English, Department of


Date of this Version

Spring 5-2016


Hemmeke, Katelyn. "Birth Family Search, Trauma, and Mel-han-cholia in Korean Adoptee Memoirs." MA thesis. University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 2016. Print.


A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Master of Arts, Major: English, Under the Supervision of Professor Amelia María de la Luz Montes. Lincoln, Nebraska: May, 2016

Copyright (c) 2016 Katelyn J. Hemmeke


“Birth Family Search, Trauma, and Mel-han-cholia in Korean Adoptee Memoirs” analyzes the connections between adoption trauma and birth family search by examining three Korean-American adoptee memoirs: The Language of Blood and Fugitive Visions: An Adoptee’s Return to Korea, both by Jane Jeong Trenka; and Ghost of Sangju by Soojung Jo. I draw links between their work and studies on trauma by critical scholars Cathy Caruth, Dori Laub, Margaret Homans, and Jennifer Cho. According to Caruth, the pathology of a traumatic experience lies in the victim’s inability to fully experience the traumatic event as it happens; only belatedly does the traumatic event haunt the victim. Laub calls this a “collapse of witnessing.” In the case of transnationally and transracially adopted Koreans, who are almost always adopted at very young ages, trauma stems from the separation of the adoptee from her birth mother—an event that most adoptees cannot “fully experience” as it happens and thus they cannot recall it later. I claim that by searching for their birth families, transnationally and transracially adopted Koreans like Trenka and Jo search for a figure who can provide witness to the trauma of their adoption. Returning to Korea, searching for birth family, and recording their personal narratives also work to create what Homans calls “authentic origins.” Finally, adoptee memoirs can be viewed as works of political practice via Cho’s concept of mel-han-cholia, which synthesizes the Freudian idea of melancholy with the Korean notion of communal grief known as han. Acknowledging the trauma of adoption and testifying to it via memoir, adoptees like Trenka and Jo work to disrupt the dominant discourse on adoption that typically erases the adoptee’s pre-adoption history and insists upon total assimilation into the adoptive family and nation.

Advisor: Amelia María de la Luz Montes