korean adoptees

interview at New Books Network

It was such a pleasure to speak with Eric LeMay about Litany for the Long Moment for the New Books Network.

From the introduction: 

In 1974, a two-year old Korean girl named Mi Jin Kim was sent from the country and culture of her birth to the United States, where she was adopted by a man and woman who would become her American parents and where she would become the artist and writer Mary-Kim Arnold. Her new book, Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2018), is her attempt to grapple with that history and its aftermath, to understand the experience of that girl she once was and how that girl shaped the woman she would become. Arnold writes:

“I will never know for certain what transpired in those first two years of my life. I only know that I am continually drawn back, tethered to the whispy, blurred possibilities of the mother I will never know, a language I do not speak, the life I will never have.”

Through a dazzling range of literary strategies, from the use of archival documents and family photographs to primers on the Korean language and the work of her fellow Korean-American artists, Arnold explores these wispy, blurred possibilities. She takes us into her need to know this never-realized self and this life she never lived. By stunning and poignant turns, her book reveals the complexities of the lives we do end up living, the hauntings that make us who we are, and the unexpected way in which great art and artists pull us apart and pieces us back together.

And the book has an excellent trailer, which you can find here.

You can listen to the whole interview here

(Re-)Dress: Week 2, Day 4

Days remaining: 123
Start time: 3:15 pm
End time: 5:15 pm
Complete: 12/200

Working slowly today. Pricked my thumb with a long straight pin and had to stop to bandage. Can't hide blood on white dress.

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Pinned and stitched interfacing to dresses at collars and armholes. Armholes are tricky!

Trimmed.

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Turned one inside out, pressed down the interfacing. I have to learn how to move more quickly.

(Re-)Dress: Week 1, Day 2

To date, I have 12 dresses complete.

In about an hour, I cut and pressed the interfacing for five dresses, and started pinning.

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I am working in little blocks of time intermittently. It’s a busy time and sometimes I panic. I’m overcommitted and this won’t change until after the end of the semester. But the cutting and sewing often feels like relief.

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It’s impossible not to be thinking about sexual assault and rape. I have not wanted to write about it, post about it, although I understand that others need to. It’s exhausting. To bear witness to the relentlessness of sexual trauma. To be reminded constantly of how deep misogyny runs. To be reminded constantly of how little I am valued as a woman. To be reminded constantly, of every instance in my own life where my body has felt not my own.

As part of the Rumpus community, I’ve been asked to write something about my own experience, and I will. I’ll write about the time I was raped in college. I won’t write about the dozens of other times when I have felt harassed, bullied, made uncomfortable, pressured, coerced. I won’t write about how just last week, a former colleague, as part of a birthday message to which I replied with a heart emoji, said, “I am glad you are not here now because I would kiss you for that pretty heart.” This message on a tiny pop-up window on my screen while alongside, in my facebook feed, that ubiquitous smiling photo of the serial rapist again.  

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There are still unformed thoughts about women’s work. About these dresses on the small bodies of children who will grow to be girls who will grow to be women. That is for another time.

(Re-)Dress: One for Every Thousand

I was two and a half years old when I made the 18-hour trip from Seoul to New York on an early spring night in 1974. I don’t know who helped me dress that morning, but what they chose for me – a simple, a-line dress – has been the only tangible link I have to the country of my birth.

Two years ago, when I discovered that I had misplaced this dress, I decided to re-make it, using fabric my adoptive mother had left to me when she died. The act of re-creating this object prompted meditation on lineage and legacy – what has been left to me, what has been lost. The dress has become an organizing motif for my writing and art practices.

I made a series of dresses for an exhibit to accompany my graduate thesis work at Vermont College of Fine Arts in early 2016.

Since then, I’ve made dozens of dresses – in fabric and in paper.

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“(Re-)Dress, One for Every Thousand,” which will be part of a spring 2018 exhibition curated by Brooke Goldstein for the Jamestown Arts Center, is an installation that uses 200 hand-made white dresses in a symbolic attempt to re-dress the estimated 200,000 Korean children adopted abroad. The color white is traditionally associated with mourning in Korea, and this piece shifts the adoption narrative from the “happy ending” for the lucky orphan to a more complicated meditation on what is lost – for the child, for the culture, for the nation.

In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be documenting the making of these dresses. I can’t possibly comprehend the number 200,000 in any meaningful way, but I think I can understand 200. Between my birthday (October 12, which is an estimated date assigned to me by the Orphans’ Home of Korea) and the end of February, when the exhibition is to be installed, there are about 20 weeks. To stay on track, I’ll have to complete 10 dresses per week.

When I’ve talked to people about this project, several have offered to help me with cutting and sewing. I am grateful for the offers, but part of what I am attempting to do requires me to spend the time with each dress, to recognize – in a bodily way, through the work of my hands – that each garment represents a full human life in all its complexities – wishes, dreams, losses, and fears.

We are exposed to so many data points that stand in for human lives. Every day, I see the numbers of the dead – from the disastrous effects of climate change, from gun violence, from the endless wars in which we now participate. The numbers of stories of sexual assault and violence. The relentless stream of numbers can be deadening. It is too easy to gloss over, to lose track.

I don’t know what 200,000 Korean adoptees really means. There are ways I attempt to understand my own life, but I am only one in 200,000. This is my attempt to remind myself that each number is a life. This is my attempt to recognize the lives of the children whose earliest experience was one of rupture. To make space for them, even if only briefly.

lifework

In my reading on Korean art and aesthetics, I learn about the existence of euigwe, documented protocols for court ritual life of the Joseon dynasty. The proceedings of significant events – royal births, weddings, funerals, among others – were documented meticulously and lavishly with full-color illustrations – to provide record and instruction for future generations.

(Koreans, one might surmise, are obsessive documentarians, keeping detailed family records, as well.)

Among the many losses adoptees may experience is an erasure from the official record – of a family, of a community, and in the case of international adoption – of a nation. Beyond my own impulse to acknowledge and formalize ritual of grieving, I am thinking too about the desire to write adoptees back into these narratives. There is the resistance to erasure that I find compelling – a public act of asserting one’s own birthright. But on a more personal level is the sincere attempt to re-create for myself what has been lost.

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I have spent considerable time in my career on the margins of the museum world, and as such I have been part of frequent conversations about “material culture” – the physical evidence of a culture’s existence: its architecture and objects. The acts of interpretation and engagement with these objects form the basis for our understanding of that culture and is related to that culture’s perceived value. What does this mean for immigrants and refugees who find themselves here with little evidence of their cultures of origin? What interpretation and meaning can be accommodated when the only available evidence is the individual? What people themselves can remember, articulate, and express?

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These days in the desert have not, in the end, afforded me great expanses of time. I have been here with family, and its attendant complexities. But I have had some opportunities to be more attentive to my own interests, my own inner voice. And certainly, to the extent that I can claim any solidarity with or witness to anyone struggling against the threat of constant erasure, the events of these past weeks (months, years, decades) have given much to consider about whose lives – whose stories, whose voices – matter.

As I think about why I write, why I value what I do, why I have chosen practices that are not as widely valued as they might be, why I left a career path with undeniable benefits and predictable comforts for something much less clearly-defined and for which rewards are as of yet unknowable, I think the reasons are related to this resistance against erasure. My practice is a way to document the proceedings of own life and the landscape of my own reality. To re-create a narrative that has been denied. To relentlessly assert presence in the face of attempted erasure. 

in progress: mourning ritual

This is just the beginning of an idea, prompted by an image of a traditional Korean home and courtyard that I encountered in a book about Korean family lineage records. I imagined myself in the center of this walled space and it called to mind: protection, safety, enclosure, solitude. My reaction was immediate and visceral: I want my courtyard.

At the time, I was working on my toddler dresses, the making of which was an attempt to re-create something I no longer had. And so it seemed to follow that if in being sent to the U.S. as a child, I lost my courtyard, perhaps this too was something I could reproduce for myself. I would build the framework for the outer walls – simple, spare. And the interior space would be the site for the placement of certain artifacts – dresses, books, toys, and other household items I would make or procure – to re-create a site of childhood and family that I could not otherwise have.

I envisioned that part of the installation process would include some sort of ritual – some recognition that the child – the Korean child I was – experienced a kind of death in order to be “re-born” in her American life. And so I wanted to incorporate a simple ritual of mourning over the passing of one life transformed into another.

In the weeks since I have been turning this over in my mind, I listened to this interview with Pauline Boss about the idea of “ambiguous loss.” Simply put, ambiguous loss is a loss in which you don’t know where the person is, or what has happened to them. These losses contain paradox: The person may be dead, or may not be dead. They may be coming back, they may not. Or in the case of chronic illness or dementia, they are there, but they are also not there. In ambiguous loss (unlike a more “direct” loss, when a person has died, and you have a funeral or memorial service for them), there is not always an opportunity to formally or ritualistically acknowledge the loss.

In adoption, in fact, loss of the first family or first culture is not generally even recognized as loss. Instead, the focus is on the moment when the adopted child is placed in the new family. That is expected to be experienced as a joyful event all around, and no real acknowledgement is afforded to the profound trauma that the child has experienced, before they have any ability to acknowledge, understand, or verbalize that loss.

And so I started to think about the ritual component as one of mourning not necessarily for the child (although that is always there), but perhaps more for the first mother, first father, first family. Borrowing from traditional and contemporary Korean mourning rituals, and incorporating my own experience with memorializing the dead, I want to hold a formal ritual in which this loss can be recognized and commemorated. And just as with any important milestone, I would expect to do this in the company of the significant people in my life, the people with whom I would celebrate any happy life occasion and mourn any life loss – a formal, “public” ritual of grief.

Although this is still very much in its early stages of development, I would welcome conversation with anyone who has their own experiences of ambiguous loss – in particular other adoptees for whom this notion might resonate.