Sing The Truth! is a new Kweli initiative. In this first go-round, our summer interns Criss Han Moon and Jessica Shub talked to Kweli contributor Sung Yim about their newly published essay, “Oh My Oh Chicken Soup With Rice.” Sung touched on cultural sensitivity, healing after the Pulse nightclub tragedy, being misgendered and more.
KWELI: In "Oh My Oh Chicken Soup With Rice" you write: "Xenophobia doesn’t always look like a monument of shame. It doesn’t always look like ridicule and jeering. It looks like a room full of people and nobody to sit with. It looks like conversations buzzing all around me with no way in. It looks like one person at a time, taking notice of the ways in which I differ, and expressing quiet disinterest and revulsion. No one big public humiliation. Many small, private disappointments.” You capture what most do not understand about how xenophobia begins. How do you think we can work against these "small, private disappointments?”
SUNG YIM: A little cultural sensitivity goes a long way. It goes with any experience of difference. At college now, I'm dealing with this suffocating environment where teachers and classmates unabashedly misgender me or assume I am a woman by my appearance. I often have to give a 101 speech about what gender even is, and that's where I witness a lot of gray racism. There's not much I can do about it because I'm often the only person of color in a room. It most definitely interferes with my education. It's tiresome. I've been in classroom discussions about race (or gender, what have you) that get discomfiting because someone's white (or cis or whatever) fragility goes unchecked. What we need is a a radically collectivized approach to education. Instead of, for example, sweeping issues that affect students of color under the rug because we are considered a minority, administrators and faculty should actively seek out ways to make spaces welcoming to us by recognizing the systemic power dynamic which governs our lives and working toward interrupting its replication within classroom environments. I think fostering this type of consciousness through all stages of life would have a profound effect on the livelihoods of immigrant students. It's an institutional issue, and those "small, private disappointments" are one tiny trickling stream of that. I could give a neatly saccharine response about how we should all keep our hearts open to one another, but the fact is our individual actions, whether as people of color or white folks, isn't the problem. The problem goes all the way to the top—who runs the classrooms, who builds the curriculum, who hires or fires those people, what part of the population do they most represent, who therefore has the power to institute changes, and whose interests do those changes serve?
KWELI: Please share your thoughts on healing and love after the Pulse nightclub attack, one of "the deadliest mass shootings in modern American history."
SUNG YIM: I would say love each other, be kind, listen to the most aggrieved. Don't allow this massacre of precious black and brown LGBT+ people to fuel the fires of Islamophobia and American nationalism. Don't let Hillary Clinton or any candidate walk into office and cite this shooting as retroactive justification for bombing countries full of brown people. Confront the fact that we live in the same country as men who commit atrocities. Confront the fact that Omar Mateen's homophobia was born and bred in America. Confront the fact that the hypermasculine attitudes behind this and many other massive acts of violence thrive in our everyday interactions, and we must love each other harder in response. Do what it takes to be okay. Be a source of comfort for yourself and others, open your arms as a safe haven for all the LGBT+ people in your life, especially brown and black folks who have seen violence towards them spattered across the headlines over and over only to be sensationalized and exploited.
KWELI: During the recent “Art and Social Activism” event at the Ambassador Theater, Toni Morrison reminded the audience that “[t]he history of art, whether it’s in music or written or what have you, has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans. And those people are artists. They’re the ones that sing the truth.” What does singing truth mean to you, specifically, as an emerging artist?
SUNG YIM: Singing truth? I think that means doing your best to be relentless, and unafraid. Say what it is that's bugging you, say all the shit about the world that makes you feel so helpless, you cry alone in the car without telling anyone. Say all the stuff you wish your mother had heard, or you had heard while growing up. Say what you feel is most necessary for the neediest. The stuff people should be saying but aren't, the stuff of comfort, the stuff of love and tenderness and understanding. And the other side of that is to listen. You might feel punched down in one way, marginalized as this or that, but you never know everything about other people. To be a singer of truth, you have to be a vigilant listener of truth. To give humanity back to those from whom it's been most robbed. Learn to love the worst people, at least enough to understand why they are the way they are, and how they could have turned out different.
KWELI: What do you think about "The Vegetarian,” the Man Booker International prize winning novel by Han Kang?” Kang is also a Korean author who focuses on the implications of food. What do you think of the fact that “The Vegetarian” was initially published in 2007 and recognized with an award in 2016?
SUNG YIM: I’ve unfortunately not read the book, although it's been on my wish list for a while. I've read the synopsis with great interest and I'd love to compare this book with Margaret Atwood's “The Edible Woman,” as that was one of my greatest early influences and seems to share similar themes of victimization, human cruelty, and food as metaphor. I think perhaps the book took so long to receive such an award because of how we prioritize accomplishments by women of color, particularly Korean women. I have a lot of feelings about Korea's erasure and even more about Korea opening itself up more and more to Western capitalist influence. But I don't personally keep up with all the politic surrounding awards. If I'm not answering this question adequately, it's only my own ignorance when it comes to "the literary world." I'd just much rather read the book and talk about that. If anybody wants to gift me a copy in both the English translation and the original Korean, I'd be very happy.
KWELI: In her essay “Language and the Writer,” Toni Cade Bambara spoke to “the wholesale and unacknowledged appropriation of cultural items—such as music, language, style, posture . . .” As Korean cuisine and culture becomes more popular, what do you hope for as Americans hungrily consume Korean culture?
SUNG YIM: I don't actually hope for much. I think that's the way things are—Korean food and culture are becoming hot commodities right now, and that's cool in some ways. Very unfortunate in others. I guess I would hope that Westerners would learn to respect Korean immigrant laborers, enter our spaces to buy our goods directly from the source instead of in some white gentrifier's bistro where the prices are appallingly marked up. I just don't particularly care for a lot of these hip fusion places run by white kids with tattoos and beards, whether it's Korean or Jamaican food they're staking a claim on. And that's just me speaking as a food snob. Go to a Mexican or Korean chef and see what they're making. Try fusion cuisine made by actual immigrants. Don't trust white people with MFAs. Don't trust white people out of culinary school. Support family businesses, say "please" and "thank you" to the grandmothers running those kitchens and groceries. Stop speaking our language just to butcher it. Stop, for the love of God, stop leaving shitty Yelp reviews because a Korean server seemed unfriendly to you. You know, I'll say a lot of things. But the fact is, I don't believe in my own PSAs. People are going to do what they do and it might irritate me to no end, but I'm not the one looking foolish in that situation. I'm also perfectly okay with knowing what I know and watching people fuck up. Like a private little pleasure just for me and my favorite 아줌마s.
KWELI: What, if anything, surprised you during the writing of "Oh My Oh Chicken Soup With Rice?"
SUNG YIM: I was actually surprised by the passage I wrote about ox bone stew. It's a very important recipe to me and when I first started writing it, I figured it's just one of my favorite foods. Which it is. But all that sensory detail kind of gave way for the conclusion that this recipe saved my life as an infant with failure to thrive. I was a very sick child and I wasn't putting on weight. There was a time that my parents weren't sure I'd survive, until my grandmother started feeding me all this fatty bone marrow. That revelation was something I hadn't thought about in a long time, at least not explicitly. I think even though that passage came late in the writing process, it gave me a little more insight as to why food was so important to me and guided the work as I moved forward.
KWELI: What are you working on now?
SUNG YIM: I’m currently working on a few other essays for a book-length collection. One of those is actually about failure to thrive as a medical term as well as a metaphorical one, talking about the impact of childhood trauma and isolation. The ideas for it sort of blossomed out of my writing in "Oh My Oh Chicken Soup with Rice." I have several sort of simmering away and the process is kind of complicated and maybe a little unhealthy. I tend to just think and think and think myself to the brink of suffocation for days or weeks, afraid of writing because it might turn out badly or afraid because it might be painful, then one day I drink a pot of coffee and write it all at once in an exhausting twelve-hour stretch. It's kind of terrible for my sleep schedule and probably my limbic system, but that's what I've got. So I'm waiting to find the courage to commit all the ideas to paper. So far I have several passages and memories to work with, a basic structure for everything, and a lot of research notes.
KWELI: We always like to ask at least one craft question. In "Oh My Oh Chicken Soup With Rice," you write: "Our recipes are not party tricks. I’m waiting to share something rich, and old, and long-simmered." Can you share a craft tip (or two) with Kweli, . . . something "rich, and old, and long-simmered" that WOC interested in creative nonfiction or memoir can savor?
SUNG YIM: In an earlier draft, I started out by explaining when I moved to America, the immigration process, what life was like, all the stages to reaching an integrated classroom at school. I even explained what ESL was. I rambled about a lot of things that I felt like needed explanation, especially when writing to an audience of outsiders. That's something I have to work through with every essay I write that touches on themes of otherness, which is unfortunate because all my essays kind of do. My tip is, don't do that. It really bogs down the work and makes things move slowly. Write like you're writing to someone who gets it. In fact, write to someone who gets it. Write to someone who needs to hear it. Your siblings, your parents, your friends. Write to other people of color, immigrants, write to yourself as a child as though to ease your own struggle. It will give your work a more meaningful trajectory. You're not Google. You're you. Your voice matters.
I think another tip would be, try something else when you get stuck. Like in the writing of this essay, I got stuck pretty bad because I had this rigid structure. I was going to talk about the ubiquity of rice, how there's some version of the same food everywhere depending on your interpretation, how military occupation shaped Korean cuisine, all these things I have a lot of feelings about that certainly seem to go together. But you have to trim the fat and let yourself explore. The biggest breakthrough in the writing of "Oh My Oh Chicken Soup with Rice" was when I took a break from trying to write what I had planned and just got really indulgent about food. Sometimes just writing descriptive language and taking great pleasure in it can help you get someplace that surprises you. And that isn't to say you should stop structuring or planning your work before getting to it, if you do. It seems like every time I go to write a new one, I do this. I plot out a very specific and detailed structure, put myself through the pain of trying to adhere to it, then I break away from that structure and end up with something better. We all have a process and that's mine right now. The point is, don't sweat it if you get stuck. Take a break. Skip to another passage. Read a poem. Drink some coffee or eat lunch. Open a new word document and just type what you're thinking for a minute. Follow your instincts and chase that feeling of relief you get when the writing is flowing with ease. Chase pleasure in the act of writing as much as you can, or you'll have to choose between being miserable very often or not writing at all.
KWELI: Thank you for taking the time to Sing The Truth! with us.
"Sung Yim is poet, essayist, and B.A. candidate of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Fat Magazine, Contrary, The James Franco Review, and Hooligan Magazine. They are a bilingual South Korean immigrant residing in Illinois."