Don Mee Choi & Yi Yon-ju


Don Mee Choi

Yi Yon-ju

YI YON-JU MADE her literary debut in a Korean journal called World of Writers (Chakga ui sekye) in 1991. One of the nine poems published there was “Family Photo.” The same year, Yi’s first book of poetry, A Night Market Where There Are Prostitutes (Maeumnyo ka ittnun pam ui sijang) was published. Yi’s second collection of poems was published in 1993, after her death by suicide in 1992.

In Korea’s traditional Confucian times, the only women who were allowed to produce poetry within the public domain of men were kisaeng (courtesans/entertainers) who were one of the marginalized groups of people in Korean society. The division of public (intellectual, social, political) space of men and private (domestic) space of women was strictly observed. However, in the 1920s, Korean women poets challenged and violated the traditional divisions of space and gender roles by publishing their poetry publicly. By the 1930s, yoryu (“female”) poetry was established and imposed on women poets. Yoryu poetry, still upheld today as the norm for women poets, is characterized by gentle, refined, and philosophical language that speaks about women’s passivity within the natural world. Korea’s traditional gender-role expectations also still persist today. Women are expected to fall into the defined roles of ch’onyo (a young unmarried woman/virgin), ajumma (married woman/middle aged woman with children) and halmoni (grandmother). Therefore, women who participate publicly in literary production still occupy a marginalized position in Korean society, especially if they resist patriarchal literary conventions.

Yi Yon-ju’s work has been acknowledged by the renowned feminist critic and poet, Kim Chong-nan. According to Kim, Yi’s poetry has a crucial place in contemporary Korean feminist poetry like the works of Cho’e Sung-ja and Kim Hye-sun. Yi resisted the conventional literary expectations imposed on Korean women by completely departing from the tranquil and beautiful realm of metaphysical nature on which women poets are still expected to reflect. The realm into which Yi ventured was the realm of the oppressed. Yi depicted in her poetry women who live on the fringes of South Korean society, marginalized by rapid industrialization of the 70s and 80s, which, in part, was made possible by exploitation of young women from poor rural areas. Yi’s poetry displays a penetrating awareness of Korean women’s oppression that intersects gender, class, and nation.

Not much is known about Yi’s life. According to her brother, Yi Yong-ju, the night Yi committed suicide she asked him not to reveal anything about her life except for her date and place of birth. For many years, Yi had expressed her wish to end her life as she was in much despair from witnessing political and economic oppression of people during South Korea’s dictatorships supported by the U.S. Yi was born in 1953, in Kunsan in the Northern Cholla province. She worked in Seoul and various parts of South Korea, including Uijongbu, a U.S. military camp town north of Seoul where women and children live trapped under devastating conditions of military prostitution, environmental pollution, and poverty. Yi excelled in various arts and was well known outside of literary circles by painters, filmmakers, singers, and dancers. Yi painted a great deal and was working on a collaborative video art project before she ended her life.

These poems were selected from Yi’s A Night Market Where There Are Prostitutes (Maeumyno ka ittnun pam ui sijang, 1991). —Seattle, December 2003


Yi Yon-ju

Festival of Waste

We are discarded clocks or broken radios,
old car seat covers or umbrellas with severed frames.

We sell useless kitchenware, old gas furnaces.
We buy worn-out shoes, clothes that don’t fit,
any burdensome goods.

Crinkled bills and discolored coins, we are.
Cut wire, we are.

No transmission, no reception.

(Translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi)


Yi Yon-ju

A Family Photo

Mother has been fooling around and runs away,
father wails,
hitting the ground with his hands.

Father stays up all night playing cards.
Father’s child
looks for Father,
knocks on the door
of the gambling room.

Sister drinks Bond glue,
wears her torn undergarments inside out,
and next to the garbage dump of a basement store
cuts her wrists with a razor.

The three-year-old baby of the family limps, limps, grows up
and quickly grasps the doings
of his mother, father, and sister.

Every night cities cave in one by one.
And today,
in front of an oil lamp,
snip-snip off
the wick.

(Translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi)


Yi Yon-ju

A Crossroad

FOUR MEN ARE sitting on the ground, smoking. A bus passes by. Dry leaves fall to the ground, making a ruffling sound. The four men smoke and talk about something. A big dump truck disappears in a hurry in the direction of P’och’on. The men look a bit uneasy, as if they have met for the first time, but the light whirling sound of their laughter is familiar like old friendship. One man wipes his grubby pants and another lifts his heels out of his old shoes, then pushes them back in. A bus passes by again. The four men inside the dusty wind say, “Let’s get up now. There must be work somewhere. Isn’t making a living what life’s about?” They rise, brush off the dirt, and start towards Uijongbu.

(Translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi)


Yi Yon-ju

A Report on the Unconsciousness of the Masses

FRENZY, FAMISHED WIND blows. A day of rain arrives as a torrential downpour. The cellular matter of dulled raindrops, swept up by the wind that hauls in contagious diseases, dissipates in air over a battle zone. Hoards of hooked germs fall. Placenta phlegm-covered pebbles on the floor of an old spring. A shameless living person says to the great capitalist, “My spinal fluid is drying up.”
Then after a night of unbroken sleep, someone leaves a name — three syllables — in an archive of the dead, and as a result a whole family drinks Parathion, a toxic pesticide, and the people of a certain village wring each other’s necks, becoming murderous criminals. Those who are abuzz with the news of the suicide, their hands shake severely as the hands of those suffering from Parkinson’s disease. And finally a mask factory opens its door, and the masks of inferior land-crawling animals with their tentacles cut off are loaded onto a van and quickly delivered to a supermarket.
Every day sirens wail. A view of the populace, a blockade for a suicide assembly, is arranged in a public square, and plain-clothed police on every alley, carrying wireless receivers, peep into houses. While a father who has finished his dinner watches porno, while his drunken son vomits shit water into a toilet bowl, those who are secretly agitated inside the mask dream a prickly, dry-as-hay, late-afternoon dream. The dead remains of the collective mass of houseflies.

(Translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi)


Return to Making Introductions