The PEN Ten with Don Mee Choi
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks with Don Mee Choi, the author of The Morning News Is Exciting (Action Books, 2010), and translator of contemporary Korean women poets. Her most recent translation is Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (Action Books, 2014).
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
When I was little, while my father was photographing the war in Vietnam, I kept myself busy by drawing and writing. My writing was actually nothing more than illegible scribbles. I was a little Korean girl living in South Korea, pretending to write in English. I wrote prescriptions for the sick and the injured. And the reason why I was scribbling in English was because I thought my father was a foreigner since he was always away, somewhere far. So I wanted to grow up to be a foreigner like my father. It appears that is exactly what I have become—a foreigner writing in English.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, Marosa di Giorgio, Robert Walser, Jorge Santiago Perednik, Yi Sang, and Kim Hyesoon. In fact, I do more than steal from Kim Hyesoon. I write just like her when I translate her poetry.
Where is your favorite place to read?
At home, in my cheap Ikea armchair. Somehow it works well for my short legs.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
Never. My father shielded us from any likely arrests by getting us out of South Korea while we were still little during the military dictatorship. But my older brother was arrested during a student demonstration against the dictatorship; luckily, he was released without being beaten or tortured. Just before I was about to leave for the U.S. in 1981 to study art, someone from the South Korean government, on his way back to Seoul from his overseas trip, stopped in Hong Kong and repeatedly advised me never to do anything “illegal,” meaning I should not get involved in any anti-government/dictatorship-related activities. He said that they knew where and what every Korean living overseas was doing. My politico-aesthetic stance and practice as a poet and translator is “illegal” and will likely remain so. I will let you know if and when an arrest ever happens.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Dougal McNeill, who teaches postcolonial literature and science fiction at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, kindly noted my obsessions in his article, “Migration, My Nation,” for Overland (Spring 2014): “‘Follow orderly obsessions’, one of Choi’s poems commands: these obsessions are war, language, translation, dislocation.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
In my forthcoming book, Hardly War, I wrote poems related to massacres committed by South Korean troops during the Vietnam War. Maybe this is a daring thing, I don’t know. I had nightmares after learning about the massacres. The ways in which the imperial war impacts “willing” nations such as South Korea economically, culturally, and politically is truly profound—profound in what it does to a small nation that is already war-devastated and traumatized. The small nation internalized racist colonial violence, received monetary incentives for sending its troops, and carried out horrific acts against the Vietnamese. I would go as far as to say S.K. was a mercenary nation for the U.S. during the war. And the legacy persists in the ongoing War on Terror. “Empire must go!” is what I wrote in my first book, The Morning News is Exciting.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
The Brazilian writer I admire, Clarice Lispector, said that she insists on not being a professional, to keep her freedom. Like Lispector, we writers should insist on staying amateurs to keep our freedom. Only thing I’ll add to this is: get out of debt. It may not be possible for most of us though. The majority of my time goes to paying off debt. As Foucault pointed out already, confinement is no longer needed, for we are disciplined by time/work. For me, time is not money. Time is freedom.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I like Edward Said’s term and notion: “The exilic intellectual does not respond to the logic of the conventional but to the audacity of daring, and to representing change, to moving on, not standing still.” And this may sound dictatorial, but it is clear to me what our collective purpose is. Deleuze already told us what it is—we are to resist order words. Le Guin echoes: “Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.”
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
Raúl Zurita’s Song for His Disappeared Love (Action Books, 2010), superbly translated by a brilliant poet, Daniel Borzutzky.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Surveillance is obviously about discipline and control. I like to think that observation is the line itself, an “illegal” line.