Discussed here: Cha, Sam. “Koreans With Guns,” in American Carnage. New York: Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2018.It should be easy to forget the ugly smallness of the outside world while on sabbatical, especially when living in a town seemingly built for the contemplation of the universe. After all, that’s what people do around here. The first time I met him, for example, my neighbor casually told me that he’d recently discovered a black hole. But the text I write in my head each day as I walk forest paths is not about stars or planets. Instead, I think about guns and death and how it is that our university campuses have become killing fields. Sliding the soles of my boots over roots that emerge along the trail, I think about the 1966 Tower Shooting at the University of Texas, the 2015 Umpqua Community College murders, and the 2010 faculty meeting at the University of Alabama that ended in a bloodbath. With each step through the crunch of fallen leaves, I cycle from one campus shooting to the next, trying to understand. Today, I’ve paused on Virginia Tech, whose sumptuous scholarly setting and illusion of safety shattered in 2007 when a student there used a series of firearms to kill 32 people on campus and to injure another 17. The magnitude of the event earned the VT shooting the moniker “The 9/11 of Education.” The name and urgency stuck until Sandy Hook happened. After that, when nothing changed, it seems like everyone fell silent for a while. I pause at the foot of a huge white oak in full autumn glory and wonder how deep its notoriously powerful roots run.
Each college campus shooting leaves a record. There are archival collections, monuments to the dead, government-led inquiries, internal university investigations, and lawsuits. And there are also the scars, colostomy bags, chronic pain, brain damage, vision loss, wheelchairs, service dogs, nightmares, sleeplessness, and anxiety.
At a panel discussion I took part in not long ago an audience member posed a simple but enormous question.
“What causes such violence?”
“It’s white male rage,” my co-panelist answered with impressive certainty.
Only a beat passed before someone in the audience chimed in.
“But wasn’t one of the shooters Korean?”
I drew in a breath and reached for the mic that I was sharing with another speaker.
“That’s true,” I answered. “Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, was Korean-American.”
A murmur of recognition rippled through the room as we remembered.
Anyone who engages in deep research knows that the deeper you dig, the more complexity you find. In my experience, answers to hard questions rarely come as elegant, streamlined columns but develop instead as a complex weave.
Here’s what I mean. In my sample of nine campus shootings —events in which a shooter has targeted the institution of a university or college itself by gunning down classmates, colleagues, or professors—four of the attackers were white males, one was biracial (one white parent and one African American parent), two were of East Asian descent, and one of South Asian parentage. The biggest anomaly? One of the shooters was a woman (white).
These events fit together, yes, but not at a central node. Not from, for example, “white male rage.” You have to pass from one event through a second to find a connection to a third, a fourth and so on. The fourth might connect back to the second but not to the sixth. Like a root system.
In terms of place, six of “my” shootings happened in the United States – a fact that should surprise no one. But three occurred in Canada, all of them in the same city, namely Montreal.
In the first year we lived in our tiny Montreal house, my husband and I chose a small tree for our garden. We didn’t know its name or, really, anything about it but we liked its red bark and its curiously fluffy foliage, so we bought it on a whim and planted it beside our front stairs. A few days went by before my husband thought to look the little tree up. What he found was alarming. Our new addition, he told me, was a devil tree. Beautiful but destructive. Though its body would stay small, its roots would go so deep and would grow so thirsty and strong that eventually they would break into our water pipes.
Somehow the story of our devil tree feels apt here.
Not perfect, but useful nonetheless.
I uprooted that tree and got rid of it.
Another truth of research: the more you read, the more you see how much you have to learn. Almost three months of sitting with books about gun culture made me aware of how narrow my horizons were on this subject so I sent a query out to my writing community. What should I read? I asked. Tell me what you know. Send me what you’ve written. Among the offerings I found memoirs about fathers with guns, essays about guns shows, and personal accounts of school shootings. I read them all. Finally, I came to Sam Cha’s chapbook, American Carnage, where I discovered his exquisite and tiny essay, “Koreans With Guns.”
“Koreans With Guns” recounts the death of Latasha Harlins. In 1991, only two weeks after Los Angeles police pulled Rodney King out of his car and beat him mercilessly, a female Korean-American shopkeeper killed an African American teenaged girl. The text does a number of unexpected things. First, it complicates a narrative of racism and identity in America that so often accounts for blackness and whiteness but for little else in between or outside of these categories. Second, it treats a distinctly American event not as isolated, random, and unforeseeable but as stemming from a long and complicated history that started elsewhere. “Many Koreans had guns before Virginia Tech,” writes Cha,
but only one Korean with a gun had a name that people knew. Her name was Du Soon-ja. Grew up in Korea, moved to LA. Owned a corner store: Empire Liquor Mart and Deli. She was on that hardscrabble up by the bootstraps good immigrant model minority American Dream kick. When a fifteen-year-old black girl named Latasha Harlins walked into her store in 1991, Soon-ja was on edge.Latasha Harlins lived not too far from Du’s shop and on the day in question she stopped in to buy a bottle of orange juice. Clutching two dollars in one hand, Harlins tucked the orange juice in her backpack with the other and made her way to the cash. Having observed Harlins stash the bottle, Du accused the girl of stealing. By all accounts that I’ve come across, Harlins tried to explain that she had been making her way to the register to pay when Du grabbed the girl by the shirt. Harlins lashed out and punched the shopkeeper in the face. Depositing the orange juice on the counter, Harlins turned to leave the store. That’s when an enraged Du shot her in the back of the head.
This killing is at the center of “Koreans With Guns.” By writing about one Korean with a gun (Du Soon-ja), and, I suppose, by coming at it slant, Cha has succeeded in producing a deeply resonant meditation on another Korean with a gun (the Virginia Tech shooter). He contemplates what made Seung-Hui Cho into a killer on that 2007 day and what it means to look at the sins of one’s own culture, community, and people with clear open eyes.
Increasingly, I think about essays structurally, in terms of shapes. When reading and writing, I use images of spirals, nested boxes, mountains, and valleys to try and see not only what a text does but also to see if I can make it behave as I would like. The shape of “Koreans With Guns,” that is a tiny body sitting atop or perhaps sprouting from a deep section of footnotes, intrigued me. When I told him so in our short email exchange, Cha admitted to feeling unsure about the heft of his annotations: “I worry that it undermines the part that isn’t in the footnotes,” he wrote.
To undermine, of course, means to dig out. If you undermine a foundation, you weaken it. By creating a cavern beneath the surface, a writer risks his text’s collapse. Was this the case with Cha’s essay? I wondered.
Although the body of “Koreans With Guns” comprises only a single paragraph of 619 words, Cha’s text spreads over multiple pages so as to make room for sixty-one footnotes totaling 2695 words. This means that the footnotes are almost 8.5 times the length of the text proper. The real work of the essay, the real essay of the essay, in this case, happens in its footnotes.
Detail by detail, “Koreans With Guns” takes apart the killing of Latasha Harlins by examining closely the identity of her killer and the Korean-American community she came from. Cha unpacks the origins of the killer’s name (“‘Soon Ja’ is a Japanese name: Junko. It is the mark of conquest, a brand, a collar”). He paints a picture of a certain kind of Soon Ja so familiar to him that he sees her as a type (“wide-faced, red-cheeked, stooped, wearing Korean variants on the universal baggy grandmother uniform”). Cha reminds us how in the past a great many of these Soon Jas suffered as so-called comfort women who were repeatedly raped by the occupying Japanese soldiers of World War II, “while outside the sirens howled, the American mortars rumblecrashed like thunder.” The essayist reminds us that neither violence nor guns are anomalous to Soon Jas. Even when starving during the Korean War, while surviving on the flesh of dragonflies and pine needles, these women learned to differentiate an “American Mk.2 frag grenade from a Russian RG-42 in total darkness, from a mile away, by smell.” Cha reminds us that the real story often lies buried, hidden from the surface. You have to excavate to find it. You have to dig for nuance.
As I read the footnote section of Cha’s essay one more time, it occured to me that the Virginia Tech shooter’s grandmother may too have been a Soon Ja. She too may have been a comfort woman during World War II. She too may have survived by eating insects during the Korean War.
And when I consider that psychologists believe that trauma can be passed down from generation to generation through DNA, then suddenly it seems less strange that Seung-Hui Cho never spoke as a toddler. Or that in middle school he was diagnosed with selective mutism. I see that this broken boy was the product of not one but two brutal and brutalized cultures. Slowly, slowly, it begins to seem less surprising that a voiceless grandchild of war and rape and starvation and rejection would turn to action.
Through his long series of footnotes, Cha is making no argument to absolve Du Soon-ja for killing Latasha Harlins. He offers up and recites Korea’s brutal colonial past not as an alibi but as the frighteningly strong and thirsty root that lies beneath the small tree that is this female shopkeeper with a gun. What Cha is saying by laying all of this out in footnotes is here is what you don’t see. This is what lies beneath the surface.
Du Soon-ja killed Latasha Harlins in 1991. A year later, during the 1992 LA riots, Cha tells us in his footnotes, “my people went up on the roofs with their guns and their US military-backed Korean military training, and hunkered down, ready to shoot black people.” A few lines later, he adds:
They were in a bad situation that wasn’t wholly of their own making, but Koreans who lived through the Japanese occupation and the Korean War and the military dictatorships should have fucking known better, should have carried themselves better in the decades leading up to LA. I’m ashamed of them. […] Fuck them. Fuck all of them. Us. Whatever.
In the end, what does an essay about a shopkeeper shooting a young girl in 1991 have to do with a mass college shooting in 2007? What connects these two events beyond the fact that both shooters were Korean?
With digging deep comes the risk of undermining. But change the metaphor and you change the way you read the essay. What if we think of Cha’s footnotes as organic? As something that nourishes the body of the text rather than as a destabilizing void? What if, instead of removing bedrock, the essayist cultivates roots? What if these roots reach out and eventually connect to other texts?
I seem to have arrived at a place where an essay is a devil tree. I admit that the metaphor troubles me.
Perhaps it’s just a way of saying that writing matters. That writing doesn’t just feel urgent but that it is urgent, now more than ever. Perhaps it’s even dangerous. But what’s the alternative?
This essay began as a response to an exchange at a panel discussion:
The call: It’s white male rage.
The response: But wasn’t one of the shooters Korean?
It’s true that in its second year under Trump, this country seen and felt and become justifiably fearful of white male rage. I see it too. I recognize it. And yet, I remain skeptical of totalizing impulses. Others I know do too.
“I forbid you to use the stupid word ‘symbol,’” Milan Kundera wrote in his novel Immortality.
“That’s how terrorist organizations think.”
I don’t know where the answer lies.
I don’t know how to live in a culture where a dispute over orange juice ends in death.
I don’t know how to teach on a campus where my students might one day be armed.
I don’t know how to counsel former students who already teach on armed campuses.
Dread grows like a devil tree I don’t have the power to uproot.
Most days, as I walk the dog and contemplate the branches overhead, I manage to hold my world together and to believe in an illusion of safety. Occasionally, though, I trip over a root on the path. My illusion cracks and a cold realization seeps in: it’s only a matter of time.
 University of Texas, Austin. 1966. The Tower Shooting. (Shooter: Charles Whitman, undergraduate student) This incident is considered the original campus shooting. It was a massively traumatizing event for the University of Texas and for the country at large. This shooting differs from those that follow, since those killed were random strangers and not specifically targeted students or faculty members. Nonetheless, this event cannot be excluded because of its historical significance.
École Polytechnique, Montreal. 1989. The Montreal Massacre. (Shooter: Marc Lépine, would-be student rejected by the École Polytechnique) Lépine murdered 14 female engineering students.
University of Iowa. 1991. (Shooter: Gang Lu, graduate student) Lu killed 6 faculty members and administrators. He injured 1 student, paralyzing her.
Concordia University, Montreal. 1992. (Shooter: Valery Fabrikant, faculty member) Fabrikant, a Concordia University professor, killed 4 of his colleagues and wounded one staff member.
Dawson College, Montreal. 2006. (Shooter: Kimveer Singh Gill, college student) Gill killed one female student and injured 19 other people.
Virginia Tech. 2007. (Shooter: Seung-Hui Cho, undergraduate student) Cho killed 32, both faculty and students. He injured 17.
Northern Illinois University. 2008. (Shooter: Steven Kazmierczak, graduate student at Champaign-Urbana and recent NIU undergraduate) Kazmierczak killed 5 students.
University of Alabama, Huntsville. 2010. (Shooter: Amy Bishop, faculty member) Bishop killed 3 colleagues and injured 3 at a faculty meeting.
Umpqua College. 2015. (Shooter: Chris Harper-Mercer, student) Harper-Mercer killed 1 faculty member, 8 students, and injured 8 students.
Julija Šukys is an associate professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri and a Senior Editor at Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto (2001) and is the author of three books (Silence is Death, Epistolophilia, and Siberian Exile). Her essay “There Be Monsters” appears as Notable in Best American Essays 2018.