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Ame Ai

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Silence as Language
by Ame Ai   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Friday, December 26, 2008
Posted: Friday, December 26, 2008

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Poet, musician, and teacher Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is part of a widespread movement of Korean adoptee artists that inquires into concepts of family, home and identity. As a professor of creative writing, she has also observed the trend over the last 10 years as Korean adoptees contribute to a growing voice that is uniquely their own.

Silence as language
A profile of poet Jennifer Kwon Dobbs

Poet, musician, and teacher Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is part of a widespread movement of Korean adoptee artists that inquires into concepts of family, home and identity. As a professor of creative writing,  she has also observed the trend over the last 10 years as Korean adoptees contribute to a growing voice that is uniquely their own. 

Dobbs was brought up in Oklahoma, and now lives in New York City.  She will be moving to Minnesota this summer to take a position as the an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Olaf College in Northfield.

Her poems have appeared in 5 AM, Crazyhorse, Cimarron Review, Cream City Review, MiPOesias, Poetry NZ, Tulane Review, among others and have been anthologized in Echoes Upon Echoes and most recently, in the 2008 collection Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond . Her music collaboration, Among Joshua Trees, won the New York Youth Symphony´s First Music Series and debuted at Carnegie Hall.  As a fellow of the University of Southern California, she was the founding director of the USC SummerTIME Writing Program.

Dobbs started writing “secret little writings” to herself as a girl, based on what she heard people saying. She read collections like Best Loved American Poems. “I grew up in Oklahoma, and I was bored out of my mind,” she said.

In writing a poem, Dobbs said, “I don’t follow steps… I consider a poem done when it stops asking me questions. Homage to the DMZ took five years to write, whereas other poems took three or four days to write in comparison.”  She calls herself  “voracious” when it comes to using influences to inspire her work.  “I write about history, what I have seen, what I have not seen or read.  I explore what hasn’t been said before, and what can’t happen or can’t be said anywhere outside of poetry.”  Family memories, operas, punk rock shows, all are fair game for Dobbs.

Dobbs has both participated in and observed Korean adoptees’ explosion in the arts and feels Korean adoptees explore a theme that differs from other Korean Americans or from any other group. “For Korean adoptees, there is a greater sense of urgency to confront the material questions, ‘What, Where, Why?’”  she said, “Writing is sometimes part of it. …Korean adoptees struggle with the unknown, with questions of inheritance, with absence. If we find our birth family, we are not allowed to sponsor immigration of our birth families. However, the law allows non-adoptees to do that. In that respect, the poetry between the two groups looks very different. Also, we need to take into account adoptive families too. Both groups have Asian heritage, but for Korean adoptees we even have to face the question, ‘Are we even Asian?’”

There are “larger mysteries” shared in the human experience which makes many questions of adoptees questions for everyone. “We all can ask ourselves, ‘What is home? How do we go home?’” she remarked.  “In our modern moment, you might say that we’re not at home; all we do is rent or sell in order to move somewhere else. Increasingly, it is impossible to achieve the American dream because of the mortgage crisis, etc., etc. This matter of home is a trigger for others who are not adoptees.”

Dobbs said she experienced the myth of home in a personal way in Korea.  “When I went to Won Ju Si, my birth city in Korea, I wasn’t able to locate an exact address of my birthparents, but I was able to walk around the city of my birth family, my family’s friends, and my ancestors. I was able to go to the field where my orphanage used to be before it relocated to its present address. It clearly was not a home, but the openness of the space against the modern apartments in the distance still under construction seemed to be an apt form for the dream of home that I had carried with me.”

The idea of loss of one’s home is present in mainstream Korean and Korean American society, as well as for adoptees, because of the Korean War, Dobbs observed.  In researching the community’s history, Dobbs said “I read The Unforgotten War by [Korean adoptee] Thomas Park Clement, and we really have to consider all the mysteries of Korean adoption that go back to war. Our community is still shaped by the war. Our sense of home, if defined as a country of heritage, is a nation still divided. All Koreans, including Korean adoptees, have questions about reunification.”

In one of her poems, Dobbs even describes a Korean adoptee as a “zombie” that wanders the earth.  “I don’t think nor write of Korean adoptees as ‘zombies,’” she offered, “but that they are directed toward search, to quote [Korean American poet] Theresa Hak Kyung Cha ‘and fixed in its perpetual exile.’”

Not only are there not enough Korean adoptee poets, Dobbs said  “There are not enough poets in general! …Jane Jeong Trenka and Sun Yung Shin’s  Outsiders Within anthology dedicates its contents to the hope that our community will begin writing more. Korean adoptees have created an incredible transnational community … In the Twin Cities alone, there is a strong Korean adoptee presence that sponsors cultural events. Our shared experience makes it easy for us to relate with others regardless of nation. For example, Korean American adoptees can relate to Korean adoptees in Denmark. We are a diaspora that has a powerful network.”

While living in New York, Dobbs has worked with the adult adoptee organization Also Known As, and recently witnessed the emergence of a profusion of Korean adoptee artists at events in Korea.  This exciting and diverse emerging community of Korean adoptees worldwide is “a gift and a blessing,” Dobbs said.  “I grew up in Oklahoma in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. There were not a lot of Asian Americans or adoptees in my hometown. I was isolated. So, I enjoy the adoptee community I have since found. …For me, it is a privilege to have a community without being interrogated about or pressed to explain what I am, a Korean adoptee.” 

Korean adoptees share some similarities with other minority groups, she said, in their search for roots. The mainstream does not recognize the parallel messages of Korean adoptees and, for example, African Americans, yet many parallels exist.   “The desires of Korean adoptees are similar with African Americans who are a diaspora due to slavery. This is not to say that adoptees are slaves. Rather, we both long for the ability to point on a map and say, “This is where I’m from. This is one of my names.”

The classical Greek poet Horace wrote that “Men can do nothing without the make believe of a beginning.”  That line, Dobbs said, has significant meaning for Korean adoptees, who often do not have a beginning they can be told about. “We [Korean adoptees]  are told that we have no beginning, no connection with a birth family or heritage. Both are not true .

‘We have beginnings, but what we lack are the specific facts because we cannot always retrieve our documents or access paperwork,” she pointed out.  “Sometimes our adoptive parents are afraid of talking with us about what they know, or they don’t know anything at all. Or perhaps they encourage us to make believe that our birth parents are dead, the Korean part of us is dead, and we cannot connect to either and shouldn’t for doing so means betraying their love or expressing our anger. Yet these are all myths, all make-believe.

“Some adoptees can contact their birth parents, and some can’t. Some don’t even want to do so,” Dobbs reflected.  “These are all the right decisions, but to be able to imagine ourselves beyond the cultural myths that we have been told is absolutely necessary for us to do something, because without this make-believe, we can do nothing. Horace also points out that we have a human need for narrative. We need to dream of a past to narrate the future. When you don’t have information, you end up speculating about possibilities, some scary and some mundane. There is no certain knowledge unless documents are maintained, and they should be because they are our inheritance.”

Dobbs said she wrote in her poem Kameoka about misspelling her Korean name in relation to an actual event that happened when she was in Japan in the late ‘90s. Her adoptive family had some information about her beginnings, which was, for her, a mindblowing discovery.   “I didn’t know my Korean name until 1996. The reason why is because my adoptive family told me that the adoption agency burned down, and the documents were destroyed. They don’t remember telling me this, but I remember. They have also told me that Korea doesn’t keep records, doesn’t have records.

“When I prepared to travel to Kameoka in the Kyoto Prefecture of Japan to study Kansai literature, I needed my naturalization certificate to apply for a passport. I remember a shoebox lying on the dining room table with papers from my adoption agency. I did not know that these papers had existed all this time. I learned my Korean name, Kwon Young Mee, and I was in shock. I was not just Jennifer anymore.”

Suddenly, because of these papers, she was irresistably drawn to the Korean language.  “It was hard to find someone who could teach Korean to me in Oklahoma,” she reflected.  “I was also afraid of this language, a language that was so dangerous that my adoptive parents had literally hidden it from me…

“Still, I studied the Hangul alphabet from library books because the Internet was not yet widely available,  and tried to learn how to write my Korean name. When in Kameoka, my literature class visited a Japanese potter’s house, and we painted plates. My classmate, a Korean American who had lived in the United States for a long time, noticed me writing my Korean name in Hangul and told me that I misspelled it. She then kindly corrected me by drawing a line to fix the vowel.”

Dobbs said she has not yet found her birth parents. The experience, if it ever happens, she said, would be beyond words.   “I am not at home with similarity. Because I grew up in Oklahoma and my consciousness, my way of relating with the world was through difference, I have always been at home in difference. So being in the presence of someone who looks like me would be an experience for which I don’t have a language. What do you say? ‘Hello’ doesn’t seem to cut it. The silence would likely be an articulate silence.”

However, she pointed out, she did not go to Korea to find anything in particular – not even to “find herself,” she said.  “Finding self is a lifelong process and often we die before we finish it. I went to Korea without expectations. I needed to do it because I had certain feelings, ways of seeing the world that could only be articulated in Korea. I have some poems I couldn’t have written outside of Korea. Place, I feel, makes certain languages and silences possible.”

Dobbs said that, today she participates in Korean culture in her own way these days, not necessarily through pop culture or by visiting Korean restaurants. She has even, at times, steeped herself in the poetry of ancient kisaengs, the talented poet/musician/entertainer women whose work has a long history in Korea. Korean culture enters her life by various means.  “After all, by writing a book or even talking with you about matters that inform or affect Korean American adoption, I am in some way participating in contemporary Korean culture from a transnational perspective.”

When she was growing up, Dobbs said, she did not have the language or the consciousness of belonging to a group of Korean adoptees, which is now so essential for her identity.  “There was always something unsettled,” she said. Others put it into words and she discovered her own words for it as she grew into her adulthood and asked more and more questions of herself and of society. Korean adoptees are both “outside” the main culture, and “within” the mainstream culture, as Jane Jeong Trenka observed in the anthology Outsiders Within. 

“Without apt language we are unable to examine what we feel,” Dobbs remarked. “In college, I tried to find the language for what I was unable to articulate. As a poet, I am interested in this silence, not always as something to tear apart or to name as oppression, but rather as part of a language that’s mine. After all, silence, too, is a language, and it’s one that my book tries to explore and shape to reach through uncertainty.”


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