On Language and Korean Identity: An Interview with Cathy Park Hong

By Lisa Lee

Cathy Park Hong is a Korean-American poet whose works focus on exploring regional and dialectic language patterns and histories of trauma relating back to her homeland, Korea, and across the American landscape. Her current work is a series of non-fiction essays about the murder of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the author of Dictée, a seminal work in experimental Asian American literature. Cathy Park Hong has published three books of poetry, the latest of which is called Dance, Dance Revolution. 

On October 6, Cathy was invited by the Literary Arts department to come speak at Brown about her newest project. I sat down to speak with her about the role her Asian American identity has played in her work and her relationship to language.

L: Can you describe your process of becoming a writer? How has your identity as an Asian American influenced your writing, your poetry?

C: Well, I think it made me a stronger writer but I think there were definitely hurdles. It took me a long time to accept that I was a writer and I’m sure that had to do with my upbringing and the fact that I was Asian, because there weren’t other people like me before me. So if I was like a Jewish woman, I have Susan Sontag, Adrienne Rich, Gertrude Stein, I would have this rich lineage of writers to fall back on. But as an Asian American, in particular, there was just not that many writers. There are much more now.

So it wasn’t really what I thought was an accepted career path for me. Also when I was growing up, like a lot of people coming from immigrant families, I did not speak English and there weren’t any books around my house. So I didn’t come from a literary background. When I started reading poetry and writing poetry, it came as much a surprise to me as it was to my parents, who didn’t know about it. Well, they didn’t know about it for a long time. It was more something that I did on the sly. Something that I liked to do but I never considered myself a poet or thought it was a serious career path. I did do a lot of art, and that was something I was interested in—that seemed more suitable. It seemed that I could work with paint rather than language. Language was just so fraught.

And then when I was in college, I just had incredible mentors, and I realized that all the struggles that were working against me wanting to be a writer were actually strengthening me, and made my vision as a poet unique and different from the way other people write. There have definitely been challenges, but I also feel that it’s necessary for me to be a writer, and it’s necessary for me to stand out and say and write things that may not be the most popular or easy.

L: Do your parents finally accept you as a poet now?

C: Actually, they’re not like typical Asian parents. I mean they are, but they really weren’t in a lot of ways, about conditional love and all that stuff. But they also weren’t forcing it down my throat that I had to be a lawyer or a doctor. Maybe it was also because I was a girl. But they were supportive when I said I wanted to be a writer. My father actually wanted to be a writer when he was young, but he didn’t tell me until I told him I was taking a poetry class in college. And I really valued that, maybe there was something there. My mother accepts it although I don’t know if she respects it as much. I think she’s just baffled by the idea that I’m a poet, because she’s not a book reader. When I told her I was taking yoga, she was more excited by that than me having published a book.

L: Have they read any of your poetry?

C: They tried. [laugh]

L: Do they mainly speak Korean?

C: Yeah, they mainly speak Korean. They don’t understand my poetry at all. But they respect it. It’s actually kind of freeing. Because they can’t understand the poetry I can write about whatever I want. Actually right now I’m working on non-fiction, and that’s trickier because before I didn’t write so autobiographically. Not that if I did, they would understand it, because I was always writing in some weird language. But now that I’m writing non-fiction and the language is clearer and I’m writing about more personal stuff, that puts me in a tricky territory. [laugh]

L: Like what if they could read that one segment. Actually, this brings me to my second question. So you play with language a lot in your poetry, in all of your works, I was interested in how you as a child formed language, and how you continue to form language. How can you hear all of that language in your head?

C: I think my heritage is bad English, and I spoke a mangled Korean and English. From communicating with my parents, my speech patterns were always agrammatical. It came naturally to me to mix up language and different kinds of diction. But I don’t think this is also particular to just immigrant families. There are lots of regional Englishes being spoken, and we’re always code-switching from one English to another. But that was sharper for me because of how I grew up, and it came naturally to me. And I think it was also because I do remember a time when I felt estranged because I didn’t speak the language. And because I have that memory, it’s something I brought into the language. I don’t see it as a medium that I’m expressing my inner self. Or I didn’t use to. It was an instrument that was outside of me. Especially since I’m doing this presentation on Theresa Cha, and that was something I recognized in her too. Language is a really fraught subject, especially in Koreans with their history, because of Japanese colonialism. Japan forbid Koreans from speaking Korean, they had to speak Japanese. And then even now with globalization and so forth, most people feel like they have to speak English. Language is an instrument of power. And this something that when I first read her [Theresa], I was like, “Oh, that makes so much sense.” Language actually shapes identity, it doesn’t express your identity.

I don’t always think that, but I think I can understand that perspective, based on where I come from.

L: So you take on all these people’s voices, people who speak Creole, people who live in the South – how does that come to you? Where do you get that?

C: I have no idea. [laughs] I don’t know. All of those characters in my poetry are all kind of a distorted facet of myself. There’s always a little bit of me in all of them. I was always like that, where I preferred imagining other cities, other places, other characters. I just found it more freeing in a way. At first, when I was writing, when I was younger, it was more of an escapist route. But now I think, with Dance, Dance Revolution Empire, I like to write about these other characters set in future landscapes as a way of looking at the present landscape. I think I’m also just a very curious writer.

L: Ok, for my final question, what advice do you have for current Asian students of writing or art students who don’t know whether or not they should be a writer?

C: Don’t listen to your parents! Don’t do what your parents tell you to do. Be your own person! Don’t go to law school or med school. We need more of you. We need more of you in the arts, and don’t write the popular fiction that you think publishers will like. Dare to be subversive. We don’t have enough of those people among Asian Americans. Don’t follow your parents’ dreams. You will be unhappy for the rest of your life. This is not what I would say to a larger audience, but this is what I’m saying to an Asian American, especially a Brown Asian American student.

 

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