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Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War Combines Artifact, Memoir, Image
The Stranger’s Rich Smith caught Don Mee Choi perform in “the most successful live music + poetry thing [he’d] ever seen” at Seattle’s Hugo House last fall, and he’s reading Choi’s new book, Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016) alongside the recollection. “Hardly War,” he writes, “is like a print version of this performance.” More:
…Hardly War is not a straightforward father/daughter narrative about a photographer who exclusively shot war photos for 30 years before deciding to take photos only of flowers. Like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s influential novel Dictee, Hardly War is a category-defying, auto-ethnographic, strongly anticolonial book. As such, the book requires a lot of active engagement on the part of the reader. The connections within and between poems are easy to miss if you’re not constantly asking yourself questions like “Well now, what does this photo of a tranquilized tiger have to do with this list of massacres and these flowers?” It’ll take a couple reads to learn the language Choi is trying to get you to speak, but once you do, the extra effort pays off.
Choi is particularly skillful at mixing registers and tones to create brilliant and multilayered critiques, as when she plays childlike innocence off images of war. For instance, at one point in a poem called “Kitten Stew,” a kitten reframes a Bing Crosby Christmas classic as a neocolonial indoctrination tool: “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas / Just like the ones I used to know, Sir!”
Choi finds some of that language-of-innocence/language-of-war stuff in the primary documents themselves. In the second section, Choi includes a postcard from her father, which he wrote to the family, never sent, but still kept. The picture on the front features an aircraft carrier named the USS Kitty Hawk, a “supercarrier” stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin during the American war in Vietnam and the site of an antiwar protest led by African American soldiers in 1972. Choi follows the postcard with a poem called “Shitty Kitty,” calling attention to the creepiness of the ship’s name, Kitty Hawk. A cuddly domestic pet and a bird of prey that would eat that pet. Am I the only person who gets a chill when the military plays fast and loose with cute/death imagery? And why didn’t Choi’s father send the postcard—did he forget, or did he misplace it, or did he feel weird about explaining aircraft carriers to his children? It’s hard to tell unless you flip back to the endnotes, and even then Choi never gives you a full explanation. She leaves his writing untranslated, his photos uncaptioned.
Read it all at The Stranger.