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Sawako Nakayasu

Book Review

Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From

by on April 14, 2022

Collection by Sawako Nakayasu
Review by John Venegas

There are times where it feels strange that we consider “raising more questions than it answers” as a mark against something. Granted, that phrase is often meant to convey a lack of closure or satisfaction or evidence, but it is the phrasing that bothers me. Are we not supposed to ask questions? Are we not supposed to seek questions? Can’t a lack of questions come dangerously close to willful ignorance? I am aware that I am probably overcomplicating the idea (perish the thought), but I have been reading Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From, by Sawako Nakayasu, and I find myself awash in questions, immersed in questions, and I could not be happier as a result. This is the kind of poetry collection that engages on every level and radically reorganizes one’s thought processes. It is a book that I can only recommend to those who are interested in having their presumptions and perspectives interrogated, not by anything as unsubtle as direct question from the text, but by the readers themselves as they immerse in the text.

As good and conscientious visitors they dutifully abide by the laws of the new land. It would only be polite.

I admit with no shame that I still don’t entirely “get” this book. I am a straight, cis male who has lived in the same country his entire life, and this collection primarily engages with displacement and motion within themes of gender, sexuality, political and generational borders, and much more. On a very basic level, this collection contains lines and entire poems written in several different languages, some of which I cannot read and some which I am only partially familiar. But I suspect that is largely the point. First and foremost, as I have said before, literature in translation is an unmatched vehicle for bridging perspectives. Furthermore, the way the poems weave in and out of different languages and styles and identities beautifully reinforces the overarching themes. Even if you could read every character, the text does not permit you complacency. It will not allow you to pin it down beneath a few convenient categories. And it will cause you to look at everything else you have neatly collated and now take for granted and see your handiwork for what it is – insufficient.

She can hold her own in a hot dog eating contest. She has guts of steel, buns of steel, pink enamel nails of steel.

As a more concrete example of what I am talking about, the collection has a running motif (or perhaps reoccurring subject) of a group of girls, their identifications starting at Girl A and ending at Girl J. These girls seem to be in a state of constant flux. Everything from their ages to their clothing to their physical existence to their moods changes regularly. I’m not even sure they are separate entities during some of their appearances. Girl A seems to fantasize about a train sliding along her back. Girl J has sweet and innocent eyes and also manages to give “a swift kick under the table to her asshole editor”. Girl B is “on the brink of overcooking that idea out of the realm of tenability”. Girl F identifies her real name as “Fuck You For Asking”. The fluidity of meaning here is, I think, as its most direct. The motion of who they are, on individual and collective levels, is perpetual. It is a reflection of how many societies and cultures simultaneously attempt to isolate women from each other and other genders and attempt to herd them into vast pens of categorical subservience. It is a reflection of reactions to that external pressure, both in the fight for solidarity and the demand for recognition of the self. It is a reflection of the struggle between our need for understanding and our tendency to oversimplify. Are the Girls ten individuals, ten shifting perspectives within the same individual, or both? Is there a solid answer to that question, even at an entirely hypothetical moment in time?

Girls A through J cut their tongues on the distant approaching sunlight.

These questions are by no means limited to women, whether inside or outside the text. Cultural and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and people from across the spectrum of gender can attest to these experiences. They are questions that should be asked of themselves by everyone, especially instead of external questions like “Yeah, no, but where are you really from?” or “Are you sure you’re in the right bathroom?” or “You get that it’s just a joke, right?”. Where many texts invite you to engage with such ideas, Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From firmly points out that this process is already happening, with or without your participation or permission. It reminds you that you have a choice to make: do you have the humility for regular and meaningful introspection, or will you be eroded like the rest of the stagnant detritus as the perpetual movement flows around and over you?

Like this. Luminous continuity of seeing.

And for all this earnestly high-minded contemplation, the collection never fails to be entertaining. Whether decoding linguistic constraints or mulling over a sequence like “Out of a failure to materialize clothing mid-jump on my way to the tuba player,”, the text is just plain fun to read. It runs the gamut of emotions, almost as a byproduct of its refusal/inability to cease in its journey. If anything, it demands more of itself than it does of its reader, perhaps understanding that in order to do justice to the concepts it addresses, it must wield language with both utter precision and kaleidoscopic creativity. I wholeheartedly recommend Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From in the same way that I might recommend getting a friend who is willing to stimulate and challenge you.

Some Girls Walk Into The Country They Are From is available now through Wave Books.

Book Review

Yi Sang: Selected Works

by on December 15, 2020

In a world already beset by far too many binaries, the false dichotomy of order and chaos may be the most dangerous. Whether on the socio-political scale, where championing “law and order” is a not-so-subtle promise of violent bigotry, or the literary scale, where the perpetually old guard decries increasing diversity and representation as unpredictable and dangerous, order and chaos stand in as palatable, almost mundane code-phrasing for whatever the user desires. I find this to be a particularly unfortunate set of circumstances, considering that, in my opinion, order and chaos, if indeed the two can truly be conceptually separated, truly thrive when united. The unpredictability of a system is vital for that system to evolve and adapt. The identity of a system, though in constant flux, is necessary to have meaningful interaction and existence. This is the frame of mind I am left in after having some truly meaningful interaction with the selected works of Yi Sang, a text that brings some blessed peace to my addled mind in a manner that does not ask me to sacrifice any of my creative impulse.

I finally chase down my galloping shadow and get in front of it. Now, my shadow chases me as if it is my tail.

My first impulse after sitting down to write about this text was to call it a “contradiction” and praise it for the confused but inspired initial state in which it left me. What we, the readers, are presented with is an intimate self-description of a flower caught in a hurricane. Even putting aside the pieces that are explicitly autobiographical, so much of this work is intensely personal, and it is so amidst the backdrop of imperialism. Yi Sang was born less than a month after the Japanese Empire conquered Korea, born into a region and a people that were having their identities torn apart and subjugated. He was educated in Japanese, worked for the imperial government, and through his passion for the arts and the connections it brought did he begin to press against the system around him. One might expect passionate calls for revolution, and yet several of the pieces in this collection express a fundamental and deeply relatable desire to return to simplicity.

When the citrons ripen, their skins come apart, and their insides ooze out. I pick one of them from the vine and hang it inside my room. I lie down beneath its voluptuousness as the juice drips down on me. I home that my emaciated pencil-like body will be fattened by this juice.

Among the most passionate moments of the text are those describing women harvesting fruit from trees, or those describing hope that retreating into the mountains might bring peace. There is a yearning for the familiar unknown – that which is lost but cannot be recalled. It took me longer than it should have, but I see now that there is no contradiction here. Yi Sang was a victim of imperialism, among many other things – imperfectly stripped of identity, left only with an incomplete mosaic of beautiful fragments to rearrange. “Order and chaos” were forced upon him, and he shows us momentary glimpses into his imprisoning dislocation. Even his choice of name, Yi Sang, carries this depth. The introductory timeline of the text mentions that the characters of Yi Sang’s name mean “plum tree” and “box”, and that he chose that name in honor of a painter’s box made of plum wood gifted to him by a friend.

Far away from the city, the stars double their numbers. It is so silent here that I might be able to listen to the celestial movements for the first time in my life.

I have a depthless soft spot and a jealous admiration for writers that can write simply without sacrificing complexity. Again, I know that sounds like a contradiction, but read Yi Sang’s texts and I think you will understand what I mean. He expresses the weight of centuries, an infinite and myriad expanse of meaning, in so few words. There is an effortless efficiency to his use of language (which, to keep going with the seeming contradictions, probably took considerable effort) that I find utterly vital to the thematic expressions he is attempting. This was a man who cherished those fleeting moments of emotional experience among a lifetime of confusion and suppression. His literature is like a series of psychic snapshots, endlessly layered with impossible detail of memory and history.

When she vomits blood, a wounded butterfly is perching on her. She is a tree branch stretching out like a spider’s web, tremulous under the butterfly’s weight. The branch eventually breaks.

It is kind of miraculous, then, that this text has been translated by four people – Jack Jung, Don Mee Choi, Sawako Nakayaso, and Joyelle McSweeney. I have remarked before that some of the best translation work is the kind that makes you forget that you are reading translation, and this is no exception. While I am sure that this translation team must have worked together on some level, the consistency of the voice throughout the text is still amazing to behold upon reflection. I did not find even a single hint of a whisper of a fragment of a hitch as Yi Sang’s literary voice pulled me into his world.

Eat the fragments of thought, otherwise the new thing is incomplete, kill the suggestions, people who know one thing should half the next thing after knowing one thing knowing three things, should make everything so to know one thing after knowing one thing.

And to be clear, that voice does not lose an ounce of strength, despite its desire for peace. I think there is a temptation to mistake an appreciation of both structure and change for being non-committal and weak, or to treat centrism in all things as some kind of utopian ideal. Yi Sang does not equivocate or excuse what imperialism has done to him, to his people, and to his cultural heritage. His is as quick to point out the unnatural distortions as the beauty. It is likely that this strength of his, this willingness to witness, is why the Japanese Empire killed him at twenty seven. His beautiful, bittersweet work proved prophetic as well – the cycle of rebirth is not exclusive to the good, and Korea is still the victim of imperial exploitation to this day. But these selected works help to keep the flame of his dreams alive, and I believe they will keep warm the souls of those today who can truly empathize with Yi Sang – the dispossessed, the colonized, and their descendants.

Yi Sang: Selected Works is available now through Wave Books.