Review: May Ngoon Don Mee Choi

See You At The DMZ

DMZ Colony, which won the 2020 National Book Award for Poetry, opens with the author in Saint Louis, Missouri at a poetry reading. Snow geese are flying in the sky, calling out like a Greek chorus for the author to return. Snow geese always travel in flocks and are often harbingers of changing seasons, but Don Mee Choi identifies herself as a sparrow. Sparrows are small, drab brown solitary birds – but they are also fast, agile and adaptable: good for returning, good for translating.

The DMZ is the Korean Demilitarised Zone, a border buffer zone running across the Korean peninsula that divides it roughly in half between the North and the South. The DMZ is the outcome of a modern history of occupation of Korea. Once a Japanese colony, Don Mee Choi notes that the US still occupies South Korea with its vast military installations and bases, and is therefore part of the U.S neocolony:

The Koreans, already colonized by the Japanese military machine, were ready-made to be neocolonized by the US military machine.

A nation that is not a nation. How many countries across Asia, Africa and the Middle-East have also had to endure similar currents of occupation? What happened in South Korea is part of a wave, and yet at the same time involves highly specific circumstances.

The snow geese call Don Mee Choi to come back, to translate. She is called back to history: her own. Her family’s history. Her country’s history. All of this revealed in three lines:

I grew up in South Korea during the US-backed military dictatorship. I was born a year after General Park Chung Hee led a military coup and came into power. My father filmed the day of martial law declaration in front of Seoul City Hall.

Her father was a film/photographer journalist – ‘my memory lives inside my father’s camera’ – and DMZ Colony includes photos by him and of him, at crucial moments in South Korea’s political history. It also includes all kinds of texts: poetry, prose and other images. In 1983, her family left Korea. Her father gave film footage to the government of student protests in the Gwangju uprising in exchange for permission to leave the country. Then her family ‘scattered all over’, like birds, to Germany, Hong Kong, Australia and the US.

Don Mee Choi calls wings her ‘language of return’: ‘I returned in the guise of a translator, which is to say, I returned as a foreigner…I flitted about in downtown Seoul searching for my child self that had been left behind long ago. As a foreigner, I understood only the language of wings – the wings on totem animals on old palaces where I used to run around and play.’ Carrying the ‘twoness’ of wings – two languages, two Koreas, two selves – the exiled from home live as perpetual translators. And DMZ Colony is at its essence a book about translation. It is about the various forms of translation that are required to be able to hold facts and memories fractured by war; atrocities that are so overwhelming that they would otherwise be reduced to silence:

The language of capture, torture and massacre is difficult to decipher. It’s practically a foreign language…

It uses various modes – images, similes, drawings, fictionalised accounts and montage – to make legible the trauma that occurred in the neocolony of a post-world war two South Korea that was governed by US-backed dictatorships who initiated ‘Commie genocides.’ As a human rights investigator sketches a diagram of places and names where torture and massacres happened under the military dictatorship, Don Mee Choi likens the circles and lines to a planet’s orbitary routes, with the investigator mapping out the ‘unspeakable orbits of torture and atrocities.’ In a section titled ‘The Orphans’, about the Sancheong-Hamyang massacre in 1951 that was part of the communist witch hunt, Don Mee Choi imaginatively inhabits the testimonies of the orphans who survived, writing fictionalised versions based on accounts told to her by an activist. Incredibly affecting, this section takes the viewpoint of the children themselves:

Our big sister hid my brother under her skirt and sat on him to keep him alive.

He screamed and screamed.

I could only grab a clump of Mother’s hair.

I couldn’t put out the flames.

Father sizzled and crackled.

My brother screamed and screamed.

In a dream I chew and chew Mother’s hair.

Don Mee Choi is not only imaginatively witnessing, but also materially occupying these testimonies. She includes in DMZ Colony handwritten versions of these accounts in Korean, written by her, next to the translated English. In the notes section, she explains: ‘It made most sense to deploy my childish handwriting – it didn’t have much chance to grow outside of Korea.’

The body is also a site of translation and inscription. In ‘Blue x 300’, torture is translated into a drawing of rows and rows of female bodies bruised blue from beatings; the sentences of political prisoners are written on their bodies through acts of torture.

Alongside the interview transcripts with Ahn Hak-sop, a former political prisoner and North Korean sympathiser in his eighties, there are the notes and diagrams that Don Mee Choi scribbled as she listened to him. There is also no attempt to edit the interview into a narrative structure, the interview is presented as if transcribed straight from the recording – but when Ahn Hak-sop speaks about his experience of torture, the form changes abruptly:

Then terror came

We were side by side squeezed into one another

The person behind you had to lean against the wall, then you leaned against him

And the person in front could only sit on your lap

That is how we slept

like spoons

like bean sprouts

Then terror came

Perhaps it is because the unspeakable resists structure, resists articulation that it needs to be ‘translated’ into poetic fragments, into images and ‘fictions’. This allows the speaking of what otherwise would be impossible to be put into words. Most of all, because so much is immeasurable and unquantifiable and lost to history, because it is ‘not possible to recount everyone who had perished, not possible to count ideology,’ DMZ Colony utilises montage or bricolage to document the un-documentable.

Montage, a method of editing cinematic images that juxtaposes images next to each other, invites, in Denzin and Lincoln’s words, ‘viewers to construct interpretations that build on one another as the scene unfolds.’ Similarly, they argue, bricolage pieces together different materials to create a whole that becomes a new image, allowing for the possibility ‘in which something that has been painted out of a picture becomes visible again.’

Are these techniques useful for tracing fractured histories, collecting fragments and offering multiple meanings, allowing us to see what could not be seen before? We can view Don Mee Choi as a kind of bricoleur in DMZ Colony; a quilt maker, image assembler, improviser, who uses multiple tools – research, fiction, memoir – to assemble the beginnings of an archive.

Resisting the pull of chronological narratives and the desire for a totalising arc can help in breaking down ‘order words’, a term coined by Deleuze and Guattari and quoted in DMZ Colony: ‘Order words compel division, war and obedience around the world. But other words are possible.’ Bricolage eschews these order words in eschewing a totalising or single narrative. Instead, other words, more slippery, less certain, arise to question, to disrupt, what these ‘order words’ want to impose. Perhaps that’s why Don Mee Choi writes in one of her footnotes that she believes poetry is more effective as a language of resistance, ‘Poetry can defy erasure.’

Her father is lightly woven into the text, just as she herself is present in the collection now and then: ‘Our radio was turned off at night in case we were suspected of being North Korean sympathisers. At school, former North Korean spies came to give talks on the evil leader of North Korea. I stood at bus stops to see if I could spot any North Korean spies, but all I could spot were American GIs.’

I am trying to build an archive too, though it is one that is more personal; it is of my Dad’s memories of the Southeast Asian war. In my mind, I can see this archive in architectural terms, it looks like the inside of a glass cathedral. This image denotes what a huge undertaking it is; it feels both enormous and fragile. How long is it now that I’ve been working on this with my father? It’s been a few years at least, nearly ten, off and on. More off than on during some periods. My father writes his memories in Chinese, and then in English for me to edit. There are endless revisions by my father.

Working with him, I feel like I can’t give a coherent account of his experiences. How to explain that a Chinese-Cambodian man who is my father – and actually both my parents – came to be fighting in the Vietnam War? And on the communist side?

I can’t write a chronological narrative. I don’t know what that would look like. So much that happened in global history, but also so much that happened to my family because of it. So much movement on both sides of the family, or survival, to have a better life, to escape war… How far back do I go? I get confused. And how to include the things that get my heart beating, the things that have a heat besides the dry facts, the things that break me open as I listen to them being told by my father? But then again, what about adhering to the facts, to clarity, to history?

But then I’m reminded of what is often taught as history.

My memory is a little hazy. What I do remember is a Modern History class at school. We were learning about the Vietnam War – the teacher had organised a guest speaker to talk about his experience as an Australian soldier in that war. I remember him as tall, big and burly. I don’t remember anything of the vet’s talk, except: ‘I would do anything for the South Vietnamese, but if a bomb dropped in North Vietnam I would be so happy, I would be cheering.’ Or maybe it was something about blasting them to pieces. You get the idea.

Even at that age, I knew there was something wrong with this. Even at that age, when I knew almost nothing about that war and even less about my family’s involvement in it, I knew what he said was deeply troubling.

How can a person be happy, almost gleeful, with the idea of bombs being dropped on people?

I look back on it now and I realise – here was a former soldier talking to a room of mostly migrant children, some of whose families might have been affected by that war, some of whose families might have been on the soldier’s ‘side’. But also, some who could have been on the ‘other side.’ Like my parents.

Most of all, I wonder why the history teacher never thought to ask us students if our parents too might have been there in that war – and why our parents were not the ones at the front of the classroom, teaching us all something.

As I read DMZ Colony, I think about how the translating work undertaken by Don Mee Choi could be a blueprint for my own work, for my father’s story. I begin to think about how ‘Translation as an anti-neocolonial mode can create other words,’ words that have been shaped by migration, war, colonialism, revolutions; words that are translated so that they defy order words. Can translating these words into images, poetry, fictionalised accounts, help in telling my father’s story – that he fought in the Vietnam War but was not Vietnamese; that he was born in Cambodia but was not ethnically Khmer; that he once fought against the West and now lives in it, vehemently against Communism. Writing not about the Vietnam War and the usual narratives spun around it. But the Southeast Asian War. The one that includes the secret bombings in Cambodia before the official Vietnam War started.

It will also include my own story, how when I was three months old my family left the refugee camp we were in to begin a perilous migration journey through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia. We arrived in Australia when I was three years old.

I think not only about past wars but current and future ones. As I write this, I’m living in the Czech Republic, one country away from the war that is occurring in the Ukraine. Ukrainian refugees are coming over here, seeking shelter, and the Czech Republic has opened its country to them, many people literally opening up their homes to these refugees. The Czech government has quickly mobilised material and financial aid with the knowledge that this might carry on indefinitely.

What a contrast to how other refugees to Europe are being treated. Other refugees from wars farther away like Syria and Afghanistan also come here but are turned away at the borders. Just a couple of months ago, refugees were stuck at the Polish border and the Czech government refused to help or accept any asylum seekers. Some refugees froze to death.

It is heartbreaking to realise that actually, so much can be done to help and so quickly, and when it doesn’t happen that is because a choice has been made. A choice that without a doubt, is based on racism and xenophobia. Now, African students from Ukraine are also experiencing racism and discrimination at the borders.

Not so many days ago, Russia bombed at Europe’s largest nuclear plant in Ukraine, sparking a fire and the threat of a nuclear explosion that could engulf all of us.

War comes close to me again, while for others it has never abated.

I turn back to DMZ Colony. In our helplessness in the face of what is, I read this passage:

My decision to translate the girls’ stories wasn’t entirely mine alone. It can take billions of years for light to reach us through the galaxies, which is to say, History is ever arriving. So it’s more likely that the decision, seemingly all mine, was already made years ago by someone else, which is to say, language – that is to say, translation – always arises from collective consciousness.

What we write, what we translate, reaches beyond the individual. We are all merely the conduits, mediators, of a process that is more than us. Sadly, it looks we will always need translators, translators of pain and unimaginable atrocities – because war seems to keep occurring, because the trauma that comes from war keeps compounding in our collective consciousness.

Works Cited

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (2008). The landscape of qualitative research (Vol. 1). Sage.

Published May 9, 2022
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
May Ngo

May Ngo is a Teochew Chinese Cambodian Australian who currently lives in Prague. She...

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