Writing Into the Living Archive: An Interview with Emily Jungmin Yoon
Interview conducted by Sebastian Hasani Paramo
Emily Jungmin Yoon is the author of A Cruelty Special to Our Species (Ecco, 2018), winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award, and Ordinary Misfortunes (Tupelo Press, 2017), winner of the Sunken Garden Chapbook Prize. Her poems and translations have appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Poetry, and elsewhere. She has accepted awards and fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, AWP’s WC&C Scholarship Competition, the Aspen Institute, and elsewhere. She is the Poetry Editor for The Margins, the literary magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and a PhD candidate in Korean literature at the University of Chicago.
Yoon’s book A Cruelty Special to Our Species is a brutally honest and lyric exploration of Korean ‘comfort’ women during WWII in Japanese occupied-territories. She renders war, sorrow, and these shameful histories through the lens of her own “multiple cultural-historical perspective.” Born in Busan, educated in Canada and the U.S., she offers us small glimpses into what can be uncovered.
Reading this book, I was struck by her honest, dark humor, and was often arrested and captivated by the language. At the same time, because of the material engaged, I found myself pausing between poems to sit with the horrors of the poems’ engagement.
I first met Emily in Minneapolis for AWP 2015. I was reacquainted with her and her work recently at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference this past summer. Below is a transcription of an email interview conducted between us discussing her process, poetry of witness, and what inspired her book.
Sebastian Hasani Paramo: Your book engages with the historical trauma of violence against women, and specifically focuses on “comfort women” or Korean women who worked in Japanese-occupied territories. Could you discuss the title of the collection and the genesis of it?
Emily Jungmin Yoon: The title of my manuscript was Charge Number One at first. It’s the name of the condom that the Japanese soldiers used—totsugeki ichiban in Japanese. I chose it because it is very confrontational, but at the same time cryptic and strange to those who don’t know what it means. My agent Jin advised me to change the title, though, and I tried to think of ones that also point to specificity yet necessitate investigative engagement. After some searching, ultimately I found that the phrase “a cruelty special to our species” from my poem “Bell Theory” was a fitting and open title for the whole collection. I like that A Cruelty Special to Our Species suggests human violence but does not name one, thereby allowing multiple interpretations.
SP: There’s a section in your book that is lifted from testimonies from “comfort women.” The book as a whole reminds me of Carolyn Forché’s discussion of “Reading the Living Archive” she writes, “In the poetry of witness, the poem makes present to us the experience of the other, the poem is the experience, rather than a symbolic representation.” Do you agree with this sentiment and is it relevant at all to the process or inspiration for this book?