Mirrors and Masks: A Discussion by Contemporary Korean American Female Writers

Junot Diaz once said that if you want to make a human being into a monster, then deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. Four award-winning authors discuss the complexities of responsibility and resilience as Korean American female representation in the literary canon.

The following is the fifth in our series of outstanding AWP panels that were not selected for participation in the conference but deserve to be heard. Today, we’re featuring five Korean female writers: E.J. Koh, Tracy O’Neill, Margaret Rhee, and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello


Many times we hear what it means to be Korean on a spectrum within Korean American communities—to be “too Korean,” even “Korean enough,” or as we eavesdrop, “sort of Korean.” Where do you see yourself seated when such a conversation arises?

Margaret Rhee: I think there are interesting ways people may define Korean American(ness), although I’m more interested in how we can expand ethnic definitions. The larger hegemonic culture oftentimes defines the spectrum of identity in tandem with the boundaries of who is considered a member of the Korean American community. It is the challenging position and burden placed on those individuals who identify as Korean American. I think there are certainly characteristics or traits that people identify as Korean or perhaps on the “right of the spectrum,” such as speaking the language, cooking Korean food, or honoring traditions, but I feel it really depends on how one identifies. I don’t think cultural practices should determine one’s access to ethnic identity, especially since class and other markers of difference cut through access to these practices.

For example, I never had the opportunity to travel to Korea growing up, being from a working class background. I went for the first time as an adult and as an academic. As someone who has experienced differing degrees of marginalization to the identity of “Korean,” especially as someone who identifies as queer. Yet, I have also experienced being considered “very Korean” since I do write within Korean American studies. However, much of my work in Korean American Studies has been around gender and sexuality, especially LGBT Korean Americans and the negotiation to Korean American identity. And so, I am more invested in expansion of the boundaries of Korean American identity. Adoptee and LGBT writers such as Jane Jeong Trenka, Sun Yung Shin, and Alexander Chee were my models of Korean American writing and identity, which really interrogates and illuminates diasporic experience.

On a personal note, when I was 18, I worked as a young activist with the Korean American Youth Community Center in Los Angeles. In solidarity with Latino activists, we were working on AB 540, and trying to draw in the Korean American community on issues of documentation and student access to higher education. As part of program, we participated in an exercise around identity, and created a percentage map of how Korean we were, how American we were, etc. I remember at that time, defining myself 100% Korean and 100% American. I think I still feel this way, in that it’s really difficult to parcel out aspects of your identity, and how important it is to expand definitions of identity to be more inclusive of all identities and experiences.

Tracy O’Neill: I didn’t grow up in a Korean American community or even a Korean American household. Because I was adopted by a white family, there was little connection to Korean culture. I didn’t eat bibimbap until I was twenty-five. I still don’t speak Korean, and I’ve never even travelled to South Korea, where I was born, since coming to the United States as a five-month-old. I’m pretty sure that I know less about Korean culture than most creepy guys with Asian fetishes.

People sometimes ask me why I have not made more of an effort to learn about Korean culture. I suppose I feel ambivalent; though I completely understand why other Korean American adoptees are interested connecting with their roots, I don’t feel a particular affinity. It’s as important to me to see Korean films as it is to see Italian films, as lovely for me to eat Korean food as it is to eat Japanese food, etc. What I feel more acutely is the way in which I am seen in my embodied experience as Korean, or rather, as some sort of Asian female human.

E.J. Koh: I’m playful about the conversation of Koreanness because I agree, in large part, that it’s a topic of absurdity. It’s no rare occasion to be viewed less Korean from Koreans or less American from Americans. I am Korean American. Any degree of Koreanness, Americanness, and the changing societal perception of what each of these means cannot alter what I have claimed for myself.

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello: I’m also a Korean American adoptee, so I understand Tracy’s ambivalence about connecting with Korean roots. My brother is also an adoptee, and I think because we looked so different from our Caucasian parents, our family was very clear about our heritage. They weren’t exactly open about it, though, and while they tried to give us access to Korean culture in small ways (food from the local Asian mart and language lessons with a local Korean church), they gave us no real language for how to deal with adoption among strangers. Between high school and college, I took a gap year to tutor English in Korea for a year. While it was a wonderful experience immersing myself in a culture full of people who looked like me, I discovered attitudes of either shame or scorn regarding adoption because of the collectivist nature that makes filial legacy and responsibility so important.

As someone who can’t immediately be categorized as simply “American” but rather has an ethnicity and a hyphen preceding it (Korean-American, in line with African-American or Latin-American, etc.) complicates the spectrum. I like what EJ says about claiming a space on that spectrum for yourself, but living in Miami where there are very few Asians, I find it difficult to ignore the labeling that everyone else gives me based on my physically Korean attributes. I always have to remember to echo Margaret’s sentiment that we are 100% Korean and 100% American, and we can own every percent of that. I am often annoyed at being stereotyped (who isn’t offended at being stereotyped?) for poems that reference anything remotely Asian, and I balk under the responsibility of being perhaps the only Korean American that many people around me will get to know, but it is also something I am learning to embrace as I get older because I’m getting to that point in life where I don’t need to please everyone. Therefore, I give myself permission to be more Korean some days than others.

 

In what moments of your career, such as education or publishing, did you find resistance, or perhaps an absence of resistance, to your growth as a Korean American woman poet and/or author?

Margaret Rhee: I think I was very lucky, because I was involved with Kundiman when I was 20, in that first cohort back in 2008 and had participated in various Asian American organizations such as writing for YOLK Magazine, where I experienced how dynamic the Asian American artist communities were, alongside challenges of racism. While I have been writing poetry for a large part of my adult life, I came to poetry publishing more recently, within the past three years and so I hadn’t had much experience around having to confront the issue of identifying as an Korean American woman poet in that context. Yet, I have learned over the past few years, on how these issues are very salient when we discuss Korean American poetry, and publishing. I am buoyed by poets like EJ and Marci who are also leading these important conversations through these questions. It feel important to celebrate and honor these traditions that are continually shaping, and resist forms of racism that limit one’s identity ethnically or artistically.

Tracy O’Neill: One of my favorite events was one I participated in at the Asian American Writers Workshop, which is a wonderful organization. This event was a conversation about the adoptee experience with Lee Herrick, Matthew Salesses, and Sung J. Woo. There was so much energy and warmth in the room, and I have immense respect and affection for each of these writers who have considered various shapes of family and identity.

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello: I wasn’t interested in considering myself a Korean American poet until I started my MFA in Miami. It was so important to me as a young writer that Li-Young Lee so adamantly claimed to be only an American poet, omitting the “Asian” label that even I had so quickly prescribed to him at first. I even resisted the idea of applying to Kundiman for several years because I didn’t want to identify as a Korean American poet. But once I started writing these poems about Korean women that would eventually shape my MFA thesis manuscript, I actually found my colleagues to be more resistant than my professors, who were absolutely encouraging. Every professor recommended myriad titles in every genre that referenced Korea in even the smallest way. I was charged with creating a comprehensive list of all the Korean American authors I could find, including fellow adoptees. I think that subconscious recognition of isolation as a Korean American woman in a city that overtly exoticized and fetishized Asian women drove me to write those first poems that opened a whole new world through my professors’ encouragement. Thinking back on responsibility of representation, I used to get frustrated at being the first Asian American poet to graduate from my MFA program, but now I’m actually glad to have had that strangeness to prompt my growth.

E.J. Koh: Don Mee Choi introduced Marci and me to Kim Hyesoon’s friend, poet Yi Won from South Korea. Marci and I are now collaborating to translate Yi Won’s books to bring them into the canon of Korean poetry here in the States (and abroad). I continue to witness the translation community provide space for Korean writers and Korean American translators each year. It’s an astounding thing to see—collective interest rising in the bellies of a literary community, hungry for dynamic Korean arts. I’m eager to see the impact of growing Korean literary works and heartily rise to the event with great joy.

 

Throughout our conferences, whether it’s in Washington D.C., Minneapolis, Los Angeles, or elsewhere, the question we are most often asked with great curiosity from our audience is this one: What determines if a work is Korean American or not?

Margaret Rhee: I think if it’s poetry written from someone of Korean heritage, then it’s a Korean American poem, regardless of whether it has Korean American characteristics. Perhaps I draw from the model of identity that Kundiman organizes the retreat, in which the poetry can be experimental, narrative, about identity, or not. It is also political in which we want to recognize the geo-political experiences that shape our lives and writing.

When I was editing the anthology of Korean American women’s poetry, I was wildly excited about adoptee poets like Sun Yung Shin  and others, as their poetry really shapes and leads Korean American poetry and writing. I am also wary of policing these boundaries. I think as cultural workers, it is important to be reflexive, however when the question is asked, it may often serve as a way of limiting Korean American identity and literature.

Tracy O’Neill: I suppose the writer’s ethnic background is a factor, but I’m wary of policing these boundaries too.

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello: I’ve seen how categorizing work as Korean American has empowered other Korean American women in their own writing, but I also think this is what opens the door to yellow-facing, divisiveness, and reductionism. Perhaps the better question is, “What determines if a work is American or not?”

E.J. Koh: To be frank, the question is common but also quite irritating. The question treats ‘Korean American’ as a style and not as an identity. It’s a dangerous thing here because behind the naivete of the question is also the ignorance of whether a perceived ‘Korean American style’ can first be recognized as having merit!


Author Bios:

E.J. Koh is the recipient of the 2016 Pleiades Press Editors Prize and her collection of poems A Lesser Love is forthcoming September 2017. Her poems, translations, and stories have appeared in Boston Review, Columbia Review, World Literature Today, TriQuarterly, Southeast Review, Narrative, Berkeley Review, SWARM, Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics (Black Ocean Press, 2014), and elsewhere. She accepted fellowships at Kundiman, The MacDowell Colony, Napa Valley Writers Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and the Jack Straw Writers Program. She earned her MFA at Columbia University in New York for Creative Writing and Literary Translation in Korean and Japanese. She is pursuing her PhD in English Literature and Poetry at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Tracy O’Neill is the author of The Hopeful. In 2015, she was named a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize, and was a Narrative Under 30 finalist. In 2012, she was awarded the Center for Fiction’s Emerging Writers Fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, LitHub, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Literarian, New World Writing, Narrative, Scoundrel Times, and Guernica. She has published nonfiction in The Atlantic, the New Yorker, Bookforum, Rolling Stone, Grantland, Vice, The Guardian, VQR, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her column Body Language appears in Catapult. She currently teaches at the City College of New York and is pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia University.

Margaret Rhee is the author of Radio Heart; or, How Robots Fall Out of Love. She holds a Ph.D. in ethnic and new media studies from  UC Berkeley, and a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. She is the recipient of awards from the Science Fiction Poetry Association, Squaw Valley Poetry Workshop, and Kundiman. Currently, she is the Kathy Acker Fellow at Les Figues Press, and an associate editor for Tupelo Press. She teaches, writes, and researches on the cultural politics of robots as a visiting assistant professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Oregon.

Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello is the author of Hour of the Ox (University of Pittsburgh, 2016), which won the 2015 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and the 2016 Florida Book Awards Bronze Medal for Poetry. She has received poetry fellowships from Kundiman and the Knight Foundation, and her work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets, The Georgia Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Narrative Magazine, and more. She serves as a program coordinator for Miami Book Fair. www.marcicalabretta.com

 

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