Migration, my nation!

Happy language! Shame is attached to syntax. Seal it or numb it. Most terrible pain you can imagine. Ask OED!
– Don Mee Choi


‘Sheer vicious ingratitude’ – Malcolm Turnbull’s attack on artists boycotting the Biennale of Sydney used a register Overland ought to find encouraging, biting the hand that feeds being one of the tasks and responsibilities for engaged and engaging arts. The experience of art, as Alison Croggon wrote in Overland 212, is ‘lodged inescapably in the body, and it can’t be abstracted without violence’.

Turnbull shared this language of the body, but added a suitably spiritual and transformative power to politicised art many Left theorists have long since abandoned. The boycotters, like vampire-hunters, ‘have potentially driven a stake […] through the biennale’. As Bob Marley said, Babylon system is the vampire, sucking the blood of the sufferers: if the Coalition’s policies are inhumane and its representatives inhuman, what better way to argue for the presence and power of the arts than to invest their withdrawal with these stake-driving powers?

Literature’s magical power has always been in its ability to name. This power – from Les Murray’s ‘This country is my mind’ all the way through to critiques of stereotyping – is a common ground over which conservatives and radicals quarrel, and it’s what has been done with these shared assumptions that I want to explore below. Attacks on both the biennale boycotts and the pro-Palestinian campaign for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) echo language more familiar on the liberal Left: the case for multiple identities and a diversity of voices, art’s power to expand visions and name new situations, the dignity of other voices. All this, so one liberal critique goes, is threatened by the exclusions that boycott campaigns promote. One statement, signed by prominent academics Cary Nelson, Michael Bérubé and others, denounces ‘rhetoric used by both sides which demonizes and dehumanizes the other’ in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here, the jargon of postcolonial studies is deployed in the service of liberal Zionism.

This structure of feeling, with literature and diversity paired so closely, has complex and sustained connections with our work in creating ‘progressive culture’; post-biennale discussions allow us to reflect not just on the question ‘why art?’ that Croggon posed, but also on how and to what end this art is consumed.

My contribution comes at this aslant. The reading of a group of contemporary Korean/American women poets that follows – a work of advocacy as much as analysis, presenting to an Australian audience some talents that, it seems to me, are under-read – proceeds as a reading against diversity and ‘multiple voices’. It tests a way of reading literature politically, or a way of reading political literature adequately, that maintains a sense of its richly ‘vicious ingratitude’, that preserves a feeling for how literary ambitions, properly realised, might have stake-driving powers of their own.

Emily Apter, in Against World Literature, challenges our complacent assumption that reading for diversity, for multiple voices and minority views, is a necessarily leftist practice. She sees ‘tendencies in World Literature toward reflexive endorsement of cultural equivalence and substitutability, or toward the celebration of nationally and ethnically branded “differences” that have been niche-marketed as commercialised “identities”.’ For Apter, translation studies and world literature set out to offer humanist encouragement for those acting against the very border-policing mindset that brought us mandatory detention and the culture wars, but, in the process, they ‘could not escape being too pluralistic, too ecumenical, insufficiently hard-line in the face of appropriation by universities seeking to justify the down-sizing of national literature departments or the cutting of “foreign” language instruction’.

This is a point various liberal and moralist hashtag wars miss: capital thrives on diversity, on a host of contending identity positions as possibilities for consumption spread out across its smooth spaces, in literary objects contending as so many unique expressions of ever-more fragmented identities. World literature, gathering all this together into easily ingested ‘ethnic’ food, may have reinforced the very tendencies its leftist promoters imagined literature worked to undermine. ‘You imagine what you desire’, the biennale’s slogan ran – what better expression of consumerist fantasy could there be?

The contemporary English-language poets discussed below write against ‘world literature’ and, in the process, offer a salutary model for political poetry. Their significance lies not in their explorations of the complexities of ‘Korean’ or ‘Korean-American’ or ‘Korean-American woman’ as subject positions or as opportunities for constructing minority/oppositional voices, though all these poets explore these questions with sensitivity and intelligence. Their power comes from their poems’ hostility to these questions as framing devices and limits to investigation, in their determination – to borrow George Brandis’ bullying terms to the Arts Council – to ‘pressure’ and ‘insult’, to draw connections between ‘political opinions’ and artistic reputation and practice. Don Mee Choi, Suji Kwock Kim and Cathy Park Hong – quite different artists lashed together here for polemical purposes – offer not only an alternative model to world literature, but also an inspiration for thinking about politicised art in depoliticised times. Theirs is a writing of disruption, of forcing history into view when dominant modes of reading – liberal as much as conservative – insist it remain subordinate to the personal voice and identity. ‘Follow orderly obsessions’, one of Choi’s poems commands: these obsessions are war, language, translation, dislocation. The Korean presence in the US, a presence with its origins in the US war on the Korean peninsula, generates productive points of comparison with the Australian fortress of the Pacific solution.

Choi came to the US via Hong Kong, and works as a translator as well as a poet. Her own life, marked by difficult border-crossings and dislocations between languages, mirrors the breaks explored in her work. Choi is also the English translator of Kim Hyesoon, thus she brings in alongside her own work a whole undiscovered canon of avant-garde Korean feminist poetics. Disruption as tradition building: ‘I see Kim’s poetry’, Choi writes, ‘as a poetry of translation. And in my role as a translator I guide Kim’s translated, blackened self to another place, another language, across a bridge forged by history – the history of the US presence in Korea since 1945.’Choi reverses Seamus Heaney’s line that ‘hope and history rhyme’ on the far side of revenge: her historicising, her drawing attention to a need for revenge or a reckoning forgotten in mainstream US culture, sees translation and tragedy chime. Hyesoon hovers behind all this, her own work seeking to generate proliferation:

Again, I will call you my muse
The life span of each muse varies, but they are always alive
Muses multiply by themselves, they even produce litters
I call out the names of my uses one by one.

These poets make a political point in their experiments with form. Accents, registers, voices and texts ‘blend and clash’ in a cacophony of competing discourses, the poems working through the contests that language enables more than the identities that it might stabilise. Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution (2007) narrates journeys in a strange land undergoing an American-style decline: the Guide (a dissident who fled Korea after the Kwangju protests were crushed) takes us through the Desert and its peculiar Creole tongue, while the Historian annotates – in so-called Standard English – the Guide’s poems. Hong’s science-fictional, dystopian landscape – ‘y lovelorn Balladeers incite Brueglian mobs …’ – radically estranges any sense of the US managing unity in diversity. This is the audacity of hopelessness. In ‘the Desert, the pulse of unrest works unpredictably, in canny acts of sabotage engineered by exiled natives who crave for time to stand still’. Hong offers here a good summary of her own poetics, promoting a kind of studiously impersonal, multi-vocal lyric: ‘in the Desert […] new faces pour in and civilian accents morph so quickly that their accents betray who they talked to that day rather than their cultural roots.’ The power of these poems is in their disconnection of ‘cultural roots’ from questions of history: Hong insists on forcing the Kwangju massacre into the US poetic imagination without making use of some stabilising claim to ‘Korean-American’ identity. Her stance is in contrast to the more familiar affiliation of the lyrical ‘I’ and cultural negotiation, explored for instance in Ishle Yi Park’s ‘Jejudo Dreams’:

I’m drowning in the land to which she swam,
and when I try to speak my language, my tongue
flops in my mouth like a dying fish

History is what hurts. Kim’s poems start with what reads like so much familiar auto-mythology, only for the component parts to rearrange themselves into something public and political. ‘Generation’, the opening poem from her collection Notes from the Divided Country (2003), narrates gestation and birth, but its metaphors introduce the historical into what a reader might have expected to be family drama: ‘We didn’t want to be born we didn’t want. / Blindly their hands groped for us like dragnets trawling for corpses.’ The grotesquerie of that final image generates its discomfort from being positioned between metaphor and simple statement: the Korean War – its violence and traumas erupting unexpectedly in poems of ‘private’ life in a seemingly de-historicised North American literary context – assumes a centrality without being represented via the readerly comforts of comparison or myth. It is ‘too real and not real enough’:

What was it I saw
in your gaze, the maze

of you: corridors of years, corridors of war, black wheat-hair ripening –
the last shape sown in closing eyes.

The words have their own woods.
Where the words can’t go further: where the woods begin

that make us mad, too real and not real enough.

Echoes of Auden’s ‘children afraid of the night’!

These poems literalise their metaphors, to borrow China Miéville’s phrase. ‘All at once the world’s game plan is on fire,’ Ch’oe Sung-ja’s ‘From a Place Where I Can’t Call You as You’ announces in Choi’s translations, ‘and the dream explodes like when, / by chance, you step on a land mine.’ This chance encounter with a landmine is as much an evocation of lived reality, of Korean history, as it is estranging metaphor. Seo-Young Chu has called this poetry science-fictional for the way it involves a high-intensity mimesis, struggling to render visible historically repressed traumas and intergenerational legacies of conflict. The lyrical ‘I’ works not for identity or expression, then, but is caught, Chu claims, in a ‘nonconsensual descent relation represented as being so powerful that it persists regardless of whether the parent or child consents to it.’ Kim’s ‘Generation’ is as much about the generation of this kind of resistance – from those who didn’t want to be born and by those in the war they have been born into – as it is a claim to any speaking position.

The Korean War is the forgotten war of US imperialism, its complexities effaced from public record by endless kitsch variations on the Team America rendition of the ‘secretive kingdom’, the ongoing reality of the conflict denied by histories of the Cold War. Korean writers in America may possess, then, a privileged situation in which they are surrounded by the ‘host of fragmented subjectivities’ and ‘dying individual bodies without collective pasts or futures’ in the contemporary US as they are prompted to be ‘situational and materialist despite’ themselves (to use phrases from Frederic Jameson’s notorious article ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’). Their history – the circumstances that led to them speaking in English in the US at all – forces a wider history of population displacement, war and US neo-colonialism to speak its name.

Choi manages, in a translator’s note, to combine the ‘sheer vicious ingratitude’ Turnbull detects in political artists with a sensitivity to the ways in which ‘the poetic’ can obscure history:

A while back, I submitted a short poem by Kim Hyesoon called ‘A Hole’ to a US literary journal. The editors were interested in publishing it, but they asked if I could change the word ‘hole,’ which recurs throughout the poem, to something else because it had negative connotations in this culture. I was too busy trying to finish up some other work then, so I politely said I didn’t have the time to think about this whole matter. I can finally say something about it. To change ‘hole’ to something else would mean changing the world ‘A Hole’ came from. During the Korean War about 250,000 pounds of napalm per day were dropped by the United States forces. Countless mountains, hills, rice fields, and houses were turned into holes. Four million perished, leaving more holes. It’s a place that is positively holey. Kim Hyesoon’s hole poem comes from there, and so do I. At school, I was taught that Korea looked like a side view of a rabbit. Its severed waist stitched up with barbed wire, its scorched belly studded with a million landmines, its adorable ears branded as an axis-of-evil. As a defect, I don’t know how to affect something else other than bunny cartography.

Word choices and politics crash against each other in productively difficult ways. Kim, Hong and Choi all write ‘hard’ poetry – poetry concerned with refusing the status of the ‘beautiful’ – but this theoretical and experimental trickiness is always secured, thanks to the problem of location and history, to specific political dilemmas. A humour emerges in all this: ‘Epi and phony, view well, limber’ one of Choi’s poems riffs; Hong’s Korean-American is ‘no Don / Ju-Yuan’. The wrench of migration – from the Korea turned to holes by the US to a US in which the Korean War is a hole in public memory – is explored to deconstruct more complacent liberal models of citizenship:

I’mma double migrant. Ceded from Koryo, ceded from
‘Merikka, ceded y ceded until now I seizam
dis sizable Mouthpiece role … now les’ drive to the Interior

Elizabeth Bishop’s presence in the background of that final line points to another strategy all three writers share. Voices, echoes and allusions proliferate in their works, not only making a reading for voice as ‘identity’ impossible, but also de-provincialising English-language inheritances, de-coupling poetic models from national traditions. Kim plunders Herbert, Akhmatova, Brecht, Dickinson, Shakespeare; Choi draws from Deleuze and Guattari, Borges, Spivak; Hong takes from everywhere and everyone. Theirs is neither a literature of globalisation nor an assertion of Korean uniqueness; the journey through the Desert produces, instead, politicised cacophony using the Korean experience as a point of comparison for other displaced, refugee and besieged groups in the era of the NSA and mass surveillance and incarceration:

An ad pops up in the air for a trip to Cabo San Lucas.
The snow is still in beta.
You feel the smart snow monitoring you,
uploading your mind so anyone can access your content.
Circuits cross and you hear a one-sided chant:
Da! Da! Da!

One reasons, Apter suggests, ‘why literary studies falls short as anti-capitalist critique is because it insufficiently questions what it means to “have” a literature or to lay claim to an aesthetic property.’ Literary communities, she goes on, in a marvellous phrase, ‘are gated’: ‘“border crossing” has become such an all-purpose, ubiquitous way of talking about translation that its purchase on the politics of actual borders – whether linguistic or territorial – has been attenuated.’ These poets replace the ‘border crossing’ of safer forms of art with the jagged edges of real borders, in linguistic misunderstanding and citizenship denied: ‘there is no mother tongue,’ Choi spins off from Deleuze and Guattari, ‘only a power takeover by a dominant language. Then translation for me is a form of exile and empire. Are & I.’ Hong’s Guide keeps her language tricky, clotted, unclear, the better to refuse relegation to the status of another commodity ‘en de world muzak section’ of the store. The editors of a recent collection of Contemporary Asian Australian Poets found that, for their project, ‘divisions seemed contrived and [to] distract from shared concerns and poetics, creating artificial boundaries where there is fluidity and dialogic interaction among the poets and poems.’ Kim, Choi and Hong outline a different approach: Korean history is in these poems a necessary distraction, that which diverts attention usefully away, that which returns at inappropriate moments, that which makes demands of writer and reader to

make audible
whose spirits could not be broken,
whose every breath seemed to say:
after things turned to their worst, we began again,
but may you never see what we saw,
may you never do what we’ve done,
may you never remember & may you never forget.

Our project at Overland requires reading against both the openly anti-political stance of Turnbull and Brandis and against the premature stabilisation of meaning liberal discourse of identity provides. These poets, all wonderfully ‘viciously ungrateful’ to the US that is their home, provide, in their dislocations, false starts, difficult lines and un-cosmopolitan cacophony of voices, models for an internationalism that slips neither into the delusions of world literature nor into the slicker consolations of globalisation. They offer resources of a hope, ‘the only hole in a world of light’.

Dougal McNeill

Dougal McNeill teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. He also blogs at Nae Hauf-Way Hoose and is an editor of Socialist Review. He’s currently writing a book on politics, modernist literature and the 1926 General Strike in Britain. He tweets as @Lismahago.

More by Dougal McNeill ›

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