The following correspondence between Mary-Kim Arnold and Erinrose Mager began in response to Karen An-hwei Lee’s editorial prompt of translation as afterlife.
How are you? How is the semester going? Are you teaching this term? I am teaching "Asian American Narratives" for the second time. We read John Okada’s No No Boy, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, lê thi diem thúy’s The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. This time, I added Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. I try to bring in poems, too, and short contemporary works as well. I encourage the students to find work on their own and bring it in to discuss. If I teach this class again, I will focus only on contemporary, living writers. It feels like an amazing time for Asian American writers!
Early on, our class discusses the tension between ‘form’ and ‘content.’ Students will sometimes make reference to someone or something being "fully Asian," so we try to talk about that a little, too. It surprises me how similar the concerns of these undergraduates are to issues that I faced decades ago. So much has changed, of course, but many of the core tensions remain. [It is perhaps worth noting here that this semester, all the students in this class identify as Asian American.]
I am writing to you now in hopes that maybe writing back and forth a little might generate some conversational threads that we can carry for a bit and perhaps we'll end up circling around to this idea of translation as afterlife.
My initial response to [this prompt] was that everything since leaving Korea for me has been a kind of afterlife, but I don't know exactly what I mean by that yet. I don't mean to be melodramatic. I think there was definitely a part of myself—perhaps a part of Korean-ness—that ‘died’ on that first flight from Seoul to New York. Perhaps I am coming back to my earlier comment about the students, suggesting that there is a ‘fuller’ Asian-ness (or Korean-ness) that is made less possible in the U.S. Perhaps that is related to language, but also to physical distance.
Is this a question that has resonance for you at all? How do you think of your Korean-ness? Do you think Korean-ness expresses itself in your work? Is this an okay way to start, just to start?
Sending love and gratitude for your patience, your willingness to share space.
I am teaching a few classes this term, though neither involves Asian American literature exclusively. I am, however, drafting my dissertation prospectus, and this process involves explaining work I haven't yet written, which is tricky. The academic component of my dissertation, as I see it now, considers work by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, John Yau, Tan Lin, Brandon Shimoda, Timothy Yu, and... you, among others. (Is that weird to say?) I'm still in the preliminary stages of my work, and I assume my approach will shift over the course of the year. Your class "Asian American Narratives" sounds incredible, and I wish I could audit it.
This past year I began my first real push to reconnect with my birth parents (or, at the very least, with my birth mother and foster mother), but thus far my search has been unsuccessful. This process involves considerable document-combing, and your Litany for the Long Moment was (and continues to be) a catalyst for my archival revisitation. My friend, a great poet and translator, Michael Walsh has been a tremendous help, as he's able to read and translate my Korean-language adoption records. Despite the fact that I know my birth parents' names (I am able, miraculously, to read through the whiteout on my original adoption records), I have not made contact with either parent. My ESWS social worker sent certified mail to my birth mother's listed address, but the mail goes unanswered. I think, at this point, I need to return to Korea to continue this search on the ground, but—as you know—it's an expensive trip, and I'm afraid and anxious—anxious about what I'll find or not find or feel or not feel.
So maybe I understand what you mean when you say that everything after your flight from Seoul to the U.S. has been an afterlife. Maybe I'm comfortable in this afterlife, and I'm nervous to confront whatever life I might be born into if and when I return. Now, I feel Korean only insofar as I feel not white, insofar as I feel periodically othered, insofar as I feel like I'm waiting to understand that which eludes me. Perhaps it's this kind of Korean-ness that appears in my work. But I'm not sure.
Maybe I'll stop for now. What about you? How and what do you think of your Korean-ness? Maybe it's more of an ambient state of being.
So much love from Denver.
I want to address the kind of Korean-ness you mention at the end of your letter, and yes, I feel like this is true for me too. I find myself thinking of the Zora Neale Hurston quote (by way of Glenn Ligon): "I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background." The Korean-ness that is externally-imposed or projected is one way. That Korean-ness is by way of imposition by others. There is a Korean-ness of desire, too. Of my longing for that connection. And that is I think when you say "I'm waiting to understand that which eludes me..." I want to think—and this is the space that Litany tries to occupy—that there might be another Korean-ness too. A kind of bodily knowing, of whatever language lodged itself in me before age two, whatever ways in which those early years in Korea, in Korean-ness, shaped me, regardless of how tenuous those tethers might be now. I want to think that I have been imprinted with Korean-ness, but even as I write this, I am not certain I can say exactly why.
I keep trying to circle this idea of afterlife, and here is something I had not yet made the connection with, but I am thinking about it now. I have written about my birth mother as a ghost that inhabits me. As a kind of benign, hungry ghost whom I sustain through my alive-ness. I wrote this piece—just a short sketch—at a time of deep grief and sorrow over the loss of a relationship. I think those moments of greatest vulnerability stir up old losses, and so while I was mourning a loss in the present, I was thinking about it in terms of this initial loss, and it emerged as imagining an afterlife for my own mother, but within my adult body. Is this getting all too weird? What I mean to suggest is, I carry the ‘ghost’ (in the most non-literal way we can use it) of my mother in me. That is perhaps a kind of afterlife?
Another thought. Reading "Doing Gender with a Feminist Lens" by Shirley Hune for the “Asian American Narratives” class, and among the many things we discussed was the way in which focusing on women's experiences and stories in the formation of Asian American-ness reveals these blurred spaces between public and private, interior and exterior—for example, in the ways that for many immigrant families established service-type businesses, restaurants, dry cleaners, convenience stores, or took in handwork or did domestic work for others. These kinds of roles extended the private into the public and reconfigured domestic spaces. I think a lot about these liminal, hybrid spaces. I don't have much (beyond a couple rudimentary exercises for a class) experience with translation myself, but I think about the ways in which translating occupies this liminal space too, that is perhaps feminized, that is perhaps ghostly.
When I think about the idea of an afterlife, to me it conjures a restless, wandering self. A self that feels insubstantial, see-through (in the sense of not fully realized), observing but not engaging, reliant on recognition by others. Is it too much to suggest that the adopted self feels like that to me, too? When I said in my earlier email that everything after the flight is an afterlife, I suppose I mean it in this way. That my life here has often felt restless, insubstantial, awaiting articulation by others, a kind of legitimization. As I have gotten older, as I have developed creative practices, that sense of insubstantial, of awaiting legitimization has lessened, and my book was a real attempt to claim a life that might feel less liminal. Perhaps this is a way to get back to [a question you once posed] about my own aesthetics. I am interested in the idea of what is possible in these interstitial spaces? Not in the sense that there is ‘healing,’ but in the sense of holding. Of existing in this tension. I often think of Myung Mi Kim here, "Neither, neither... Poetry is what happens when something is held on either side of the predicament."
I'll have to pause here for now, and eagerly await your reply.
I’ll begin with a total aside, however ridiculous it may be. I realize—a bafflingly late realization!—that we both have compound first names. This is a silly observation, but maybe apropos of this conversation. At the very least, I find it fascinating (and maybe a touch humorous, depending on my mood) that both our adoptive families—for varied reasons, of course—chose two first names and pushed them together: Mary-Kim; Erinrose. I feel pushed-together of two identities, is what I mean to insinuate here, albeit inelegantly. And there’s something interstitial about a given compound moniker. I’m not sure where I’m going with this other than to say that in my experience, Anglo-Irishness aside, my first name often involves explanation (“‘Erinrose’ is one word, all together—no space”), and my whole Korean identity likewise conjures the need for explanation. [I seldom mention my Korean middle name (Seon) because the scansion of my entire name (Erinrose Seon Mager) is a clumsy mouthful, though an agent once told me that I should start using ‘Seon’ to foreground my Koreanness. I didn’t take her advice.]
Anyway, I feel my birth mother ghosting around in me too. Naturally, I mourn for her despite the fact that she may still be alive (though I have no idea). Sometimes I think of my own actions or inactions as products of my birth mother—of some genetic or epigenetic enactment that dictates the ways in which I move through the world. It’s as though her desires—her hungers—are what drive me to do whatever it is I do. I am not a religious person, but the feeling you articulate (and that I share) is something like a religion. An internal afterlife religion. Maybe this is getting all too weird.
I, too, feel restless and insubstantial in myself despite wanting to be ‘imprinted,’ as you say. What I mean is: there’s nothing more unsettling than strolling the aisles of an H-Mart in hopes of finding the right ingredient, unable to read Hangul. I’ve been making a lot of yachaejeon lately, and I have no idea whether it’s any good. I watch Maangchi YouTube videos all the time, desperately. Is this a hope for epicurean translation? In cooking, am I hoping to hold onto something?
My thoughts are scattered; I’ve been traveling. I just re-read Under Flag so your Myung Mi Kim mention was telepathic. I’ll leave you with this long Berssenbrugge line from Nest: “House and space are composite, like my dream, a bubble, lightning, starting point and any second”
Looking forward to your words—
[P.S. How did you feel when you heard the Parasite Oscar news?]
I am delighted (and grateful!) that you have introduced me to the Maangchi videos! I was not aware—can you even believe it? I'm obsessing over that veggie pancake recipe—so simple, so easy!
So many things to respond to in your letter, but perhaps I can loop around and start with something I am thinking about now. Teaching this Asian American narratives course, I am engaged with these conversations about identity and writing consistently, and I find myself compelled to think about different aspects of the issue. These students, many of whom are second, third, and even fourth generation, and bi-racial, bring a great deal of ambivalence about identifying in a particular way. Parasite just came up the other day, in fact, when one student said that seeing Asian faces on screen is great and important, and there was definitely something very moving about the Oscar win, but also—this is his perspective, not mine—that there's a blurring, conflating Korean with Korean American, and that felt a little simplistic or oppressive to him.
I feel a bit of ambivalence about it, too, but not necessarily for the same reasons. By saying this, I am trying something out that I don't feel completely certain about but here it is: I think I feel a bit cheated out of getting to claim Korean-ness in a way that would allow me to feel uncomplicated joy at the win. I am not sure I know what else to say about that, so I will leave it for now.
In our earlier thread, this question of "What is Korean-ness without the Korean language?" arose, and I am thinking too of related questions with regard to writing. When is a book (or a movie, etc.) a ‘Korean book’? A ‘Korean American book’? In my class, we end up talking a lot about immigration and refugee experience, that rupture from the country of origin, that longing for native land, living physically in one place, but perhaps emotionally, spiritually (and maybe linguistically?), or through imagination, memory, or desire, in another. That tension is what characterizes the ‘hyphenated’ experience for me. So whatever I write, whatever I create, arises from, is animated by that tension, I think. Perhaps another way to put it: I cannot escape my own history—it is imprinted. I have been thinking too about experimental forms and hybridity and fragmentation as enactments of this tension, a kind of falling into, writing into rupture. Is this something that resonates for you?
I love your pointing out our double-names. It feels very much like a manifestation of the issues we're examining. A pushed-together-ness, a need to explain, a conspicuousness that is vulnerable to question. But perhaps I am just circling here. More soon.
A lot has happened in eleven days. This past week, after deciding against San Antonio, I bought extra hand soap, finalized my prospectus, and took a walk in the park—at which point several playground moms told their kids to "get away" from me—lest I infect them with COVID-19. Throughout the years I've weathered the occasional slur, the periodic exoticization, et cetera, but epidemic-related racism is new to me. I'm not used to clearing a room. Has this happened to you yet? I've had three racist encounters recently, though I suspect that Denver is particularly prone to xenophobia.
Perhaps I bring up this development as a way of approaching your statement, "I think I feel a bit cheated out of getting to claim Korean-ness," but from a different angle. We're unable to feel "uncomplicated joy," as you say, when Parasite wins, and we're likewise unable to "claim" the very Korean-ness articulated on our faces that, especially now, renders us foreign, alien, unclean, contaminated. "Don't worry," I imagine telling the playground moms. "I haven't been in Korea since the late 80s." What a horrible inclination—the inclination to reassure a white person that I'm not a biological threat despite my East Asian face. I wonder whether the playground moms liked Parasite. I bet they did; it was a good film.
I am almost inclined to claim that Asian American writing (the writing of hyphenation—not as monolith, but as a broad, complicated, reductive term born of myriad immigrations, diasporas, languages, acculturations, backgrounds, customs) is inherently hybrid; one might notice aesthetic trends in contemporary Asian American poetics that write toward a particular split subjectivity, a prismatic 'I'/speaker, and/or a fragmented pushed-together-ness. I won't make this claim outright, but I'm interested in thinking about it more. To write within the tension (of which you speak) is to write toward a hybridity.
I always write to you when it's so late! My mind is never at its best when it's late, but I always want to write when the sun is down. Why?
This line of yours affected me so deeply: “What a horrible inclination—the inclination to reassure a white person that I'm not a biological threat despite my East Asian face.” I want to say first that I am sorry you had to experience that. I have not had that happen to me yet, but do I notice people giving me wide berth as I walk in my own neighborhood? As I wheel my cart through the crowded aisles of the grocery store? Yes, I think I do. Do I feel a deep sadness at the fact of my noticing it, at so often feeling so conspicuous? Yes, I always do.
What you capture, though, this impulse to reassure, feels true in so many ways. I feel as though that position in relation to power and authority—“Don’t worry, I’m not a threat, don’t worry I’m loyal, don’t worry I’m a ‘good’ Asian, by which I mean grateful, loyal, not making any trouble…”—has shaped the parameters of how I have been able to see myself here in the U.S., which of course is related to my adoption. As long as I am reassuring (vs. resistant), I can stay.
I am thinking too of an occasion when a white woman I had just met learned I was adopted and she was so pleased, she immediately wanted me to meet her Chinese adopted daughter, and even suggested a kind of mentoring relationship, which felt like a lot, felt presumptuous, felt instrumentalizing. I felt this woman wanted me to validate her in some way. That I was not a person, but a resource, a means of reassuring her that the choices she made would turn out ok. This is different, I know, from what you experienced, but I think perhaps related. A kind of flattening from person to function—whether threat or resource.
Anyway, I’m observing that we began this conversation talking about teaching, and it’s something I’m thinking about again today, as I—like so many—am working to move my courses online for the foreseeable future in the face of such uncertainty. I have had to think about what is the most important thing I want students to take with them after our time together? I want them to feel as though they can claim their identities as writers and artists and as interpreters of their own experience, in all its complexity. That although they are writing into a conversation that started before them, they are shaping it with their own participation in it. That they will need to determine for themselves what is important about their “Asian-ness” and how and whether that is enacted in their writing. And that for my generation, or perhaps I can speak only for myself, I am excited, energized, and grateful for the questions they are asking, the directions they are taking. Let the future be hyphenated, pushed together, and hybrid. Let the future be theirs.
Your letter gives me hope, and it’s difficult to feel hopeful right now. When we first started this conversation over a month ago, the world was different. We were teaching in classrooms, looking forward to spending time in San Antonio (and perhaps to seeing each other in person), celebrating Parasite’s successes, and processing, with enthusiasm, conversations about Asian American identities. And now… now we’re at home—waiting and anxious in the midst of a pandemic. The future feels uncertain. And so, like you, I take comfort in students’ willingness to create and discuss despite the world’s crises and inequities. I want to think that whatever happens in the coming months, year, years... we’ll find ourselves in the midst of something kinder. I want to believe this.
Sending love to you from across many miles.
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