Interview: Korean-American poet Rosanna Oh
In 2005, Congress declared January 13 Korean American Day, in commemoration of the 1903 arrival of 102 immigrants, among the very first Koreans to arrive in the US. Rosanna Oh, a young writer and Korean American, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 2012 with an MFA in poetry. Her work has been featured in Unsplendid, Measure, and Best New Poets, among other publications. I spoke with her recently about how her background has influenced her creative relationship to language.
ROSANNA OH: My parents spoke Korean exclusively at home and sent my brothers and me to Korean school on Saturdays when we were children. In fact, Korean was my first language; I was sent to ESL classes until I was in the third grade. Oddly enough, now my English is way better than my Korean. I can read, write, and speak Korean, but only on a basic level. I can watch most Korean dramas without difficulty, if that means anything.
To me, English has a larger vocabulary than Korean, but Korean is much more subtle in how it conveys meaning.
Listening to Korean taught me the potential that words have to move people. Koreans are emotional people, even though we may not seem to be on the surface. So Korean for me is a powerful language because of this tension between emotion and restraint. Everything has to do with tone and context. Even though I consider myself a Korean American rather than a Korean national, and even though I can’t speak Korean as fluently as some of my peers, I still identify with Korean virtues, like filial piety. Whenever I hear Korean, I think of the entire culture from which it arose, and of my parents who speak it.
JS: What was your earliest experience of language as a means for artistic expression? How do the differences between your experiences of Korean and English feed into each other creatively?
RO: I fell in love with the English language because of Greek mythology. Its simple storytelling, its gravitas, and imaginativeness all appealed to me. Looking back, I think I was obsessed with myths partially because of their universality, too—especially the family tropes—which in turn helped me to reconcile my Korean and American identities. One of the earliest poems I remember writing was about the changing seasons.
To me, English has a larger vocabulary than Korean, but Korean is much more subtle in how it conveys meaning. (This goes back to what I said about tone and context.) I wrote poems exclusively in English until my last year at Johns Hopkins. I began to include some Korean words (Romanized) without translating them in the text. So to answer your question: Korean and English can enrich each other. The best example of this dynamic that I can think of now is Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution, which plays with Korean, English, and other languages to form a sort of pidgin language.
JS: I know that you, like many first-generation Americans, are eager to avoid the cliché immigrant narrative of being “confused” about your identity on the periphery of two cultures, the kind of thing that authors like Amy Tan has made so familiar to most Americans. Do you see a need for a “new” narrative of this kind? If not, how do you organize the presence of both Korean and American elements in your writing?
RO: I don’t know that I can give you a good answer to that question but I can give you an honest one. On one hand, what we understand to be a cliché immigrant narrative—i.e., the journey from the old country to the new one, assimilation, etc.—is necessary because it will never go out of style. Immigrant narratives all ponder the question of what it means to be an American. It’s a question that fascinates me.
That said, since the immigrant narrative is so prevalent and recognizable, there’s a danger that it imposes unfair expectations on a work. If someone reads my last name “Oh” and immediately expects my poem to be about my Korean or immigrant identity, that would destroy the integrity of the poem for that reader. It’s also just plain disrespectful. I am more than an immigrant or Korean or Korean American for that matter, so why can’t my poems be?
So I think my answer to your question about whether we need a “new” immigrant narrative is both yes and no. We need to be wary of the cliché immigrant narrative but also recognize that it offers a framework that can challenge a writer to make something new.
JS: This past year, many Americans were forced to reflect on the continuing struggle of minorities in the US. Has that touched you and your writing at all?
RO: Actually, back when I was in Wisconsin [for graduate school], I volunteered as a poetry instructor at Oakhill Correctional Institute in Wisconsin, and currently I volunteer at Rikers Island. I grew up as one of the few Asians in a Long Island public school, and — let’s be real — there aren’t a lot of Asian Americans studying and teaching English literature these days, so I understand to some extent what it means to be an outsider. But ultimately, I volunteer at prisons because poetry matters to my students. You can literally see a change when they get excited about an idea or their own work. My students at Oakhill and Rikers have all taught me something. I love teaching them. Also, reading and writing are a universal way to exercise the imagination—no matter who you are, you have to be able to empathize in order to appreciate a character, story, etc. So when it comes to other American minority experiences, maybe being Korean American doesn’t matter so much as being a good reader and listener, and having an open mind.
Rosanna Oh is a writer whose work has appeared in Unsplendid, Measure, and Best New Poets, among other publications. She was also featured in Anna Jedrzejewska’s 2014 short documentary Poetry Unites.