I’ve been feeling disappointed in books lately. Whereas I’ve encountered many well-written books, they’ve lacked something—a politic, perhaps, or maybe something as simple as a point. I’ve found myself reading half a book, losing interest, the well-crafted sentence not enough to compel me to completion. But then, yesterday, as I was rushing out the door to go to a dentist appointment, I remembered this book that Johannes Goransson had sent me, a new Action Book, and I thought maybe this would be different. And it was.
Don Mee Choi’s The Morning News is Exciting is perhaps one of the most exciting books I’ve read recently. A collection of poetry or prose or prose poetry or poetic prose, whatever, genre is so passé these days, Choi’s book challenges not only genre but also the politics of colonialism, post-colonialism, empire, and identity. As cutting as it is tender, as angry as it is intelligent, this is not a book for the faint-hearted reader.
Choi was born in South Korea, below the 38th parallel—I know all about the politics of an invisible arbitrary line dividing a country, for Vietnam, my parents tell me story after story about the power of the 17th parallel—though she left South Korea as a child, moved to Hong Kong, then the US. This is all very important. Unlike me, she has experienced the “homeland.” She knows the geography, how it’s changed. As a second generation immigrant, I hear stories, and when I finally visited Vietnam, it was nothing like Choi’s return to Korea. I have no frame of reference, no way of seeing how colonialism, imperialism, and war have changed the geography—both the physical and the human landscapes—I know only the US, and although sure I’m talking about two very different countries with different histories, the influence of colonialism, imperialism, and war display the same results:
I arrive below the 38th parallel. Everyone and every place I know are below the waist of a nation. Before I arrive, empire arrived, that is to say empire is great. I follow its geography. From a distance the waist below looks like any other small rural village of winding alleys and traditional tile-roofed houses surrounded by rice paddies, vegetable fields, and mountains. It reminded me of home, that is to say this is my home.
Close up: clubs, restaurants, souvenir and clothing stores with signs in English, that is to say English has arrived before me and was here even before I had left. PAPA SAN, LOVE SHOP, POP’S, COLDEN TAILOR, PAWN. I followed the signs and they led to one of the gates to Camp Stanley, a heliport, that is to say language is not to be believed but to be obeyed, and to compel obedience. A woman in her seventies lived next to LOVE SHOP. She was taking an afternoon nap. She has never left below the waist and eventually came to be regarded as a great patriot by her government, that is to say she followed the signs and suffered from lice infestation during the war and passed the lice on to GIs. (15)
I love this passage not just because I find resonance in my own life. The power in this passage comes from the return to home, only to find home changed—something we can all understand, as we watch industry grow around us, often without us—and then there is the issue of translation between what is and what is, that yes, it reminded of her home AND it was her home, or the old woman was a great patriot AND she suffered. If I were smarter here, I’d talk about signs and signifiers, but my Derrida is too rusty to make any coherent point. I would like to point out, however, that throughout the story-poems in this collection, Choi co-opts theory. In the passage above, the italics are from Deleuze and Guattari. She also quotes Freud and the New York Times and Emily Dickenson and Marx, among many others. That is to say, on the exterior, it may look like she’s just playing around, but really, she’s throwing punches and I think my jaw may be broken.
In “A Journey from Neocolony to Colony,” Choi describes this doubling of self, that her narrator, upon leaving South Korea, created a second self, a twin, who could stay behind, while she left to Hong Kong. That way, there would always be connection to home.
My message to you:
You are gone. Please come. I have your comb. I know homesickness. It unfolds like Mother’s umbrella. I dress your paper dolls, the penciled closet. I pace the bridge, your hair pin in my hair. The river is muddy. I unfold arms and take off my shoes I am none. Please come. I have your comb. Be low. Be no. Say no to dinner and fog.
Your message to me:
Forgetting is lovely and Father’s well is bottomless. Freud says: the way in which national tradition and the individual’s childhood memories are formed might turn out to be entirely analogous. Indeed, a higher authority can shift the aim of the resistance to memory. Madness may be a form of resistance. Forgetting is lovely and Father’s well is bottomless. In order to remember an incident painful to national feeling, a lower psychic agency must resist the higher authority. However, it is against the Law. Tea and false memories. Which is lovelier? Colony or neocolony? The shift in aim is minor. Forget something then remember something else. The loveliest of all is the unconscious—it is lively. In defense of nation’s paramnesia, tea must be served at all times. Migration, my nation! The family in the distance must be oceans apart. Closeness may lead to nationalism. Follow orderly obsessions. Wash and clean when in doubt. Scrub the edges of your memory. Childhood loneliness can shift its aim. Nation’s loneliness is false category. Be fraud. Be Law. (83-4)
And in all the discussion of politics, let’s not forget to applaud the poetry and language play. From “The Morning News is Exciting”:
Twin twin twin zone. Cameraman, run to my twin twin zone. A girl’s exile excels beyond excess. Essence excels exile. Something happens to the wanted girl. Nothing happens to the unwanted girl. The morning news is exciting. Excessive exile exceeds analysis. Psychosis my psychosis. Psychosis her psychosis. Pill her and pill her and file her and exile her and pill her and pill her till axis and boxes and sexes. (27)
Choi’s The Morning News is Exciting blends provocative politics with urgent writing, it moves beyond the pretty sentence, it is a book with purpose, with a point. Now, I’m not arguing that books need to be political, but reading Choi’s collection was satisfying, and it was more than just satisfying, it excited me with insight.
But don’t just take my word for it: Blake also posted about it a couple months ago here. And I’ll echo Blake that Action Books is publishing some phenomenal work. Choi’s book is just one of many. So yeah, good job Joyelle and Johannes. Please, keep on publishing! We love you for it.