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History as Literature, Literature as History: An Interview with Lost Names Author, Richard E. Kim

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By Richard E. Kim (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1998). 196 pages

Lost Names is a useful, rare, and wonderful book for several reasons. The book’s title reflects the Japanese Pacific War policy of forcing Koreans to replace their own names with Japanese ones. Lost Names is the story, as recounted by a young boy, of one Korean family’s experience during the war years. Although Lost Names is technically a novel, according to author Richard Kim, “ . . . all the characters and events described in the book are real, but everything else is fiction.” Never in my time in Asian Studies has one work been so applicable to such a wide range of students as is the case with Lost Names.

In the pages that follow, we feature an interview by EAA editorial board member Kathy Masalski with Richard E. Kim and essays by a junior high, senior high school, and university instructor on how they have used Lost Names as a highly effective teaching tool. We sincerely hope this special feature encourages teachers at all levels to read Lost Names and consider using it with students.

Lucien Ellington

Kathleen Woods Masalski — I first met Richard Kim in 1994 when I asked him to speak at a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute on the War in the Pacific. The audience responded so well that I invited him to speak at several other summer institutes sponsored by the Five College Center for East Asian Studies. After reading Peter Wright’s, Susan Mastro’s, and Dick Minear’s essays about their teaching of Lost Names, I asked Lucien if he would be interested in an interview with Kim. Lucien had read the book and read the essays (Kim did not ask to see them before publication), and urged me to proceed. Kim agreed to get together with me on May 18 in Amherst, Massachusetts.

I presented him with a list of questions that I had prepared. The interview lasted three hours; I took copious notes and wrote them up immediately afterward. Although I suggested that he edit the final interview, Kim declined. What follows are selected passages from our discussion that afternoon.

I should note that I approach Lost Names as history, and my questions reflect my background as a history teacher. An English teacher would have asked different questions. Lost Names is first and foremost creative writing. Social studies teachers may well wish to introduce the book to their colleagues in the English or Language Arts departments.

MASALSKI: One question the audience always has about Lost Names is whether it is fiction or nonfiction. Do you really intend to tell readers that nothing in Lost Names is “factual” or “historical”? How much of what is in it actually happened? How much actually happened to you?

KIM: Everything in the book actually happened. It happened to me. So why am I always insisting it’s not autobiographical? I think because of the way I used the things that actually happened. You have to arrange them, mix them up. Above all, it’s interpretation of facts, of actual events—some thirty or forty years later. For example, when “the boy” gets beaten, what went through his mind? We don’t know. . . . even I don’t know. I like to separate the actual events from the emotional, the psychological. One shouldn’t confuse the actual events with the inner events. That’s where a lot of beginning writers make a big mistake. A lot think everything is exactly as it happened; but we put our own interpretation on events. I didn’t invent any actual events. . . . but everything else is fiction. That is very important to me.

RICHARD E. KIM was born in Korea and has lived in the U.S. much of his adult life. He was educated at Middlebury College, Johns Hopkins University, the State University of Iowa, and Harvard. Richard Kim has taught at several universities in the U.S. and, as a Fulbright Scholar, at Seoul National University in Korea. In addition to Lost Names, he is the author of several books including The Innocent (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968) and The Martyred (New York: George Brassiller, 1964). He has also scripted and narrated several documentaries for KBS-TV in Seoul