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?
EY: I do agree with Forché’s statement, and yes, similar sentiments were in my mind. I believe the power, necessity, and forever “relevance” of literature lies in its ability to engender and cultivate empathy. I might add, however, that the poem fully becomes the experience if and when the reader accepts it as such. I think that unfortunately, many people enter a poem having decided that they won’t understand it. But despite, or because of, that awareness, I committed myself to the poetic form for this book because I believe that poetry requires a slower absorption. Information and historical knowledge should be taken in as invitations for critical engagement, which requires rumination and reformulation. I want to encourage more of such poetic reading, always.
SP: I love the use and exploration of language in this book and I find the poem “An Ordinary Misfortune,” (the one that begins: “The trouble with trees is that their bodies and limbs are too capable, capable of burning, of living, capable of leaves, of leaving, charcoal, ash, and we think we have power.”) to be especially compelling. Did you use the OED for this poem and how else did language inform the poems?
EY: Haha. I don’t remember if it was the OED, but I did look at some dictionary/dictionaries for the etymology of the word “capable.” A lot of my poems were born out of an obsession or curiosity with sound. There must have been something about the word “capable” that caught and sustained my attention. Maybe that the word is “cap” + “able,” or that it has “cape” in its sound. Those thoughts probably grafted with some other thoughts on the uses of the tree. Oftentimes the preoccupation seems quite random; keep returning to the word or sound, or leaning into the inexplicable fascination can be rich ground for poems.
I also became more interested in incorporating Korean into my poems, not only because being a Korean speaker informs the way I view the world, but also because I realize that sometimes I am attracted to an English word for what it reminds me of in Korean (and vice versa). For example, it’s cool that “moon” in English means “door” in Korean. Suddenly, new relationships within a sound become possible. The moon is a door. A door to what? This image and question then opens the door to imaginative potential. For this reason, I love homonyms as well. Meditation on sound allows for a productive mining of meanings.
SP: I really enjoyed the series “Ordinary Misfortunes.” How you make the ordinary misfortunes and reveal how each one engages with some aspect of colonization, trauma, and find beauty in resilience is quite extraordinary. Could you talk about the process of how these came together? I’m even interested in how they changed from the chapbook to book form.
EY: I wrote one poem titled “An Ordinary Misfortune” while thinking about the comfort women’s history, because I read this sentence: “For young, uneducated women from impoverished families in colonial Korea, to be a victim of trafficking became ‘an ordinary misfortune’ in the 1930s.” This is from C. Sarah Soh’s The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan (2008). The quotation marks around “an ordinary misfortune” in that sentence show that it was referenced from elsewhere, but I don’t remember which text exactly. In any case, I was reading Soh’s book and found that description very striking, and wrote a poem with the phrase as the title. Then I began thinking about other “ordinary misfortunes,” and ended up with a series of poems.
The chapbook came after the full-length manuscript; I had the latter, but wanted to work on it further, and also wanted to give separate space to the poems that speak to the comfort women’s stories. I should also acknowledge and stress here that “comfort woman” is a euphemistic term; they were military sex slaves.
SP: You write in your author’s note that your book is meant to “amplify and speak these women’s stories.” Aside from the documentary materials, did you find other authors’ work to be helpful in informing this book or was this something that you were always aware of growing up in your family? (Richard Kim’s Last Names, Theresa Hak Kyujng Cha’s “Dictee,” Nora Oka Keller’s Comfort Women, and Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life.)
EY: The exploitation and torture of Koreans by the Japanese during the colonial period is something everyone in Korea grows up very conscious of. So I’ve been exposed to the related news and stories all my life. However, when I was actually writing the poems, the existence and work of poets like Tarfia Faizullah and Monica Sok gave me the courage to continue and think deeply about these narratives. With Monica especially, we had constructive conversations about writing inherited trauma during our MFA at NYU. I’m very grateful. I also had Kimiko Hahn as my thesis advisor, who, when I was feeling somewhat timid and apprehensive writing about the Japanese atrocities, said: “Fuck the Japanese.” She knows that by writing these poems on this topic I don’t intend to vilify a whole nation or fall into a nationalist and ahistorical stance. She meant that I can give myself permission to write with more ferocity. Yusef Komunyakaa was another teacher who was very encouraging and helpful. I’m really indebted to both these poets’ teachings on and off the page.
SP: Speaking of growing up with these histories and language, the book appears to implicate many different parties in terms of who is responsible for these violences. How does your own identify inform you on how to write these complicated narratives?
EY: Imperialism, colonialism, patriarchy, masculinism … they’re everywhere, though each area has its own brand of them. As a diasporic person who was born and raised in Korea until almost 11, then educated in Canada then the US, who still lives in the US with Canadian citizenship while the entire family is in Korea, I think about the privileges and pains of being somewhat removed or distanced from everywhere. By that I mean by law I am exempted from many things, the advantages and disadvantages of which are varied and sometimes unpredictable. I won’t get too much into that here. I am appreciative of how my experiences and background allows me to have multiple cultural-historical perspectives. It is also a great fortune to have homes and support systems in all those places.
SP: You have a wonderful dark humor in these poems. It’s the kind of humor that calls out the offending person. I’m thinking in particular of “Don’t Touch Me.” How do you arrive at setting the right tone for a piece like this?
EY: Humor is such a moving force that I do want to exercise it more in my poetry. Many lines in “Don’t Touch Me” are from the novel Don’t Touch Me by Mackinlay Kantor, and because much of the language was already so laughable in its esoteric racist and sexist expressions, they transferred as humorous in the context of the poem. I think my poems are spaces in which I practice boldness, in which a voice fiercer than my ordinary day-to-day voice might reside. That’s what I try to push toward.
SP: What other books were influential for writing this book?
EY: Tarfia [Faizullah]’s Seam and Cathy Linh Che’s Split were books I kept close as I was writing. Li-Young Lee’s Rose continues to have a huge effect on me. These writers rip me apart then put me back together.
SP: I know you like “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo. Do you like to listen to anything when you write? What do you listen to?
EY: I cannot deal with music when I am writing. I tend to pay too much attention to the lyrics, the notes, the melody. I find it too distracting. I need silence.
When I am hanging out, yes, I do love Lizzo! And who doesn’t love Rihanna and Ariana Grande? I listen to more Korean artists than US ones, though. My favorite might be DEAN. I’m also really into the band Hyukoh. I like cute pop songs too, Twice and Itzy. The lyrics aren’t that deep, but they’re fun.
SP: What advice would you offer to young poets writing about difficult subjects?
EY: Take breaks between and from poems. Take care of your emotions and body. Because many people have asked me how I approach persona poems, I want to recommend thinking about: how you writing in the voice of another person or community benefits them, and how it adds to current knowledge or awareness about them.