The War is Still Within: An Interview with Tanya Ko Hong

Credit: Arce Jebbel

As a poet and translator, Tanya Ko Hong 고현혜  타냐 treasures language, and is always ready to champion bilingual poetry and poets. Born and raised in Suk Su Dong, South Korea, she immigrated to the US at the age of eighteen and proceeded to study the English language. Ko Hong worked hard to master it, not just for functional use, but for artistic expression. The author of five books, Ko Hong’s latest collection of poetry is The War Still Within: Poems of the Korean Diaspora (KYSO Flash Press, 2019). This book is a representation of different voices, including the Korean “Comfort Women” who were forced into sexual slavery during WWII. Each poem is written from a first-person point of view, but voices, birthplaces, generations, and cultural backgrounds vary. With current trends of cultural appropriation being accepted and even celebrated in publishing, it is an accomplishment to have this book both published and critically recognized. Ko Hong’s subject matter, imagery, and powerful language is astounding. An Antioch alum, Ko Hong’s poetry has appeared in Rattle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Entropy, Cultural Weekly, WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly (published by The Feminist Press), Lunch Ticket, great weather for MEDIA, Califragile, the Choson Ilbo, The Korea Times, Korea Central Daily News, and the Aeolian Harp Series Anthology.

After reading her collection, I sent Ko Hong ten questions, which she answered with her normal candor and sincerity.

1. What is your approach to writing multilingual poetry? How do you choose the exact words?

I work hard to find equivalent words. I started writing in Korea. After immigrating to America, I continued to write in Korean. Poetry was an intimate language for me, and my American friends wanted to know what I was writing about, but I thought poetry could not be translated, because it has rhythm, sound, emotion. How do you deliver that in another language? I thought it was impossible. My friends wanted to read my poems, so I felt compelled to translate them, but the words could not be translated exactly. I had to find emotional equivalents and use sensory words, the six senses. Finding the right word is like a treasure hunt, an experiment. Sometimes, I have to think in two minds, Korean and English, but one at a time. And sometimes the two languages are melded in my mind. It’s a paradox.

2. The War Still Within is a stunning work of art! I admit the dedication made me cry: “And for all the women who have lost their names…” Do you want to talk about this?

In the past, when Korean women gave birth, their daughters were placed on the cold side of the room to die, without receiving a name. The most important roles for a woman were who she married and to give birth to sons. Even today, when Korean women get married, they are called by their role name: Ttal, Ahnae, Oma, or someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mom. Korean women live all these roles and others, but do not live their names. I want us to remember their true names. I want all women, everywhere, to be proud of their true names, and to say, “Call me by my name; I matter.”

3. The first part of the book is about the Korean “Comfort Women,” more than 200,000 who were forced into sexual slavery during WWII. How did you come to write these poems from a first-person voice?

This topic is so fragile and sensitive that I wanted to be careful. And I questioned whether I could write about it in a sensitive and respectful way. I also wanted to experience the same kind of emotions that they did. Of course, I couldn’t, but working in the first-person voice, I felt close to their hearts and able to open the reader’s heart to listen. Initially, I didn’t know this story, but when I was researching the lives of Korean women writers, I read an article about comfort women. I was shocked. I read interviews of comfort women, saw interviews and photographs. I couldn’t sleep. I had nightmares. All of it was too heavy on my chest, but I felt a responsibility as a Korean woman and as an artist to write these poems.

4. The title of the book is important to this collection. Do you want to elaborate on this?

I think the story is never finished. The war is still within. It haunts me. I feel I have not revealed everything. I hesitate—the words are at the tip of my hand. I think it is not time yet and I hold the words within me. Each of us has a war inside. Exposing it may hurt people. I felt compelled to tell the story, but I feel there is still more to tell.

5. “Grandmother Talks of Camptowns” is a vibrant, vivid, first-person account of the shaming of a woman’s body, the stripping away of her children, and the public abuse and rejection by her family. And yet, the poem has a gentle, measured meter, and ends with the speaker admiring the stars. This powerful image, in a matter-of-fact voice, is especially tragic, isn’t it?

The city of my childhood had a US military base, and as a child I saw women like this grandmother in her younger days. Most Koreans saw the camptown women as nobodies. As an adult, I’ve listened to elderly Korean women who told similar stories of suffering. I’ve held their hands and looked into their eyes. Through my writing, I wanted to validate their lives. I believe my poem shows the camptown grandmother as a somebody, someone with value just like you and me. She is a simple person who speaks with simple words and images, and who tells a story in a genuine way. In spite of all she had endured, all she had lost, she was able to find some peace. She realized that she would die soon and become one of those stars.

6. The poem “A Blonde Whispers Korean in my Ear” talks about one instance of an English speaker showing off how she knows a Korean phrase without fully knowing what it means. I found it to be a poem about the abuse and appropriation of language. Please tell me more about this. (SUCH a powerful poem!!)

I believe it’s important to tell the story, the culture, the literature of your own land. When someone from a different culture tries to tell you about your history, as if they own it, you may feel disrespected. It’s very important for any translator to know the customs, traditions, and values of a society. And even to have lived in that society for years, so the translation is done in an organic, authentic way. In some American universities, for example, Korean literature is taught by people who have not lived the culture. So, I wanted to speak my mind through this poem, which is asking for the sensitivity and depth one needs, in order to understand Korean culture.

7.  Your poem “Asian Woman” begins with a quote from Na Hye-sok, a Korean feminist, who says: “Isn’t it about time Choson women lived like humans?” Can you tell us a little about how traditional expectations of women hinder us?

Tradition says sacrifice is a virtue for women. Korean society glorifies women who sacrifice for their family. In the early twentieth century, Na Hye-sok’s family allowed her to study in Japan. This gave her freedom that Korean women normally do not have. After returning to Korea, she got married. Her husband was a diplomat, so she was able to travel to Paris. This opened her eyes to how European women lived their lives, which is how she came to write the essay “Isn’t it time Choson women lived like humans?” She and her husband each had an affair, but she was the one who was punished, the one whose life was shattered. Korean men were allowed to have affairs, but Korean women were not. After she wrote the essay above and after her husband divorced her for infidelity, her family rejected her. She was not permitted to see her children. No one would buy her paintings, and she was forced to live in poverty. She died alone. My translations of her poems are the first and are published in Lunch Ticket:

8. “The War Still Within” talks about not being seen or heard, a dreadful feeling that many women still feel. Do you believe women are still silenced in this way?

Yes. I come from a society where, for women, virtue is sacrifice and silence. Giving up your dreams for someone else is a triumph. You give up your opportunities to your father, your husband, your children. If you don’t, then you are seen as selfish. Korean women are silent until it’s safe to speak while not losing face. Silence is considered golden, but is that true? Many women writers are silenced because they fear bringing shame to their families. Speaking their truth is taboo. To protect themselves and others from shame, they create myths and delusions. It’s much the same here, where American women seem to be twenty years ahead of Korean women, but still feel this pressure.

9. Your whole collection is a beautiful portrait of something tragic. The dichotomy of this seems to be everywhere in your poetry. How is writing something that heals you? Heals others?

I had to keep a diary as a student in Korea. Schoolchildren were required to write in their diaries during winter and summer breaks, and teachers would check them. So, I wrote two diaries, one to show at school and one to keep hidden at home, where no one could see it. Korean society has high expectations about the roles of girls and women. I knew white and black, right and wrong. I knew that talking about your negative experiences shows that you are an unlucky person. So, I couldn’t share the truth in my diary after I found out my father had a child with his mistress. There was such embarrassment for me, I couldn’t even talk about it with friends. And I didn’t confront my parents. I felt hurt and ashamed and confused that my sweet father was a bad husband. After learning English in the United States, I was able to express my feelings, but in English. I still have trouble writing them in Korean.

In the first verse of my poem “Confronting My Father’s Mistress,” I could finally say bastard. Ten years after he died. Truth heals. Simple words have power. Americans find this fascinating, but Koreans say, why do you tell such stories? They don’t want me to because they want to believe in fairy tales, to believe I’m a princess. But the truth heals me, so I believe it can heal others. Publishing your truth will give others an opportunity to heal themselves. And may give others the courage to tell their stories. I read Ruth Stone’s poetry, which inspired me to write this poem.

10.  The subtitle of your book, “Poems of the Korean Diaspora,” is a profound nod to the immigrant making a life in a different land. This theme is of great importance now, is it not?

Yes, I think of Korean immigrant writers who lived longer in the United States than I have, writers who wanted to share their stories but died without doing so. And others who did, wrote in Korean and were not translated. Their immigrant experiences are different from mine. That is why I feel compelled to write and share stories on behalf of those voiceless, invisible, powerless women. Even today we are talking about racism where divisions are black and white, and Asians are missing from the discussion. After all, Asian art is stereotyped as quiet. But I believe it’s important for this generation of immigrants to speak out. We need to leave our comfort zones and tell our stories in English. We need to be heard.

Janet Rodriguez is an author, teacher, and editor living in Northern California. In the United States, her work has appeared in Eclectica, The Rumpus, Cloud Women’s Quarterly,, American River Review, and Calaveras Station. She is the winner of the Bazanella Literary Award for Short Fiction and the Literary Insight for Work in Translation Award, both from CSUS Sacramento in 2017. Rodriguez has also co-authored two memoirs, published in South Africa. Her short stories, essays, and poetry involve themes of duality in faith communities, and a mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world. She is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter @brazenprincess and Instagram @janetmario.