A Conversation With Hei Kyong Kim, Author of The Translation of Han

My friend and fellow Korean adoptee author, Hei Kyong Kim, has a fantastic new collection of poetry and prose called Translation of Han (CQT Media and Publishing). I talked with Hei Kyong about her book, her writing process, the meaning of Han, and one of my favorite topics: the adopted body.

Katie: What compelled you to write this book?

Hei Kyong: I have always been fascinated by the concept of Han and noticed a theme that seem to connect to my writing. So I decided that I wanted to explore it further in terms of adoptee identity, the hardship of life, racial and personal traumas, collective traumas, and so forth. I’ve always been curious about what drives people to resiliency and wanted to explore my own Han and the path I took to healing, no matter how jagged of a road it could be. The collection is work I have written throughout the years—the earliest was included in [the anthology] Seeds from a Silent Tree (Pandal Press, 1997).

Katie: How long did it take you to write it? What was your writing process like?

Hei Kyong: Many of the pieces have been works in progress for many years. I just went back to revisit them and rework them with a mature eye. As I worked on them, I got caught up and reflected back on my life and the lives of people I’ve known. I found myself writing a ton. Over time, I became more disciplined and started regularly working in coffee houses, on the dining room table, and in a writing group. I wrote any time I could, between my day job as a psychologist and motherly duties.

Katie: What does its title, Translation of Han, mean to you?

Hei Kyong: I’ve always heard that Han can’t be explained, that there’s no translation for people outside Korean culture, including adoptees. Now from the adoptee POV, I beg to differ. We were products of Han. It’s not always spoken about, but there’s a collective feeling of sadness, loss, and anxiety. Ghosts and our bloodlines haunt us. Han embodies the complexity of human experience, so I wanted to translate it for myself, to make sense of my experiences until now and help me feel connected.

Katie: Could you talk about the section headings, what they mean, and why you chose them?

Hei Kyong: Sure. The Korean shaman mask dance is an expression of Han and the experience of oppression on a grassroots level. I wanted to embody a tradition that is ancient and a rebellion by the common people: a way to vent their anger and frustration and come together as a community. I start the collection off by cleansing the space and follow it with an overview of the collection. The sections are named for female masks/characters, since I do consider this to be a feminist collection that explores my identity as an Asian American female, both identifying with the archetypes of female development and poking fun and challenging them too. I end the collection with a section entitled Jeong, which goes hand-in-hand with Han. It’s the love and affection that arises out of Han; it’s the healing attachments that arise from Han, which I found fitting for the collection.

Katie: I know that you study and work with the idea of somatic healing. I see a lot of the body throughout your work, such as food, senses, hair, blood, hands, etc. Your concerns feel almost primal to me. Do you think there’s a connection between these primal, bodily instincts and adoption?

Hei Kyong: Oh, most definitely. I mean, here our trauma occurred so very early, and it’s seeped into our primal instincts. I think that’s where a lot of the spiritual comes into my work: because I feel like the umbilical cord was never really severed. That’s helped me retain a healing on this deeper level. I have always listened to my intuition and what my senses told me from a young age. This helped me understand where I was from and allowed me to trust my core sense of self and being in the end. I may have weaved off track here and there, but I always trusted my sense of direction. There were times when I disconnected from my sensory input, and I lacked nourishment (literally, emotionally, and spiritually). I think so many adoptees are cut off from their bodies in order to survive early trauma, loss, anger, depression, grief, anxiety, and other complex feelings. Much of society has this pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality that emphasizes “getting over things” and looking on the bright side, rarely acknowledging the importance of feelings and the body.

We see feelings and the body as vulnerable and weak, yet they aren’t! Without the body, we would not exist, we wouldn’t truly survive. Too often, adoptees utilize a disconnected coping mechanism in order to forget their beginnings and to focus on the future, but without processing through it in a manner that honors both the mind and the body. There’s so much that is lost, which is why a lot of us are left feeling haunted and disconnected. When we explore ourselves through our senses and feelings, as well as with curious and analytic minds, great movements are made toward healing ourselves, healing as a community, and healing our future generations. Han is a feeling that embodies the primal bodily sensations of a people who have persevered through so much. To write about Han in a strictly top-down process would be doing the collection a great disservice and therefore wouldn’t be an adequate exploration of translating Han.

Katie: What’s next for you?

Hei Kyong: I have been sucked back into working on a novel that I have been planning for a year now. I’m also playing around with my next book of poetry, which continues to explore adoption and the body.

Katie: Where can folks buy your book?

Hei Kyong: People can find my book and a brief bio here. They can also find my book at Moon Palace Books and Ancestry Books, both in Minneapolis. There will be a book launch on July 11 from 6:30-8 P.M. at Third Place Gallery in Minneapolis, but I’ll have another reading on July 26 at 2:00 at Moon Palace Books as well.

Katie: Thank you, Hei Kyong!