Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 74. Today’s guest is Franny Choi.
Hey there, folks. Today’s show is a conversation with poet Franny Choi. Franny Choi is the author of the full-length collection Floating, Brilliant, Gone and the chapbook Death by Sex Machine. She has been a finalist for multiple national poetry slams, and her poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, American Poetry Review, the New England Review, and elsewhere. She is a Kundiman Fellow, Senior News Editor for Hyphen, co-host of the podcast VS, and a member of the Dark Noise Collective. Her second collection, Soft Science, is forthcoming in April 2019 from Alice James Books.
My first experience with Franny’s poetry was a couple of years ago, when I saw a video that was going around of her “For Peter Liang” poem. This poem—you might remember back in 2016, the conviction of Peter Liang, an NYPD officer, for the shooting of Akai Gurley, an unarmed black man. Around the time of Liang’s conviction, there was a lot of protesting happening from Chinese American organizations, and I was having a hard time with it. I felt like there was something wrong about those protests, something that didn’t sit right with me, but I didn’t know how to articulate it. And then I saw Franny’s reading of this poem, and it just… Well, it affected me. It helped. I didn’t know who she was yet, but I said, “This. Yeah, this is it.”
Fast forward a bit over a year to the summer of 2017, and I heard about this new poetry podcast that was about to come out, called VS, hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi, and I thought, yes, I need to check that out. And it rapidly became one of my favorite podcasts—every episode features a great conversation between Danez, Franny, and their guests, conversations that go deep into process and deep into the work, but which are also just so energetic and fun to listen to. And that was the point at which I really started following Franny’s poetry.
So, fast forward again to this past spring, when I read Franny’s chapbook Death By Sex Machine, which was just tremendous. Here, Franny uses a framing concept of artificial intelligence—and specifically through android characters from the movie Ex Machina and the manga Chobits—she uses this frame to look at voicelessness, dehumanization, Asian fetishism, the nature of agency, and a whole bunch more, and it’s just, well, there’s a lot going on in these poems, both thematically and formally. So of course I knew I wanted to talk with her about this book.
Now, I’ve put links in the show notes to where you can purchase both Death By Sex Machine and her previous collection Floating, Brilliant, Gone, as well as where you can pre-order her forthcoming collection Soft Science, which, as I mentioned, is coming out in April of next year. So please do check those out. I’ve also put a link to VS, which just returned for a new season a couple of weeks ago. Their latest episode features a conversation with Nate Marshall and is outstanding, so do check that out as well.
One more thing before we get started, for subscribers to the KTCO Patreon campaign, there is a new bonus reading available, Franny Choi reading her poem “Oh My God, How Does It Feel to Be Korean Right Now?” That joins our growing bonus archive, which includes readings from poets Natalie Eilbert and Ada Limón, and which is available to Patreon subscribers at any level. If you’d like to make a pledge, you can do that at patreon.com/sakeriver.
As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPoetry to live-tweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Franny Choi.
Mike Sakasegawa: Okay, so I was wondering if we could start with a poem?
Franny Choi: Yeah, sure. So I'll read this poem called "The Price of Rain," which is in the chapbook, Death by Sex Machine as well as the book that's coming out in the spring. I guess I'm not sure what to—if there's anything I should say as any sort of intro except that in thinking about the Me Too movement and all of these current conversations about sexual violence, you know, that I think it forces everyone to reflect really heavily on their own experiences with intimacy. And intimacy is just hard. I don't know, I guess maybe the poem is kind of returning through my own memories of intimacy and trying to figure out what role power has played. I guess maybe that's sort of a theme generally of my work. But anyway, here it is, "The Price of Rain."
The truth is that no man has taken anything
I didn't give him. I mean, no man has taken
anything I claimed as my own. My body, my stink,
my land to plant in. It's never been about the price
of lettuce. How many times have I taken something
that did not belong to me? Queen, queen, I croon,
pulling up handfuls of greens. My, my.
Property's still theft. I let my wet skin slip
through the drainpipe. My mother says love,
in our family, means sacrifice. I thought,
if I lay my legs on the altar, I thought something
would come back to me. Mine, mine. I offered it,
being promised rain. Being told my wet was in
the common domain. I whispered our body, our legs,
our compost heap. I gave freely. I gave it for free,
thinking that made me wingèd—stork delivering herself
to herself. Look how free I am. Dowager Slut. Queen Regent.
Turns out there are no synonyms for King. My lord,
my darling, my darkening sky. You can't buy
a thunderstorm. Nor should you bring one back
from the dead. But I threw open the gates.
I invited them in. I said, help yourselves then watched
as they went room to room, taking, emptying
the shelves, sucking marrow from the bones,
and overhead, the sky filled with rain.
MS: Mm, thank you.
MS: You know, it's interesting, that particular poem was one that kind of stuck out for me in this collection, that I was thinking a little bit about how so much of this chapbook is about these characters that you're inhabiting, that sort of lack agency. Or at least they're sort of made to lack agency.
MS: And yet it feels like this particular poem is really interested in the idea of agency, especially in the context of sexuality and intimacy.
FC: Yeah, for sure.
MS: Does that seem about right?
FC: Yeah, no, totally. I mean, I think that agency is so tricky no matter what in our daily lives, you know. I don't know. I think that maybe the larger question that the book—and maybe any media about artificial intelligence—is trying to ask might be, "Do any of us have agency? Do are any of us actually have free will, or is it all programming?" And I think that process of trying to parse out what did I decide to do, what was I coerced into doing? What was I destined to do because of the way that that I've been programmed by the world, or by a literal programmer. Yeah. Those questions become maybe heightened when it comes—or just pulled into sharper focus when you're talking about sex, talking about intimacy. Right? So the more I think about robots and sex in the same room, the more I understand why they're in the same room to begin with, you know? But yeah, so I guess this is a poem that maybe also doesn't explicitly have any robots in it.
FC: But it's also like there's that interruptive voice. Like if you see the text of the poem, there's a lot of text in Italics, like that line, "it's never been about the price of lettuce," which I think is sort of a weird curve ball, and I still don't totally understand what it's doing in there, either. But I think for me, a lot of what gives this poem momentum as I'm looking through it and reading it, is what those different voices in it are saying to each other, and the process of trying to parse them out. Which makes me think of scenes in Westworld when Dolores is trying to understand what part of her inner voice is Ford and what's her, etc, etc, you know?
MS: Yeah, yeah. There's like a whole bunch of things that you just said that I wanted to follow up on. [laughs] Let me see what would be maybe the first. I think, you know, the first—maybe the most interesting thing that you just said is that about that line, "it's never been about the price of lettuce," that you still weren't sure completely what that was doing in there. I think that that is a fascinating sort of way of—like [a] peek inside the poet's mind, maybe. I think a lot of people have this impression that poetry is a thing that is to be understood, you know, but if even the poet isn't completely sure what the meaning is, that's sort of an interesting proposition.
FC: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean I think that there's definitely... Well, I guess the first thing is that I do think that that idea that a poem is meant to be totally understood, that has a historical basis, right? Like, that in a lot of ways comes from New Criticism and this wave of literary criticism that looks at poetry as a thing to be parsed, you know. That's where our contemporary close reading practices that are so, so drilled-in in school—you know, for some good reason—that that's sort of like where they come from. So that hasn't always been the way that we approach poetry, or that we see poetry as needing to be approached. At the same time, I also think the idea that you should just listen and not understand and that's okay, that's also a philosophy that maybe keeps people away from poetry, too, you know? Like why listen to a poem if there's nothing to get out of it and it's just sparkles, slash, maybe it's just like a waste of time if it's just like this weird Emperor's New Clothes game of people looking at a poem and everyone being like, "Wow, amazing." And then you're sitting there being like, "What the fuck."
FC: You know, like I'm sure that that performance—I know from my own experience that that performance does a lot of work to drive people away from poetry. That said, I also... So with those two poles in mind, I also —I think the moments for me in a poem that resonate but don't make sense, or that I wouldn't have thought to put there, that for me is where a lot of the aliveness of a poem comes from, actually.
FC: Because it makes total sense. That means the algorithm would have eventually gotten you there, or something. You know, like, then there's nothing to... It becomes predictable than put simply, you know. And so I think there have to be some moments that are off, or that are weird, or that don't make sense.
MS: Yeah. I've mentioned this particular quotation on the show before—not that long ago, actually—but I think about sometimes, there is a thing that Kaveh Akbar said in an interview. I think it was maybe a couple months ago that I heard it. He was saying that poetry, even if you can't... What was he trying to say? He made some reference to hearing a conversation through a wall, that even if you don't know what every word is, you can still glean the meaning from the cadences and the tone of voice and things like that. And that poetry can do something similar.
MS: For me, I thought, at the same time "Oh, that's brilliant," but also it felt a little unsatisfying to me because I feel like oftentimes for me, what it is [is] that I don't necessarily need to understand every single allusion or literary reference, and rather what's important to me is how the poem makes me feel. But I also want to know why I feel the way that I feel. Does that make sense?
FC: Yeah, for sure. For sure. I mean, and I think that's exactly the balance, right? Like, of how much to... How much understanding is necessary to be satisfying to a reader, to make it feel like the work is worth it. And maybe the trouble is that that answer is going to be different for different readers, for sure.
FC: So I don't know, so I don't really know what to do with that. And also, I love that idea of listening to a conversation through a wall, but also that isn't how poems are. Poems are written to be overheard, you know?
MS: Yeah. [laughs]
FC: And so maybe if I could add something to that, it would be like two people, I dunno, rehearsing for a play or something. Or like two people who are having a conversation about some shady stuff, who are pretty sure that the person next to them might be listening.
MS: Right. Right, right.
FC: So how does that change what you want people to overhear?
MS: Going back to something else that you said about "The Price of Rain," when you were talking about these italicized portions, you talked about the importance of voice, and sort of using different voices in this particular poem. But then again, that's also something that's very integral to the collection as a whole, the chapbook as a whole.
MS: Because of the fact that you're, pretty explicitly in some of the poems... I guess who the I of the poem is—
MS: —it sort of changes as you go through the collection. Sometimes it's explicitly these... Like a character from Ex Machina, the movie, or a character from this manga, Chobits, that you... I'm actually not familiar with that one, but it's interesting what you're doing with these different voices. And I guess sort of one of the things that I was thinking about with this is how, on the one hand, using these different characters, these different voices, really activates these things that you're talking about in a really interesting [way], and in a way that I am not sure I've really seen exactly the same way before. But also it's interesting because of the fact that the characters that you're inhabiting here are ones that explicitly don't have voices of their own. So I thought that was a really interesting thing that you were doing here.
FC: Yeah, thanks. Yeah, I mean, writing in persona is always weird and tricky, and I think there's a lot of room for... This has been on my mind, actually, the question of inhabiting a persona in a poem, because there've been conversations among my friends and our alleged community of poets lately—in the past day or so—about this poem that was published—
MS: Yeah. [laughs]
FC: I don't know if you saw it. Yeah. And it's particularly weird because he's a poet who's kind of in the extended community of Twin Cities poetry. So it's been sort of tricky to try to navigate how to talk about it, I think. I mean, I don't want to spend my hour shading this poet, but what it—just to give anyone who's listening context—there was this poem that was inhabiting a persona and I think a lot of people were pretty offended by the result of that, because the writer is a upper-middle-class, white, male person. And the poem was maybe using... I mean it's sort of hard to exactly say, but African American Vernacular English, and maybe a homeless person who's panhandling. And so, you know, there's obviously a lot of political stakes in speaking for a character who embodies a really different subject position in regards to race and class than you, you know?
FC: And especially to use that in order to be published in a really prestigious journal, that is just sort of shitty. But there was something that Dee Matthews—the poet Airea D. Matthews—said, it was just a really succinct way of... I'm going to butcher it, but basically she was saying what makes persona interesting is the way that the poet and then the character—the thread of oneness that is drawn between the poet and the character. What it is that puts them in a conversation in the first place. And then what happens when those voices are collapsed into one and the tensions and vibrations that come out of that. And if that thread in the first place was nothing, or was flimsy, then the result is often a flattening, or it just doesn't work. Or it becomes parody, is what she said.
FC: And so I feel like it's weird because these characters that I'm embodying in these poems—Kyoko, a character from the movie Ex Machina, who is a robot. I guess that's sort of a spoiler. Maybe I should stop saying that.
MS: [laughs] The movie's been out for a while. It's probably OK.
FC: I know, I know—who's a robot who has no language, who doesn't speak. And then also Chi from Chobits who is a broken android, and so she can only make the sound "Chi," and so is essentially also languageless. You know, there's a lot of reasons that brought me to inhabiting their voices and also a lot of things that make us very different. One of the biggest ones being that they're both Japanese or Japanese Amer—it's hard to say what race an android is, but—
MS: Mm-hm. Certainly they present as Asian, though.
FC: They present as Asian and they both have Japanese names. And so, you know, as a Korean American there are politics of taking a Japanese woman's voice that I haven't fully addressed and haven't fully worked out. And then there's also, yeah, anytime somebody says in a poem, "I'm going to give a voice to the voiceless," just like a million warning flags come up in my head. So yeah. So those things make it kind of nerve-wracking I think for me to speak as Kyoko and as Chi.
MS: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think what you're sort of getting at—and certainly correct me if I'm wrong—but it sounds like what you're getting at in both the case of this other poem that everybody was talking about yesterday and this morning—for good reason—and in the case of your own poems is that when you write a persona poem, the act of writing a poem or making art of any kind has consequences.
MS: And you can't divorce those consequences from the dynamics of power between the person writing the poem or making the art and the voice that they're inhabiting.
MS: And it seems like with this poem that everyone was talking about, that's problematic because of the way that the man who was speaking is speaking from a position of quite a lot of privilege and power compared to the voice that he's inhabiting. Whereas... I mean, I guess there's a conversation to be had about computers and robots and things like that and how much power they have. But, to begin, with these voices, these characters that you're inhabiting here are fictional.
MS: So it's a pretty different proposition, it seems to me.
FC: Totally. And there's not a history of disenfranchising robots because of their access to certain kinds of English, you know what I mean?
FC: So like yeah, there's just... There's less there. And I think the thing with the other poem in The Nation was also... A critique that I saw a lot that I thought was really valid and lively was critiquing the poet's obvious misunderstanding of that kind of English, of African American Vernacular. People were saying "Why would you use a contraction here but not here? You obviously don't speak this."
FC: And so maybe part of my interest in like speaking like Kyoko is really trying to imagine what is the kind of English that someone like Kyoko would speak. Especially because it doesn't exist. Knowing that perhaps no one exactly knows how she would speak. That's a language that doesn't exist yet, exactly. A vernacular that doesn't yet exist. And so trying to use my own relationship to English and being a... I guess Korean was my first language but it's all blended together now. But you know, using my experience, my background with English to kind of inform the way that I might imagine a new vernacular.
MS: Yeah. It really does seem like the key thing here with a persona poem—and really for any kind of art that makes use of a subject other than oneself—that the key thing is being able to understand the person or the thing that you were making the art out of, and that that was the key lack in this other person's poem.
MS: Whereas, you know, these poems that you've put into this chapbook, they're very empathetic poems. Which actually is sort of an interesting concept of having empathy, which we normally think of as being the quality of being able to understand someone else's emotions or experiences, things like that. Applying that to an artificial intelligence is... I don't know, I feel like there's a lot of different things that are interesting about that.
FC: Yeah. I think it makes for some weird... [laughs] some weird nights at the laptop, you know? [laughs]
FC: Yeah, I mean it is like a strange experiment, I think, in trying to extend empathy... Or maybe not extend empathy but ask how our understanding of empathy necessarily needs to change when we're talking about nonhuman subjects. Like, what does it mean to have empathy for... I mean, this also goes for nonhuman animals too. Like what does it mean to have empathy for a cow if we know that we'll never... It doesn't really make sense to try to be like "How would a cow feel?" and feel the way a cow would feel. Because that's not really... Maybe that's just not the right question to be asking, you know? But at the same time I also think that any time humans make a thing that's sort of human but definitely not, whenever we dip into that uncanny valley that people talk about, the question is, what does that do to fuck up your sense of empathy and your understanding of that? Because our natural inclination [is] to be like "It's a human, I'm a human. Here we go." But when that's obviously impossible or obviously nonsensical, then what do we do with that information? Do we then say, "Great, now is the time to thrust all of the violence that I've always wanted to do unto humans but was never allowed to onto this thing"? Or do we change the way we look at all beings?
MS: Yeah. I felt like the poems in this book were really operating on—on multiple levels—but two of the ones that I was sort of thinking of have to do with... You know, when we talk about understanding these characters, that on the one hand, in a more literal sense—what we were just talking about—taking them as the characters that they are, being artificial intelligences, and thinking about what our relationship to technology is and how the concept of... I think you've even talked about this on VS before, about how it's a little troubling to think about what our relationship to machines might be. Especially given our history of things like settler colonialism and slavery and things like that. You know, sort of unpacking all of that. So that was one level, the sort of literal "our relationship to machines" level. But then also, because of the fact that these characters present as Asian women—
MS: —that they function really effectively as a metaphor for at least the Asian American woman experience in some ways. And it does feel like you're doing things with that as well, unless I'm misreading it. I don't know.
FC: Oh yeah, of course. I think seeing a movie like Ex Machina was... The reason that I'm writing about robots is exactly because I was writing about and thinking about race and gender. And so when that character showed up on the screen, it was sort of like, "Oh, here's the image." You know, I've been using lots of different images and... Nah, not even the image, but here's the vehicle, or the playpen for continuing to think about these things. That was always what first drew me to thinking about artificial intelligence. And then maybe something that opened up for me was that questions of violence when it comes to race and gender were always questions of consciousness and of humanity. And you know, who gets to be categorized as human, and what is an object, and what do you do when you wake up one day and are like, "Hello world," and you're somewhere in between human and object?
FC: I think the thing that was so compelling about seeing... about turning around and noticing all of the Asian female robots that are in media was how unsurprising it was. You look at it, it makes sense why that would be the race and gender of the android in front of you. And then the question is, "Okay, why does that make so much sense?" Right. And I think that maybe sort of goes back to this idea of strangeness and incongruency in poetry. I think that what makes me want to do that work is how it seems to make sense, but I don't understand how. That makes me then want to ask the question, "Okay, what is it about this image that I see in front of me or this line I see in front of me that resonates, even if I've never thought of that before."
MS: Yeah. So, you know, as you're saying that something that sort of occurs to me is the depictions in those two things—like I said, I'm not actually familiar with the Chobits manga, but I have some experience with anime and manga, and I did see Ex Machina. It's sort of interesting to think about how, the thing that stands out, of course, in these poems is how neither of these characters have their own literal voice, literal ability to express themselves. But one of the things that occurs to me is that Ex Machina is an American movie depicting this Asian-presenting character. Whereas a manga is going to be something where the Asian-ness, because the media property is originating in an Asian country, the Asian-ness of that character isn't going to be an exotic or othering kind of thing in the same way that it is certainly presented that way in Ex Machina. You know what I mean?
FC: Yeah, yeah. For sure. For sure. And that's something that's sort of like on my mind, too. The poems that I write where I'm clearly both speaking in the narrative world of Chobits and also doing a commentary about violence against people of color and women of color, specifically. For sure. Also, though, I think especially when it comes to—maybe not especially when it comes to Japanese pop culture, but, you know, I mean that shit is also more global than we might expect or reali... Or I dunno, like Japanese pop culture's fascination with transhuman-ness and cyborg figures and artificial intelligence, etc, etc, that also kind of helps, I think, the American imagination to code those things as particularly Asian as well.
FC: I mean, I don't know. I guess maybe an easy way out might be, it's a manga and anime series that has made it to the US and my vantage point is as an American looking at this. And then forming my ideas about Asianess based on this manga, you know?
FC: You know, I think the way the weird, fucked-up Japanese art is used to further cement the idea that East Asian people are foreign and strange and fucked up, and sick in the head and etc., etc., it's also part of this American project.
MS: Yeah, that's interesting. And I think it's also... You know, what that brings up for me is how in America the differences between different kinds of Asian people. I mean, not even just the differences between... You know, there's been some talk recently about disaggregating East Asians from, say, Southeast Asians, South Asians or Pacific islanders and I certainly think that's a really interesting and necessary conversation to have. Even just within East Asians, though, I mean the history between Japan and Korea, Japan and China, Korea and China, these are separate entities with very complicated and complex histories and power dynamics and relationships between themselves, and then those have played out to some degree but in a different way between the diasporic communities in America from those countries. You're Korean American. These characters are coded as Japanese. I'm Japanese American, for myself. I feel like there's this way in which being in America gives us both an opportunity for solidarity among Asian Americans as a bloc but also erases the differences between us, which is troubling.
FC: Yeah, totally. I mean, yeah, I think that's one of the central questions of Asian American organizing in general. And I think it makes a lot of sense also to highlight that if those differences are tricky for Korean and Japanese American communities organizing in the US, those gulfs and the work necessary for real solidarity are even wider between, say, a Korean American and a Samoan American person trying to talk about what it means to be API together.
FC: And, you know, even that term, API, is also kind of being contested as whether it is really a necessary term or grouping. Or not even "necessary," like there are things that I think are materially necessary about having Pacific Islanders included in larger conversations about people coming from that part of the world. But, yeah, it's also complicated to be like "API, API." For example, your organization's staff is all East Asian and like one South Asian or something, you know—
FC: —like what currency do Asian American spaces gain from putting "PI" into their names. And what actually comes back to Pacific Islander American folks that they're supposedly supposed to serve? Yeah. That question is also huge. But even when it comes down to two countries who are right next to each other. The history of colonialism in Korea by the Japanese Empire, it just makes for some complicated friendships here, a few generations and ocean later.
MS: Yeah, definitely. There's like a million things more that I would love to talk about, but I think that we need to take a little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.
FC: Sweet, awesome.
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment, I always invite guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So, what would you like to talk about today?
Franny Choi: Oh, this is... Yeah, I don't really know. I mean, I just spent like a month in Korea this summer and so I could talk about Korea and specifically Korean food all day. I could talk about Korean food any day of the week.
MS: I'm always down to talk about some Korean food or anything. So yeah, let's hear about some Korean food.
FC: Yeah. Well, you know the thing that people always say, the very common knowledge that Chinese food is so diverse, and every province has its own kind of food, and it all gets flattened into this one thing in the US. Which is—you know, that history, it's super, super fascinating. But what I realized when I was in Korea this summer was that that also happens, though on a much smaller scale, with Korean food. Like, you know, you go into any Korean restaurant and it's really the same 12 dishes. And those 12 dishes are things that people eat in Korea, very much so. It's not exactly like there's just a whole other—there's not exactly a General Tso's Chicken equivalent, I think, when it comes to Korean food. But like there were so many different things. There's so many different kinds of food, you know, on one block in Hongdae or something, in Seoul, that you would never find on a menu. And this is the first time, also, going to Korea, that I was really traveling around outside of Seoul and [I] realized that Cheongsando food is different, and Jeollado food is different, and Jejudo food is different. And I was—my mind was blown that there could be so much food diversity within this tiny, tiny peninsula of a country.
MS: Yeah, I mean it's really interesting. I think—what that's making me think of, just in general, how, you know, America has this tendency of really narrowing how it views and presents other cultures in basically every way. But food is definitely one that it does that with. I mean it does it with Chinese food, it does it with Korean food, it does it with Japanese food, it does it with Indian food. I work with a whole bunch of people from different parts of India who—and my area of San Diego is the area with all of the Indian restaurants in it. But my coworkers that are from India are always saying, "Ah, it's not really like that." But then somebody else might say, "Well actually it is kind of like that where I'm from, but it wouldn't be like that in New Delhi." So I dunno, there's something kind of eh about that, you know?
FC: Yeah. Yeah. And I think like maybe in when it comes to Korean food, it's less about more geographic diversity when it comes to food and more like... I don't know, I guess that every Korean restaurant in the US I think feels this burden of representing, you know, the greatest hits of Korean food.
FC: And restaurants in Korea are so specialized, and I think that has to... Like Seoul, I feel like—I don't actually know the numbers on this, but I feel like Seoul has... I mean, first of all it's one of the densest cities in the world. I think it's denser than Tokyo. And the restaurants per capita is bananas. There's just like two layers of restaurants in some neighborhoods. I feel like there's as many restaurants as there are people. Or maybe it's as many as there are women or something, you know. It's wild. And so of course every restaurant has to be... But that means that on this block, there's like six different places that are specifically fried chicken spots and like four that are specializing in scallion pancakes. Or who have really good pancakes and makgeolli. And so, I don't know. I don't really have a political "therefore" conclusion to this, except that, I don't know, everyone should go to Korea if you like Korean food. [laughs]
FC: Especially a lot of street food and stuff. Most of my memories of being abroad are of eating.
MS: That's best thing to do. I mean, just in general in life, I think. You know, I think when you're talking about how every Korean restaurant in the United States feels like it has to present the greatest hits, I mean, what that's really speaking to is the idea that these restaurants are kind of more facing white people than they are facing Korean people, or even Asian people in general. Which, you know, obviously in Korea they wouldn't have that same sort of burden of trying to attract a white audience.
FC: Yeah. No, you just want people in there because the food is really good.
MS: Yeah. I find... You know, here in San Diego—I grew up in a very small town in Northern California that was very, very white and there were not a lot of Asian restaurants in general, and there certainly were no Korean restaurants. And then since I've moved to San Diego, the part of San Diego that I live in is heavily Vietnamese and Filipino. And then right next door to my neighborhood is this area where all of the different Asian and especially Korean businesses are. I find it really interesting that when you go into a restaurant in—the neighborhood's called Kearny Mesa—and when you go to a restaurant in Kearny Mesa, what's interesting to me is that not all of the Korean restaurants are exactly the same. Like some of them... There is actually—I mean there's only one, so it's not like six on the same block, but there is a restaurant that's just Korean fried chicken.
FC: Yeah. Well that's one that I think has come over, you know. That might be the one Korean special—although I guess soondubu, the soft tofu stew, there are [inaudible], also like in LA and New York and stuff. And Atlanta, where my family's from.
FC: But yeah, so there's a few of them, but there's not like—I've never seen a dakgalbi place in the US, you know, that's just like chicken. um, But yeah, Korean fried chicken has come. But that's also like—I mean it's not a new thing, the Korean fried chicken. But I think, you know, fried chicken exists all over the world. It's sort of like a global... It's a food that can cross borders, and so maybe these days it has sort of come over into the US and into America knowledge. Although Korean fried chicken—something I learned recently was that my grandfather owned a fried chicken place, like way, way back in the day. And I thought that the Korean fried chicken thing was a recent invention, but apparently it's in my roots.
FC: Deep in my family history.
MS: [laughs] It's sort of weird being faced with things, you know, having to revise your conception of either your family or even your culture in certain ways when you're presented with new things like that.
FC: Oh totally, totally. And I think that's something that I learned a lot on this trip, too, both about my family and about Korean people in general—as if you can learn anything about such a big thing. That people are always changing and they're always dynamic. Like, you know, I used to think of my parents as super strict and traditional, and the more I got older I realized that that's actually not exactly true. I guess there are some certain things about the way they raised me that are that way. But understanding the context of where my family came, my parents came from, I realized in talking to like my cousins and my aunts and stuff, I was like, "Oh no, my parents are the weirdos of the family."
FC: I mean, and of course that makes sense. They're the ones who left. They're the ones who left and went to America for—not exactly chasing adventure, but I think you have to kind of have an adventurous spirit to go to the other side of the world, even if it's necessity that drives you there. And also when it came to... Like I went to a gay bar in Busan and, you know, was talking to some of the bartenders there, and I think I asked "What is it like"—this ridiculous question, I was like "What is it like to be gay in Korea?" Which is like, how could anybody answer such a question? And, you know, I kind of expected it to be like, "Oh, you know, it's really hard and that's why we have this space that's so sacred to us," or something. And the person was like, "I dunno, it's OK."
FC: Like "It's hard for some people and, you know, my parents are cool. So it kinda just depends on your family and, I don't know, it's complicated." And I kept running into those into those things where I would ask someone a question, expecting to have my understanding of Korean culture confirmed and then for people to be like, "I don't know, shit is always changing and it depends on who you ask." Which is so obvious and so human.
FC: Strange to experience extending that kind of empathy and understanding of individuality to my own people. You know?
MS: Yeah. I mean it is kind of weird, I think, being... I don't know—you said you grew up in Atlanta, I don't really know what Atlanta is like in terms of having a lot of Koreans or Asians or whatever. Where I grew up—I mean just to start with, America in general, Asians make up a tiny percentage of the population here. Where I grew up, it was even more so. The town I grew up in was so white that basically the only Asian people I knew were my family and maybe one or two other kids. And I think that it's been a weird thing for me, moving from that town to a city like San Diego where there are a lot of Asian people. I feel like the experience is very different. I feel like it's... There's something about the way that it sort of opens up when you can... You can know for yourself that being part of a culture doesn't imply something about that culture being monolithic. You can know that even when it's just your own family. But it's a different experience when you're actually faced with a whole lot of people who look like you who are nothing like you.
FC: Yeah. What was it? Was it in Maxine Hong Kingston, in Woman Warrior where she said "I can't tell what's Chinese and what's just my family." Yeah, that totally speaks to the kind of isolation that kids growing up in immigrant families experience. And I think that's why the trip back to the motherland can be such a disorienting thing, you know? To be like, "Oh, I thought that all Koreans did this, but it's actually just my mom."
FC: "She's the only one." Yeah. Super, super weird. [laughs]
MS: [laughs] Yeah, no, it is weird. It's very weird. I've never been to Japan before. People keep telling me that I need to and I—honestly, I'm a little intimidated by it all. So I don't know.
FC: Yeah, it's weird. And especially to go and then... I think people don't really know what to do with... I mean, and of course, again, I'm going to be like, "Not all Koreans." But, you know, I think a lot of Koreans were like, "Okay, white person, foreigner."
FC: "Got it." And then they'd look at me and be like, "Korean." And then I'd start speaking, and they'd be like "Korean..?"
FC: And then after a while it was like, "Oh, American." But there's a period in there where it's like, "Why is this person so confused about something that's so obvious?" It must be fascinating as a Korean to encounter a Korean American and try to figure out what's going on there, you know? Like what part of Korean culture has transferred over all that distance.
FC: What is it that makes someone American?
MS: Yeah. For me, my family's been in this country for a really long time. Like my family has actually been in this country longer than my—my wife is white and her family's been here for like... Well, her mom is actually an immigrant and her dad is—her grandparents on the other side are immigrants. So. But for me, I have great-grandparents that were born here. So. [laughs]
MS: But that level of removal from... Like, not only can I not speak Japanese but my parents can't speak Japanese and three of my grandparents can't speak Japanese. So it's like, I don't know, there's something very... I've always assumed that if I were to go to Japan that everybody would just immediately know that I wasn't from there.
FC: I don't think so, though. I think not.
MS: Yeah, I had this experience once where I had to go to Taiwan for work once, and I was really surprised that when I was in the airport in Taipei that everyone just assumed that I was Taiwanese and I was like, "Whoa."
FC: Yeah! Totally. During this trip I was in Beijing briefly and also Tokyo and Osaka briefly. And yeah, that's also a weird moment, being like, "No, I don't..." Especially because that's such a common experience in the US, of people assuming you're not from there and then you being like, "I speak English incredibly well, actually, My whole life is about it." And then to go to a country and for people to assume that you speak the language and be like, "Ah, actually, I'm so stupid, I can't!"
MS: [laughs] I never thought about it that way. The difference. Oh, that's... I just was in my anxiety about—you know, feeling bad that I didn't speak the language, which I had no reason to be able to speak. But yeah, no, the difference between... Oh that's really interesting.
FC: Yeah, when I was in China I just learned how to say—I was like, "Should I say I'm American? Because then maybe people will assume I'm Chinese American." But then I was like, "Should I say I'm Korean?" Because then also you get treated a slightly different way, if you're a foreigner from another Asian country, you know?
FC: So I kind of just split it, sometimes I said I was American, sometimes I said I was Korean.
MS: [sighs] Oh, man. [laughs]
FC: [laughs] But also, again though in Japan and in Korea—I guess maybe this is the thing: I think that I was somewhat easier to pick out in Korea as not being from there in certain areas because, you know, you go to certain parts of Seoul and everyone is dressed... not the same but it's really weirdly monolithic. And then there are parts of the city where everyone is doing their own weird thing. But from my experience, at least, in Tokyo I was like, "Oh my God, everyone has different shoes here." Which is like "Duh, everyone has different shoes." But it was such a change from Seoul. Like, you know, you could just wear whatever the fuck you wanted. I was like "Wow, people—this person has purple hair." And like 40 percent of my friends have purple hair, you know? But I just hadn't seen people dressing so individually in a while, when I'd been in Korea for a few weeks. All of which is to say, let's all go everywhere.
MS: [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. Well, so before we close there's one last question I like to ask everybody, and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
FC: I was reading some—I mean maybe I'll stick with this general Korean literature and Korean American literature trend that I've been on. Something that I read recently that was meaningful to me was this collection of short stories by Oh Jung-hee, who's a Korean fiction writer who is very established there. I think these—I wonder when these stories came out. I think a lot of them were written in like the seventies and eighties. Yeah, yeah. Seventies, eighties. And so I'd read some contemporary Korean poetry by Korean women, and I'd never read like Korean literature of that period before, of the seventies and eighties, and it was really fascinating. Like the idea of Korea as a nation in the world, how that changed over those two decades. But also the work was super—there's a kind of dark weirdness in Korean women's literature of the 20th and 21st centuries that was super present in this person's work as well. It was cool to see that that translated over to short stories of that era, you know? Like there's some of the surreal elements of The Vegetarian, which I read a few years ago, which I loved. It was cool to see maybe some connection with this writer who was writing a few decades ago. I guess maybe this just shows that I should go back to grad school or something.
FC: I'm like, "Ooh, tracing the legacy of surrealism in contemporary Korean women's literature. That's what really gets me going." But it kind of is. [laughs]
MS: [laughs] Alright, well cool. Thank you very much. And I really appreciate you being on the show. Thank you.
FC: Oh man, thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.
Mike Sakasegawa: OK, as I mentioned at the top of the show, Franny’s new collection Soft Science will be coming out in April 2019 from Alice James Books, and there’s a link in the show notes to where you can pre-order it. There are also links to where you can buy her previous collection, Floating, Brilliant, Gone, and her chapbook Death By Sex Machine, do check those out.
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