The Korea Herald publishes three writings and interviews by members of the Korean diaspora, which were included in the anthology " Reflections of Diaspora on a Divided Nation. Following is the first in the series. --Ed.
Bo Seo is the editor-in-chief of the anthology from which the pieces are drawn.
Growing up in Australia, I never considered myself much of a Korean. A lot of this had to do with living in a country with so checkered a relationship with migrants. But it also had to do with other Koreans. My cousin and neighbors, natives and migrants alike, pulled me into a dance of linguistic and cultural one-upmanship that defined the rank and order of who was truly Korean. If the born-and-bred-and-still-living were on top, emigrants (gyopo), like me, hung below.
Last Saturday, I sat around a table in Yangpyeong-dong with some young Koreans, ranging from a Welsh gyopo to a Ugandan who had spent most of her adult life in Korea. On the subject of our Koreanness, the consensus was essentially cosmopolitan: we are citizens of the world with little need (or time) for national identity. It seemed that many of us on both sides, natives and diaspora, were content to live apart.
I, and the contributors in this series, come to a different conclusion. As the future of nations turns increasingly on their ability to engage their diaspora, we refuse to leave our identity, uncontested, for nativists and nationalists to define. We make a claim to the label, “Korean,” just as we make a claim to “American,” or “Australian,” or “Chinese.” We ask that what definitions of these identities may presently exist to exclude the Korean diaspora, some 7 million in number, be amended.
The gap between these aspirations and our project remains vast. But this is no unexpected obstacle. Our series is a hoping invitation to a conversation across well-defined lines.
(1) Interview with writer Monica Youn
Bo Seo: The title of your latest volume, Blackacre, refers, in legal jargon, to a hypothetical piece of real estate. And you’ve said that many of your poems are about negotiating the geography and character that you’ve inherited. How does this apply to your experience of belonging to the Korean diaspora?
Monica Youn: Yes, that was a big part of my thinking in coming up with the Blackacre theme. The preoccupations that have obsessed me in this book continue to obsess me now. The word “devise” is a key word in the manuscript. “Devise” in law is a bequest, a piece of property passed on by will. And “devise” in common parlance means to create something, to imagine something. I’ve always thought of the concept of home as existing in an uneasy tension between the two meanings of that word. Is home something that is given to you or is home something that you create?
And that was especially true for me growing up as a child of Korean immigrants in Houston, Texas. That was not a city that, at the time, had a Koreatown or a very large Korean community. I was always one of the only Asian students in the school. It’s strange to be growing up in one’s home and not to feel at home. I still go back to my hometown, and people say things like, “Oh, you’re not from around here, are you?” You just don’t translate into people’s idea of a Southerner or a Texan.
Bo Seo: The word, “will,” too has a double meaning. It has a legal definition but it also means the intention of the person passing down the bequest. How do you create a will of your own against the inherited expectations?
Monica Youn: The concept of will is also something that came to seem increasingly vexed as I got deeper into these poems. You tend to think of “will” as attaching to an actor exerting force upon the world. The actor herself is the prime mover. But what if the actor is herself being acted upon? What if she finds out that what she desired, what she wanted, was something that had in fact been constructed for her? Particularly here, in this book, I was thinking of concepts of family and fertility and female normativeness. I was wondering, “What are the sources of these desires that I have held all my life, these stories and patterns that I have found so compelling my entire life?” And once I start to deconstruct those sources, then what remains of the self? What remains of the will?
Bo Seo: Is this what lies behind your resistance to the idea that there’s some authentic way to be Korean, to expectations that are encoded in social conventions and rules?
Monica Youn: I’m resistant to an idea of ethnic or racial identity as being the same as authenticity. I remember going to a panel of young Korean-American poets at a conference a couple of years ago. What everyone seemed to have in common is what they had felt the need to research their home culture in order to perform racial authenticity. That seems to me just as normative as anything else. Could I have an identity as a Korean-American having been born and raised in this country without, for example, keeping up with every trend in K-Pop, without watching Korean soap operas? What does it mean to have that sort of identity if you are not taking conceptions of your identity from some sort of authentic relationship with a homeland?
Bo Seo: Let’s talk about “Goldacre.” This poem takes, I think, an empathetic view of racism as a product of the imagination. Racism isn’t just ignorance. It is myth and urban legend. It requires people to withstand extraordinary cognitive dissonance. Does viewing racism in this way require us to change how we respond to it?
Monica Youn: A lot of my feelings toward race, for example in “Goldacre,” were influenced by growing up in the South. In junior high school and high school, the word “confederacy” was not considered a bad word. We were taught in seventh grade history class that the Civil War was not about slavery; it was about states’ rights. My friends would have sleepovers where they would play “Gone with the Wind.” Everyone would get out their boxes of Kleenex and cry and crush over Clark Gable. They didn’t consider those things to be racist.
Think about the imaginative work they have to do to think that this is what slavery was actually like. All of these smiling happy slaves. What could possibly make you think that was reality? How hard do you have to try to envision that? My friends would say to me, “you’re not like those chinks, you’re one of us.” That really took a lot of work. It takes work for educated people to accept racial hierarchy and the way in which their cultural assumptions have been structured around it.
Bo Seo: Does that make you concerned about poetry as a creative project? What happens when imagination is used to justify racism?
Monica Youn: The fact that so much of racism is reinforced and kept alive by cultural imaginings is, for me, more of a source of hope. Cultural imaginings can be combatted by other cultural imaginings. The remedy for Gone with the Wind is Beloved and The Underground Railroad.
In my high school, I don’t think that I was taught a single book by a writer of color. In college, at Princeton, I don’t think I was taught a single poem by a writer of color. Now granted, this was twenty-five years ago and things have changed. The fact that these norms are changing has to have an effect. It’s the reason why racists are having such destructive tantrums right now. They feel like they’re losing ground.
Bo Seo: Of the five stanzas of “103 Korean Martyrs,” at least two are written from the outside of a theater in a history that you don’t fully consider your own is unfolding. What is this outside spacee to you?
Monica Youn: The thing that’s spoken in that poem is the language barrier. I have a very vague recollection of being taken to a Korean church, shown this inexplicably violent film in a language I did not understand, and then being taken home. This was meant to be a religious and cultural experience. I had nightmares for a week. I lingered outside that day because I didn’t know what was going on, and it was pleasant to be outside. Being part of the diaspora is feeling a sense of spectatorship toward both your ethnic culture and your geographic culture.
I was also obsessed – I’m sure this is true of all children and especially immigrant children – with whether or not we were doing things correctly. In first grade, I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to brush my teeth before or after breakfast. I felt like all of the American kids did it one way, which was the right way, but I did not know that way. It seemed that my parents also did not know. One of the things about being an immigrant child is that you feel more empowered than your parents in your surrounding culture. I started correcting my parents’ business correspondences when I was eight. From that point on, my English was better than their English.
Bo Seo: You glimpse something true about the world when, as a young person, you see your parents be vulnerable. You learn that nobody is all-powerful. Do your parents inform your sense of what it means to be Korean in America?
Monica Youn: In second grade. I had come home upset because some of the kids at school had been calling me “Chinese eyes.” My mother said, “Oh you just need to call them “American eyes.’” What she didn’t understand was my unquestioning acceptance of racial hierarchy at that age. And now that I’m having a child myself I’ve start thinking, “Okay, at what point is he going to start internalizing the norms that he thinks he’s not as good as white people?” What can I do about that? Is there anything to be done about it?
When I was a little older, I was on vacation at this river in New Braunfels, Texas. We got involved in some dispute about whether or not we had first claim to a picnic table. Suddenly, I could see my father, who until that point was all-powerful, as what he was: a not particularly tall, not particularly strong Asian man being yelled at by this group of white guys who were much bigger than him. I remember thinking, “Oh my father is small and weak, and not as good as these white people. He can’t protect me.”
Bo Seo: I had a similar experience with my father who was an officer in the Korean military, and a very strong presence in my life. When I was back in Sydney for the summer, someone pulled up beside my family in a car and started jeering at us. And we all fell silent, again. I thought, what’s the point of these four years of a university education if you can’t even say the things that need to be said?
But you must be thinking about this intergenerational relationship from the other side too, as you bring up your toddler. Have you been writing about this next phase of the journey?
Monica Youn: We haven’t really started yet. We’re waiting for what will be an optimal age to start talking, which will probably be this summer. I never really plan to write about anything. Things just occur to me. Or, I stew over an idea for a really long time, and then I think, “Oh, I should write a poem about that.” The Twinkie thing had been on my mind since I was 13; and that came out. So I try not to go through my life treating it as fodder.
Bo Seo is a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University. He graduated from Harvard University with a degree in Social Studies.
Monica Youn is the award-winning author of three books of poetry, most recently Blackacre. She teaches creative writing at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University.