Writing through silence, toward the unspeakable
December 22, 2023 by Ruby Wang
Over the past few years, I’ve become increasingly drawn to works of creative nonfiction. From Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life to Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony, these works have expanded the breadth of what I thought creative nonfiction could do. The creative nonfiction I’m interested in is multifaceted, experimental, polyvocal, and spans a wide variety of forms—from personal essays to hybrid poetry. Despite this breadth, the thing that connects these works is the way they reach toward the unspeakable. It is from this that I crafted my special Open Call, looking for submissions that contended with the unspeakable and unknowable by doing something new.
When I first came across H. L. Kim’s “Return Mail,” I was struck by the way a kind of playfulness of language provided a counterpoint to a form that, while disjunct on the surface, gave clarity and focus to the grief at the center of the piece. In six inventive and related vignettes, Kim searches for her family history as she grapples with her grandfather’s death and probes unanswerable questions.
As we edited “Return Mail,” Kim and I talked about creative nonfiction as a resting place for the unknown; how to approach the gaps between what’s known and unknown; her relationship with language and how relearning Korean did not result in better understanding of her family; and an approach to writing as a call and response to other literature.
Ruby Wang: Your piece “Return Mail” is creative nonfiction. How do you approach writing in this genre? What is it about this genre that appeals to you? Do you approach it differently from your other writing?
H. L. Kim: Honestly, I don’t know! I am new to reading and writing creative nonfiction, so I am continually learning from my studies and readings, keeping an eye out on how other people write in and about the genre. When it comes to creative nonfiction, I find myself frequently amending my approach and reassessing the appeal. Right now, I think it might be the entire I don’t know writerly mindset that I find most appealing.
There are so many things that I do not know about myself. And with the things I do know, I hardly understand them. Once I thought that one could only write about things one adequately understood. But I do not wish to submit myself entirely to this assumption, as it becomes a definite way to silence myself. Why not give myself permission, instead? For the memories that one does not understand, of which I have plenty, I like to think that the creative nonfiction genre offers a resting place.
Ruby: One of the first things I was drawn to when I read your piece was its formal experimentation. I know that you wrote certain sections at different times and compiled writing from different places, but I’m wondering whether your experimentation is mostly intuitive or calculated/composed: how did you approach your formal invention?
H. L.: Recently I read Yanyi’s The Year of Blue Water in which he writes, “Form gives space for something to exist. You have to dig in yourself to find what you’ll put in it. Places you don’t know appear. Poems are a way to ask for what exists, to invite what wants to be visible.”
“Return Mail” takes on a lot of different forms, ranging from stilted dictionary definitions, an automated voicemail, and an estranged letter. I think these forms, as Yanyi might say, usher in the meanings that cannot otherwise exist.
Ruby: In this piece, there is a tension between what you know and what you do not know regarding your family history. In the section “Return Address,” we learn that your maternal grandmother was alive during the Korean War and escaped North Korea to the South. You write “I am your American granddaughter so all I know is North and South / in the end I do not know how many siblings you lost / how many friends you remember / how many soldiers you saw.” I’m interested in these different gaps—temporal, spatial, language, and knowledge—and want to hear your thoughts on how you approached bridging these gaps or keeping the space.
H. L.: “Return Address” is essentially a string of questions that starts at one recent memory and pauses at one distant memory. The passage from the recent to the distant is one rife with shame, but there comes a point where shame cannot silence questions. My grandfather died from COVID-19 in 2020, and the funeral arrangements were delayed due to the severe death toll. This in itself is a difficult fact for me to digest. At my grandfather’s funeral, I recall being perplexed as I watched my grandmother pull at the large bereavement ribbons (where his name and condolences were printed) and rearranging them so the print was facing the ground, blank side up. Why did she do that? I did not know.
I began to circle this memory inside my mind, and from this question sprang tens of other questions which make their way into the piece. How was it that my grandmother could read the ribbons? My mother told me that my grandmother never attended school because of “the war.” My grandmother does not speak about the war and what it cost her family. What it cost our family. From here, I must learn how to respect her silence while respecting my own questions. In a way, the questions I have for her are dislocated ones. They have no place to go, so they form a bridge between seemingly unrelated memories. They do not form a bridge proudly; rather, they do so with shame, strain, and remorse. The questions spill over frantically, yet they also pause sometimes, their stillness as a hope for hearing a response on the other side. It is when I write through the silence I realize that inside those gaps I can see fragments of myself, waiting.
Ruby: This is a piece about grief—the death of your grandfather and your grandmother’s cancer diagnosis. At the same time, this piece is about your relationship with language and relearning Korean. In “What’s in a Name?” you write: “Grief is the envelope with nothing inside. Grief is the letter she will not find. Grief, the letter never returned.” Based on our editorial conversations, I know that you’ve said relearning Korean has not been enough to understand your history, that the more you learn, the more questions you have. Can you speak more about this connection between grief and language and how it functions in the piece?
H. L.: I am the first in my family to be born in America. My family had immigrated to America from Argentina. Both my parents, however, were born and lived in South Korea first. What this means is that although on paper I am an American-born citizen, my first language was Korean, as it was the only language spoken at home. I would learn English naturally as I attended school, and in the meantime, I steadily lost my grasp on Korean, which would remain at an elementary speaking level for years. My family urged me to learn Korean quickly and diligently. If I was fluent, I would be able to understand my parents and grandparents when they spoke. It was especially important for my grandparents, who could not speak English at all.
Because I can read Korean now, I can read the notes my grandparents have written. But because I can read their notes, my questions begin. I cannot respond with a letter containing my questions, even though I can now write in Korean. There is no address I can reach them at, for my grandparents wrote their notes on the covers of the envelopes. As my access to the Korean language expands, my access to these individuals does not. It makes me wonder, whose Korean is it that I have on my back? From here, “Return Mail” begins.
Ruby: Throughout the piece, you include dictionary definitions of Korean words. These words either have multiple meanings like sanso (산소) which means both “oxygen” and “grave.” Or you include words that look or sound similar like giyeok (기억) and miyeok (미역), which mean “memory” and “seaweed.” And it is through these different word meanings and associations that you make connections with your own personal history. Can you explain your process of including these definitions? Or how did you make these different associations?
H. L.: I knew that I wanted to include the Korean sanso and link it to phone calls before I wrote anything. Sanso was a word I understood first as “oxygen” while my grandfather was hospitalized. I had not known it also meant “grave” until my mother continued using the word after his death. I remember my confusion so clearly when I thought she had said, regarding my grandfather’s funeral, “We will go to Grandfather’s oxygen.” For a foolish moment, I thought he was alive again.
Giyeok and miyeok was a rhyme that I first heard in my head two years ago, and I knew I wanted to do something with it. After a few unsuccessful drafts, I set the words aside for later. I had not known they would reemerge like this. At times I am still wistful that my Korean is not at native fluency, but then I realize I probably wouldn’t pay much mind to these word associations had I grown up without having so actively grappled with the Korean language. I am not entitled to Korean; I am a welcomed guest. Neither my English nor my Korean were easy to acquire—I have never felt entitled to either of them and certainly have felt threatened by both. Both languages are entangled with painful memories, but for now I refuse to turn away from them. By both languages I am warmly invited into peripheries. I write to remember this.
Ruby: During our editorial conversations, we had talked about adding another section, “All You Can Eat,” that was primarily about ghosts and the idea that generational trauma is passed down unconsciously. During my graduate studies, Grace M. Cho’s article “Voices from the Teum: Synesthetic Trauma and the Ghosts of the Korean Diaspora” was imperative for my research and thinking, and I wanted to know whether your own research on trauma and postmemory contributed to this section, or the piece as a whole.
H. L.: Oh, for sure! The “All You Can Eat” section formed as I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and K-Ming Chang’s Bestiary for my research. I especially admire how Chang’s Bestiary incorporates the estranged epistolary that embraces bodily mythmaking across an intergenerational relationship between daughter and grandmother. E. J. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others was a guiding light as I compiled the first draft of “Return Mail.”
Ruby: This was my first time editing a piece and your first time receiving editorial support. What was the editorial process like for you? Was there anything that was unexpected, surprising, or particularly helpful?
H. L.: Ruby, I also owe a lot to you and your editorial support. As my first time receiving editorial support, I was worried that “Return Mail” would not actually survive an editing round. Something unexpected was our consistent thought convergences; I feel like our research interests have a lot of crossover, and it was insightful to receive your editorial comments that seemed to braid those research interests with craft-related feedback.
In a way, I am beginning to see my own writing as something that calls and responds to the various texts that I have drawn inspiration from. As someone who has often found language and literature to be daunting and overwhelming, I found our work together has offered a suggestion that there exists the possibility for me in which, regardless of where I go or what I do, I warmly invite myself to write with courage and toward memories both known and unknown.