Everything That Has Happened Around the World Is Part of Your Life | A Conversation with Emily Jungmin Yoon

I talked with Emily Jungmin Yoon (@EmilyYoon), poet, translator, and doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of Chicago, about her latest book, Against Healing: Nine Korean Poets—a tiny anthology of translations just out from Axis Press as part of a series on “Translating Feminisms.”

Our conversation began by considering two related statements Yoon makes in her preface, regarding why she considers these poets “feminist” even though some of them might not embrace that term and why she describes their writing as “against healing” when most folks would consider healing a positive thing. They are feminist, she says, because they reject how women poets in Korea are traditionally expected to write. They say things considered “unbecoming” “for women.” They break taboos to tell about their lives and experiences—which, in turn, means, Yoon explained, that they reject the traditional expectation that Korean women poets will write healing, soothing, salving, “feminine” verse. These poets may be not “against healing” in general. But they are not writing poetry to make everyone feel better. They are writing to tell the truth about their lives.

One of the specific poems we discussed is probably my favorite in the book, “Mother’s Poetry” by Choi Young-Mi (p. 15-16). In this poem, the poet wakes up early in the morning and hears her mother already in the kitchen cooking and reflects on the meaning of her mother’s work and the contrast between her mother’s cooking and her own poetry. Yoon and I discussed the tender connection the poet articulated, as well as the ambiguous shame with which the poem ends: “I wove a single poem / A strand of shame.” As I wondered what the shame was about, Yoon explained that it is purposefully unclear, the ambiguity being part of the point of the poem, that it could be shame over being “lazy” in bed while her mother works or even shame for having caused, just by being born, her mother to become a mother and thus set in a certain kind of life.

Yoon and I also discussed the difficult poem “Abortion,” by Shin Hyeon-Rim (p. 37-38). This poem is not one that would fit neatly into the simplistic abortion debates raging at the moment in the United States, since it is both/neither “pro-choice” and/nor “pro-life.” What’s key about this poem, Yoon noted, is that the poet shares honestly and vulnerably the actual feelings of the speaker, telling the truth of her experience. This is a particularly powerful thing for the poet to do in the poem, given that, as Yoon explained, in Korea, like in the US, abortion is surrounded by silence and shame.

We discussed the relationship between Korean-language poetry and English-language poetry, the extent to which each tradition reads the other—an poetic exchange that because of the colonial history of English is lopsided, with more Korean poets reading English poetry than vice versa, although that apparently, and hopefully, that seems to be improving, including with the appearance of this very book. We discussed what is lost and gained in translation, how in one poem Yoon added a rhyme—”So why am I in such a daze / So why is my body ablaze” (p. 19)—that does not exist in the original Korean poem in order to capture something of the other sound effects (other than rhyme) that do exist in Korean. Yoon also pointed to another poem—”Mother Standing Outside the Door,” which deals with a brutal assault and murder committed by an American solider—where she found herself using the English words “Private” (military rank) and “privates” (body part), which, since those words are not homonyms in Korean, added a layer to the text, something found, rather than lost, in translation.

Finally, I asked Yoon what advice she would share for my World Literature students about reading across cultural boundaries. In her answer—which I love so much I transcribed it at length—she spoke about empathy and history, about how we are all connected to whatever else happens in the world, how literature can help us see and come to terms with that interconnectedness:

The power of literature lies in its ability to grow empathy—reading about experiences that are not yours, that will never be yours—maybe it’s not your historical time—but feeling empathetic for things that have happened and also knowing that your personal history or your history in a certain nation is not just found in the national category or your cultural category but it’s part of world history. What the US did in other parts of the world, that’s part of your history, too. A course like that is really wonderful because it teaches them that everything that has happened around the world is part of their lives. You’re living these histories. Things that have happened in the past—like, for example, the comfort women history in South Korea or the Korean Peninsula and other parts of East Asia—it’s not something that has happened in the past and you don’t have to care about anymore, but it’s an unresolved issue. It’s an issue that we’re still living today. So it makes us really question, what is the empire in the world? What does the empire look like today? It’s not the empire in the sense of the British Empire or the Japanese Empire. They don’t exist anymore. But what other shapes of empire exist today and how does that affect us? I think reading world literature is important in fostering these productive struggles with our position in the world.

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