context, the failure to imagine the future is understood by the colonizer as pathological and disordered. In short, this failure is inherent to the postcolonial condition. Kim’s chapters are replete with characters pathologized for their grief, those who cannot or will not leave the past behind. For them, both futurity and the past are fraught: possibility and foreclosure, modernity and progress, and time itself are experienced as weapons of neoliberalism and colonialism, ideologies marshalled against colonized people. These characters reveal the nonlinearity of healing, particularly when the political conditions that produced the wound remain in place.

Under ongoing conditions of trauma, the future itself becomes haunted, through a phenomenon that Grace Cho describes as “dread forwarding” in her writing on the “forgotten” yet unending Korean War (Cho, cited in Kim, 10). In another chapter, Kim describes a similar condition experienced by Peruvians under the authoritarian Fuijmori regime in the 1990s, who felt trapped in the coyuntura (or ‘particular moment’) and unable to envision a political future for Peru. Reflecting on this period, Peruvian professor Carlos Iván Degregori remarked, “The future was closing, it continued closing, and seemed increasingly problematic” (p. 96). Kim painstakingly shows how these figures, whether trapped in the present or stuck in the past, are read as failing to progress.

But a failure to leave the past behind can also be read as a refusal. “What offends common sense about the refusal to heal,” Kim writes, “is the belief that it is selfish, that it is a melancholic attachment to a wound, a process that is seen as unproductive, morbid, and moribund. However, the wound tells how conditions for healing have not been met” (p. 68, emphasis added). Refusal, as indigenous scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2014) argue, involves “an analytic practice that addresses forms of inquiry as invasion.” (p. 811). Viewed through this lens, refusal to heal becomes a decolonizing move.

Postcolonial Grief showcases refusals of all sorts: we encounter Antigone’s refusal to stop mourning her brother; Korean-Americans living in LA who refuse narratives framing them as dupes of the American Dream; and Japanese-Americans refusing reparations for internment, advancing critiques of the reparations process that “showcase how new systems of meaning can be crafted by recouping such losses” (p. 39). In characters like Shuto, a zainichi (Japanese of Korean-origin, from the colonial era) immigrant living in Little Tokyo, who vexes his Japanese-American counterparts with his “lack of civilization,” we observe the refusal of occupied people and their memories to disappear, even when displaced into diaspora. Kim also shows us historical figures refusing official apologies and the limits they set. As Kim writes, “commemorative and redressive acts are always marked by limits, limits which the subaltern may exploit” (p. 111). She writes about local responses to President Obama’s 2016 “apology tour” to Japan, in which he “acknowledged sadness for the loss of lives” from US atomic bombing without offering an explicit apology, and las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, who, for forty years, publicly refused government apologies for the state’s disappearance of their children, demanding instead the dissolution of the state itself. As these refusals show, when naming and commemoration become a kind of foreclosure that circumscribes public meanings, refusal is a decolonial act that can force those meanings open. For a refusal is also an assertion: We are not gone. We have not forgotten. We will not heal.

Although Kim is not formally a geographer, her book poses a number of provocations to the field, particularly to scholars working in the emergent area of Transpacific Studies. First and foremost, Postcolonial Grief is, as Kim promises, “a critical imaginative geography of the Pacific Arena” (p. 113), one which reimagines the spaces, sites, and mobilities that constitute the transpacific. Kim’s Pacific Arena is transnational, diasporic, multi-sited, and inter- and intra-imperial. The novelty of her approach lies in how she argues for—and clearly demonstrates the value of—approaching the Americas as a transpacific as well as a transatlantic project of colonial inception, and particularly in her centering of Latin American-Asian connections. Somewhat oddly, there is little discussion of how these connections link islands in the Pacific—while Kim’s region of analysis is ostensibly the “Pacific Arena,” she largely disregards the spaces in between, leaving them to manifest as blank space crisscrossed by diasporic movements across, but not so much within, the Pacific. The “ocean as empty space” construct has been critiqued by several Pacific Islander scholars, perhaps most notably by Epeli Hau’Ofa (1993) in his influential essay, “Sea of Islands.” In this essay, Hau’ofa rebukes scholars who, wittingly or unwittingly, represent the Pacific Islands as tiny, remote, and powerless:

“There is a gulf of difference between viewing the Pacific as ‘islands in a far sea’ and as ‘a sea of islands.’ The first emphasises dry surfaces in a vast ocean far from the centres of power. When you focus this way you stress the smallness and remoteness of the islands. The second is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships” (p. 7).

As both Rich Nisa and Wesley Attewell make evident in their reviews, the Pacific Islands are anything but ‘remote’, even from a traditional geopolitical lens: (US) geopolitical power has repeatedly been wielded and honed in the Pacific during the last century, and so, too, has resistance to that power been manifested there. While Postcolonial Grief does not actively perpetuate a “remote” framing of the Pacific (I would argue that these sites are not Kim’s main focus), the book’s omission of Pacific Islands and Islanders in its conceptualization of the ‘Pacific Arena’ risks erasure of ‘the totality of the relationships’ that constitute the transpacific.

Kim does, however, issue an insightful critique of area studies, a topic that has long vexed the discipline of geography. Area studies, historically rooted in Orientalist and colonialist pursuits of regional “expertise,” positions various regions and peoples in in the Global South in relation to the West but rarely understand them on their own terms or in relation to one another (Said, 1978; Shohat, 2002). In other words, “for comparisons to be read as intelligible…Europe must serve as the universal point of reference” (Kim, cited in Kim, 2019: 90). As a result of the colonial regional divisions fostered in part by area studies, Kim argues, postcolonial or Third Word solidarities are often seen as impossible alliances. But Postcolonial Grief offers a promising glimpse into what it might look like to pursue comparative or relational area studies through an anticolonial orientation. Although transpacific Asian-Latin American solidarities are not a foregone conclusion—this is clear in Kim’s reading of the uneasy connections between Black Americans and Japanese-Americans in the US South during WWII, or of Salvadorans and Korean-Americans in 1990s LA—a geographically expanded study of the transpacific might reveal more of these connections in both the past and the present.

Though it may seem unfair to critique a non-geographer for not drawing more extensively on geographical scholarship, since Kim articulates many of her book’s aims in explicitly geographical terms, the shortcomings in her use of geographical theory are worth mentioning briefly. In several instances, Kim employs geographic concepts like spatial mechanisms, mobility, and jumping scale without fully developing them (for example, in her discussion of the novel The Tattooed Solder), and advances provocative theories of “racial cognitive mapping” and “melancholic space” but does not engage with the robust related scholarship in geography (for example, Gilmore, 2002; McKittrick, 2006; Tolia-Kelly, 2006). Furthermore, Kim’s analysis of space and place is largely metaphorical, focusing on psychic or affective space—for example, in her discussion of Achille Mbembe’s “third zone,” the psychic space colonized subjects occupy between subjecthood and objecthood—but neglects to connect these theorizations explicitly with material, lived spaces. Nevertheless, these gaps are opportunities for further conversations with (and within) critical human geography, rather than outright failings.

In Kim’s geographic remapping of the Pacific Arena, the margins become center. Drawn into her map are sites often ignored in conceptualizations of the Pacific Wars, such as the Japanese-American internment camps at Tule Lake (for prisoners who refused to comply with US mandates and were separated as ‘traitors’) and at Poston (where members of the Colorado River Indian Reservation refused, through Tribal Council protest, the establishment of the camp on their land). Kim looks to the margins, or “traces the perimeter,” per Tuck and Yang (2014: 811), to examine what materializes in the in-between spaces.

One striking example of her approach appears in the book’s epilogue, where Kim returns to the U.S. atomic violence in Japan. Here, she focuses her attention not on Hiroshima but instead on the Straights of Dead Souls, the international waters between Japan and southern Korea. Here, she writes, are the “watery graves” of Korean atomic bomb survivors who fled Hiroshima only to drown in the straights, washing up on the shores of Iki Island between Japan and Pusan, a port city in southern Korea. It would be impossible to read Kim’s epilogue this year without conjuring the image of another watery grave half a world away, that of Óscar Alberto Martínez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria, who drowned together in an attempt to swim the Rio Grande from Mexico to the US.

Kim, I am certain, would encourage her readers to draw such transpacific connections, to link the grief accumulating in these turbulent waterways made deadly by postcolonial state violence.

Other book reviews from this forum include:
The Interrogation Rooms Of The Korean War Review by Richard Nisa
Soldiering Through Empire Review by Wesley Attewell


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