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Starting at the Surface: An Interview with Lee Hyemi

By So J. Lee

So J. Lee’s translation of Lee Hyemi’s “The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam” from Unexpected Vanilla appears in this month’s Queer issue. After a year of emailing back and forth, the two met in person for the first time in Mangwon-dong on May 11 and talked about Surrealism, stereotypes about Korea, making up words, speaking out against sexual violence, and becoming a “grandma author.” This interview was conducted in Korean and has been condensed and translated by So J. Lee.

So J. Lee: There are a number of images or words that I associate with you, so I thought I’d start this interview with a game of word association. For example, you can say what word comes to mind when I say “eyelash.”

Lee Hyemi: Gaze.

SJL: Water surface (Homonym of “sleep” in Korean).

LHM: Pillow?

SJL: Oh, water surface.

LHM: Water pillow? [laughs]

SJL: The twinkle in one’s eyes.

LHM: Sign.    

SJL: Mark.

LHM: Magnolia.

SJL: Finger.

LHM: Scratch.

SJL: Swaying.

LHM: Aurora.

SJL: Shining.

LHM: Palette.

SJL: Flipping.

LHM: Mud.

SJL: Runny.

LHM: Lips.

SJL: Fading.

LHM: Footprints.

SJL: I wanted to try this since your poems remind me of Surrealist paintings. I notice one or two details before I come to understand the whole, and even then I don’t “understand” it neatly or logically. I feel like I had a dream. So when I read them in Korean, I simply read them, and it’s when I translate them into English that I think, “Wait, what? This doesn’t actually make sense!” Is there any word you want to explain further?

LHM: There’s definitely a list of words that I use often in my poetry. I want to use a variety of words, so I try to avoid that list as much as I can. Yet there’s still so many. I feel like I’ve been caught. [laughs] I didn’t realize “flipping” appeared so often.

SJL: I think you use it in different ways. In “No Panties” the flowers’ skirts are flipped, and in “Diver” the ocean is flipped. Because you’re an avid scuba diver, I was surprised that you use the word “water surface” more often than “submersion.” Is there a reason?

LHM: I think I prefer the sound of “water surface” (sumyeon) over “submersion” (jamsu). Plus, submersion is the state of already having gone down and seen something, already having found out. Water surface, then, is the state of not knowing yet? Possibility, maybe. There’s more room for imagination. Maybe I like not knowing more than having found out.

We say we sink into sleep. We sink into water. We sink into thought. I think all this sinking is related to falling, whether we fall into or for something. The water surface contains the wait of the world before we fall in. To sink into something, you have to start at the surface.

SJL: Interestingly, your poems often feature bodies, but it’s less like the speaker talking about their own body and more like someone else’s finger, footprints, or some other body part appearing.

LHM: I think you’re right. I like to focus not on the word itself but on its periphery, so that the reader can think of the word on their own. Thinking about eyes, I write about eyebrows. I want to talk about love without talking about love. I want to talk about sadness without using the word “sadness.”

SJL: As you know, Surrealism started as an artistic movement to resist fascism, but male artists received much more attention than female artists and treated women as sexual muses. So I appreciate the way that you, as a female artist, resist the machismo of Surrealism.

LHM: The pivot of all “isms” is men, or power—while poetry and the language of minorities attempt to overcome the violence of those isms. Even without a “female” label, I think it’s necessary to destroy and break through all sorts of isms.

SJL: Your poems have been published in a variety of English-language journals over the past year, and I’ve introduced Unexpected Vanilla as “subverting the vanilla norm without denying its pleasures.” I find it amusing that BDSM is considered unusual in the society we currently live in, yet the opposite, “vanilla,” is what’s unexpected in the world of your collection. Would you like to explain the title?

LHM: I like imagining what we now take for granted becoming totally antiquated or disappearing in the future. “In the past they used to go to a place called school,” or “Women used to get pregnant and give birth. How barbaric,” or “They used to cook their own food.” What we used to never question is already changing, you know? Even now in Korea, there aren’t that many families that make their own kimchi or gochujang or soy sauce, and people don’t have memories of their grandmothers making sikhye anymore. Considering something to be “obvious” and using that as an absolute standard is itself an excessively conservative way of thinking. Isn’t it good for the parameters of normalcy, what is considered obvious, what is “vanilla,” to later become totally unreasonable and unimaginable?

Aside from that, the image of vanilla ice cream. Sweet, melting, dripping, smearing. I picked it because I like how it’s both sticky and hard.

SJL: I think it fits perfectly. As I said in Asymptote last month, I read this collection because I was drawn by the unique title. I saw the word “vanilla” and read on thinking, “No way . . . ” but then I was pleasantly surprised to find a poem called “Femdom.” Including your first collection Ultraviolet, your titles suggest a deviation from the standard or norm. What do you think?

LHM: Through translation I learned that both titles have the sense of being “outside” something. I want to face outward, try to see what’s invisible, and keep rejecting what’s considered obvious or saying that there’s another way. In the case of Ultraviolet, I was very interested in colors for a while. The wavelengths of light, ultraviolet rays, infrared rays, the visible spectrum, etc.

UV rays are interesting. For example, there’s this plain white flower with an incredibly colorful pattern that appears when you take a picture with a UV camera. The pattern on the flower is called a runway. It's a target of sorts, with arrows saying, “Here is the honey.” Bees and butterflies see this runway and go to the flower, but the pattern is invisible to our eyes. The cover of Ultraviolet has a butterfly—a creature that can see beyond violet. I wanted to express the meanings of not only what we can see, but what we cannot see.

SJL: You debuted in English through Modern Poetry in Translation’s focus on LBGTQ+ poetry, and now you’re in the Words Without Borders Queer Issue X. I was nervous emailing you for the first time [about the issue] and thrilled that you greeted me so warmly. How do you feel about you or your works being read in a queer context?

LHM: Honestly, I do think that it’s simplistic for people to be packaged and consumed only by their sexual identity. I mean, identity is so very complex and personal. And it can change over time. I wrote these poems to capture that confusion. It’d be nice if readers can identify and empathize with the situation or emotion I’ve presented in a poem.

SJL: That sounds ideal. But it seems like a complicated issue because it’s also important to take pride [in your identity] when you speak up as a minority. In Korea these days, there are more works about queerness and openly queer authors. Then again, I think being an open secret is such a Korean queer thing . . .

LHM: Our society is certainly rigid. People are quick to clutch their pearls and make a big deal out of such things. What about it! I mean, if you’re not going to date me, mind your own business. [laughs] I think it's a bit violent to pry into someone's identity like that.

I've written many poems with sexual nuances, and it’s true that I was very interested in that. Human desires, just how far people go. “Femdom” features a kind of role-play that allows for the experience of dominance and subjugation, which creates sexual tension. It's a sexual relationship as well as a political practice. I also wonder, “Do I feel sexual desire only after checking where I am in relation to my partner?”

SJL: The funny thing is, you keep talking in the past tense.

LHM: There was a time when I was too obsessed with that sort of thing.

SJL: Are you announcing that you’re not anymore?

LHM: Now I’m into other things . . . I’m really interested in plants these days. Have I become too mild? [laughs] When I find a new interest, I tend to fall hard. I research, find illustrations.

SJL: I think you’re quite bold for writing poems like “The Cupboard with Strawberry Jam” and “Femdom,” but that aspect isn’t addressed in any of the criticism. I find that really curious.

LHM: Why don’t they [address it]?

SJL: That’s my question! Why do you think [they don’t]?

LHM: I think the reviews of my first book tended to lump everything into "love.” I got the sense that they knew but avoided it in the way you say "making love" to avoid saying "sex." The word “love” is too massive and ambiguous. It includes friendship and sexual intercourse and thought.

I suppose some parts may be uncomfortable to address in literary criticism. Sex is still a subject that’s not serious or dignified enough and difficult to discuss. Maybe it’s difficult to address without devoting an entire chapter to it.

That's what the “average” person is most afraid of: that they’ll become unexpected.

SJL: To think about it another way, I wonder if queerness or kink just goes over people's heads in a heteronormative society. When the film The Handmaiden came out, there were people reading the lesbian romance as “sisterly love," or really trying not to see what’s in front of them.

LHM: Trying to cover it up. That's what the “average” person is most afraid of: that they’ll become unexpected. So they turn their backs, pretend like something doesn’t exist, and try to fit everything into the norm somehow.

SJL: When I first started translating your work, someone said your work isn’t “Korean enough” to translate.

LHM: [imitating air quotes] Not “Korean enough”?

SJL: As in, non-Korean readers want something “exotic,” but Unexpected Vanilla isn’t that and so won’t succeed.

LHM: Orientalism?

SJL: Yes. We can laugh at it now, but I did want to discuss this in person. It’s true that many young writers, not just you, are told by Korean literary critics that their works lack a traditional sensibility. What do you think about that?

LHM: First, let me go change into a hanbok dress. [laughs] I have to do some fan dancing as well. I suppose we should consider what Korea’s unique characteristics are, rather than stereotypes or what’s understood as “Korean” by the world. That said, my poems contain a number of Korean elements. “Under the Fluttering Red and White Flags” features Korean shamanism. There are poetic aspects to Korean superstitions, like “If you burn a raw tree, your neighbor dies” or “You shouldn't write in red ink.”

SJL: That poem about shamanistic flags is truly plenty “Korean.” [laughs] But it’s not like you have to do that. Despite the criticism of “not being Korean enough,” you also majored in Korean literature as an undergraduate and just finished your doctoral courses.

LHM: Actually, the reason I majored in Korean literature in the first place is—I thought that if I got my MA and PhD in Korean literature as a native speaker, I could reach the pinnacle of Korean . . . but how misguided I was! Even though I can’t go higher, I’ve gone deeper. There aren’t too many opportunities to examine one’s native language that deeply. I wanted to be around words.

SJL: Is there a period you’re especially interested in?

LHM: The 1950s. Postwar literature. How to overcome such shattering. Deprivation and loss and futility. The works contain a lot of those feelings. As well as end-of-the-world sentiments. “Let’s die,” that kind of thing.

There’s a poet named Kim Ku-yong whose works feature a Buddhist worldview, and I like that Buddhist attitude. “Life is pain anyway.” [laughs] All is nothing, nil, vain.

SJL: Everything passes.

LHM: We’re just wheels spinning on. I also think that the Korean language will eventually die out. The Korean we know will be gone in one hundred, two hundred years, no? 

Isn’t it the poet’s duty to develop the nuances of language? I think the poet’s major is not literature, but thought.

SJL: What kind of language do you think it’ll become?

LHM: It’ll be a hybrid language. There must be things that can’t be expressed in the megalanguage, words that existed in Korean. Isn’t it the poet’s duty to develop the nuances of language? I think the poet’s major is not literature, but thought.Pushing thought to the limits of one’s native language. So poets are national representatives of sorts, of language. “I’ve thought this far in Korean. How far have you thought in English?”

Hm… But what is Korea as seen by foreigners? A tragically divided country that has yet to escape the agony of war?

SJL: But I think it’s changed. If you look at K-pop, it’s not like BTS is performing on SNL wearing hanbok.

LHM: There’s that vibe that K-pop gives off, though. Cheerful and stylish and glittering? A people of heung, represented by Psy? But then we also have incredible—

SJL: Han!

LHM: What do we do about this. [laughs] Why do we define ourselves as the “people of han”? I mean, there are so many Korean words related to sadness. Words for anger and sorrow are incredibly developed, while there aren’t that many words for joy and pleasure.

SJL: I think that when you’re happy, you’re just happy—

LHM: You don’t need any words. Then when you’re sad, you want to describe how sad you are in great detail because you don’t want to use the same words as someone else. But is this unique to Korea? German is probably more specific, no?

SJL: Then which of “joy, anger, sorrow, pleasure” do you think Unexpected Vanilla is closest to?

LHM: I wrote a lot about bittersweet moments, I think. The sadness that comes from being so happy, you think the happiness will disappear? The first poem in the collection, “Summer, When Loquat Trees Light Up,” is about you and I walking with our fingers laced together in the summer and kind of anticipating the sadness to come. Sensing that something will fade away because it shines so bright. What we feel looking at the snow before it melts. I think I wrote a lot about that. Isn’t that slightly the world of joy?

SJL: I don’t think it’s all that sad. A bit of a . . . future-oriented sadness?

LHM: Oh, yes, yes.

SJL: Mourning a sadness that doesn’t exist yet?

LHM: Sad because you’re enjoying the present, because this might fade away. “This is so nice right now, but what do I do when it’s gone?” It was like that with my exes, too.

SJL: I think this is especially true of romantic relationships. [laughs]

LHM: “Can it get better than this? What if there’s only misery left between us?” [laughs] That kind of fear? But even that comes from feeling good about the present.

SJL: How does teaching creative writing affect your own writing?

LHM: Like I mentioned earlier, we do projects together. My students seem like geniuses. I mean, they’ve decided to write. How incredible is that. I’m always inspired by them. And I also give them prompts designed to inspire. Recently we did a class on naming emotions. For example, euya. The self-disgust you feel when you wake up on a weekend and it’s two-thirty in the afternoon. “What am I doing with my life.” [laughs] It’s a word that combines the sensations of that weekend sunshine and your covers. Among the students' words, there was reugeuk. The flutter in your heart when you almost lose your footing. And toto. The feeling that you get from seeing your childhood toy pushed into a corner. The guilt, feeling sorry, your childhood memories. Rather than ready-made words like "joy" or "sadness," these are handmade names of emotions that we created specially for ourselves.

Regardless of how ugly your cake is, the fact that you baked a cake is much more impressive than not having baked a cake.

SJL: Fun!

LHM: Isn’t it? I try to make my poetry workshops fun and enjoy them a lot, too. I went to an arts high school myself. I like writing and talking about it with others. And I don’t really scold [my students]. I’m more likely to say, “You wrote this? Amazing!” The fact that they wrote something is worthy of praise. Regardless of how ugly your cake is, the fact that you baked a cake is much more impressive than not having baked a cake. Even if you ended up with a rock-hard cake, your kitchen probably smelled delicious, you probably tried decorating it and felt the joy of making a cake, right? Great job.

But am I too lenient and not discerning enough? [laughs] I’m just so proud that they’re writing! It makes me happy.  

SJL: When I started translating in fall 2017, I found your post in support of the #문단__성폭력 [“sexual violence within the literary establishment”] movement. A lot has happened since then, such as the poet Choi Young-mi’s accusation against Ko Un and his losing the defamation suit. Is there anything you’d like to add?

LHM: I have a lot to say, of course. As I said back then, I made a list of what happened to me and ended up with twenty-five people. I didn't even include any of the “lighter” counts like touching my thighs. Just direct physical and verbal sexual harassment.

SJL: Oh . . . I didn’t know about that part.

LHM: I only included severe cases of verbal sexual harassment; if I included everything, there would be fifty people. I started writing about it to sort it out for myself, and didn't know it would spread so widely. I'm so glad that times have changed, that people now react like, “Really?” It used to be, “Oh, that's just how it is. Don't complain. Did you hear about so-and-so?” That was the norm. People didn't believe you. [The public discourse] needs to continue so this won't happen to the next generation of poets. Just as performing jesa ceremonies for your ancestors used to be a given and now everyone says, “Please, who does jesa in this day and age?”

SJL: You said your next collection is coming out in two years. What can we expect? Can you give us any hints about the title or content?

LHM: My work so far has lingered around relationality. After thinking about fluidity in Unexpected Vanilla, I'd like to try something different. To go deeper within myself or with "you." Whether we can now live independently. After all, we rely on relationships because it's hard to stand on our own. I want to try thinking about my inner self more than my interpersonal relationships.

SJL: This is a bit of a cheat, but is there a question you’ve always wanted to answer?

LHM: I have a scene in mind. A backpacker your age goes to a used bookstore in a small country town in Europe and grabs a book with Korean on one side and English on the other. The book is very old. And the person reading it is my granddaughter!

SJL: Whoa!

LHM: She found her grandma’s poetry collection! This requires a couple of conditions, right? It has to be translated, I have to get married and have a baby, I have to become a grandmother. First, you have to . . . [laughs]

SJL: Ah, so it needs to be translated and published.

LHM: The important thing is for me to write for a long, long time before I become a grandmother.

SJL: Serang Chung said something similar! That she wants to become a “grandma author.”

LHM: How difficult it must be to become a grandma author. Go us!

Published Jun 12, 2019   Copyright 2019 So J. Lee

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