So J. Lee is 2020 Writer in Residence at Modern Poetry in Translation. Their residency publications to date include the essay Not Exactly a Sister, published in spring 2020, and an online translation workshop on ‘SPACE BOY WEARING SKIRT’ by the poet Lee Jenny. This interview with Lee Soho was originally conducted in Korean, and has been condensed, edited and translated into English by So J. Lee.
So J. Lee: You told me you read my essay, ‘Not Exactly a Sister,’ by running it through Papago machine translation. How was it?
Lee Soho: It was very interesting even despite the clunky machine sentences. I also thought that calling Kyungjin by name carries the sentiment implied in my poem. Your essay explained all the possible nuances of Unni, and I enjoyed it very much.
SJL: Oh, I thought we’d talk trash about machine translation, but here I am openly fishing for compliments. [laughs] Let’s move on. When you asked me if ‘jangnyeo’ could be translated into English, I told you there are many memes about eldest daughters outside of Korea as well. Eldest daughters, especially of immigrant families, are heroes deserving of free therapy. That said, Korean particularities do exist. Who is the K-jangneyo?
LSH: Using K as a prefix can be positive, as in K-pop, but it’s also used for mockery. The K gets attached to extremely, uncannily Korean phenomena. In my opinion, the K-jangnyeo is the second least protected person after her mother. My parents told me from a young age, ‘If we die, you’ll be the parent to your sister.’ I was horrified. My younger sister was sick, and I didn’t know to what extent I was responsible for her. My takeaway wasn’t that we’ll live our own lives once we get older and my sister gets healthier, but that I should grow up to take care of her.
Plus, I was scared of becoming a mother and a wife. That role in the patriarchal system I witnessed was an icon of sacrifice who does all the dirty work without any appreciation. The only person with whom a mother tries to share her pain is her eldest daughter. That’s why the K-jangnyeo knows more family secrets than anyone else. She can’t ask for anything and gets used to making sacrifices for her younger sibling. Then she grows up to be a mother, at which point the only person she can lean on is her eldest daughter.
SJL: Your first poem published in English was ‘Cohabitation.’ It’s also the very first poem of the collection, and it makes a strong impression. You never hide the speaker’s faults; in this poem Kyungjin confesses matter-of-factly, ‘I slit little sister’s wrist for her.’ You’ve given many interviews in Korean about the importance of depicting a three-dimensional character who becomes a victim, a perpetrator, a bystander in different situations. Is there anything you’d like to add?
LSH: I’ve long believed that humans are multidimensional. I’ve learned from many experiences that someone who’s good to me is not a universally good person. My exes may have been bad to me, but they were good to others. So when I talked about an ex to people who knew the both of us, they couldn’t sympathize with my pain.
Likewise, I’m not very affectionate with my younger sister. The way she loves me is unusual, but I know she really loves me. She says, ‘Try liking me as much as you like other people.’ I always reply, ‘What are you talking about? I like you more than anyone else,’ but maybe she’s right. I’m much more strict with her than I am with myself, and I’m very kind to my younger friends. Acquaintances tell me I’m a good Unni more than my family does. So am I a good Unni? Or a bad one?
SJL: I learned that Kyungjin was your name at birth only after reading the whole collection, thanks to the interviews you gave in 2018. Kyungjin is a semi-fictionalized version of your past self. Interestingly, you didn’t change the character’s name; you legally assumed your pen name.
LSH: In the way Western cultures believe in astrology and tarot, Koreans believe in saju palja. My parents told me they got the name Kyungjin from a fortune teller, but I think most give similar names for each birth time. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense why so many people are named Kyungjin. [laughs] Anyway, I didn’t think an ordinary name like Kyungjin was writerly. Given that I lived for over 20 years under the name my parents gave me, I decided to choose my own this time. I had my friends vote between several names, too. Then I went to another fortune teller and asked her to choose the most fortunate name. That’s how I finally became Soho. It’s a very democratic and Korean name.
SJL: ‘Hoso’ in Korean also means to plead! This is a pun you really enjoy, as seen in your neo-Dadaist poem published last month, ‘Soho’s Hoso: A Plea.’
Another Korean thing I want to discuss is dollimja, or siblings sharing a syllable in their names like Kyungjin and Sijin. Did a desire to opt out of the dollimja affect your decision to change your name?
LSH: No, my parents say they didn’t use a dollimja for me and my sister. Korean families do sometimes use dollimja, but the naming rules really only apply to sons. We were both born in February, just a year apart, and there were so many popular names ending in ‘jin’ that I think it happened by chance.
SJL: Recently, I read Homesick, a memoir by American writer-translator Jennifer Croft. Though it’s a memoir, she changes her and her sister’s names from Jennifer and Anne Marie to Amy and Zoe, and narrates in the third person. The younger sister Zoe, like my sister and yours, is sick from an early age, and Amy plays the Unni role until she nearly destroys herself.
Croft wrote a book called Serpientes y escaleras in Spanish while living in Buenos Aires, then created a blog called Homesick in English. There’s even an excerpt translated into Korean by Saein Park! (A translator I admire is doing the full book, and I’m so excited.)
LSH: I like writing and reading stories about families. The family is the smallest social unit and the only one individuals can’t choose to meet, which is why it’s the earliest point of conflict. [laughs] I read the excerpt you sent me, and I’d like to read more. A contradictory pair of adjectives – affectionate and dispassionate – seems to best suit what I read.
SJL: Catcalling has an interesting creative backstory as well. I read that you bought a saddle-stitch booklet maker and handmade 14 beta versions in your room!
LSH: When I only had a couple poems, my friends who signed book contracts a little earlier were already collating their poems into manuscripts. I was so envious that I wanted to try it too. First, I printed my poems on A4 paper in the order I’d written them, but the emotions were all over the place. Next, I arranged them from my most favourite to least favourite, and that didn’t work either. Then I realized I should use A5 paper like my publisher. That’s how I made 14 beta versions before I met my favorite Catcalling.
SJL: You tweeted, ‘March 30, 2016 was the first day I collated my poems. And it wasn’t until fall 2018 that the manuscript was reborn as Catcalling in version 9.2.’ How was version 9.2 different from 9.0?
LSH: I think the biggest change was that the title of the collection changed from Kyungjin’s Home to Catcalling. The poem that most fascinates readers, ‘Fearing the Gaze of Strangers We […] Each Other,’ used to be in the fifth section before I moved it to early in the first section, and I think that was a great call.
SJL: Would you like to share why you changed the title to Catcalling, i.e., the Korean transliteration of an English word?
LSH: Initially, I thought I should call it Kyungjin’s Home since the poems are about what happened in that home. But as I was preparing to submit it to the Kim Soo-young Literary Award, I realized it wasn’t all that impactful as a book title. You need to stand out in a contest, so after much consideration I decided on Catcalling. I had a chance to change it after I was chosen for publication, but I figured a strong title like Catcalling would work for general readers as well.
SJL: I don’t know if it’s a kind of confirmation bias, but I’ve been noticing more literary works about siblings. My current favorites are When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz and Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen, and both happen to centre the relationship between an older sister and her younger brother. The latter has incredible concrete poems, so I’d love them to be read alongside the concrete poems in Catcalling. I better work it out for that to happen! [laughs]
LSH: I’m astonished whenever you send me my concrete poems rearranged in English. It must be difficult to match the sentence lengths since they’re so different in English and Korean. Through your translation work, I’m realising again how the visual design needs to be read as part of the concrete poem. What I can do is weep and write more, and if you decide to help little ol’ me, I suppose I could one day be read alongside Natalie Diaz and Diana Khoi Nguyen. [laughs]
SJL: Writing about others is an inevitable yet delicate issue. Because the other person has no opportunity to represent themself in the work of art, they often become a mere puppet for the artist. Catcalling features many voices, including your sister Sijin. Do you have a personal ethics for how she’s portrayed and to what extent? I read that her real name was used with her permission.
LSH: My whole family knows that they appear in my poems, and I always show them the poems before they’re published. My sister has shared not only her name but also shows me her diary when I get stuck. Sometimes when I show her a poem written in her voice, she sends it back having underlined the parts that feel like her own thoughts. I think my family is plenty supportive in simply allowing me to speak our pain.
In addition to my family, most people – except for the subjects of accusation – are aware that they appear in my poetry. My self-censorship is quite thorough, so I ask the person and friends for their opinions, and if I still feel unsure, I ask the editor for further input. Writing about someone else’s life is exceptionally difficult. It requires more authorial ethics than any other matter. My brave confession can be a consolation to someone and a trigger to another; it could even cause secondary victimization. I always remind myself of that and tread very carefully.
Yet again today I agonised over whether I could make art that tells my story without hurting anyone, but I couldn’t find a clear answer. That’s the consequence I’m fated to carry as an autobiographical artist. But if the subjects of accusation ever come for my poems, I’ll gladly accept the fight. If my poetry is like a gun, they’re the only people I need to aim at.
SJL: A male ‘Kyungjin’ also appears in Catcalling. Between two consecutive poems in the fourth section, ‘Kyungjin Reclining’ and ‘He Who Has Ridden and Written Me,’ there’s a particular footnote that shows why Kyungjin might’ve wanted to shed that name: ‘Lee Kyungjin… revealed that she suffered from ego-fragmentation, separation anxiety, depression, and other forms of anguish while dating someone with the same name and that it became an inspiration for her art.’
LSH: There’s a Korean adage that you have to get the first button right when putting on a shirt. Whenever I questioned my first boyfriend’s behaviour, he’d say, ‘This is just what dating is,’ so I learned only how to put up with unfair relationships even after the breakup. When I later heard through an acquaintance that he said he’d been a great boyfriend to me, I thought, He remembers only what he wants. It was my first relationship, and a horrible one at that, but for him it was a positive memory. So I wrote about it. I was emboldened by visual artists who boldly display their past. I tried borrowing the techniques of Tracey Emin, the king of confession herself. In the sense of returning the pain given to me, these two poems are also interlinked with the second section.
SJL: As I wrote in my Unni essay, I might’ve not used the word Unni in translation if it weren’t for ‘Oppa Likes That Kind of Girl’ in the second section. There’ll be readers who won’t recognize Oppa as an honorific title, and K-pop fans will bring their own context – but I believe this poem conveys the creepiness of Oppa. Someone who spews ‘Anyothermanwould’vedumpedyoualreadyI’mlettingyouoffthehookagainDon’tdothisagainIfyou’rehavingsuchahardtimedrinkyourselftosleepYou’regoodatthat’ is a fuckboy. Wait, have you heard of fuckboys? The ex who texts you ‘U up?’ at 2am is also a fuckboy.
LSH: In every country I’ve travelled to, without exception, a non-Korean I’d just met would say something like, ‘Don’t you trust Oppa? We’ll just hold hands all night.’ When I’d ask where in the hell they learned that, they said they were told it’d make Koreans laugh. It’s disgusting. In that way, Oppa is already a global word. I’d seen a lot of English-language memes about ex-boyfriends, so I thought, Here or there it’s all the same. I guess fuckboys doesn’t need a long explanation since there’s already a word for them.
SJL: Anastasia Nikolis, our wonderful editor at Open Letter Books, and I call the men of Catcalling, ‘That Guy.’ Oh, there’s even a Twitter account parodying the Guy in Your MFA. You know him, right? [laughs]
But unlike the Guy in Your MFA, the male voices that you channel hold immense institutional power, whether it’s the father of a household, the father of a church, or an older male poet who assumes a paternal role in the literary establishment. The epitome is the kkondae speaker of ‘Holiday Party,’ who disparages you by comparing you to Choi Seungja, an iconic feminist poet. My translation will be published in an American magazine this fall. Is there anything you’d like your readers to know in advance?
LSH: There’s a Confucian idea of a social hierarchy between adults and children, and I think kkondae culture comes from this elders-first philosophy. The use of honorific titles reinforces hierarchy, the very seed of violence.
SJL: The dictionary definition of mundan is ‘society of writers,’ and a popular English translation is ‘literary circle.’ But I chose to translate it as ‘the literary establishment.’ While there are notable collectives such as Yi Sang’s Circle of Nine and Lee Jenny’s Ru, the Korean literary establishment really is an institution. I understand that there’s a formal process where writers submit their work to literary competitions and ‘debut’ by being chosen by a panel of judges.
LSH: The trend is changing a lot these days. The creative curation of local bookstores and the experimental spirit of indie magazines are great. Readers don’t care whether a writer has formally debuted or not. We just want to read good poems. I think this change is necessary for a less cramped future of Korean literature.
SJL: You specified that the literary establishment’s treatment of women writers was something you wanted to discuss at length in our interview. Where should we begin? [sighs] The hashtag movement exposing sexual violence perpetrated by the literary establishment?
(The hashtag translates to #sexualviolence_within_theliteraryestablishment, so I refer to it here as #sexviolenceklit per the Twitter handle of an online archive.)
LSH: I’d like to begin with remorse. I was once on the front line of harassment, where my sincere pleas changed nothing. With the belief I’d lost to my perpetrators and continue to lose, I was overcome with defeatism, and I became passive in dealing with the verbal and physical violence inflicted on women writers. After a major incident, the most I did was avoid such gatherings or become so outspoken until they said, ‘Let’s not bother her.’ My younger self thought I could enact change once I had more years of experience. I sincerely regret my complacency in thinking I needed to gain power upon witnessing the brutality of those in power. I’m realising only now that we can change ourselves and our surroundings from wherever we are. Following the courage of younger writers, I’m going to say what I’ve been wanting to say for the first time through this interview.
There have been many incidents involving the literary establishment, but what’s shocked me the most is their response to #sexviolenceklit and the Me Too movement at large. Korean women writers including myself were subjected to another kind of abuse as I was continually pressured, by mostly men, to expose my victimisation. Of course, there were supportive messages from people of all genders who sympathised with survivors, which fortified me greatly. But certain people seemed to use the victims’ wounds with no concern for their pain. Otherwise they would’ve supported the countless victims who spoke up instead of messaging me, ‘Weren’t you targeted, too? Speak up already.’ They just wanted to burn their own rivals with the flames of this movement, and the victims’ wounds were just firewood to them. Emboldening survivors is so, so different from forcing disclosure. The former is solidarity; the latter is secondary victimisation.
I plead once again. Accusations and disclosures cannot be made by proxy. If you truly support victims, I urge you to respect their choices and support them. Please focus on the fact of the harm they endured instead of scrutinizing their morality. Don’t push survivors who aren’t ready to talk or have chosen not to. Recognize that there are as many methods as there are people in the world. I write poems, for example.
SJL: That is devastating to hear, but I so appreciate your candour. Thanks to you I’m reflecting on my experiences and growing even more determined to enact change in my field of literary translation. It’s going to be hard to uproot such a deep-rooted inequality. I read Kim Hyun-kyung’s memoir Kim Soo-young’s Lover, where she writes, ‘Back then, there was a culture where large publishers sometimes called over leading writers, served them drinks, and even brought them women.’ She, as the wife of a famous poet, accepted this as part of his life.
LSH: That is utterly appalling. Publishers should have a symbiotic relationship with writers and help them produce their best work; I don’t know how fronting money for sex helps writers. I’d at least understand had they provided living expenses, groceries, or other necessities.
On second thought, such a practice isn’t even that unheard of. Before #sexviolenceklit – that is, when I’d just debuted – I was contacted by several men who’d been instructed to call me up. I never went to their gatherings, but could we really say that older male writers looking for younger female writers or younger male writers trying to bring women for their male mentors are any different from the past?
SJL: True to its title, Catcalling has many poems that recreate the verbal abuse suffered by Kyungjin. In contrast, ‘Apology Letter’ is written from your perspective (You start the poem by saying, ‘Hello, I am Lee Soho and I write poems,’ which is also how you used to start every email with me!), yet the voice is very unfamiliar. It’s a solemn poem concluding the second section by promising to ‘avoid provocative words,’ but then again Kyungjin cusses and gets slapped and dies at the start of the fourth section. [laughs]
LSH: I did mean it as a real apology. I also wanted to show how human it is to apologise then make more mistakes. [laughs]
SJL: I read it as a satire of how apologies from public figures have become a genre in their own right.
LSH: Exactly. I was greatly influenced by public apologies. I don’t want to see those guilty people anymore, but they promise to reemerge as better people… I think that’s the weirdest thing to say to the recipients of the apology, and so I wrote that poem.
SJL: Lastly, I think a lot of Anglophone readers would like to know that you studied with Kim Hyesoon at Seoul Institute of the Arts. I told you that you’ll be compared to her since her award-winning poems translated by Don Mee Choi are the most famous Korean poems in English. How do you feel about being read alongside your former professor and literary hero?
LSH: I hadn’t dared to think about that. Professor Kim Hyesoon, an esteemed literary hero, is far from me in many ways. It’s an honour to even imagine being read alongside her.
SJL: You’re too humble! Korean feminist literary critics have already read your work alongside those of Kim Hyesoon and Kim Eon Hee!
LSH: Really? Even now, whenever I find Professor Kim Hyesoon’s new poems, I repent, wondering if I’m writing as she taught me. I still have a long way to go.
Professor Kim Hyesoon probably has no idea, but I have a notebook of all the things she said about my poems. It’s my treasure. I still read it from time to time because it lists the things I should be vigilant about while writing poetry. According to my notes, the only compliment she gave me was that my poems were ‘amusing,’ which I hold dear because I still try to write poems that are funny yet sad. Reading the notebook makes me feel good. My early hopes and lessons are all there. I don’t want to lose that part of myself.
SJL: She’s right. They’re really amusing! You know, I optimistically titled this ‘A Conversation with Lee Soho Pt. I’ – who knows when or where Pt. II will take place. But we have so much more to discuss: your early life in Muju; your backpacking trip around South America and Sijin’s intervention; your stint in New York City and subsequent ekphrastic poems… What else can we promise?
LSH: We can do anything, become anything. I still have lots to say.
Catcalling will be published by Open Letter Books in spring 2021.
About So J. Lee
So J. Lee is the translator of Lee Hyemi’s Unexpected Vanilla (Tilted Axis Press, 2020), Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (Honford Star, 2021), and Lee Soho’s Catcalling (Open Letter Books, 2021). They also make chogwa, a quarterly e-zine featuring one Korean poem and multiple English translations. Find excerpts, essays, and more at smokingtigers.com/so-j-lee.
So J. Lee is Modern Poetry in Translation’s 2020 Writer in Residence.