Cold Comfort

Emily Jungmin Yoon’s debut evokes a dark chapter in history.
Image of the poet Emily Jungmin Yoon.

The poet Emily Jungmin Yoon believes that art reminds us that “dissent can manifest itself in beautiful and complex forms.” Born in Busan, the second-largest city in South Korea, Yoon recently published her debut collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species (2018). The book focuses on the history of so-called comfort women from Korea and elsewhere in Southeast Asia whom Japanese soldiers detained and forced into sexual slavery before and during World War II. This summer, I corresponded via email with Yoon, who is now earning her PhD in Korean literature at the University of Chicago. We talked about activism, translation, the best place for a US audience to dive into K-pop, and how a poem “is always an opening, a question, and never an answer.” The following exchange was condensed and edited.

Your poetry weaves together so many social issues from race to gender and violence to history, and you’ve participated in such events as Poets for Puerto Rico to raise awareness and funds in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. How do you view the relationship between the arts and political activism?

Art allows the expression of resistance and subversion that circumvents or confronts censorship and control. Artists invent and expand on modes of defiance to amplify their voices and create solidarity. In literature, writers use narratological and stylistic tactics to challenge the mores of their societies—each choice made in the structure, punctuation, perspective, and vocabulary can be a powerfully charged vehicle to convey meaning and intention beyond what the narrative communicates. Readers can discover revolutionary potential in all details of a work of art, which I think can have a mobilizing effect—some may be moved to think about their own ways of expressing or joining in on the resistance, whether they be in the arts, on the streets, or elsewhere. Art not only makes concrete the notion that dissent is possible in times of darkness but also reminds viewers that dissent can manifest itself in beautiful and complex forms. Art is a strategy for political activism.

You’ve remarked that “A lot of people say poetry is dying, but I think that it’s because people think that poetry is out of their reach or irrelevant … especially when times are hard, poetry is most necessary.” Why do you believe that, and what role does poetry play in contemporary life?

To continue from the previous response, I do think art is a productive way of expressing dissent. To be even broader, such political potential for art is activated because art is always struggling against or transcending the limitations of society, the body, or even the imagination to find meaning and joy beyond physical experience and knowledge. That struggle does not have to materialize in the form of an “obvious” language of political dissent. Circumlocution, deconstructed language, and unfinished narratives are all welcomed in poetry, and that permits every poem to be a question—every poem is an invitation to a heightened perception of our own existence. People might turn to poems to articulate why and how the world pains them and know that they are not alone in that pain. They might read joyful poems to intentionally deny the world, for a moment, and that’s OK.

You point out in your book that in 1991, the year of your birth, Kim Hak-sun became the first former comfort woman to deliver testimony of her life as a sex slave, and the section titled The Testimonies” draws upon documentary materials from numerous women who endured that experience. What got you interested in this project, and how did you decide to make it the centerpiece of the collection?

I have always been interested in the comfort woman history, but poetry provided another medium through which to talk about it and add to the existing discourse—not really to provide new evidence or facts but to make another way to keep the history alive in our memory. That is the work of reproduction and reflection that art does.

I actually didn’t start my manuscript thinking “this is a project about the comfort women,” but I ended up writing a lot about them, which also fed into a lot of other poems. So, the poems about the comfort women are literally and symbolically central to my collection, not only because of the historical significance but also because of the fact that they led to meditations that inspired other poems.

Discussion and acknowledgement of the plight of the comfort women is often met with protest and outrage. Last fall, for instance, the mayor of Osaka, Japan, cut ties with San Francisco after that city allowed a statue commemorating such history to go up. Why is this subject still so contested today, and how do you see your poetry responding to such controversy?

I think the protest and outrage exist because of the postwar narratives that portrayed Japan as the victim. Many scholars on Cold War Japanese cultures would agree that a process of “forgetting” the past took place in Japan to paint the United States as rescuing and converting Japan into a model democratic nation in Asia as part of the greater goal of combating communism and asserting control over the continent. Narrative discourse that challenged this “foundational narrative” was suppressed by both Japan and the US, though of course not without creative dissent and subversion from the people. See Yoshikuni Igarashi’s Bodies of Memory (2000) for more on this.

Anyway, I think this rhetoric of “forgetting” the past and rebuilding Japan as a symbol of progress, democracy, and liberation still makes some people refuse to acknowledge the wartime atrocities and colonial traumas that Japan caused in Asia. My poetry aims to reject this denial and reconstruction of comfort women’s histories by engaging with, and becoming mouthpieces for, their stories—to add my voice to the conviction that war memories and responsibilities must continue to be articulated and addressed in artistic, scholarly, and community forums and forms.

In your author’s note, you make the distinction between “speaking from within, not for, a community” in regard to the testimonies of comfort women, and you assert that “an experience that is not mine is still part of the society and world that I occupy. It is crucial to know, listen, tell, and retell various stories so we may better theorize and understand our existence.” Why choose poetry as the genre in which to examine and present these women’s histories?

A poem, to me, is always an opening, a question, and never an answer. It does not force an absolute conviction. When I read Mai Der Vang’s Afterland (2017), for instance, I feel like a gentle hand reaches toward me to experience a history I did not firsthand live. The lyrical conveyance of historical and emotional information helps me connect the history to mine—to think about the Cold War, immigration, language. ... Even if the book talks about a specific history, it opens my eyes to my own experiences too, and I hope my poems can achieve that effect. I revel in the fact that poetic language, even when uttering a particular experience, even without explicitly aiming to educate, is able to be inclusive and expansive. It’s also liberating that poems have no limits in the visual forms that they can take, which have their own representational meanings.

You organize the collection into four sections—“The Charge,” “The Testimonies,” “The Confessions,” and “The After”—and intersperse these with prose poems all titled “An Ordinary Misfortune.” How did you settle on this structure? And why did you give all the prose poems the same title, particularly when so many of the misfortunes seem extraordinarily harsh?

I wanted the book to begin with and maintain a strong contextual framing that addresses the history of the comfort women. I also wanted that to be situated alongside other stories of violence and alienation to suggest the continuities of various human cruelties. “The After” hopefully gestures toward more tenderness and futurity in a way that suggests a path that the next book might take but still maintains an emotional and thematic tie to the rest of the book.

I saw the phrase “an ordinary misfortune” quoted in the book The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan (2008), by C. Sarah Soh—the trafficking of female Koreans to become “comfort women” (itself a euphemistic term) for the Japanese Imperial Army was so widespread that it was an “ordinary misfortune.” That striking understatement, in that specific context, really pierced me. My first poem writing about that phrase and the comfort woman history started my whole book, as that poem led to more poems about the history and soon linked itself to other histories of sexual violence. I wanted readers to look at the title again after reading the poem and think critically about how one’s society enables or normalizes those violences.

In the poem “Bell Theory,” the speaker recalls “being laughed at for my clumsy English” and also utters the title phrase, “a cruelty special to our species,” twice. What kindnesses, if any, do you think are “special to our species?”

I think that the human species is capable of intelligently and deftly performing kindness, but I’m not sure if we have kindness that is special to just us. There are other animals with behaviors that humans might identify as “kindness.” That said, I do try to find and appreciate human kindness, even if it’s not special to our species. People fighting to undo or prevent various kinds of harms done by other people give me hope, though again, that’s less a result of a “special” kindness and more of a level of awareness.

You’re the poetry editor of the Margins, the literary magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW), whose mission statement explains that “in an age when Asian Americans are relegated to sidekicks, whether in sitcoms or the corridors of power, we believe it’s time to bring Asian Americans into the conversations that matter.” How does your work as an editor impact your work as a poet?

In the US, many people see the term Asian American and envision an East Asian face. East Asian privilege in the discourse of Asian American literature and culture is very real and can be deleterious to fostering pan-Asian solidarity. Institutions that claim an Asian American identity should actively create space to uplift the voices and visions of all Asian Americans, and I believe the folks at AAWW strive for that.

Editing helps me as a poet because, for one, the work really makes me feel like a part of the poetry community even when I’m not writing or attending many literary events. That sense of participation is important to me because it is tough to “feel like a poet” in a non-creative-writing graduate program. Second, perhaps even more significantly, reading also inspires me to write. Sometimes I am driven to abandon academic obligations and just write a poem, and that impulse usually comes when I’m reading. Even jotting down one line while reading gives me a lot of peace and joy.

In your poem “Between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, Today,” you write, “I read a Korean poem / with the line ‘Today you are the youngest / you will ever be.’” You’ve also published some translations. What contemporary or historical Korean poets do you recommend, and are there any you’d like to translate yourself?  

I recommend Kim Hyesoon’s books, translated by Don Mee Choi and published by Action Books. The world of Hyesoon is vigorous, intestinal, and irresistible. The Colors of Dawn: Twentieth-Century Korean Poetry (2016), a collection translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé and Chung Eun-Gwi and published by the University of Hawai‘i Press, is also a good introduction to modern and contemporary poetry. I think it would be cool to translate poetry by women poets from the colonial era to trace the history of feminism (by the modern definition) in Korea.

Can you say a bit more about feminism by the modern definition in Korea? What does feminism look like there, and how does it resemble or differ from feminism elsewhere in the world?

In the modern period, often periodized as being the same as the colonial era, 1910–1945, there was a lively discussion of women's rights and liberation, starting roughly around the 1920s with the discourse on "free love," marriage, and sexuality. It was also a decade in which many prominent writers, not only women writers, were committed to proletarianism and class revolution. The second boom in feminist discourse, literature, and research is thought to have occurred in the 1990s. Both the modern and contemporary investment in feminism can be said to owe somewhat to Western texts and theories, which I imagine one might say about feminisms in other parts of the world, but there are conscious efforts to avoid uncritically taking and applying them to Korean social contexts. People are doing the labor of excavating forgotten or silenced authors and their works to reshape/expand the canon (e.g., Lee Sang-kyung), studying the roots of family ideology (Kwon Myong-A), examining how women poets used poetry to call for gender equality and feminist collectivity (Ku Myŏng-suk), etc. Unfortunately, most of these works are not available in English. I presume feminists in other countries are doing the same for their specific societal and cultural realities. I can't say I know much about feminism elsewhere, though, especially because geopolitical disparity functions in a way that makes the production and reception of Western feminism more visible than others. 

Now that this book is done, what do you plan to publish next?

I’m actually working on a couple of translation projects! I don't have all the details set yet, but they will be feminist women's writing from Korea. I’d also like to write more poems. I want to work out a schedule to find time to devote to poetry.

When you’re not writing poetry or working on your PhD studies, how best do you like to spend your time?

Eat, go shopping, and Netflix and Chill™—all the better if with loved ones! I also like long baths. My current go-to shows are Terrace House and Queer Eye.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that would be your dream question to answer?

I’m not sure if this is my dream question, but I do want to talk about the international popularity of K-pop. What are the implications and consequences of that popularity, say, in America? What does it tell about the relationship between language and sense of belonging? How does it reflect or change expectations about performance of gender? I don’t have clear-cut answers, but I want to talk about transnational phenomena such as this without facing the racist accusation that these interests are frivolous or inane.

If you could recommend one K-pop song to an American audience looking to get into the genre, what would it be?

“Fake Love,” by BTS, not only because it did immensely well in the US and cracked the Top 10 in the Billboard Hot 100 very recently, but also because their choreographies, fashion, and music videos are really interesting. I think boy groups such as BTS can offer a glimpse into how expectations on gender performance and masculinity differ across cultures.

Originally Published: October 1st, 2018

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...