“From From” by Monica Youn

Monica Youn (photo:  Sarah Shatz) Monica Youn (photo: Sarah Shatz)

Deeply experimental, creative and thought-provoking, From From by leading Korean-American poet Monica Youn, looks at the complexity of race through myths, history and popular culture, comparing the ways “otherness” is seen in both East Asian and Western cultures and norms. Through these complex, original and tragic-comic poems, the poet explores the deep roots of human fear or hysteria against other bodies. 

Throughout the collection, there are mini sequences of poems that draw from Greek mythology and yet these are poems that examine or revisit body metaphors. Some of the poems capture the people’s irrational fear against “the Other”. For instance, in “Study of Two Figures (Midas/Marigold)”, King Midas has the power to transform or stain everything with an “other” color, which becomes for the people a source of anxiety: “Everything he touches turns yellow. / We are meant to understand this as a form of death.”

In “Study of Two Figures (Agave / Pentheus)”, Youn offers a retelling of the Greek myth. In the original story, Dionysus places Pentheus under his spell, convinces him to spy on the Theban bacchants, and leads him to his death at the hand of his own mother, Agave. Here, we see how both the mother and the son try in their own ways albeit not successfully to rid themselves of the embarrassment or shame of thinking or feeling something Asian in them:

 

Sorrow found the Asian thing embarrassing.

 

We’re not that kind of Asians said Sorrow.

 

From From, Monica Youn (Carcanet, May 2023; Graywolf, March 2023)
From From, Monica Youn (Carcanet, May 2023; Graywolf, March 2023)

One of my favorite poetic sequences in the collection is “Deracinations: Eight Sonograms”, in which we regard the deeply-rooted prejudices and anxieties around race or racial divides. In “2. Education”, a poem within the sequence, an Asian girl complains to her mom about being misunderstood at school, where she is subjected to racial injustice yet cannot bring herself to explain she’s Korean not Chinese, and how the poem ends with the mother’s clarity:

 

[…] And don’t talk 
like a know-nothing American kid: 
it’s not karate. It’s tae kwon do.

 

In “3. Culture”, we are offered a glimpse into the inter-generational space where we witness the impact of otherness in how things or people are labelled or named, and the danger of being consumed, exoticised or orientalized:

 

‘[…] Overseas,
they’re called K-drama. This one’s
a number-one hit in China!

 

Similarly, in “6. Epicanthic”, the daughter resists the temptation of looking like yet another Korean girl made beautiful through cosmetic surgery:

 

For the last time, Mom, the answer
Is No. I’m not going to cut
up my face, let them scissor
my eyelids, chisel my chin.

 

As such, stereotypes or expectations are imposed from both outside as well as inside the ethnic minority, coming from—in this case—either the assumptions from the Asian parents or community, or else from the exoticist perspective from the White majority.

 

The section “Western city” deals with the commonality of exploitation and questions the causes of unfairness or power imbalance in society. For example in “Study of Two Figures (Ignatz / Kraft)’, we appreciate one’s inability to comprehend the situation objectively because of the prejudiced ways of looking and interpretation of “truth”, of the colonizing of spaces:

 

We are told to read the figure as white.

 

In order to read the figure as white we must read the blank background as white.

 

We have often been told that blankness means whiteness.

 

But this does not help us understand what it is that the figure fears.

 

Repeating the same motif “we are told”, the poet points out the danger of self-deprecation, or one’s inability to recognize, witness or react to the forms of micro-aggressions among the ethnic minority community, showing us how such humbling or passivity can only lead to more suffering, deepen fear or injustice or misunderstandings.

In the collection, we see the power of irony in unraveling the fraught assumptions in definitions we readily accept, such as nationhood. In “Studio”, we see an angry doctor who “wants to convince / America or those he thinks of as / America he surveys his ocean […]”

 

In the third section of the book entitled “The Magpies”, one realizes that there is so much at stake in the use of language, and so much power that might be lost or gained. Magpies are seen as harbingers of luck in East Asian stories but perceived as the opposite of such in Europe. In the sequence of fables about magpies, Youn translates immigrant lives into surreal fables, prompting the reader to challenge stereotypes, to reinterpret the injustice behind seemingly innocent acts. In “Parable of the Magpie and the Mirror”, we catch a glimpse of one’s challenge to navigate a society steeped in prejudices.

In the long prose poem inspired by a Korean film The Throne, “Detail of the Rice Chest”, Youn raises the issue of allowing chinks in the walls of such a chest where multi-legged insects enter it.

 

None of the Fresh Off the Boat are fresh off the boat. Nearly all of them were born in America. By pretending to be foreign, they make English-speaking audiences feel more American.

 

My parents are not fresh off the boat. They have been in America for more than fifty years. They speak both Korean and English.

 

The speaker perceives the discrepancy between how an immigrant looks on TV, and how her own family looks. Here, it exposes the problem of self-deprecation as defence mechanism and the harm in remaining silent against unjust portrayals of migrants (“I have called myself a gook many times.”) and how unconscious we are in subjecting ourselves to stereotypes and racist labels: “[a] television is a box that allows us to put people inside it.”

At the end of the collection, the lyric essay “In the Passive Voice” examines research on migration and race, the distorted truths around unfair immigration laws and racial violence, looking at how the passive voice is used in exclusionist laws, especially the contexts in which immigrants were “brought” into the country, obliterating the rationale for it as cheap labor for the country. At the same time, there is this temptation to fit into the model minority, as in: “I am polite. I am evasive. I keep my head down.” Sometimes, the fear to be seen as a minority is also manifested in the choice of pronouns, how “I use the pronoun ‘they’ rather than the pronoun ‘we’’’ as it “reflects my discomfort with including myself in the ‘they’.”

What is at stake then, is not just one’s own fate but the whole community. By not speaking up against racial injustice or aggressions, one is perpetuating such harm to many others.

Weaving history, myths, literature, films, historical accounts with personal encounters, Youn takes away the many guises of racism, whether tragic or comic, as the poet traces through history and modern life the origins of such anxieties, while protesting against self-perpetuating beliefs and acquiescing silences, which will not take the problem away.


Jennifer Wong is a Hong Kong poet now residing in London. Her books include Goldfish (Chameleon Press), Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry) and 回家 Letters Home (Nine Arches Press).