TANYA KO HONG IN CONVERSATION WITH GEORGE WALLACE
Tanya (Hyonhye) Ko Hong, poet, translator and cultural curator, has been published in Rattle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Entropy, Cultural Weekly, Korea Times, and in the great weather for MEDIA anthology, The Other Side of Violet. She has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. An advocate of bilingual poetry, promoting the work of immigrant poets, she lives in Palos Verdes, California. website
George Wallace: I wonder if you would share with us a little bit about your background, growing up in Korea and coming to America......
Tanya Ko Hong: I come from Korea. I was born eleven years after the Korean War ended. Many of my memories were formed around Suk Soo Dong, a town where Korean War survivors developed businesses that served an American military base. As a child, I was surrounded by lots of western culture through the base and, simultaneously, by my own Korean culture. I thought in the United States everything would be forever magical and happy.
When I arrived in America, I was 18 years old and it took me a long time to understand the reality. I had a typical immigrant life, I think. The circumstances were hard. Like most immigrant parents, my father worked two jobs. He worked in a dry-cleaning shop and cleaned offices. My mother was still in Korea.
I had culture shock but didn’t realize it at the time. I had come from a strict girls school, where students had to wear uniforms, obey the rules and respect teachers. When I got to America I went to public high school to finish school and it was a shocking to see how students dressed, talked, and interacted with teachers.
There was the language problem, of course. I wanted to talk but I couldn’t speak English very well. In Chemistry class, I knew how to solve the problems, so I raised my hand, but I didn’t know how to explain.
But there was the culture problem too: I was older than the other students, and in Korea younger students respect older students. They don’t call them by their first name but use Unni (big sister) female-to-female or Hyung (big brother) male-to-male. It was hard to call a teacher by their last names like, for example, Mr. Smith. In Korea, students never call their teacher by their name.
Now I live in California, but in my twenties I lived in NYC for a short time. I worked at a Korean grocery store for some people who were our neighbors in Su Su Dong. I went to the Fashion Institute Technology at the same time. Really I wanted to live in NYC but I was scared. So when I was accepted into UCLA I came back to LA. Finally, I decided I wanted to pursue a degree in writing and so I got my MFA at Antioch University of Los Angeles.
GW: As a person with command of more than one language, what can you tell us about your relationship to language?
TKH: I had always fought with a fear of imperfection in using languages. I have struggled to disabuse myself of this myth that language doesn’t change, it is a thing that can be mastered and finished. I have learned instead that all languages exist in a state of flux, change as peoples’ experiences change. No one can ever be the master of a language. The idea of perfection is not useful, in fact it is destructive.
When I came to America, this was my mantra: I left Korea and I can’t go back. I came to America too late. This mantra nearly defeated me until I took steps to develop myself as a writer. I decided to ask myself: How can I make the leap from my Korean consciousness to an English/American consciousness to create work that is important? Maybe I’ll never know how someone else conquers trans-lingual and trans-cultural obstacles, but for me, the struggle to feel capable in both Korean and English and write something of value is mighty.
Writing poetry was a way for me to fully express myself. A way of breathing.
GW: Is it fair to say that the experience of being a person of the Korean diaspora is one of your ‘go to’ subjects?
When I began to think about myself as a writer, I had so many topics in mind—but they all came back to the discomfort of attempting to validate my own voice as a poet of the Korean Diaspora. I live in the U.S., but I came from Korea, therefore my mother tongue is Korean, and English, my second language.
When my new book Mother to Myself, was chosen as a finalist for the Ko Won literary award, the critic Mah Chonggi said he had never read such poetry like that in Korean. He said my poems, “are a shock … she lives in her own geography. It is not Korea, it’s not America, she lives in the middle somewhere, in a land that she created and discovered, and she creates in her unique poems.”
I still do feel awkward in many different situations, and yet when I feel confident in who I am, then my strength comes out. I am very interested in finding out about writers in my same situation, how they managed to pursue their work and become known—acknowledged and valued.
The truth is that I haven’t really found a role model of my own. Yet I don’t want to give up. My struggle is that I don’t feel that I have a foundation in common English texts with which to compare my early experience in Korean literature. Nor do I have a foundation in advanced Korean Literature. I have felt this as an issue in my ability to translate or even create my own work. Yet, this is my unique position: to be a bridge between two different cultures and languages.
GW: What do you share with other Korean-American writers?
TKH: Most Korean-American writers are first generation, and share the common space in their memory of places, language, histories, lifestyles. They like to stay in their comfort zone, to share comfortable emotions.
I’m involved with Korean-American Literature Association writers, most of whom are first generation and mostly writing in Korean, looking for publication in Korea, yet there are not many opportunities.
They are called Hae Ye dong Po which means “ones who left, expatriates;” they are called "those of the Korean Diaspora." Do I belong with the first generation Korean-American writers, or the second? I want to be able to identify closely with one group or the other, but I find this impossible.
As immigrants we feel we never belong—either where we landed or where we came from. We are standing on the crossroads, with one foot on the ground and the other in the air, trying to find out where that foot needs to land in order feel a sense of belonging.
Sometimes immigrants do not want to speak because we may use words that are mistranslated, words that create misunderstanding. The risk is great. Sometimes immigrants offer empty smiles that mask pain and awkwardness. Our empty smiles do not mean that we don’t care, it means just the opposite. We become an invisible people. How strange we have become in our own skin, in a different land. We forget to sing our song.
GW: Tell us about your exploration of the WWII Korean comfort women situation.
TKH: Although I grew up in South Korea, I never learned about the existence of the comfort women until I stumbled upon information the subject when I was writing a research paper for my MFA program. Comfort women were Korean women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese before and during World War II. For many years after the war, the comfort women kept silent about their treatment and the subject was taboo until 1991, when Hak Soon Kim was the first one to go public with her story.
As I read and found more about them, I couldn’t sleep, I had nightmares and was haunted by it. After a long of time and many drafts, I wrote a poem to honor them which speaks about the comfort women’s plight and the starkness of their existence with lines like “Who can do one hundred men?”
When I read it to a live audience for the first time, the listeners were in shock and cried. It has become a major poem for me.
In recent years, the Japanese and South Korean governments have met to discuss reparations and apologies. Yet my heart sinks as I read how the survivors have begun to pass away in recent years. Now, we have just 31 survivors. Who will tell their stories? Is it too late? This is why I want to share their stories in various art forms, including poetry, drama and speech—as a witness to them.
GW: You also have made it a part of your aesthetic exploration to examine gender issues. How do the subjects of Korean culture, history, and gender merge for you?
TKH: I find myself studying Korean writers—especially women—and realize that I am still captive of the patriarchal oppression of traditional Korean culture. Here in the U.S., I live in two cultures: that of my Korean community and that of my American community. This causes a great deal of confusion at times. Even using spoken languages—Korean and English—I feel as though I must present two different personalities. Switching back and forth is so difficult that sometimes I pretend that I cannot speak Korean. As a poet, this is not tenable. I must write from my authentic self.
I have so much to say here.
I strongly believe that in order to fully embrace language and write poetry, I must surrender to the weight that all culture, custom, religion, belief systems, food, music, everyday life, philosophy, regional variations, roles, values, systems brings to bear on my poetry.
Tanya Ko Hong's poem "Lucky Seven" can be found in The Other Side of Violet (great weather for MEDIA, 2017).
Poetry and prose submissions for great weather for MEDIA anthologies are open each year from October 15 to January 15.