Art Editor’s Note: Transnational Korean American adoptee Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut burst upon the literary scene with Magnetic Refrain (Kaya), a book that used folktales to cover the uncertain territory of war, adoption, exile, and the loss of never knowing. Our own Bruce Fulton, noted Seattle translator of modern Korean literature, caught up with the author recently to see where she’s been and where she’s going.
—Alan Chong Lau,
IE Arts Editor
A dialog with Nicky Sa-Eun Schildkraut
Bruce Fulton: When we first met, in November 2011, you were completing your Ph.D. dissertation (in Literature & Creative Writing) at the University of Southern California, and preparing your first poetry collection, ‘Magnetic Refrain,’ for Kaya Publications. Now you have completed your Ph.D., are teaching, and preparing your second book for publication. Could you bring us up to date on all the good things you have been doing in the last few years?
Nicky Sa-eun Schildkraut: For the past few years, I’ve been working on shaping a second collection that has some of my similar themes from Magnetic Refrain, but also departs in other major ways. I’m playing with a lyrical line from Dickinson “’til qualified for pearl” that suggests that much of what takes place in art and life is rehearsal and playfulness . . . that there’s a sense of imagining more than the image on the page. Originally, I wanted to incorporate poems that are cinematic, inspired by films and also playing with their narratives, and some of those serial poems are in the manuscript, which I’m still working on polishing (and hopefully won’t take me 10 years to complete).
BF: One of my undergraduate students at the University of British Columbia, a woman of First Nations (Micmac)/Caucasian ethnicity, found your work so compelling she submitted a course proposal on adoptee literature to UBC and it was accepted for this fall. Are you familiar with any courses in North America on adoptee literature, and what are your thoughts about a course that focuses specifically on adoptee literature?
NS: That’s wonderful that your student finds adoptee literature to be compelling. I’m not sure how many professors devote an entire course to the subject, but I know of other Korean adoptees integrating international adoption as part of Asian American history in their survey classes. I’ve given guest-lectures on Deann Borshay Liem’s First Person Plural documentary at USC and found that students are fairly surprised by transnational adoption and curious about it as well.
BF: One of the thematic elements of your work that engages me the most is that of an individual caught in the divide between cultures, genders, classes, and ethnicities. In that sense I believe your work could be read fruitfully by students of Korean literature who are interested in the lives and writings of the professional entertaining women known as kisaeng, and in contemporary fiction that deals with the lives of the residents of the American military camp towns in South Korea, kijich’on fiction. Based on sales and reviews of ‘Magnetic Refrain’ to date, does it seem that your work is finding a broad audience that transcends narrow categories of ethnicity and gender?
NS: What a great question about the audience for my poetry, and more broadly for Korean American literature. I’ve been thinking about this question about “ethnic literature” that often gets pigeonholed as only focusing on the politics of identity, and I think that it’s an outdated notion. There are so many writers who are not just writing in the familiar, clichéd tropes, and in my work, I’ve been trying to raise consciousness about these complexities of self through slippages of history, gender, ethnicity. In particular, for many adoptees who grow up searching for belonging to a community that is different from the predominately Anglo-American cultures in which they grow up, belonging is much more complicated and freighted. Being in-between is what compels so many of us to write about the fractures of identity. On a related note, this year Roxanne Gay recently published her study that revealed that only 10 percent of writers of color are reviewed by the NYT Book Review, which shows that there are still formidable gatekeepers who are defining what is “good” mainstream literature and those who are still on the fringes.
BF: In reading your work I am reminded of Lacan’s assertion that creative writing involves an attempt to recover a lost narrative of one’s life. Do you see this as an element of your work?
NS: My series, ‘Dear Other’ poems came out of this desire to write letters to unknown Other, which is part of Lacan’s theory on real and symbolic maternal and paternal figures. I’ve always imagined that my family is somewhere just beyond the reaches of knowing. For many adoptees, the symbolic Other often is always an unconscious element to know the self through that mirrored, genetic family origins that remains missing and elusive. Yet, I often think that genetics is only part of the puzzle of identity. I was reminded of this when my DNA test results came back with my heritage in a checkerboard of Korean, Japanese, and unattributed East Asian ancestry. There are many adoptees who are resorting to ancestry DNA databases to locate relatives and siblings because of a strong desire to recover their lost origins. For me, not knowing and residing in uncertainty is both an intense loss and an ongoing springboard for writing.
BF: In your essay “The Division of Loss: Toward a Poetics” you argue persuasively that the situation of “families who have been prevented from reuniting because of North Korea’s isolationist policy is not unsimilar to the tragic separations of biological parents and their children, now adults, who were relinquished for adoption abroad, scattered across the globe.” I believe you are familiar with the work of adoptee writer and activist Jane Jeong Trenka, who has worked in Seoul to rationalize the laws governing translational adoption. What effect do you see such efforts having in the future, and do you see an increasing trend in reunions of adoptees with their birth families?
NS: Since Jane Jeong Trenka and other activists with TRACK passed legislation two years ago that requires birthmothers to register their children’s births and allows them a longer period to change their mind if they decide to not relinquish them to an adoption agency. There’s been a lot of controversy over its effectiveness because there are still anonymous abandonments of babies to circumvent this law. Since there’s such a strong stigma against single, unmarried mothers, there’s a high percentage of babies who are abandoned to “drop-boxes” in Korea that protect women’s identities. That is going to occur regardless of laws to work in favor of unwed mothers and adoptees. What needs to change is harder because of the cultural bias towards bloodlines as determining one’s importance and status in Korean society. In terms of the effect on this for reunions—I hope that there will be better record keeping and accuracy to make reunifications possible for adoptees and their families. It should be a right, not a privilege or chance accident, to be able to know your own name, birth date, and family surname, let alone your own biological parents!
BF: I’m by no means a specialist in poetry, but I find a strong lyric element in poems such as “Mother’s Lament.” Have you ever thought about songwriting and/or setting your poetry to music?
NS: I’ve created art songs, previously, with an eclectic composer Alan Chan on a series of poems “Without a Trail to Lace” that includes that poem you just mentioned, and it won an award several years ago. You can find the sheet music online to play these songs. I found it incredibly rewarding to collaborate with another artist with a completely different mindset and aesthetic. Music is such a part of our culture—more so than traditional poetry—that I find it inspiring to think of the roots of poetry in refrain and repetition. I often write by lines, not by a concept. Currently, I’m going to be working with another composer who read my poetry book and wants to collaborate on a music project together.
BF: Among your many gifts on display in ‘Magnetic Refrain’ is a profound empathy. How does this empathy enhance your writing? How does it enhance your reading of the works of others?
NS: For me, empathy is the ability to see beyond the narrow tissue of your own experience in order to feel a degree of what others experience, to acknowledge the disparities and longings that may not be as transparent on the surface. I’ve always been a reader and writer from a young age, curious about the lives of others that otherwise can’t be accessed. In particular, writing about defectors, militarized comfort women, single mothers, and those who are forgotten in history, I find that resonance in the personal and political.
BF: As a literary translator I believe that a good editor and a good publisher are worth their weight in gold. Could you share with us your experience in working with Kaya Publications and Sunyoung Lee?
NS: Kaya Press just celebrated their 20th year anniversary in indie book publishing, and Sunyoung Lee has been a tenacious editor. Like most indie presses that do it for their love of showcasing unconventional art that doesn’t normally get recognized, Sunyoung’s more interested in finding those voices that are edgy, quirky, unknown. She’s less interested in making a commercial profit. I’ve been lucky to publish my first poetry collection with latitude to choose the cover art design. I found a Korean surrealist painter Jung-Yeon Min living in France who is doing strange, textured work with themes of animals and enigmatic patterns, which I felt was fitting for my own aesthetic.
BF: For readers interested in reading more by writers adopted from Korea, are there works or writers you could recommend?
NS: This is by no means a complete list, but the first writers whose work I find to be important voices of adult adoptee writers: Matthew Salesses, Sun Yung Shin, Lee Herrick, Jane Jeong Trenka, Kim Sunée, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, and also the recent website Land of Gazillion Voices features podcasts and essays about transnational adoption and was founded by Kevin Haebom Vollmers. Also, last spring I presented a paper at the Association of Asian American Studies conferences about the hybrid-animated film by Jung Henin, Approved for Adoption, that is a stunning autobiography about his coming-of-age in Belgium during the 1970s-1980s.
BF: Are you familiar with writing by adoptees from countries other than Korea? If so, do you find commonalities among these works?
NS: There are many so many talented adoptees of different backgrounds publishing exciting work—for example, Kev Minh Allen of Vietnamese heritage has a poetry book forthcoming. Amanda Woolst and Diane Rene Christian edited an anthology last year that features work from a range of perspectives. I have always found that there’s no single defining experience of adoption. That’s what is so exciting about the work emerging from the diaspora.
BF: Can you give us a preview of your next book? Will it incorporate the auto-critical reflection component of your dissertation? Do you see yourself writing fiction in the future?
NS: My next book is going to be hybrid of lyrical poetry, prose and short stories; I’m actually in the midst of writing the prose sections now so I don’t want to spoil the manuscript by talking about it too much. I’m also hoping to gather together a critical prose anthology of a triad of voices of birth parents, adoptees and adoptive parents who will be writing auto-critical essays about different facets of their experiences.
BF: Where do you see yourself in 10 years, personally, professionally, creatively, geographically?
NS: Such a tough question! I feel that I’ll always be working on a new artistic project, maybe a screen play and hopefully a collaboration with an illustrator—I’d love to work on a graphic novel. Since emerging from the cocoon of academia for so many years of my life, I see myself as a writer and teacher who won’t stray too far from it. From a practical standpoint, though, I know that this is one of the most strained academic markets in recent years, so I’m also open to alt-ac careers and ideally will still be residing in L.A. in the next decade. And, of course, traveling!