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Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy




Donna, Pennee


South Korean feminist activity may be relatively unknown to many Western readers; however, a distinct form of feminist activism can be seen when considering alternative modes of communication that are not less than, simply different from “speech” or “voice” as forms of agency celebrated in the West. Alternative modes of communications such as silence, song, touch, and performance also speak important messages which can be heard when understood through local knowledges. In the three cases of South Korean and Korean American women’s fictions used in this dissertation, I unpack these alternative modes of communications used by the female protagonists through a two-fold approach: I first locate and analyze these alternative communications, and second, I read the text alongside women’s historical and contemporary feminist movements in Korea. By reading against “universal” assumptions of feminism, I offer new and decolonizing ways of reading Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Nam-Joo Cho (2016, translated to English in 2018); Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller (1997); and The Vegetarian by Kang Han (2007, translated to English in 2015). I ultimately find that even silence can be turned into political action as seen in Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, and that alternative modes of communication can also be used to share colonial history as seen in Comfort Woman. In The Vegetarian, even direct speech can be turned into silence when listeners collectively ignore it. My dissertation contributes to the field an in-depth Korean-specific inquiry and expands on the cultural and historical significance of Korean women’s use of language in relation to feminism. Studying the local culture, history, and phases of women’s movements changes how we view these three celebrated novels.

Summary for Lay Audience

When we hear the word “silence,” we often think of the absence of sound, which is considered inaction and inexpressiveness, yet the protagonists of three contemporary South Korean and Korean American novels show us otherwise. In the first chapter of this dissertation, Jiyoung from Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 shows us how a novel with a silent character can lead to political change in the real world. In the second chapter, Soon Hyo from Comfort Woman opens our minds to ways of expressing trauma that do not involve spoken testimony. Lastly, in The Vegetarian, Yeong-hye turns her body into a form of communication to express and escape the violence of the world. The various forms of expressions I discuss in this dissertation are grouped together and called “alternative modes of communication”. This includes silence, song, dance, shamanism, performance, and more. Not everyone has the right to learn or access the official language of politics. In the case of Korea, like many other patriarchal societies, women were not officially allowed to learn how to read or write prior to the late 1800s. Even when someone is speaking, if a sufficient number of people choose to ignore that speech, it is no longer speech but “silence”. In the three novels analyzed in this dissertation, each of the central women characters is purposely ignored for her use of alternative modes of communication. However, when the audience learn how to listen, these alternative modes of communications become as significant as speech and can be understood as forms of feminist movements.