Twins, Orphans, Angels: on the work of Don Mee Choi

I. Introduction

It has taken me a number of months to work out how to write about Don Mee Choi’s two works of poetry and poetic translation Hardly War and DMZ Colony (Wave Books), and I should say at the outset that, as a white, English, male non-translator with only a smattering of a couple of European languages and someone whose awareness of Korean history is, or was, negligible, I have approached them first and foremost from the perspective of a student. There was reading I needed to do before I was able to write anything about these works, and this reading has led to more reading and a journey which as I write is anything but over. I knew I needed to write about the two books together from a point a while back when I asked the poet in a brief tweet if the second, DMZ Colony, was intended as a sequel to the first, Hardly War; her response was that the two volumes were more like sisters. Given the metaphorical importance of the twin and the orphan to Choi’s work, splitting the two up didn’t seem right. I think they belong together and should be commented on as such. As I realised that it was impossible to engage with these works without also engaging with Choi’s theory of translation, I have also included her short essay-pamphlet Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode (Ugly Duckling Presse) as part of this review.

There are two more things to say by way of introduction before getting the review/essay underway. The first is an apology to readers for its length: in effect this is two or three blogposts in one as it’s based on three texts and various background works, so I’ve divided it into five sections to keep it feeling organised. The second is an admission of guilt, itself a partial explanation for the post’s length I think: I taught English as a foreign language to learners from around the world for nearly twenty years at a private langauge school in Cambridge, England; a good proportion of them were Korean, and in all that time I have somehow managed to remain almost completely ignorant of Korean history and culture (outside of an awareness of the tastiness of kimchi, the desirability of Jeju island as a holiday resort, and the fact that Korean and Japanese students would occasionally feel uncomfortable talking to each other about certain subjects – although this last was rare). That I have not been more interested over these years in the history and culture of my students says something about me and my context as ‘teacher of English’ that I don’t much like. Don Mee Choi’s work is allowing me to focus on and work through that.

II. ‘to fold race into geopolitics and geopolitics into poetry’

Hardly War and DMZ Colony are difficult to pigeonhole – they are at the same time translation, memoir, poetry, reportage, photo essay, polemic, experiment in radical translation, and an expression of both Choi’s own translation theory and those of others – notably Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and more contemporary theorists Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson. Choi’s project is political, but she sees clearly that the political, the racial and the poetic are all bundled together in language. As a translator, she is perfectly positioned, where one of the languages is of the dominant global power and one is of a people dominated by that power, to create a new and itself powerful voice which is able to destabilize the power imbalance, to create a rift or, as McSweeney & Göransson call it, a ‘deformation zone’ which “makes impossible connections… unsettling stable ideas of language”.

Choi examplifies this in Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode (from here on Translation) where she builds on Walter Benjamin’s Brot and pain as two words meaning ‘bread’ but which also (in my translation anyway) “strive to exclude each other” because they have different “ways of meaning” (Choi’s translation has this as “modes of intention” but pausing over the different translations of a theory of translation is way too meta for this essay!). Choi relates this to the Korean word for ‘cornbread’, oksusuppang, which combines the French pain with the Japanese oksusu to signify the food that was given to Korean schoolchildren after the Korean War as aid from the US. Here she shows us how the very language spoken strains against Korean sense of identity, nationality and race: a European word (Old Empires), a Japanese word (interim Empire) and a word which symbolises current US hegemony (contemporary Empire). “(M)y tongue”, she tells us “even before it had ever encountered the English language was a site of power takeover, war, wound, deformation, and, ultimately and already, motherless” and at this same level, the tongue level, she says the “seemingly benign humanitarian intention” behind the cornbread handed out by the US “creates involuntary longing, a life-long craving, which could easily be translated as a desire to be colonized”. We begin to understand the potential, the latent power of the translator who works with translation as an “anti-neocolonial mode” when she says “But my tongue deforms, it disobeys. I translate this longing, entangled with neocolonial dependency, as homesickness, which is a form of illness, a form of intensity.”

This strategy of opening up language at a base level to uncover the “wound” of the “deformation zone” is taken up right at the beginning of Hardly War, where Choi renames the US in its literal Korean language form as Beauty=Nation, (and by the same token she labels herself ironically Me=Gook). Here again politics and language come slamming up against each other. She points out in Translation that Korea is a country a quarter of the size of California with almost one hundred US bases, reasonably therefore relabelling Korea as a ‘neocolony’ of the US: a dependency in all but official designation whose military would revert to complete US control in time of war. What we are reading, then, is an expression of “geopolitical poetics”, which “involves disobeying history” and is where the Korean identity (what Choi calls “race=nation”) “gets to speak it’s own faint history in its own faint language”.

The geopolitical split between north and south is, of course, the ideological split between communism and capitalism. The rift in language that Choi opens up allows an escape for the reader able and willing to follow her from the dominant western placing of Korea as a metaphor of [north=commies=bad] versus [south=neolibs=good] to create a more complex and ideologically transgressive picture of a people’s oppression from the level of the individual identity up.

The notion of “disobeying history” and whispering a “faint language” remains throughout both books and is intimately connected to ideas around the potential of creativity for giving voice to those who have been silenced either by death or powerlessness. A good example is ‘The Orphans’ sequence of prose poems at the centre of DMZ Colony, in which Choi creates the voices of imaginary orphaned survivors of the Sancheong-Hamyang massacre of civilians by the South Korean army in 1951. As the symbolic voices of all the children who really existed and really died in the massacre, these poems feel like they are whispered by ghosts, who speak in honour of all the children who suffer in the world. “History is ever arriving”, Choi tells us in an introduction to the sequence, highlighting that all language and therefore all translation is part of the “collective consciousness” and implying that these imaginary voices have a genuine claim to be part of the ‘real’ world (and they feel harrowingly genuine) an implication given emphasis by the inclusion of sketches by Ahn-Kim Jeong-Ae, a feminist scholar and activist who provided Choi with detailed information about the massacres. Translation is not mediation, then, but creation; and it is key to this sequence that Choi wrote each of ‘The Orphans’’ voices first in Korean, in her own handwriting (shown in the book on the left-hand page) and then translated this into English (shown opposite the Korean). The faint language which disobeys history comes from neither the ‘translated from’ or the ‘translated into’ but from somewhere in between the two.

Immediately before ‘The Orphans’ comes Choi’s rendering of her interview with octogenarian North Korea sympathiser Ahn Hak-sǒp who was a political prisoner for many years and suffered torture at the hands of the south korean army. His voice comes through in the juxtaposition of the actual notes taken by Choi during their interview with the stoccato bursts of her transcribed translation, in a sequence which includes stream of consciousness, the repetition of words, the intrusion of handwriting, the breaking down of spoken language into poetic lineation and fragmentation, and even the opening up of ideas that come from Choi’s mis-readings of her own handwriting, suggesting new creative directions (“Toward Global Humanity”) almost like a form of (not-quite)-automatic writing which takes the writer and reader towards some metaphorical spirituality within the “deformation zone”. An old man’s voice transforms before our eyes into something which, like the orphans, takes on a higher level of symbolic power than it could have had without this poeticised translation.

It is, I think, impossible to locate the depth of meaning in Choi’s work without engaging sympathetically with the political thinkers who have influenced her. The trajectory down from Marx is clear from both her content and quotations and one of the places this is most manifest is in DMZ Colony’s ‘The Apparatus’. Here the philosophy of Louis Althusser combines with Kafka’s imagery from The Penal Colony and the poet’s own experience going through immigration into the US. Choi takes the sadistic horror of Kafka’s torture device and puts it into a dialogue with a distillation of Althusser’s repressive and ideological state apparatuses to create a powerful impression of them as equally violent, equally current, and equally to do with the domination of one language over another. Here translated quotations from fiction are elided with quotations from ideology theory, both of which are elided with the memories of the translator and the words of torture victim Mr Ahn, until the language becomes broken down into parentheses, split apart almost the way the prisoner was set to be cut into in Kafka’s short story (a fate which ultimately, and tellingly in this context, awaited the officer). There is violence being done to language in this section; this is more than a disturbance in meaning, it is the breaking of a symbolic system, or perhaps the symbolic breaking of a system. This is translation as insurrection.

III. ‘the eternal twoness’

As I mentioned above, Choi takes many of her cues from translation theorists Benjamin, Deleuze & Guattari, and McSweeney & Göransson and forges from their ideas a new aesthetic which as far as I know is hers alone. Translation is not the passing of a message from one who knows to one who doesn’t know, but a “map”, an area in which endless crossings are possible between the parties. The crossings are both ways, goings and returnings; and it is this notion of ‘return’ which is fundamental to an understanding of Choi’s work because it ties together her radical politics and poetics. Repetition and motif are used throughout Hardly War from the outset: the repetition of the same or similar images, and of words and phrases (a nice example comes from an unnamed poem in which official war narratives impose themselves on the strange, quiet, child language of a young Korean’s consciousness: “narrowly narrator”, “superbly so” and “the naturally convincing BBC” are repeated in words superimposed on an image of Choi as a child carrying her little brother on her back, which itself is in ‘slant-rhyme’ with a previous image of another Korean girl carrying her brother on her back in front of a tank in the Korea war). These motifs come and go, some returning later in the book, as they simultaneously fragment the narrative and provide it with cohesion (although narrative is probably the wrong word, progression of thought would be a better way of putting it). This idea is broadened out in DMZ Colony in the first section ‘Sky Translation’ when migrating snow geese inspire Choi to make the return to Korea both physically and as a creative project of translation. This brings us back to the longing of homesickness (home + sickness) that Choi translates from the internally-culturally-oppressed nature of the Korean language. It also evokes return in the sense of Korea returning to being a single country, to a position where the south is no longer a neocolony of the US and the north is no longer an ‘othered’ state.

The theme of twoness returning to oneness, or at least twoness existing singly, finds expression in the ‘twin’ motif, from which extends the doubleness implicit in the idea of repetition and return: “I come from a land where we are taught that the US saved us from Commies and that North Korea is our enemy. I come from a land of neocolonial fratricide. I come from such twoness. I speak as a twin” (Translation) But this is also the “eternal twoness” of (non-identical) twinhood that insists Benjamin’s “Translation is a mode” is paired with “Translation is an anti-neocolonial mode”, and which places the handwritten Korean notes of ‘The Orphans’ next to their typed English counterparts.

Choi’s father was a war photographer and her relationship with him and his photos is another central theme – daughter and father becoming yet another ‘twoness’. Uncovering the mysteries of her father’s absence when he was away in war zones and investigating the history he caught with his camera is one of the ways Choi explores the violence of the Korean War and the extended period of US-backed authoritarianism which followed it. The Hardly War sequence entitled ‘Hardly Opera’ surreally runs with ideas from Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (‘opera’ here being a pun on ‘operator’) and anecdotes from an interview with her father, as the translator becomes “the daughter of the Operator living inside the camera with Spectrum, with History. Everything and everyone inside the camera are mad. They also enact their wish, the wish to return to the world.” So return is again the key, the driving theme; but the flowers that her father now photographs in his old age become characters in a bizarre incanted world. They combine with the horrors and political turbulence the same camera saw, to be interpreted by the daughter, who perhaps also wishes for that part of the relationship with her father which was lost to his career, to be returned to her.

IV. ‘what moves across the mirror’

Yet another way in which ‘twoness’ or ‘return’ manifests in Choi’s work is in her treatment of mirrors. This is not ‘return’ in the sense of ‘reflection’, however, but “mirrors as sites of translation, deformation zones” (Translation), inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), by Korean poet Kim Hyesoon (whom I’ll come back to in a moment), and by their use in Korean shamanic tradition. In DMZ Colony, mirrors are primarily a tool for the creation of ‘Mirror Words’, backwardly-formed nonsense words of the ‘Erewhon’ variety. But they are not intended satirically as Samuel Butler’s was, rather, Choi tells us beautifully: “Mirror words are meant to compel disobedience, resistance. Mirror words defy neocolonial borders, blockades. Mirror words flutter along borders and are often in flight across oceans, even galaxies. Mirror words are homesick. Mirror words are halo. Mirror words are orphaned words.” The English-speaking reader is disturbed by this, having to do some translation for themselves, they are made foreign by the words, the translator is not providing a finished product as expected, she is requiring the reader’s engagement, attention, action. “Ruoy Ycnellecxe, / Si ti Laitram Wal? // Laturb Eripme!” As she says in Translation, something “miraculous” happens within the mirror; and Choi turns this zone of miracles on the South Korean regimes the late twentieth century.

Kim Hyesoon, whose work Choi translates, also make use of mirrors, and in Translation Choi quotes from Kim’s poem ‘Memories of Giving Birth to a Daughter’: “I open a mirror and enter, / mother is inside a mirror, sitting / I open a mirror and enter again, / grandmother is inside a mirror, sitting.” Here the mirror represents the oral tradition in shamanic tradition, which was the only place “women were free to express and explore their identities” because in their performance of rites, songs and stories they “were not subservient to men”, so Kim Hyesoon’s use of mirrors “derive from a historically and linguistically expelled zone” or, as Kim herself says: “…that place patriarchy, that male-centred thing breaks, the universality of all things breaks” (Translation). So, it is clear that the “disobedience” that mirror words compel is as applicable to patriarchy as it is to autocracy, and indeed the suggestion is that in terms of twentieth-century political history, the two are inextricable – another ‘eternal twoness’ perhaps. I’m not sure whether the centrality of Choi’s father to her work is ironic in this respect, but the internal dialogue she has with her memories and his photos in, for example, ‘Hardly Opera’ suggests that she is negotiating ideas of filial piety and family dynamics in Korean society (I’ve read a little on this in Bruce Cumings’s Korea’s Place in the Sun, which I got hold of to inform my understanding of Choi’s work) but if Choi is commenting on or subverting Korean patriarchy, it is at a level deeper than I have yet been able to reach!

It seems to me that an “expelled zone” of sorts is set up in the final section of DMZ Colony ‘(NEO) (=) (ANGELS)’ which compliments Choi’s father’s photographs with short prose poems, and which brings together many of Choi’s ideas, metaphors and concerns: fathers, mothers, children, orphans, cameras, martial law, birds, homesickness, colony, eternity. And it distills these themes, creating from them a voice which speaks with great clarity (all the clearer from coming straight after the mirror words section) of an identity for a unified Korean people, like the voices of ghosts from a twentieth century of domination, war and massacre, one which takes us right back to the first piece in Hardly War, ‘Race=Nation’, a new formulation of the “uri minjok” – the pre-war sense of Korean national identity which was, Choi tells us, an important factor in galvanising the anti-colonial independence movement during the Japanese occupation of 1910-1945: “Who are we really?” this voice asks, “Are we orphans of beauty? Are we angels of eternity?” These are questions late in the piece, which complicate statements made at the beginning: “In reality, we were all angels…orphans who aren’t orphans,. Angels who aren’t angels”.

Angels are in important image to end on: both ethereal and earthly, at once dead and living, here and not here. Where ghosts are passive, angels are active. They also take our minds back to the migrating birds, sharing with them both wings and the habit of crossing and returning between realms – the wings also represent twoness, twins or two mirrored halves. It is astonishing that Choi is able to combine so many of the complex strands of these books in a single symbolic figure, but in the figure of the angel she achieves just that.

V. Conclusion

This essay/review is incomplete, as they always are; it is one of the wonders of literary works that no attempt to encapsulate them will ever end in success – reading a review can never stand in for reading the actual text, only ever conveying a rudimentary picture of what it contains. What I have written here will seem uninformed and perhaps naïve to those more expert in the field of translation theory, and Korean culture and history, but as I said at the beginning Choi’s work is part of a journey I am still on and intending to continue.

I will have been successful as a reader and a reviewer if I have been able to convince even one of you who were not intending to do so, to take a good long, careful look at Hardly War and DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi; in the finest Marxist tradition, she is creating work which is not satisfied to ponder and reflect the world but wants to change it.

You can buy Hardly War here.

You can buy DMZ Colony here.

You can buy Translation is a Mode = Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode here.

You can read the New York Times review of Hardly War here.

You can read the Chicago Review of Books review of DMZ Colony here.

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