By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Poet, translator, and teacher Don Mee Choi, author of “The Morning News Is Exciting!”, survived a difficult upbringing in South Korea and struggled to find her vocation.
She’s resolved, after settling down in Seattle, to give back to the community as an educator.
“I never set out to be a poet,” she said, describing her early life in Seoul, South Korea. “I was a lousy writer in school, a perpetual failure in English. … I just accepted myself as a failure in languages and looked for another medium.
“It occurred to me that I could become an artist after learning that my father once had a successful painting show and that he aspired to be a writer, but couldn’t because of the [Korean] war. … In college, I started out with sculpture/mixed-media/installation, then experimental 16-mm film. Then later, my medium for art shifted to language — poetry and translation of Korean women’s poetry. As a late bloomer, I learned that you can still work with languages, even if you are a total failure.”
The poet’s father was a photographer who took home prizes, but not a great deal of money.
“With the prize money for his award-winning photographs of the April 1960 Student Revolution,” she remembered, “my father was able to buy [a] house and later, I was born in it. I still remember people coming by in the late afternoons begging for leftovers, even rice that had gone sour. And some of them were shoeshine boys — mostly orphans from the Korean War.”
She spent some time in Hong Kong after her family scattered to several points outside South Korea, and she came to the United States at age 19.
“It took me a long time to figure out how to live here alone,” she recalled. “It was difficult for me to understand American English at first because I learned British English in Hong Kong. And, of course, other cultural gaps were so enormous that I made many stupid mistakes. I just tried to cope with the gaps and feeling totally placeless by focusing on making art.
“Luckily, one of my mistakes took me to Arizona. I met wonderful community, cultural, and environmental activists there and was fortunate to work with Native American students who were already effective leaders and educators on the reservations. That eventually led to my interest in post-colonial theory and translation and poetry.”
Choi continues her teaching today in Renton.
“Now, I teach full-time for Renton Technical College’s Basic Studies (Downtown Seattle Learning Center), supporting students to complete their GEDs so that they can move onto college or be eligible for employment. My students are my daily inspiration. Many struggle with homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, mental and physical health issues, parenting …
“The main thing they have in common is poverty, and their poverty is structural, not personal. They are not failures. Society has failed them. Despite their struggles, many still show up in the mornings or afternoons, Monday through Friday, and work on their GEDs to create positive changes in their lives.”
Don Mee Choi also translated two volumes’ worth of one of her favorite South Korean poets, Kim Hyesoon.
She describes Kim as “one of the several women poets who are writing against the grain in South Korea. Her poetry challenges the conventions of contemporary Korean poetry … I was drawn to the prolific images in her poems of death, violence, darkness, and her total disregard for any fixed identity, boundaries, and normalizing representations of women’s experiences.”
And she plans to go onward and outward in the next few years.
Asked about her plans, she replied, “Complete my second book of poems, about all the wars my father has seen, gain more experience in teaching creative writing and Korean women’s poetry, and in about four years, move to Australia to be closer to my family, finally.” (end)
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.