Joanna Cho introduces an excerpt from her debut poetry collection, People Person.
The earliest stories I remember are the folk tales Mum told us when we were kids, so I called her and asked her to retell them, but when I rewrote them they were flat. And then I felt there needed to be more context to Mum’s story, but I was hesitant to reveal too much, wasn’t sure if I could respectfully write my version of something that affected my parents, and was beyond me. At first I was reluctant to ask too many questions, dreading the weight it would put on me and Mum, even though I hoped it would make us lighter afterwards.
A year passed. It was nearing the print date and I was second guessing it all. Why had I written something so personal? Why was I sticking Mum in the spotlight? I often thought of Mum’s swan pillow, which I’d already written into the final essay of the book. How I felt when I first saw it is sort of a perfect articulation of my feelings towards her. I was beginning to feel assured of my place in the narrative.
I went to the library and found two books of traditional Korean folk tales translated into English. I’d already been picturing her as a mythical swan maiden, and I’d already written a poem featuring a scene where I see something out the window. I read up on Confucianism and Korean folklore on the internet. Mum was coming to visit and I decided to face things, but I wanted to be subtle and gentle. I wanted to honour her, but I wanted to be honest about my experiences too. That was my biggest dilemma and challenge while writing the book.
Are we there yet?
Back when tigers smoked from long pipes, there lived the Moon family. 문. It means “person who writes”. The parents, four children and maid lived in a hanok built from wooden bones, with straw and dirt walls, and paper sliding doors. A dried tortoise shell hung from the wall of the main room. Outside were rows of yellow corn, a clay vessel of kimchi as tall as the oldest child, and the mountains.
One day the maid was picking purple plums when she caught sight of something white. It was the shape of a teardrop, the size of her palm. Thinking it to be a misshapen and discoloured stump of ginseng, she put it in her apron pocket and decided to add it to dinner for the lady of the house – she was ill and so required a separate meal.
The maid diced the pretty thing and stirred it into the sticky juk. She took the tray of food and tea to the lady of the house, who was sitting upright in bed, the colourful quilt folded neatly over her stomach. It took only one spoonful of the rice porridge to have her retching.
She dreamt feverishly that night. The full moon beating.
Close up. White wings sweeping dark water. Wedding gown trails on black marble. They move slowly, heavily, like pushing a roundabout in an empty playground, the carousel movement of deep breathing.
Lean out. A swan with a human face, wailing, scrunched up and blotchy, yellow snot dribbling into the water.
Wide shot. The swan is in a rice bowl. Above it is a giant human hand holding chopsticks.
The baby was named Hukyung. 후경. It means ‘thick marble’. Moon Hukyung; 문후경. She was the princess to everyone but her mother. There was a street between them where the shadow of power lines offered the illusion of hope, but really, they were far too loose to trapeze across.
Her mother was beautiful. Every morning and night she applied thick creams to her face, neck and décolletage. She would change several times before leaving the house, leaving a trail of clothes behind, and her kind husband would pick them up one by one, sighing, “Just like a butterfly leaving its chrysalis.”
The family ate with silver chopsticks, which were inscribed in Hanja. Red for women, blue for men; the different characters denoting status.
Hukyung was a happy child and when she grew into a young woman she was one of the 3% of women in South Korea who attended university. She studied art. She won competitions and had good friends, and men lined up to date her. In the mirror she saw a buzzcut, red singlet, a miniskirt shipped in from America. In the evenings she sneaked out, went ice skating.
It was around this time that she began turning into a swan. It only happened at night, and it was when the moon was at its highest. It began at her fingertips and scaled back, like rubbing suede the other way. Then she was in a trance and she used her whole being – orange beak, webbed feet, wings – to paint, turning herself into new colours and shapes. The painting happened slowly, intuitively, her glassy eyes feeling textures and spaces. She painted until she fell asleep, whereupon her body turned back into a human form, her long neck curling down to her chest.
In the mornings she looked at what she’d done and saw that she was evolving.
And then one day, she met a man who had dreams of moving to a new land where everyone was freer. He said the water was so fresh you could drink from the rivers and lakes, and the soil was so fertile anything grew.
At night you could see the stars. He was from a poor family and Hukyung’s family disapproved at first, but he was quick-witted and the life of the party, and soon he won their hearts.
Eager to play with new pigments, she drew close to him. He said, “Don’t tell me any secrets. Whatever you can keep to yourself, do so.” That was the first clue. But they married and once they’d had three children, they decided to move. The idea was so beautiful that Hukyung could hardly contain the whirring of her muscles.
When they arrived she clapped her hands to her heart. The sky was so blue and wide, the air so fresh and fragrant. The ocean was near, and the hills, layered like rice cakes, were soft and delicious . . .
but they got used to it, and at home, before they moved, it had been black socks in a tub, and now again the soiled water overfilled and seeped through the house. She would hang the socks to dry but they would curl in like prodded beetles. She would darn the socks but every stitch undid another. She spent her days indoors, she was hardly allowed outdoors . . .
but when she could she swam and flew, her body collecting colours, dripping in pear tree green, east coast blue, kōwhai yellow to smear across a new canvas. She took her kids to the beach, made tiered cakes from sand, cored apples, told them folk tales . . .
until one day she fell deep into her trance and stayed longer and longer in her swan-state. The painting was clotted, the layers thick as blood. She had painted herself into her imagination. One side of her face was stuck, as were her splayed wings and stretched legs. All she could move was one eyeball: left, right, up, down.
Her children saw her absence as a migraine aura. The father had gone too, but the seasons took them under their circular arms. Rubbish trucks came and went, came and went.
Filial piety is a virtue of respecting and obeying and being devoted to one’s elders. It is the basis of moral conduct and social harmony.
In the end, kindness is rewarded or at the very least, remembered.
Those who once appeared clever are unmasked, the wind blows.
Do not be impressed by strong personalities, do not be fooled by the gloss of grandeur.
It takes time for the moral of the story to reveal itself.
One day, her youngest daughter was stopped in the street by a kea. It handed her something that looked like a big white seed, then flew away.
The daughter put the seed in her pocket and ambled home in the sunset. She began feeling something but was unable to articulate it. It grew in her – a moonbeam.
That night, when her flatmates were asleep, she ate the seed. It tasted like an old memory. She walked slowly around the house, waiting. At first there was nothing. She paced back and forth, bare feet cold on wood, and then she walked past a window and what she saw was unsurprising. It was clear.