Monday, April 16, 2018

Darcy Jay Gagnon: Bush Clover and Moon / on Translating Fictional Nonfiction in Bashō’s Travel Diaries

Bush Clover and Moon
On Translating Fictional Nonfiction in Bashō’s Travel Diaries 

Darcy Jay Gagnon


Over the past two years, I have been writing a biography of the 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, the most recognized haiku poet in Japan and probably the world. In my research, I have accumulated at least seven different translations of Bashō’s most notable work, oku no hosimichi, which has been translated as Narrow Road to the Deep North, Narrow Road to the Interior, Back Roads to Far Towns, Road to the North, and The Narrow Road Through the Provinces. I will refer to it as, simply, Narrow Road. 
     Narrow Road is, more or less, a travel diary, one of our earlier accounts of what we might categorize as creative nonfiction, and consists of fifty-three haibun, a kind of mixed form writing that Bashō used in his daily journals. A haibun starts with a prose account that details an incident of the day, which is then followed by a seventeen-syllable haiku. The prose often serves to explain the conditions for why the haiku exists, though the haiku is generally expected to survive even without that context, and the short poems are frequently anthologized without their prose companion. Rarely do the prose and verse sections directly reference each other explicitly.
     Of the fifty-three haibun Bashō recorded in Narrow Road and the various translations of them that exist, I am always drawn to a certain few that, when handling a new translation, I look to see if it delivers the same pathos as my initial readings. One is an account of Bashō and Sora, Bashō’s student and travel companion for his journey, encountering two courtesans staying at the same roadside inn as them, deep in northern Japan. For the journey, which would take them one-hundred-fifty-six days and across fifteen hundred miles into the rural north of Japan, Sora and Bashō dressed as Shinto-Buddhist monks to avoid being robbed by bandits, because even bandits were often devout or superstitious enough not to harm monks and priests. Here’s a translation of the account by Nobuyuki Yuasa:
Exhausted by the labour of crossing many dangerous places by the sea with such horrible names as Children-desert-parents or Parents-desert-children, Dog-denying or Horse-repelling, I went to bed early when I reached the barrier-gate of Ichiburi. The voices of two young women whispering in the next room, however, came creeping into my ears. They were talking to an elderly man, and I gathered from their whispers that they were concubines from Niigata in the province of Echigo, and that the old man, having accompanied them here on their way to the Ise Shrine, was going home the next day with their messages to their relatives and friends. I sympathized with them, for as they said themselves among their whispers, their life was such that they had to drift along even as the white froth of waters that beat on the shore, and having been forced to find a new companion each night, they had to renew their pledge of love at every turn, this proving each time the fatal sinfulness of their nature. I listened to their whispers till fatigue lulled me to sleep.  
When, on the following morning, I stepped into the road, I met these women again. They approached me and said with some tears in their eyes, ‘We are forlorn travelers, complete strangers on this road. Will you be kind enough at least to let us follow you? If you are a priest as your black robe tells us, have mercy on us and help us to learn the great love of our Savior.’ ‘I am greatly touched by your words,’ I said in reply after a moment’s thought, ‘but we have so many places to stop at on the way that we cannot help you. Go as other travelers go. If you have trust in the Savior, you will never lack His divine protection.’ As I stepped away from them, however, my heart was filled with persisting pity. 
     under one roof,
     courtesans and monks asleep—
     bush clover and moon 
I like the haibun because I like the haiku that ends it. I like that in a writing form of so few syllables and that rarely focuses on human encounters, precedent is given to these two prostitutes. I like that, in a work that focuses so rarely on human encounters, and in a style of poetry that so often removes the poet-speaker, Bashō has dedicated a portion of his work, which he revised thoroughly before finally distributing it three years after this encounter, to two women he met only in a fleeting moment, as opposed to the many famous poets he stayed with along his journey.
     Various translators have different takes on Bashō’s use of the word yūjo, which Bashō uses to classify the women. Some translate it to “courtesans,” as Yuasa has; others as “prostitutes,” and others as the more literal translation of “play-girls.” Why this disparity? Because, from Bashō’s account, it is hard to determine exactly what occupation or social standing these women held. The term Bashō uses, yūjo, would generally be used in his time to refer to an occupational courtesan where sexual acts would be secondary to their role as a skilled entertainer and performer. But, according to the Japanese historian, Yasuke Sato, yūjo were predominately located around the major cities of Edo and Kyoto, and even there they were outnumbered by baishōfu, or prostitutes purely for sex that usually worked in brothels and bathhouses: "apart from a very privileged few, the women who worked in brothels and bathhouses were suffering, not playing, and their floating world was not a place of shared pleasure or radical aesthetic experimentation.” In addition, the Echigo region these women are said to come from was particularly notorious during the Tokugawa Era, Bashō’s era, for “familial pimping,” as peasant farmers sold their daughters into indentured servitude in bathhouses and brothels throughout the northern region.
     It is possible, even welcome, to imagine Bashō used the term to slightly elevate the suffering women to a slightly more respectable, poetic occupation, but let’s imagine that they truly were yūjo. Why would they have been there, in Echigo, where Bashō wrote this haibun, 300 kilometers north of Ise, their final destination, and nearly as far from Edo or Kyoto, where yūjo were more likely to reside?
     Then there is the complication of the overheard conversation, in which the courtesans make an allusion to a poem by Saigyo, one of Bashō's predecessors and chief influences:
Where the white foam-crested waves break
On the shore
[We] live out our lives.
As daughters of fisherfolk
Our dwelling too is impermanent
Some translators dramatize the allusion into casual dialogue, as Yuasa does in the example above, while others translate it to resemble the original poem more closely, even going so far as to add line breaks in some cases or by having the courtesans literally mention Saigyo before the reference. This invalidates the theory that Bashō was trying to elevate the status of what are probably baishōfu by giving them a more formal title, because, as rare as it might be to find a pair of yūjo travelling in the northern provinces, it is just as rare to find a pair of rural women of the peasant class learned enough to recite Saigyo.
     Regardless of whether they are yūjo or baishōfu, Bashō has done something unique in his poem by putting courtesan and monk alike in the same line, bush clover and moon together in another, the latter two symbolic of the two parties, respectively. Their proximity is not only controversial—courtesans sharing both a literal and metaphorical line with religious figures—but shows that Bashō thought of he and Sora, costumed in the robes of priests, as being akin to the journeying women, two groups of two travelers playing a part, actors in a play, sleeping under one roof, parting in the morning with different paths; bush clover and moon.
     The reason this is so significant and forward thinking is because haiku of this time rarely featured references to more than one person in a single poem, yet two thirds of this seventeen-syllable poem is dedicated to just that. And as much as it breaks the rules of haiku, it also adheres to them, staying an aesthetically beautiful, complicated poem even without the context of the prose.
     Of course, no part of the encounter ever happened in reality—Bashō’s meeting with the courtesans. In the final line of the haibun, after Bashō delivers the haiku, he writes that he dictated the poem aloud and Sora recorded it in his journal. But, there is no record of the poem in Sora’s journal, nor this episode with the courtesans. So, in this historical text, translators have to go beyond the literal word on the page, which is flawed in its logic, and instead imagine the scene as if they are Bashō, imagining the scene as if it is reality.
     I’ll do it too. It is possible that Bashō might have encountered the courtesans somewhere else along the road, substituting place names so it fit closer to his narrative, and later wrote it into his diary, which might explain the yūjo confusion. But I like to imagine it is pure fiction, something that Bashō stirred up along the road one night and forced into his reality. I’ll imagine Bashō at the roadside inn. Instead of overhearing the prostitutes’ woes to each other, he hears nothing at all. The moon outside is covered by clouds and the bush clover has withered. Sora is sleeping nearby, not even snoring, and Bashō is alone before an empty page. Outside, he hears a field mouse’s call, maybe being swept off by the talons of a night predator, but it sounds like evening laughter to him. He smiles. Meanwhile, the wind outside blows through a crack in the shutters. It sounds nothing like a zither, he thinks, but recalls its sound anyways. How sad, he writes, that I can’t take these things with me.



Millett, Christine Murasaki. “‘Bush Clover and Moon’. A Relational Reading of Oku No Hosomichi.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 52, no. 3, 1997, pp. 327–356. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Sato, Y. "Early Modern Prostitutes, Concubines, and Mistresses." Journal of Women's History, vol. 28 no. 2, 2016, pp. 156-165. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jowh.2016.0015

Haibun translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa, Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, 1966

Haiku and Saigyo poem translated by Christine Murasaki Millet.


Darcy Jay Gagnon is a writer based out of Washington D.C. He is presently working on a collage biography of Matsuo Basho, but also writes about music and birds. You can find his other work at The Rumpus and Opossum: A Literary Marsupial.


Sunday, April 8, 2018

On Collecting: A Conversation with Thomas Mira Y Lopez

I am a collector. A compulsive hoarder, intent on keeping everything in the hopes of finding greater meaning. I collect rejection slips, Spell Master figurines, and broken bits of glass. I collect old keys, books on shopping mall design, and tools I find on the side of the road. Even physically, as I train for a marathon, I think of it in terms of collecting miles on my shoes, collecting new maps and routes as I explore the city where I live, but cannot speak the language.

All this to say that I spend an awful lot of time and energy thinking about the idea of collecting, particularly what it means to me as a writer of nonfiction. Fiction is about creating a world from nothing, but nonfiction is about minimizing reality into meanings small enough to appreciate: taking the entirety of the world and collecting the right ideas, images, moments into some sort of meaning. Taking a small piece of the world to show the entirety.

My hope for this new series, On Collecting,  is that it will be a chance for us to think about that act: how collections--both physical and written--shape our understanding of the world.

With that said, it’s hard to think of a better place to start than with Thomas Mira y Lopez. His collection of essays, The Book of RestingPlaces: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead, speaks a lot to the conflict between spiritual and physical worlds. We can’t take our possessions with us in death, yet what we leave behind—either in objects, in stories, or memorials—have a lot to do with our legacy. How do we curate ourselves and our loved ones? In the case of one essay on cryonic preservation, What items would you put in a “memory box” that would help you remember who you were hundreds of years ago? Thomas was kind enough to talk to me about these ideas for the past several weeks, and below are some of the larger ideas that came from that conversation:


To get started, I'm curious if you began this project with a sense of narrative, or was that something that came out more organically? Meaning, did you set out to write a book about memorials, or did it grow out of something else? Were you writing individual essays in which a theme emerged, or were you always thinking of these in terms of a book?

The first few started as individual essays. I was working on an essay about a walk around Calvary Cemetery in Queens--it's a huge cemetery, over three million people are buried there, yet the disparity between the number of people buried and the scarcity of people visiting interested me, as well as the history of how the cemetery ended up on what had once been farmland in now industrial Queens. I wrote a couple more essays from there, essays that focused on questions of the personal that that cemetery tour didn't delve into as much, and I began to see a pattern, or a possibility for a pattern, emerge. So, while I began early on to think of this as a book, the form it could take--an emotional arc or a grand tour or a bit of both--stayed open for a while. Resting places seemed a broad enough category--anything really can be a resting place; I mean, there could have been an essay about naps--so that it allowed me to go wherever I wanted or needed to go without having to worry about things becoming too much of a miscellany.

Strangely enough, I ended up cutting the Calvary Cemetery essay. I don't think I would have written the book without it, or without the decision to walk around that cemetery on a day off from work, but it felt redundant when all was said and done, something I couldn't shape into the rest of the narrative.

Reading through The Book of Resting Places, I was thinking a lot about the ways that we remember and memorialize. We can't take our possessions with us when we die, yet the possessions we leave are a large part of how we are remembered: we are put into the ground (either buried or put in catacombs or cryonically frozen and put into a bunker), yet the parts of us that remain above are what sometimes defines us in death. In your book you talk about the tree that serves as your father's memorial and juxtaposing that essay against the mostly anonymous dead in the defunct Tucson cemetery gives us an interesting contrast of those remembered and those forgotten. With that said, I'm curious as to what you think about this connection: how much meaning should we be putting into the objects we leave behind? How did these ideas come together to shape this book?

Oh man, this in many ways is the question. If we're thinking about what objects are left behind, I would try to figure out who's investing them with meaning. Is it the person, or people, who are gone? Or is it the survivors? There seems the potential for fabrication, or manipulation, either way. One of my favorite factoids is that the Quakers left behind no tombstones because they believed in the saying "False as an epitaph." That is to say, we tend to bask in a particular, more favorable light when tasked with our own elegy. An epitaph is the parentheses of a life; not the life itself. On the other hand, there's someone like Roger, the proprietor of the gem and mineral shop outside Tucson, who has taken objects from other cultures and periods and appropriated them to say something about himself. My mom too collects these objects that, in part, create this whole new mythology for her, and give breath to a sort of sustenance. The book is interested in what happens when memory's distortion plays itself out on the landscape, and objects are very much a part of that. It's not just the meaning they're invested with, but the desire to invest them with meaning in the first place.

I actually think that conflict between who is investing meaning is really at the heart of this question. Not to talk too much about my own projects in this space, but I became obsessed with this idea when I was working at a used book store and was responsible for buying books back from the public. Someone would come in with hundreds of books--an entire adult life of reading--and due to condition or the material being outdated (paperbacks from 1988 aren't in high demand, neither are outdated textbooks, etc.) I might offer them 10-20 dollars total. There was a clear sense of devastation, as if I was putting monetary value on their personality or aesthetics or intellect because these particular objects helped shaped people. Conversely, you'd see someone who was excited for that 20 dollars because they were clearing out the home of a deceased uncle or something, and they had a more objective sense of the value of a decade's worth of National Geographic magazines.

All this to say that I think we might be getting more into the subject of curation: we curate meaning in our own lives through our possessions, and sometimes we curate our memories of others who can't speak for themselves. We build memorials or, as you say, write false epitaphs that remember a few great things about a person while omitting the difficult or problematic. We see this with Roger's mineral shop where he is creating his own mythology out of the history of others. As nonfiction writers, we are essentially curating facts already: taking ideas/memories/facts that exist and including/excluding/ordering for maximum effect. I see this in your book as well: there definitely is a narrative arc to the book despite the fact that each essay is essentially its own independent subject. These pieces stand on their own individually, but they also come together to tell a bigger story about loss, memory, and your father. From a craft perspective, how much is this sense of ordering or curating part of your creative process? How does it differ when putting together a book manuscript as opposed to an individual essay?

Yeah, I feel books are the objects I think about behind all these other objects. Not to give away too many spoilers, though it's not really one, but The Book of Resting Places ends with the book as resting place, the actual physical object as temporary, remaindered and then eventually pulped. That's in part a certain necessary modesty about the book and its prospects, and a response to the way I was encouraged to think about objects, and their relationship to text, in graduate school. I worked for a few months at the Strand bookstore, which was not a great place to work, though also not the worst, and I always thought of the book buyers there as ruthless. A life's work and then a flick of the hand; not enough. (Although it seemed many of the books that made their way into the Strand were overstock taken from the back of a Barnes & Noble.) All this to say, I used to take breaks at the Strand and I would sit on a ledge between the dollar book racks outside and the dumpsters. I'd mostly watch the people foraging through the dollar books and so it took me a while to look over at the dumpsters and realize they were full of books. Just full of them! It was sort of an Upton Sinclair, The Jungle, moment where you see how the sausage is made (although that particular book could also end up in a dumpster and it wouldn't be a bad thing). I was shook.

So that scene, in some form, has been on my mind all these years. What to do with all that stuff, how to honor the urge towards the encyclopedic, towards the infinite, and realize that's not ultimately a working model. And that definitely plays a part into how I thought about ordering the book, in what points I wanted it to hit. I'm glad to hear it feels like there's a narrative arc. For a long while, I wanted to write about every cemetery, burial site, space of death, etc., so that I was wondering what was under my feet at that current moment and how I could fit that in. In other words, I wanted to write a book I would never finish. Some of those ideas still interest me--I wanted to find someone who preserved the smells of the deceased, or I wanted to find a widow that kept the body of their spouse in their home after death, I wanted to write about guillotines, etc. etc.--but those were also ways of not writing the book. At some point, I took a deep breath and said this is who I am, this is my budget (because that matters, even though I'd like to think it didn't), and this is what the book needs to do. And that felt really freeing. I wish I could remember how I got to that point. To leech onto that Anne Carson quote about prose being a house and poetry being a man on fire running quite fast through it: if a house is on fire, you grab what you can and that's what you've got. Hopefully it includes the cat.

Or, to put it a different way, I gave a reading recently, in which I read from the essay about all my mom's stuff and my fear of what to do with all that stuff after she dies (do I take the books to the Strand?), and someone afterwards quite kindly suggested that I just take pictures of all the stuff and throw most of it out. That way I'd have all those objects--or their simulacra--but not really have them. I didn't want to say anything but that's the opposite of what I'd want to do. A book shouldn't be a diminishment, but also a book only exists because it isn't everything.

That's so similar to my book buying experience, though in many ways the massive amounts of books coming through kind of numbed me after a while. It was shocking at first, but by the end I was pretty ruthless when it came to the what I was willing to throw in a dumpster. The picture theory is also interesting in that we sort of see versions of this playing out in all sorts of media: the fact that I took something like 20-30 pictures on my phone yesterday that (realistically) I may never look at again, the fact that listening to something on vinyl still has a feeling of ceremony to it where the same songs on Spotify don't hold the same weight.
I think you're right about the challenge of knowing when enough is enough, especially when it comes to death and memorials. There are companies that claim to turn cremains/ashes into diamonds and that's not even the craziest one you could explore. I think the impulse is to always add more because it is so fascinating (and in all seriousness I would read an entire book about memory boxes after reading your cryonics essay), but like the dumpsters full of books, I think there is a cutoff point where enough is enough, where it's easy to cut because once you do accumulate enough, it becomes easier to separate the essential from the inessential. In terms of collections, I believe that maybe the biggest point of growth occurs when a collection stops being a "greatest hits" collection and transforms into something that is a bit more cultivated, something that depends just as much on what's left out as what's left in.

I love what you identify as the biggest point of growth in a collection. I love collections that I would consider "greatest hits," but I always have the question of who's doing the curation or the cultivation. They make me ask: was this the publisher's idea, something that was done because the iron was hot (i.e. novelist x's essay collection as a follow-up the year after the novel was published)? Or were the parts more consciously planned as one day becoming a whole? There's accident and intention, surely, in any book, but what’s perhaps most interesting, if we’re talking about collections, is where those accidents and intentions overlap. What happens when the overly determined or structured is allowed room to breathe? Or when the seemingly random is pushed to find resonance? That’s what draws me in: those moments when collections go from afterthought to after thought.


Monday, April 2, 2018

Int'l Essayists: Mary-Kim Arnold on How Language Makes & Unmakes Us

I decide to study Korean and so I spend a series of Saturday afternoons in a cramped classroom fifty miles from home.

We are asked why we are taking the class and the answers are somewhat predictable – an upcoming trip to Korea, the requirements of one grant program or another. When it comes to me, I say, “I am a poet and I want to learn another language to take apart its grammar, to understand its syntax.” 

My instructor nods approvingly and I grow attached to the way this sounds. 

To take apart grammar, to understand syntax. This is an intellectual inquiry – a purely academic exercise. 

But I know that I am there for another reason that is more complicated, more personal, and harder to articulate. Or perhaps, I am simply unwilling or unready to vocalize it. 


We learn vowels first. 

After several repetitions, he holds up his hand and shakes his head. 

“No, no,” he says. “Hold your mouth like this.” 

He makes a perfect circle with his lips: “Oooo,” he says, “oooo.” 

We try. “No, no,” he says, “Oooo. Not oooo.” The sounds he makes are indistinguishable to our American ears. 

He says, “You have to move your mouth. You have to move your body.” He bends his knees then bounces up as he expels sound. “Oooo.” 

“If you are doing it right,” he says, “you should feel the energy through your body. Do you feel it?” 

I want to feel it. 


Hangul, the Korean alphabet, was developed in 1443 by King Sejong, who documented its creation in the Hunmin Jeongeum (“The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People”).

Until the invention of Hangul, written Korean relied upon Chinese characters known as hanja. The number and complexity of the hanja characters meant that only the privileged elite – almost exclusively male aristocrats – were literate. 

Hangul was designed so that even a commoner could learn to read and write. 

Despite opposition by some scholars who saw the use of Hangul as a threat to their status, this new alphabet made its way into the popular culture, with notable widespread use among women, even for a time referred to – dismissively of course – as “women’s script.” 


Confucian principles, which guided Korean society during the Choson period, long had excluded women from public life, assigning them to the private sphere of domesticity – home and care of the family, while men occupied the outer realm – politics, ethics, and the ownership of property.

Although intended to be complementary (rather than strictly hierarchical), this split between public and private spheres effectively meant that women were denied formal education, legal rights, and economic means. 

The relative simplicity of Hangul, however, allowed women to learn to read and write. Some of the earliest preserved texts and poems (kyubang kasa – literally, “lyrical verse of the inner room”) recorded advice and reflections on domestic life passed from mothers to daughters. 

From its earliest usage then, Hangul conveyed something of women’s lived experiences between and among women and through time.


Lady Hyegyong (1735-1815), Consort to Crown Prince Sado, is recognized as one of Korea’s earliest women writers. In her memoirs, she provides a compelling, deeply personal account of tragedy and madness in courtly life. 

She was married to Crown Prince Sado when they were both nine years old. The Prince suffered from mental illness and as he got older, his behavior became increasingly violent and erratic, and the potential threat to the royal family became clearer as his cruelty and violence escalated. In the summer of 1762, when the Crown Prince was 27 years old, his father, King Yongo – honoring the court rules against shedding royal blood – ordered him sealed into a rice chest, where he remained for eight days until he died. 

In her first-person narration of these, she defied the standard conventions of memoirs of the time, which were primarily written to convey Confucian moral principles. By discussing power struggles, retribution, complicated psychological profiles of the royal family, Lady Hyegyong’s writings served to “re-compose” the public record of history to reflect her own lived experience. 


In 1876, the Treaty of Ganghwa was intended to open Korea, which had maintained a policy of isolation for centuries – even being known as the “hermit kingdom” – to foreign trade. Although Japan and Korea were to be treated as equal in status, the terms of the agreement were far from equal. 

The signing of this treaty became the first formal step toward Japanese occupation, which began officially in 1910. 

During the 35 years of Japanese rule, Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese cultural and religious practices. 

For more than a decade, the Korean language was banned in schools, businesses, and public places under penalty of death. 

To speak one’s own language was to risk erasure. 


What is the relationship between language and culture? 

American linguist Joshua Fishman points out several. A language long associated with the culture “is best able to express most easily, most exactly, most richly, with more appropriate overtones, the concerns, artifacts, values, and interests of that culture.” There is also a symbolic relationship – in that a language stands for a culture and sums it up – “the whole economy, religion, healthcare system, philosophy, all of that together is represented by the language.” 

Perhaps the most important dimensions, Fishman suggests, concern the extent to which the language contains a sense of sanctity – the language embodies the mind, soul, and spirit of a people; kinship – in that it creates the ability to recognize who belongs to and with whom; and moral imperative –that the internal experience of language compels the desire to preserve it and to ensure its continuity.

What is Korean-ness, then without the Korean language? 


In her book Dictée, Korean American filmmaker, visual artist, and writer Theresa Hak Kyung Cha addresses her mother, who lived through the Japanese occupation: 

The national song forbidden to be sung. Birth less. And orphan. They take from you your tongue...

To have one's language and one's own name forcibly suppressed, Cha suggests, is akin to a renunciation of one’s birth. Without her mother tongue, she is orphaned. To be without name and without language is a kind of exile. 


I was born in Korea and adopted when I was just older than two. Here is some of what I know from official documents. 

In 1973, I was found abandoned at the Dongdoochun Homes for Babies. There, I was given the name Mi Jin Kim.

Soon after, I was placed in the care of a foster family while I awaited adoption. 

On a night in the late spring of 1974, after the transcontinental flight from Seoul to New York, I landed at JFK airport. A woman I had never seen before met me there. She pointed to herself and spoke the Korean word for mother. 

“Language is not a handmaiden to perception; it is perception,” says literary theorist Stanley Fish. “It gives shape to what would otherwise be inert and dead. The shaping power of language cannot be avoided.” 

What transpired in those moments when this language was uttered? How and to what extent did this woman, daughter of Portuguese immigrants, become my mother? (And what of my Korean mother?) How was my notion of mother, of self, shaped by this utterance? 


Cha was born in 1951 in Busan. 

Poet Myung Mi Kim was born in Seoul in 1957. 

Cha arrived in the United States with her family in 1963. Three years later, Myung Mi Kim and her family arrived, and seven years after that, I landed at JFK. 

I like to think there is a continuous line of kinship between us. I like to think that in their texts, I can find a record of their lived experience as Korean women. Poets. Artists. Documentation, like in the tradition of Lady Hyegyong, that can serve to re-compose the public history. 


Myung Mi Kim’s poem, “Into Such Assembly” begins with these lines: 

Can you read and write English? Yes____. No____.
Write down the following sentences in English as I dictate them.
There is a dog in the road.
It is raining.
Do you renounce allegiance to any other country but this?
Now tell me, who is the president of the United States?
You will all stand now. Raise your right hands.[1]

This passage calls to mind an examination of sorts, designed to assess (English) language skills and allegiance to the United States. 

Allegiance is defined as loyalty or commitment of a subordinate to a superior or of an individual to a group or a cause. Allegiance then is related to power. Consider its synonyms: Fidelity. Homage. Devotion. Obedience. 

These lines also highlight the connection between language acquisition and assimilation. 

In order to proclaim allegiance to one nation, one must renounce it to any other nation, and by extension, renounce the language of that nation as well. 

Assimilation demands nothing less than erasure of one’s language, one’s sense of self as mediated by and through that language. 


“Korean is a physical language,” our instructor tells us. “You have to be in your body to speak it.”

Beyond pursing one’s lips to make the proper “oooo” sounds, I am uncertain what he means by this. But since this is, after all, an intellectual exercise, I spend an afternoon reading about the relationship between the body and language. 

I read that in infants, motor development is associated positively with language development.

“Advanced motor skills provide [infants with] more opportunities to explore their world,” and this physical exploration – holding, pointing to, or shaking an object, for example, and the related attention given to those objects – enhance language learning.[2]

But perhaps a deeper, richer connection between the body and language is to be found in linguistic embodiment, one of the central theses of cognitive linguistics:

The meanings of language are embodied, which means that it is the speaker’s bodily experience that triggers the linguistic expressions that carry the meaning(s) to the hearer(s).

In other words, “our construction of reality is likely to be mediated in large measure by the nature of our bodies.” 

This theory of course, extends beyond the Korean language, but to language acquisition, use, and transmission, more broadly. The implications, as I understand them, suggest that we create meaning in and through language as a result of the way we experience of the world – i.e., 

We can only talk about what we can perceive and conceive, and the things that we can perceive and conceive derive from embodied experience. This means that our mind bears the ‘imprint of embodied experience.’[3]

When a mind is shaped then, in one language and one’s earliest bodily experiences transpire in one culture, what is the effect on that mind, on that body, when it is taken from that culture and placed in another?


Cha examines the physical act of speaking. She breaks the actions of utterance down in painstaking detail: 

The entire lower lip would lift upwards then sink back to its original place. She would then gather both lips and protrude them in a pout taking in the breath that might utter some thing….But the breath falls away. With a slight tilting of her head backwards, she would gather the strength in her shoulders and remain in this position…. From the back of her neck she releases her shoulders free.[4]

Producing speech is not only physical, but there is discomfort, even pain associated with utterance: “Inside is the pain of speech the pain to say…. It festers inside. The wound… Must break.” 

The speaker feels the language in her body, describes it: 

Now the weight begins from the uppermost back of her head, pressing downward. It stretches evenly, the entire skull expanding tightly all sides toward the front of her head. She gasps from its pressure, its contracting motion.

There is a sense here of an eruption of language, as if language itself had to break out, break through its bodily container. The degree to which the eruption can be located in the physical body calls attention to the mechanics, the apparatus of speech. 

This from Myung Mi Kim’s “Under Flag:” 

“No, ‘th’, ‘th’, put your tongue against the roof of your mouth,
lean slightly against the back of the top teeth, then bring your
bottom teeth up to barely touch your tongue and breathe out, and
you should feel the tongue vibrating, ‘th’, ‘th’, look in the mirror, that’s better”[5]

Both passages foreground not only the apparatus of language, but the difficulty of making sounds that are unfamiliar. 


It has been observed that in cases of international adoption, adoptees lose phonetic perception of their first language. 

Unlike bilingual language learners, international adoptees do not retain their birth language as a second language. Instead, development is completely halted because adoptive parents rarely maintain the native language.[6]

As Myung Mi Kim asserts in Penury

They must be taught the language which they must use in transacting / business with the people of this country.

Children adopted younger than the age of three will lose expressive skills (ability to speak) in the first language and their receptive skills (ability to recognize, understand) within six months. 

It stands to reason, given what we know about the relationship between language and culture, that the elements of cultural understanding contained within language are similarly lost to the adoptee.

“Neither, neither,” Myung Mi Kim states later in “Into Such Assembly.” “Who is mother tongue,” she asks, “who is father country?” 

This suggests the disorientation of losing one’s language and the relationship of losing one’s language to one’s sense of self. There is a discontinuity, a rupture that defines the experience. 

Kim states that “Korean” and “American” are categories that don’t fully or specifically define her current sense of self. Although she writes of childhood memories, she calls her facility with the Korean language “truncated, stunted, and ruptured.” The language is not something that she fully knows or can fully possess. 

Regarding English, which she finds more effortless to pronounce, she is still “otherized” in America because of her Korean appearance. 

American, but not American. Korean, but not Korean. 

“Poetry,” says Kim, “is what happens when something is being held on either side of the predicament."


Our instructor tells us that Korean sentences are ordered as follows: 

subject + verb
subject + object + verb 

There is no verb inflection for tense or number. There are no articles. Relative pronouns are not used and there is no gender agreement with pronouns. Passives are not commonly used. 

He makes up, on the spot, a silly anecdote to illustrate the difference between Korean and English syntax. 

Your friend calls you on the phone, he says, and the connection is not good. You want your friend to bring you an apple. In English, you would say: “I want an apple.” But the phone cuts out before you finish the sentence. So all your friend hears is “I want,” and she would never know what it was you wanted. 

In Korean, you would say: “I apple want,” so your friend would hear the important words – you and apple. Your friend would know something about you and about the apple. Or, in Korean, you could just say “apple,” and assume that your friend knows it’s about you and could probably conclude that you want an apple. And then she would bring it to you. 

We all laugh. But might this emphasis suggest some implicit Korean value? 

Might we be able to suggest that the fact that a relationship exists between the subject and the object of the sentence is more important than the nature of that relationship, or – perhaps more accurately – more important than the action that transpires between them? 


We are told there is no verb tense in Korean. There are ways to indicate time of course, but the verbs themselves are always in the present tense. I do not know enough Korean to really understand to what extent this is true or at least, applicable, but the idea lodges itself and I turn it over in my mind: A continuous present moment? An ongoing state of being? 

Stanley Fish asserts: 

Sentences promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world. That is what language does: organize the world into manageable, and in some sense artificial, units that can then be inhabited and manipulated.

Among the few documents of my adoption, beneath the heading “The Natural Parents,” the following sentence is typed: 

The child’s natural parents are both unknown as the child was found abandoned. 

There is at least some reason to question the veracity of this statement – given what we know about children whose identities were switched, and children with living parents who were sent abroad. And one can easily imagine this same line repeated in exactly this same way on the documents that accompanied the estimated 200,000 Korean children adopted internationally. 

But it is the past tense and the passive construction that is of interest here. We learn that passivisation of verbs is rare in Korean, and one wonders whether this particular turn of phrase, this particular grammar is uniquely suited to communicating the unequivocal availability of Korean children to the waiting families overseas. 

The past and passivisation in this case, effectively close the door on the possibility of maintaining the family lineage. 

No other syntactical arrangement would accomplish the desired effect: “The child was found abandoned.” 

If language is perception – defines it – as Fish asserts, then I wonder how this statement might have alternately been rendered in Korean. 

Parents child abandon. 

Unknown parents child abandon. 

Parents child abandoning. 

But perhaps I am off the mark here. Perhaps the point is not what is done to child. Perhaps what is important here is that the subject, parents, and the object, child, exist and that a relationship – at least through syntactical proximity – exists between them. 


Another adoptee tells me that she believes it requires a certain kind of optimism to give up a child. A fervent belief that the pain of relinquishing the child in the present moment can be borne in service to the promise of the future. That the separation can be endured. 

The notion of enduring separation is a familiar one to a nation that has been divided for most of recent memory. Since 1945 and the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula has been divided into North and South. 

In the chaos that followed in the wake of the capture of Seoul and the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, hundreds of thousands of families were separated. Most believed this would be temporary. But after the armistice, the border at the 38th parallel between North and South Korea became the most heavily militarized border in the world. 

Theresa Cha, on returning to a nation, still divided: 

Here at my return in eighteen years, the war is not ended. We fight the same war. We are inside the same struggle seeking the same destination. We are severed in Two by an abstract enemy an invisible enemy under the title of liberators who have conveniently named the severance, Civil War. Cold War. Stalemate.

Even naturalization, even renouncing one nation for another does not guarantee belonging. Cha again, to her mother from Dictée

I have the documents. Documents, proof, evidence, photograph, signature. One day you raise the right hand and you are American. They give you an American Pass port [sic]. The United States of America. Somewhere someone has taken my identity and replaced it with their photograph…. Their signature their seals. Their own image. And you learn the executive branch the legislative branch and the third. Justice. Judicial branch. It makes the difference. The rest is past.

A certain kind of optimism compels a family to leave their country for an uncertain future. To renounce all that they know and take on new names, new images of self. The fervent belief (hope) that they can bear it. 

Myung Mi Kim, from the poem “Food, Shelter, Clothing:”

They had oared to cross the ocean
And where they had come to
These bearers of a homeland

And so a sense of homeland is carried with those who leave. But even denouncing allegiance to the nation of one’s birth in service to allegiance to another does not protect against the displacement, the rupture from one’s homeland. 

We homeland remember. 

We homeland belong. 

Belong: mid 14th c: “to go along with, properly relate to,” from be- intensive prefix, + longen “to go,” from Old English langian “pertain to, to go along with,” is of unknown origin. Sense of “be the property of” and “be a member of” first recorded late 14th c. 

We nation belong. 

We separation endure.


Don Mee Choi, Korean-American poet and translator of the contemporary Korean poet KIM Hyesoon, speaks of the power relationship between Korean and English: 

I would say that Korean is subordinate to English. South Korea has been a neocolony of the U.S. since 1945. Hence, English is not my second language. It is my colonial language like Japanese was my father’s… South Korea and the U.S. are not equal. I am not transnationally equal.

This statement foregrounds the ways in which Choi’s relationship and access to each language is shaped by her own lived experience and indisputably, this access to language also bears the weight of history – her own family lineage and kinship as well as the broader sociocultural and historical realities. 

Myung Mi Kim characterizes her own relationship to her native Korean language as shaped by the experience of exile – leaving Korea as a child, living in the space between cultures and languages. Her English is “perhaps an English that behaves like a Korean, an English shaped by a Korea.”[7]

It has been observed that the process of second-language acquisition is influenced by the language the learner already knows. This “language transfer” results from the interaction between the known language and the one being learned. While there does not seem to be a single, widely accepted theory as to why this occurs, one might hypothesize at least, that the bodily experience of language – what is held and carried in the body – plays some role in the speaker’s orientation toward and access to both languages. 


In How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, Fish asks: 

How many dimensions of assessment – of contexts within which assertion occurs – are there? The inventory would be endless.[8]

The organization of words in a sentence “shapes the items it gathers by relating them to each other in some ways, but not in all ways.” The goal, he says, “is not to be comprehensive, but….to communicate forcefully whatever perspective or emphasis or hierarchy of concerns attaches to your present purposes.” 

From this one might venture to hypothesize that a simple, declarative, narrative sentence represents a certain kind of harmony between one’s selected items and one’s organization. That is, a continuity between what is being said and the form in which it is being stated. In this case, there can be a seamlessness – an invisibility of the apparatus of language and its meaning. 

But when there is discontinuity – rupture, discord – between the language and its meaning – it is then that the very mechanics of the language are laid bare. 

Consider the following excerpt from Myung Mi Kim’s Penury

you speak English so well transcript 

The word “penury” is defined as a condition of extreme poverty or insufficiency. Scarcity, dearth. This lack characterizes the passage above. What cannot be said. The language itself becomes unspeakable. Unutterable. 

The inability to utter language is a kind of powerlessness embodied. The extremity of lack denies even the basic capacities of simple utterance. Not even sound can be produced from the organization of these letters; they are unpronounceable. 

In Cha’s Dictée, we are offered this attempt to characterize this loss, this rupture: 

Being broken. Speaking broken. Talk broken. Say broken. Broken speech. Pidgeon [sic] tongue. Broken word. Before speech.”[9]

The halting, stunted organization of these words, and the repetition of “broken” call attention to the inability of the words and sentences to convey any meaning beyond the simple fact of the (failed) attempt. 


Translation: early 14th c. – “to remove from one place to another.” From Old French translater and directly from Latin translatus for “carried over.” 

From Willis Barnstone’s “The ABC of Translating Poetry:” 

“Translation is the art of revelation. It makes the unknown known.” 

“Moving between tongues, translation acquires difference. Because the words and grammar of each language differ from every other language….” 

“A translation is never an exact copy. It is different. In translation perfect mimesis is impossible. But a fake or counterfeit of the original is possible, and usually it lacks criminality, since it stays close and calls itself what it is.” 

“A translation dwells in exile. It cannot return.”[10]

This notion of translation as “carried from one place to another” is useful in considering Myung Mi Kim’s observations of her sense of hybrid identity: 

I could be (and am often) variously hyphenated as a Korean-American poet, a Korean-American woman poet, an immigrant Korean-American woman poet, a Korean-American woman poet of the diaspora, a bilingual Korean-American woman poet, and so on. These markers are ethnicity, gender, displacement, migration, and linguistic affiliated, however, tend to reiterate the ‘purity’ of languages, inviolability of nation boundaries, and fixity of categories that elide the complex geopolitical and historical forces that produce these hyphenations.

To put another way, how can we talk about Korean-ness without acknowledging the role that the United States has played in what is contemporary Korea? From the Japanese occupation, through the Korean War and subsequent division along the 38th parallel, it is impossible to conceive of Korean-ness not being entangled with American intervention. 


The act of writing is an act of discovery, uncovering the self through language. To refuse chronology, to refuse narrative linearity, to resist a logic of causality – all these allow space to tell a story that must be apprehended, taken in, understood, only in a form that itself resists definition. 

The trauma of displacement and the rupture of exile locate the exiled in a space of mutation between Korea and the United States, between the English language and Korean, between the past and the present. This alternate, mutated space – a liminal space – becomes a site of the ongoing act of re-creation, re-composition. 

Early in Dictée, Cha presents a series of short passages as lists that a language learner might encounter, with the command: “Traduire en francais:” (Translate into French) 

1. I want you to speak.
2. I wanted him to speak.
3. I shall want you to speak.
4. Are you afraid he will speak?
5. Were you afraid they would speak?
6. It will be better for him to speak to us. 

The simple sentences accumulate, demonstrating the forms of the verb “to want,” calling attention to the mechanics of language, but their concern with speaking also foregrounds the preoccupation with and the significance of speech. 

This passage suggests the longing and desire of the exiled to make speech, the fear of utterance, and in the last sentence, even the threat of consequence of speaking or not speaking. 

This ongoingness, this continuous present – calls to mind verb construction in Korean. My knowledge of Korean at this point is so elementary as to be nearly hazardous in this case, but I am pleased by at least the possibility that the continuous activity of recreating language through lived experience might have some referent in Korean grammar, might itself be steeped in Korean understanding – in the sense of “sanctity” to which Fishman refers. 

That it is in fact, a reflection of Korean-ness – its sanctity, its kinship – to suggest that as transplanted, hybrid, hyphenated exiles – from Cha, to Kim, to myself – it is our way of enacting our sense of moral imperative – to reconfigure legibility, to attend to the liminal, to narrate and document the interstices of languages and culture. 

To foreground the rupture. 

To embody and embrace it. 

Mary-Kim Arnold is the author of Litany for the Long Moment, which was selected by Carla Harryman for the 2016 Essay Press Open Book Prize. A multidisciplinary artist and writer, her work has appeared in a number of literary and art journals, including The Georgia Review, Hyperallergic, and The Rumpus, where she serves on the Advisory Committee. The recipient of fellowships from the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, she holds graduate degrees from Vermont College of Fine Arts and Brown University, where she teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program. She was born in Seoul, South Korea and lives in Rhode Island.

[1] Kim, Myung Mi. Under Flag. Berkeley, CA. Kelsey Street Press. 1998. Print. 
[2] Behrens, Melissa, and Jaimie Hauch. "Does Motor Development Influence Language Development." Marquette University, n.d. Web. 20 May 2015. 
[3] Ibid. 
[4] Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictée. Berkeley, CA. Third Woman Press. 1995. Print. 
[5] Kim, Myung Mi. Under Flag. Berkeley, CA. Kelsey Street Press. 1998. Print. 
[6] Nelson, Stacy L. “International Adoption and Language Development.” Research Papers. Paper 227. Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Web. 2012. 19 May 2015. 
[7] Uhm, Jean. “’Languaging’ the Third Space.” Jacket2. Jacket Magazine. Web. 2013. 19 May 2015. 
[8] Fish, Stanley. How To Write a Sentence and How To Read One. New York, NY. HarperCollins. 2001. Print. 
[9] Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictée. Berkeley, CA. Third Woman Press. 1995. Print. 
[10] Barnstone, Willis. “The ABC of Poetry Translation.” Academy of American Poets. Web. 2001. 18 May 2015.