Translate Me & I’ll Kill You

The Apocalyptic Message of Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War

Four days after the shooting and subsequent death of Philandro Castile in Minnesota and the attack on Dallas police officers, the New York Times ran an editorial by Michael Eric Dyson called Death in Black and White accompanied by stills from the video Castile’s girlfriend took to document his shooting. Dyson addresses white people directly. It is pointed, powerful, and difficult to read. The reckoning of difficult truths we must address if we are to make real racial progress “includes being honest about how black grievances have been ignored, dismissed or discounted,” he says. “The problem is you do not want to know anything different from what you think you know.”

The longer I sat with Don Mee Choi’s Hardly War (Wave Books, 2016) the stronger I felt a similar message was its principal concern. Hardly War has been praised for its unique form and its energetic braiding of source material — it ranges from Gertrude Stein and Citizen Kane to Choi’s own dreams — with Choi’s father’s photographs. Her father is an award-winning war photographer — Google anything related to the Korean War and you’ll see his stunning images. But to understand Hardly War, we must take Choi at her word when she says in the introduction that it is her attempt to “imagine the language of race=nation.” This involves “disobeying history, severing its ties to power.” It is “hardly,” she says, because it is “faintly remembered,” speaking its own “faint history in its own faint language.” It is a language unique to Hardly War, one that underscores the dehumanizing, destructive effect of our discourse and its role in what we think we know.

Hydrangea Agenda

When Choi interrogates the idea of race=nation, she tears at a deeply-held race-based concept of nation. Hardly War resounds with relevance in my world. But in the U.S., American nationalism is a civic obligation. In Korea, it is based in blood. (Choi was born in South Korea, and considers it her “psychic and linguistic base.”) Choi states in the introduction that when she was born “in the tiny, tile-roofed house, I was already geopolictally raced. Hence me=gook.” “Me=gook” is a pun on the Korean word for America, she explains. It means beautiful country, an equation that also enters the book, “beauty=nation,” and one that becomes quickly perverted.

In the language of Hardly War, beauty transmutes into ugly, and mountains morph into hills. DDT is patted, or sprayed “sparingly”. Hydrangeas “sway” rooted in their indigenous ground. Narratives are recounted “narrowly.” A BBC report about the U.S. intervention in Korean is re-told in one poem, presented as a “counterly point” followed by another “counter-counterly” one. Quotation marks indicate an Other has encroached: “After an emergency meeting with his cabinet South Korea’s foreign / minister urged the people of the republic to resist the “dastardly attack.”// I was narrowly narrator, / yet superbly so. / I wantonly resisted nothing in particular / yet superbly so / I was narrowly narrator.” The text floats on a serene photo of Choi with her brother on her back, setting the reader all the more off balance.

In fact, Hardly War does much of its work through juxtaposition and intertextuality. War’s brutalities provide a particular point of contrast. “Orphan fetuses” surface repeatedly as victims of clozapine, DDT, execution (“No face just a wide open belly”), living too close to the demilitarized zone, and just as often as part of a sort of nursery rhyme: “Here is DMZ. / Mark-a-daisy. Every belly is a suspect. I, Lack-a-daisy, born two miles from every / place, every suspect, every petal kicked open, am deeply moved by world memories.” A Smokey Bear poster broadcasts the spraying of DDT, and provides the backdrop for the line, “Darling bear, only you can prevent my deformity.” Translations are quickly corrupted, as Me Binh Tai becomes Me been there, Sir! and Me Phong Nhi & Phong Nhat is Me flunky & fuck that, Sir! until the sequence disintegrates into more distant referents of brainwashing and a death march: “Me Tiger, Sir! / ME-OW.” Choi also embeds refrains from Yi Sang, an early twentieth century Korean poet whose offensive wordplay skirted censorship by the confusion of translation. Choi weaves lines that Yi Sang exploited into the text until it becomes impossible to accurately trace meaning at all. The thread is picked up and runs throughout the book, accelerating the desire to mean all while subverting clarity.

Because of its copious use of source material and outside texts, there is no true center and nothing to guarantee meaning. Language is no longer in service to communication, and Choi releases control of it, willingly becoming hardly author. Fitting a language of race=nation, it is impossible for Hardly War to create boundaries and impossible for it to be whole.


Shitty Kitty

In a recent episode of public television’s POV series, film director Joshua Oppenheimer discusses his documentary, The Look of Silence, about the aftermath of the 1965 Indonesian genocide. Oppenheimer posits that the ideological anti-communism that perpetuates episodes of mass violence throughout American history is a desperately-clung-to pretext excusing Americans from atrocities that they are part of. As if echoing Dyson, Oppenheimer says those in the U.S. cannot urge reconciliation (in Indonesia, but by extension, elsewhere) until we reckon with our role in its brutalities.

It was, again, the dire warning intrinsic to Hardly War. Here, a poem titled Shitty Kitty plays on the nickname for the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) supercarrier. Its references include a 1972 race riot and Lyndon Johnson’s request (and payment) for combat troops from the South Korean president Park Chung Hee in 1965:

Here comes Shitty Kitty en route to the Gulf of Tonkin or en route to a race riot? That is the question and meanwhile discipline is the keystone and meanwhile did you see on TV helicopters being ditched into the sea? That is also my film and meanwhile all refugees must be treated as suspects. Looking for your husband? Looking for your son? That is the question and meanwhile she was the mother of the boy or that is what the translator said or Shitty Kitty or shall we adhere to traditional concepts of military discipline tempered with humanitarianism? That is the question and meanwhile South Korea exports military labor left over from the war. That is also my history or is that your history? That is the question and meanwhile
(CHORUS: Dictator Park Chung Hee and his soldiers in Ray-Bans)
How much?
$7.5 million=per division
or Binh Tai massacre=$7.5 million
or Binh Hoa massacre=$7.5 million
or Dien Nien–Phuoc Binh massacre=$7.5 million
or Go Dai massacre=$7.5 million
or Ha My massacre=$7.5 million
or Phong Nhi & Phong Nhat massacre=$15 million
or Tay Vinh massacre=$7.5 million
or Vinh Xuan massacre=$7.5 million
or Mighty History?
That is the question and meanwhile a riot began over a grilled cheese sandwich at
Subic Bay. […]

There is horror in recognizing yourself. You do not want to know anything different from what you think you know.


The Third Meaning

Hardly Opera, the book’s final section, was inspired, Choi says, by a musical composition incorporating Gertrude Stein’s Some Wars I Have Seen. As a child, Choi would track her father across war zones in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos on a map of Southeast Asia that hung above the dining room table in Hong Kong. This section enacts her wish to “follow my father and live inside his camera.” It is a wonderful sequence. The language of the first two sections cohere, consecrating this sonorific, burlesque, witty one, where swaying hydrangeas and American Army Majors trade semiotic arias and choruses of flowers call for Coty powder to cover the blemishes. It is intricately layered and culturally aware, and at its core, a tribute to her father.

In this final section, the father’s camera plays the mock hero. Choi begins the book with a quote from Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida in which Barthes characterizes The Photograph as “a shared hallucination” and “a mad image, chafed by reality.” In Camera Lucida , Barthes explains photography’s Third Meaning, one Choi seems to urge us toward. While the First Meaning is obvious and the Second Meaning is symbolic, the Third Meaning, or punctum, is the photo liberated from representation. It presents an inarticulable beyond; it is an intense, personal detail that connects to and “pricks” the observer. (This could explain why Choi chooses a cropped photo of General MacArthur and South Korean President Syngman Rhee that shows only an unnamed woman — Rhee’s wife? — one aisle back to accompany one poem.) She leans on Barthes later, in Operation Punctum, in which the speaker watches war footage shot by her father in the movie The Deer Hunter. To lift art from representation becomes almost a wish, however, as Hardly War would scarcely exist were it not for the influences that create its meanings.

As Choi well knows, our schisms are a historical problem and they are a contemporary problem. How do we begin to pull together these gaping seams? Hardly War is no guidebook. But Choi casts a showcase of troubling, horrific, peculiar ways we have failed. She calls attention to the murky cultural trance we live in. In writing it, she has committed an important act — one that disobeys history and severs ties to power: it shows us something different from what we think we know.

Truths that require reckoning infringe upon a powerfully pacifying place. This is the case whether the costs are institutional or deeply personal. My own father enlisted in the Army during the Korean War. He died at 48, of lung cancer. He was not a smoker, and there was speculation that the time he spent in Korea could have been the reason for his death. It seemed to have little impact on his life, however. He was a school teacher, an artist, an entrepreneur. A ribbon in a case sat in his closet. It was not Vietnam; there were no stories to tell.

In photos, he is 18, a slip of a man posing with his army buddies at places called Punchbowl Rim and Enemy Cemetery. He holds up a towel embellished with a life-size picture of Marilyn Monroe; he scowls at a scowling gargoyle. It is a moment in time that is faint and unreal. They are carefree, hormonal kids. It is hardly war at all.

James Lewis, the reviewer’s father, is far left.