Disobeying History with Don Mee Choi
Roland Barthes, Gertrude Stein, and the Legacies of the Korean and Vietnamese Wars
Don Mee Choi quotes Gertrude Stein’s Wars I Have Seen in the epigraph of her new collection of poetry, prose, and opera, Hardly War: “It is funny about wars, they ought to be different but they are not.” This line introduces the book’s preoccupation with the homogeneity of conflicts, certainly, but also with Stein herself. Not only does Choi display a stylistic fidelity to Stein’s oeuvre, by way of radical experiments with language and syntax, but the very inspiration for the collection stems from her as well.
Choi was moved to write Hardly War after she attended Heiner Goebbels’s “Songs of Wars I Have Seen,” a concert work directly inspired by Stein’s wartime memoir. Goebbels was attracted to its combination of mundane descriptions — of Stein’s dog or the weather — with “very political statements” about World War II. In Hardly War, these same spheres of the mundane and political similarly reinforce each other. As Choi confronts the official histories of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, she focuses on smaller images and objects informed by those larger histories. For instance, “A Little Menu” consists entirely of a list of food items — an archive of post-WWII industrial food imported from the United States, such as a “tin of jam” or “canned fruit,” and “pan-fried Spam with kimchi.” Or, in “Suicide Parade,” she unceremoniously outlines the formula for napalm: “65% oleic acid + 30% coconut fatty acid + 5% naphthenic acid / necessitates most arguably necessary clinging and burning / necessitates gasoline and stirring (hence gasstir).”
And it’s all viewed through the lens of Choi’s adolescent self. Her father, a documentary photographer, would “bring back photographs of the wars he saw, then leave again.” His black-and-white images of Vietnam and Korea accompany her childhood sketches throughout. Imitating the spastic, unfiltered pattern of a child’s cognition, many of Choi’s poems lapse into fantastical babble, such as in “Kitty Stew”: “Under the starry night / Why, it’s practically a jungle / Hello Fatty! Hello Kitty! / Meow I love SPAM! / … / Miss you Mommy!”
The photographs serve as both a reminder of war and a medium that re-enlivens or resuscitates it. She quotes Roland Barthes, who wrote in Camera Lucida that photographs are “a new form of hallucination… (on the one hand ‘it is not there,’ on the other ‘but it has indeed been’).” They embody history as artifacts but can also elicit painful memories in the present. Choi cannot look away: she urges in “6.25,” “now look at this and look at it and look at it.” In “Operation Punctum,” she narrates her father’s newsreel footage as it appears in the classic 1978 film, The Deer Hunter, describing the onlookers’ shared trauma. In the collection’s closing piece, “Hardly Opera,” she brings the mementos and objects her father documented to life, and in doing so enacts a belief she held as a child — that these items “followed him and lived inside his camera.”
In a past interview, Choi described translation as a decolonizing act, and she has also spoken about how it subconsciously informs her own process. Translation can occupy a seemingly contradictory ideological terrain: while it allows regional writers to author their own voices and histories, its overwhelmingly Anglophone nature not only bears but also potentially reinforces colonial legacies.
Choi hints at this complexity by refusing to write completely in English and by challenging the structure and role of language in general. Indeed, Hardly War is a sort of arrested translation — its parts communicate neither fully nor easily. Illustratively, in one poem riddled with lines of Korean, Choi incants, “I refuse to translate / I refuse to translate / I refuse to translate / I refuse to translate / I refuse to translate.” Another poem threatens, “translate me and I’ll kill you.” Indeed, Choi’s work can be seen as a deliberate linguistic failure. In this failure, Choi complicates the status of language as given, showing how it can at once substantiate ideas that spark warfare and be dislocated in order to reconsider the terms it creates.
For instance, in one multimedia poem, Choi appropriates an American military propagandist poster and overlays it with a revised, experimental narrative of her own. The US military used the US Forest Service’s informational Smokey Bear poster — which typically reads, “Only you can prevent a forest fire,” but was adjusted to “PLEASE! Only you can prevent a forest” — to encourage the use of herbicide to destroy forests and rice fields that inhibited the mobility of the US military in Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia. In all, 20 million gallons of herbicide were sprayed during Operation Ranch Hand.
On top of this poster, Choi begins with the phrase “One day the soldiers discovered,” evoking a timeless story and establishing a playful tone. She writes, “Why, the wide and narrow leaves of grass, bamboo, and banana got in the way,” and “After all, there is a precedent for spraying,” and “Needless to say, this splendid option.” Her casual language ironizes the gravity of the topic at hand. Toward the end of this piece, Choi harnesses the propagandist injunction (“PLEASE!”) for herself, pleading — even daring — the military to spray her “button eyes,” “button nose,” “adorable snout,” and “furry ears,” imagining the deformation of her body as a process of infantilization that eerily resembles the facile image of their mascot.
South Korean poet Kim Hyesoon, whom Choi translates and greatly admires, has stated that our bodies are “a theater where cultural symbols or suppressed symbols play.” This, of course, holds particular relevance to bodies living in wartime: they can be marked by bullets, napalm, atomic bombs… Hardly War is riddled with such figures: “O fetus in the split womb / O cut off the baby cord / O war-breasts cut out and woman shot by ROK members / O US marines transport her to the hospital but she died soon / O war-executed young women’s bodies.”
In yet another section, Choi transcribes voice-over from two British Pathé newsreel clips about the use of a “secret new wonder bomb,” the Tarzon, which was secretly tested in the United States and eventually used against “the underwater structure of a dam vital to the Reds” in Korea. It was heralded as likely the “world’s most terrifying weapon.” Choi’s “The Tarzon’s Guide to History” borrows tidbits of this language but, recalling Stein, completely rearranges and de-familiarizes it, dispersing its meaning.
The original reads: “[The Tarzon] is dropped over a hush-hush testing ground.” But she writes, “Like fried potato chips — I believe so, ut- / terly so-the hush-hush proving ground was utterly proven as history — Hardly=History — I believe so, eerily so — hush, hush — now watch this performance.” And by adding “it’s Germany — yes, ma’am — it’s Southern England — follow the line — it’s the United States,” Choi challenges the location of the bomb’s actual use, again frustrating the narration’s ability to settle, while alluding to the fact that it could be anywhere. This “wonder bomb” has an “almost human understanding” and seeks out the underground target “as if guided by some invisible hand.” The “fried” bodies in its wake are “a good sight” because that, after all, was the plan.
While imperial history relishes mythmaking and triumphalism at the expense of the human and psychological costs of war, Choi revels in history’s untold spaces. In doing so, she accomplishes a critique of US — and by implication, Korean — imperialism.
In “Shitty Kitty”:
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)
$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=$7.5 million
or Tay Vinh massacre=$7.5 million
or Vinh Xuan massacre=$7.5 million
or Mighty History?
Here, Choi highlights the infectious, incestuous nature of imperialism: although Korea was subjected to US imperialism — and before that, Japanese — during the occupation following World War II, Park Chung Hee agreed to provide South Korean soldiers for the the Vietnam War in exchange for approximately one billion dollars. Whose history, then, are these massacres? Who gets to write, or erase, this history? Hardly War uses memory and fragmentary narrative to disobey history. Choi creates a new vernacular that may finally reveal the “buttons on History’s blouse.”
Lizzie Tribone is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. This review originally appeared in BOMB.