Korea’s 20-Something Poet Bridging History and Gender
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because her poems aren’t meant to be pretty.
“Our legs of yellow skin next to one another, / calves spread, I think of beached whales, the / arcs of their bellies, / clean and gleaming.” Emily Jungmin Yoon was just 25 when The New Yorker published her poem “Time, in Whales,” in its May 15, 2017, issue. Since then, Yoon, author of Ordinary Misfortunes, the winner of last year’s Sunken Garden Chapbook Prize, awarded by Tupelo Press, has harpooned a book deal with HarperCollins, a prestigious New York publisher whose backlist features such literary heavyweights as Harper Lee and Joyce Carol Oates.
On a wintry afternoon, at a Korean-Japanese fusion restaurant inside Seoul Station, Yoon appears in a snow-colored sweater and beanie. She’s fresh off the train from her family home in Busan, South Korea’s largest port city, built by refugees during the Korean War. The restaurant was her choice, a fitting location given that many of her most poignant poems hark back to the first half of the 20th century when Korea was colonized by Japan and occupied by America: “What is a / body in a stolen country. Or whose. What is right in war. What / is left in war. War hasn’t left Korea,” Yoon writes in her poem An Ordinary Misfortune.
“It’s rare to encounter a poet who speaks so directly about historical experience while also writing verse of such elegance, grace and artistry,” says Srikanth Reddy, a poet and an English professor at the University of Chicago, where Yoon is a third-year doctoral student researching Korean women writers at the turn of the 21st century. Reddy’s favorite compositions by Yoon give voice to “comfort women,” the euphemistic term for Korean sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
As an undergraduate majoring in English and communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Yoon composed poems that were more “private and lyrical,” according to Gregory Djanikian, a poet and former director of the university’s creative writing program. One of her pieces from that time, titled “The Way You Look at Me,” describes how her beloved’s eyes evoke a field of irises. Djanikian remembers first encountering Yoon in his introductory poetry workshop in 2010 as a “soft-spoken” student who was “a little shy.” Since then, he says, “I’m astounded by how powerful her poems have become. [They are] full of gravitas and deep resonance, linguistically and structurally unpredictable.”
Yoon remains attuned to the echoes of the past, refusing to ignore what stirs pain or fear.
Returning to Djanikian’s classroom in 2011 for an advanced poetry workshop, Yoon wrote poems set in the pastoral villages and bucolic gardens from her childhood, when she would scamper about, catching butterflies with her grandfather among the ancient mound tombs of Korean kings in Gimhae. At age 9, she left South Korea for Victoria, British Columbia, a place she calls a “paradise for newlyweds and nearly deads.”
It was Yoon’s high school English teacher who got her hooked on poetry, but her first literary love was fiction. After reading Harry Potter at 7, she conjured a story starring a girl magician and her two friends. The novel went unfinished, but it gave Yoon the chutzpah to become a writer. At Penn, people and parties eclipsed poetry for a time, until Yoon spent her junior year studying abroad in Seoul, an experience she points to as an inflection point in the development of her craft. She’d been planning for a career in communication, but after being exposed to the beauty of traditional Korean poetry, the gears shifted.
It was also in Seoul that Yoon met a kindred poet, Jack Jung. Today, the friends bicker over the proper translation of a word, play rap battles and rewrite song lyrics, but they don’t write together. Yoon insists on working in her room, alone, late at night in the moonlight.
Asked his favorite of Yoon’s poems, Jung chooses “American Dream,” written as a letter to a Korean mother about the narrator’s American partner. It begins tenderly — “The alcove of your arm / has become my favorite room / to sleep” — and then takes a sudden, nightmarish turn (“But / last night a Korean man broke into your room / and raped me, with you calm in your repose / next to me”). Yoon is no longer in the idyllic gardens of her youth, but grappling instead with themes of race and violence against women — a focus of Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Given the treacherous whorls of colonialism, patriarchy and war spilling from Korea’s past into the present, it is perhaps inevitable that the country’s feminist writers would produce such chilling work.
In addition to juggling her writing and doctoral studies, Yoon serves as poetry editor of The Margins, the magazine of the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop, a position she’s held since her days as an MFA student at New York University. And yet, she says, she does not fully embrace this hyphenated identity. Her life is a triptych of nine years each in Korea, Canada and the U.S., and her body of work explores the complexities of having a transoceanic double consciousness. Above all, though, Yoon remains attuned to the echoes of the past, refusing to ignore what stirs pain or fear, and always finding some measure of beauty and truth there.