On the phone, Emily Jungmin Yoon is gentle. When we spoke, she was situated in a café on the campus of the University of Chicago, where she is at work on her doctorate. There was the usual ebb and flow of people in between classes, and at a certain point she moved tables to get away from the background commotion, politely apologizing for the noise. Yet quietude is not a word one would use when describing her debut collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species. In her poems, Yoon unflinchingly illustrates the horrors suffered by Korean “comfort women” and grapples with trauma both experienced and inherited. As Bk Fischer wrote, “Retelling the testimonies of the ‘comfort women’ forced into prostitution for the Japanese Imperial Army, Yoon takes up the charge of amplifying the voices of an often-overlooked history.”
That there exists a disconnect between her tone and her content is an observation Yoon has heard before. “I’ve been told, tonally, my poems have been kind of quiet,” she said. “I don’t disagree with that, but I do suppose I compensate for it—to get the effect that I want, I have to use stronger language, more grotesque vocabulary and diction to bring out the horror of these stories.” Yoon was born in Busan, in the Republic of Korea. She balances the personal inherited trauma against a respect for her historical subjects. When I asked when she learned the history of comfort women, her reply was straightforward: “I’ve known it as long as I can remember. It is very much present in our collective memory. In Korea, it is something very immediate and urgent. There is a protest every Wednesday in front of the Japanese embassy asking for the recognition of their history.”
Yoon moved to Canada as a girl, then came to the United States for her undergraduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania. After that, she went on to do an M.F.A. at NYU, and then her Ph.D. The academic rigor of Yoon’s career thus far is exemplified in the extensive research behind A Cruelty. She is also currently at work on a translation project, as well as serving as poetry editor for the online magazine The Margins, a fledgling venture headed by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She is young, for someone so accomplished, midway through her fourth year of doctoral work and still in the process of shaping her dissertation proposal. In the meantime, she’s teaching, making the switch in the spring from a teaching assistantship to teaching courses of her own: advanced Korean and a poetry workshop.
When did you stop writing in Korean and begin writing in English?
I moved to Canada from Korea when I was around eleven. I started journaling in English because I wanted to practice the language and because I felt really shy, since I couldn’t talk to anyone. Journaling was also a way to write down everything that I couldn’t say to other people. I started writing creatively in English in high school because I was taking classes in Anglophone culture. There wasn’t really a conscious decision to shift from Korean to English, it was just the environment I was in. I do think that in the future I could pick up writing in Korean again. It’s a little daunting because not everyone who speaks Korean feels comfortable writing poems in Korean, and that’s the same for all the languages, right? It will take a lot of practice to get my own natural rhythm writing in verse. I will just have to read a lot more and write a lot more before I can create something that I can proudly call a poem in Korean. Read More