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[Writer's Notes] I Do WomanAnimalAsia

by Kim Hyesoon September 1, 2019

Kim Hyesoon

Kim Hyesoon(b. 1955) is one of the most prominent and influential contemporary poets of South Korea. She was the first woman poet to receive the prestigious Kim Su-yong and Midang awards, and her works have been translated into English, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Spanish, and Swedish. Her translated English works include: When the Plug Gets Unplugged (Tinfish, 2005), Anxiety of Words (Zephyr, 2006), Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers (Action Books, 2008), All the Garbage of the World, Unite! (Action Books, 2011), Princess Abandoned (Tinfish, 2012), Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream (Action Books, 2014), I’m OK, I’m Pig! (Bloodaxe Books, 2014), Trilingual Rensi (Vagabond Press, 2015), Poor Love Machine (Action Books, 2016), Autobiography of Death (New Directions, 2018), and A Drink of Red Mirror (Action Books, 2019). Kim lives in Seoul and teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. Kim, along with her long-time translator, Don Mee Choi, recently received the International Griffin Poetry Prize, Canada’s most prestigious poetry award, for Autobiography of Death (New Directions, 2019).

Photographs Copyright ⓒ Melmel Chung

In all this time that I’ve been writing poems, why have I tried so hard to reside within countless rats, pigs, birds, bears, ghosts, and women?


Did I not write about them so much as think I was “doing” them?

Why was I, unbeknownst to myself, using the voices of the dead or the disappeared?

Why did I call upon Princess Bari’s name so often in my prose?


Like Princess Bari, who turned down her father’s offer of half his kingdom and instead took up the immortal task of ferrying souls from the world of the living to the realm of the dead, I decided to go on my own quest. I stood at the desolate Yang Pass, the gateway to Western China, and thought myself as materially experiencing the middle ground, that between life and death, which my ancestors and Princess Bari herself had crossed to reach the realm of the dead. I imagined, standing in that place in their minds, that I was gesturing towards Princess Bari to come take me on her boat.

My act of doing poetry or doing travel is perhaps an act of “doing-woman” or “doing-animal.” You can say my poems are an endless “doing” from the in-between of doing-woman and doing-animal. These poems are adamantly me, and at the same time are a process of “doing” that is geared towards what is different from me, or not me—things that are humble, fragmented, people who seem insignificant. If poets do not involve themselves in this process or halt it and remain unmoving, they may choose to call themselves realists but they are neither real nor are they doing poetry. They are just manufacturers of slogans or metaphors, people who believe the sentimental is the real. This “doing” follows a line of affect. But the end of this line is endlessly delayed, and doing-poetry is a continuous flow, like a river forever open towards a certain direction.

Traveling in Asia, I sometimes felt in certain places that I was physically experiencing my doing-poetry. From this positioning in a space called “Asia,” they generated “doing- woman” and “doing-animal” not as texts but as real places. In the many countries I traveled to, I felt that the doing- woman and doing-animal were not being observed and recreated in the Western imagination or in the West’s texts or contexts; the Asian spaces themselves were doing-woman and doing-animal—the “women of snow” in Tibet (yetis), the dead poets of China, the Buddha in Myanmar, the image of a red Asia in Cambodia, rats in India. I tried to record the trajectory of those movements. Even within the diversifying processes unique to each place, I felt there were movements very similar to my own poetry writing process. I felt as if the place itself had positioned doing-woman-animal somewhere in the cross-section of that nation and was carrying on a vital activity different from the grand national ideology. At the point where these movements pulled away from calcified, monolithic national identities, I thought it might be possible to discover alternatives to these great narratives through the people’s doing-woman-animal. This became my discovery of movement that risked insignificance, movement that shrugged off Nation with a capital N or Human with a capital H. Underneath the predictable panorama familiar to the traveler, a world of the in-between was spread that had no borders, a wide plane of interiority almost like a desert. And at some point between me and that space was the invisible and ambiguous “world of the body,” mixed up without difference or distinction, my “woman-animal-Asia.”

I traveled an Asia of doing-woman and doing-animal. Travel made me realize that “I” am not static but yet another process and movement. Travel is a movement of “me” separating from “myself,” dispersing and spreading. Like the steam from an iron rice pot, or the afterimage of a loved one, I felt an “Asia” that lingered around me, an Asia that was woman and animal. I tried to place the faint face of the “woman of snow” that I searched for in the mountains of Tibet on my own face. I wanted my face to be that of the Other, a face that met and moved together with the people who lived in the places I found myself in, an insignificant face separated from the large monster of Nation. In these places, my woman-animal-Asia was faint but real, as real as the ghosts hovering around the grand face of Asia itself.

Doing-woman, doing-animal, and doing-Asia were already with me, but I didn’t know them before I traveled. This characteristic of their existing and yet not-existing is like the soundless cry of poetry that makes itself heard through the artistic composition of the delaying and pausing of re- creation in a poem’s text. It is like a thing that has happened and yet is unknowable, a footstep that immediately becomes a site of absence, the becoming of the unknown. Like a woman of snow, a dead poet, the Buddha, a rat—absent when existing, existing when absent. A mystery and a monster, a monster and yet fog. A ghost. Atomic, and yet a network of connections.

Woman-animal-Asia is an empty, or perhaps even stained, unknown that cannot be discovered without travel. Anyone, regardless of gender, race, or nation, can do woman- animal-Asia. Woman-animal-Asia is a world of the possible. It is not a world you can arrive at but one that you generate by “doing.” An endlessly generated world where reaching it means it has already moved on, like the spoke on a cartwheel, as the doing of it keeps generating it, into a world that can never be arrived at. A middle world you visit when existence moves as it is being realized by those who exist. I wanted to travel that middle ground. But how easy it is to get hurt when doing-woman or doing-animal. If nationalism monopolizes it, it completely collapses into the weakness of myth. Like a Buddha covered in neon signs, the people are converged upon by nationalism and become economically and spiritually exploited.

Doing-woman is “to want to be a woman.” You must be affected by the other and distribute the small and the humble throughout your body. To be a woman is not as fundamental a position as its opposite, to be a man, so instead of thinking of it as a thing to discard, each person must travel toward their inherent feminine plurality, the overflowing feminine existence within. One also needs a biological awareness of being a woman and discern with one’s energy the woman within one’s connections with other objects. I want to be reborn as a woman of another identity every day. In my text, I am a girl today and reborn an old woman tomorrow. I was a blade of grass today and tomorrow will be born a hunting bear. I want to be reborn as a color, a pattern, an image, or a small sign. I am not one woman but a multitude of women, not a woman here but here and there, a woman who makes the here a here-less there. To want to become a woman inevitably leads to empathy on a level of pure energy.

Despite this, there lies a stringent system of proliferating policies, excessive rules, and constant passport checks. There is a system of language that leaves women on the margins or outside of power. To travel against them is to degenerate “wanting to become a woman” into death, absence, and emptiness. Therefore, I become the movement of absence. I try not to accept lack but to become the method of not going through the confines of lack, to make this the rhythm and speed of my movement. I move along with absence. Like within the space of bar do thos grol, which means listen (thos) between (bar) the two (do) and realize (grol). The “two” is night and day, life and death, evil and good, man and woman, all the worlds of the in-between. Like the time of purple light right after dusk. If you can listen to that in- between, that gap, you can reach eternal freedom. Those who want to become women, travel your absence like Bari does. There is no rhythm without absence. No travel, either. It’s the same in poetry. Without an absence of “I,” poetic narration is impossible.

Doing-woman is a kind of travel. This travel is complex and relational, experienced through the woman’s body. It is to reflect on the body’s experience. Any travel of doing- woman creates its own track. This travel walks a path that is not a path, one that goes beyond the fixed binary and moves in all directions. It has nothing to do with the perpendicular, the central processing unit, the traveling nation or government, or the nation and government left behind. The traveler is an outsider to all of these, traveling like Bari between here and there, and there is only the path that connects the place you are in to the place you will leave for, the organic propagation of that path, the traveler as the boatman who traverses this in-between, a state of statelessness, with no family trees or ancestors, a new unfamiliarity with one’s mother tongue.

Doing-animal is not a regression or incompleteness. It is not an escape or devolution. Just because I wrote of a rat doesn’t mean I regressed into one or was handling its incompleteness as an entity. This is the “doing” with anything that is not me. It is to do naked life. To be that on one’s own, to do the two layers (human-animal) that we normally do not recognize. Doing-animal is emotional solidarity. Doing-animal is to change places, not to treat animals like animals or creatures that are less than human. Through doing-animal, I stand somewhere in between human and animal and perhaps ghost. I and animal become blurry, create a new non-person perspective (a fourth, fifth- person perspective), and we come through that place again. We give a little bit of ourselves to each other and create a world on a different frequency and change each other’s lives in that world. To do-animal is to split apart.

When rats do not eat, gnaw, or dig, they mate. Rats are mating even as I write this. A female rat is pregnant for twenty-one days and births a litter of eight to ten pups. They can become pregnant again as soon as they give birth. They can be pregnant twelve times a year. If their pups have pups, there could be 15,000 rats a year later. That’s not all. Let’s say all of them were exterminated, but thankfully, one female survived. The female could still have pups without mating because a female rat always keeps sperm or fertilized eggs inside her. I cite these facts not to discuss perpetuating bloodlines. It is because of a horizontal connection between two entities, the cohabitation of humans and rats that I found at a rat temple in India. I felt their religion was trying to recover some unusual source represented by the rat that included a pre-human stage but was not of human dimension. A discovery of natural humanity between rat and rat, between humans and the rat horde, to feel the meeting and relationship with the rat stirring within oneself. To worship the rat, to coexist in that space in between, to repeat this generating, to feel that life is in the karma, the waking of destiny. To establish poetry in this area of solidarity.

To do-animal travel is not to travel to what is outside of me but to share the region of “extimacy” of me and the animal. Is this not to push out the territory of univocity from within the univocity of existence? For my body and the animal’s body to voluntarily create a hybrid entity? To turn away the languages that look down on women and animals and reach my doing-animal? And therefore, become the coming monster, the human-animal future? To reach a new chapter of life’s energy? Is this not to go beyond the confines of being human, confines created through language, discourse, and power? To write just as to travel towards a world beyond the confines of the human that has forced us to exclude what is woman, what is animal, and what is non- human? To be within their empathic exchange with them? As rats and “I” within two adjacent fields, as an Asian and yet “I,” towards a being that exists now as potential?

Doing-animal is to traverse time. My doing-animal makes contact with the place made monstrous by new mergings, or with the new animals that live within that place. A place of blurred borders between the bodies of me and the animals, toward my own Yang Pass. Like Bari, we try to go back and forth between here and Western China. That may be the path of my writing. Or my post-colonializing, my return to the future.

Doing-woman-animal-Asia created my writing. This doesn’t mean I search for the origin through my writing but I write to meet the un-hierarchical, nonessential, flat network world, a potential, in a world where real things exist. Like a traveler transporting animals, objects, and the secrets of scenery, my writing pushes me into the “extimate” wideness of Asia. I wanted to travel in Asia as a sacrifice, a medium that carries women and animals. I wanted, like Princess Bari, to connect this world and that, to be someone who pushes “me” away from “me.” Bari has already traveled the world of the dead, dead who have become animals. She has traveled the world of empathy created by dead people and inanimate objects. I wanted, through my writing, to meet the senses that hadn’t traveled, the faint faces that live in the mysterious place of woman-animal-Asia.


Translated by Anton Hur

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