Ryan Lee Wong on the Inextricability of Language and Activism

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At the beginning of Ryan Lee Wong’s debut novel, Which Side Are You On, our narrator Reed wants to drop out of his Ivy League college to become a full-time activist in New York City’s Black Lives Matter movement. On a visit back to his parents in L.A., he goes to his mother for her advice—and is surprised by what he discovers. Which Side Are You On is a portrait of the activist as a young man, a coming-of-age story with activism at its center; it is both a biting satire of contemporary politics and a poignant family drama. As a novelist, Wong draws upon a wealth of resources—from his experiences as an activist and research into Asian American movements to his own family history, which includes his mother’s work with Black-Korean coalitions in the 1980s. I had the opportunity to connect with Wong over the phone, where we chatted about the role of pleasure in activism, the state of Asian America, and why nobody walks in L.A.

Jaeyeon Yoo: Where did this novel begin? 

Ryan Lee Wong: The story came first. I wanted to tell a story based on my experiences and the activist’s role during the time of the first Black Lives Matter movement, and to also tell something based on my mother’s life story around Black-Korean organizing in the 1980s. I wanted to focus on the cycle of history that those two moments represented. I knew that fiction was the outlet because of how emotional and personal the topic was—and how, even though it involves politics and history, the heart of the story to me was ambiguous in a way that I felt only fiction could capture. I really learned to write fiction in order to write this book.

I tried a few different versions of the story, some of which were much more focused on the character of the mother. One version was even set in the 1980s, which was much more traditional historical fiction. But then, I also wanted the book to be about an activist’s coming-of-age. A certain turn that I made, and I think a lot of activists make, is from seeing the world in very stark, unforgiving terms to allowing a little more ambiguity and compassion, more of a heart-connection to the work and to other people. This turn is why Reed started to become a major part of the story.

JY: I know your other work also includes curating exhibitions which share clear themes of Asian American activism. Could you talk more about how your artistic practices interact with one another? 

RLW: In a way, all my work is a form of self-discovery—of finding the histories that shaped me. With my curatorial and archival work, I explored this question of “What is Asian America?” Asian American is the term that I most identify with; yet, even 10 years ago, the kind of collective understanding of Asian America had been stripped away of its political roots. Most of the people I talked to, myself included, didn’t really know this story of radical Asian America, or Asian American activist history—which quite literally gave us the term “Asian America.” Just as this book was a way for me to tell the story of a personal and political activist history, my curatorial work was a way for me to tell the story of the bigger political formations that made me.

JY: What does being Asian American mean to you, then? 

RLW: That’s a question I’m always asking and I’ll always be asking. I think that if there’s one simple answer on what Asian America “is,” there’s something missing. For me, Asian America only makes sense in terms of a political identity. It doesn’t mean anything unifying in terms of culture or language; it really was a term chosen by a group of activists. I take that as an invitation to re-examine the identity again and again, in each historical moment. The political situation now mirrors what was happening in 1968, but it’s obviously not the same. Asian America is a living, breathing legacy.

JY: You gesture to clear historical and political influences within the novel; what were some major aesthetic influences for Which Side Are You On? 

RLW: I kind of came into this whole lineage of these Jewish leftist women writers. I think that might be because there are many parallels between the way Jewish folks were radicalized in the 50s through the 70s, and then how Asian Americans came into political consciousness in the 60s to the 80s. So I was reading people like Vivian Gornick, Natalia Ginzburg, Grace Paley. Then, as a Korean American with a mother who came over from Korea as a teenager in the early 70s, I was interested in how to capture that unique kind of voice. My mother went to Berkeley, then quickly picked up this mix of Marxist language, Black vernacular, and activist college students’ speech—alongside a Korean accent and a whole lot of cussing. A lot of these characters in Grace Paley’s stories, for example, were mixing Yiddish and Bronx socialist language, and they’re really smart, really funny. That was one aesthetic lineage. Another aesthetic interest were these quiet first-person stories, like Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, in which the action happens over a matter of days. I found it an interesting formal device. I’ve always found it fascinating, how my experience of learning about historical trauma almost always happens in these very middle-class settings. We’ll be driving a car and someone will say, “Oh, you know what happened with your auntie and her first husband?” That was just true to my experience, so that’s why I had to leave behind the more traditional, third-person historical way of telling things.

JY: You mentioned the funniness in some of these voices—I really enjoyed the humor in your novel. Reed realizes the importance of fun, particularly within activism, during the course of the novel; I wonder if you had more to say about the role of pleasure within revolution. 

RLW: We’re in this exciting moment where ideas like pleasure and self-care and joy have really entered the toolkit of activism. For examples, Rebecca Solnit just wrote Orwell’s Roses, and adrienne marie brown’s Pleasure Activism. Most frontline activist work is incredibly hard. It’s hard on the mind, it’s hard on the emotions and the body. Ten years ago, I definitely valorized people who were good at enduring difficulty. It was something that I aspired to, but this can (although not always) turn into a sort of martyrdom complex of valorizing the people who suffer the most. In the novel, one of the main lessons the mother learned from her intense experiences in activism, was that level of difficulty is not something you can face over and over again for years—and come out okay.

JY: How about happiness? Does it play a similar role that pleasure does in revolution, or is it something a little different? 

RLW: This is where the activist conversation gets mixed in with the diaspora conversation. There’s a fine line between pursuing happiness and receiving joy, and those things can get very mixed up very quickly. I think pursuing happiness can become this individualistic, materialistic, capitalistic gain: a kind of consumerist adoption of the American Dream. This is something that I see as a pattern in my family and many other immigrant families, where part of the whole reason for coming to America becomes the accumulation of material comfort, which becomes a way of proving one’s happiness. In the novel, even as I want to show the mother’s wisdom in learning to care for herself and accepting fun and joy, I think there’s also a bigger conversation of when that tips a little bit into materialism. A lot of the conversations between the three generations—the grandmother, the mother, and Reed—are about trying to navigate these remarkably different subject positions; each of them has a completely different idea, on the right balance between joy and self-denial, aestheticism and materialism. The grandmother is the most materialistic of the three and maybe also had the most painful life. Reed keeps wanting to slot people into these categories—this person either understands or they don’t—but the more he learns about his grandmother, the more it complicates his desire to do that, because her life story is so outside of his ability to comprehend.

JY: It sounds like you worked a lot from your mother’s stories as you wrote the novel. I appreciated the line you walked in the novel, of showcasing how Reed’s desire to learn from his parents’ activism has this dual aspect: one is of “commercializing” (the social capital, if you will, such as how he first kept thinking of ways to package his mother’s stories), the other is a genuine need to learn from one’s history. How do you deal with this tension, of writing about something and also feeling the pressure of “marketing” it? 

RLW: That’s so real. I think it comes down to a question of intention. On the one hand, Reed has a real personal desire to learn his mother’s story and to make sense of his own life. At the same time, there’s this other part of him that’s watching and seeing how he can turn this into a toolkit that he can share with his activist friends. Of course, this is a metaphor for the writer’s dilemma: this desire to transform everything in your life, especially the painful things, into our way of making meaning of it, making it legible to yourself and others. Potentially, it can even turn that art into something commercial. Reed has to struggle with there being no perfect ethical way to navigate this, as does the writer.

Reed’s intentions, in the beginning, are a little unskillful. He’s trying to extract his idea of the right story. And if that is one’s intention, then it’s going to lead to people getting hurt and betrayed. But I think the more he’s able to be receptive and feel the full complexity of heartache and failure and joy—the more that complexity will lead him to the right answer. Similarly, by publishing this book, what I really aspire to is to let the reader have their own takeaways and their own conclusions. To be perfectly candid, when I started writing this book in about 2016, I definitely wanted the reader to agree with me. I had a very particular viewpoint—in that sense, I was much more like Reed.

JY: On a sort of meta level, your author’s journey mirrored Reed’s! I was interested by the linguistic trends that you point out in the novel, such as how Reed and his mother have different activist “dialects.” What, for you, is the role of language within these waves of varying activist cultures? 

RLW: When you look at many activist movements, if not most, poetry is almost always in the mix, whether it’s activist leaders reading poetry or activists writing poetry. Poetry is essentially the creation of new language, or new formations of language, to name things that haven’t been. That’s very similar to activism, which is often trying to bring visibility to or to change things that haven’t yet been named. In that sense, language and activism are inseparable. They’re almost two expressions of one thing. And that’s why—especially now—movements are synonymous with their language: Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the 99%. It’s because we need that language to help us make sense of the world. I’m a Zen practitioner, and there’s this quotation from Zen teachers, which goes something like, “Birds live in the air, fish live in the water, and humans live in language.” Language is the substance of our lives, and activism is a way to reform that language, to help us see the possibilities. There are a lot of jokes about activist language in the book, but it’s because every generation has to find its own language. One generation’s language will probably sound a little strange or foreign or funny to another generations, which is actually appropriate, because it is a different language and different political moment.

JY: You’ve mentioned the emphasis on conversations and the timeline—were there other specific like formalistic choices that you made, to heighten the themes of what you’re trying to do in this book? 

RLW: I’ve always admired novels that are built on the flaneur tradition—of someone walking around, often men, in public spaces. There’s a whole joke in the novel about Ulysses and James Joyce. Part of the reason that’s in there is because I realized that Ulysses couldn’t happen in L.A.—no one walks there! I don’t know if you’ve spent much time in L.A., but if you walk for any long stretch of time, people look at you weird, you feel weird, and the sidewalks are so empty. You’re on these big streets that are pedestrian-unfriendly under the sun. It just feels like you’re doing this insane desert crossing. So my question to myself was, How do you have a character struggling with ideas and conversations, with minimal external action in this car-driven culture? That’s why there’s so much about cars, meeting up in cars, and these really weird in-between spaces that are particular to L.A., like the strip mall. There’s a lot of time spent in parking lots in the novel, because that is where life happens in L.A. This was my response to the flaneur tradition.

JY: Yeah, I appreciated the James Joyce reference, especially Reed’s reflection: “Maybe, though, I’d turned that fight [against white authors] into a sort of laziness. I was used to saying damning about the great white canon and everyone else in the room nodding, whether or not I or they had read it.” In that vein: how do you engage with the canon? How do we build on other works of art that already exist, without lazily condemning everything? 

RLW: Around the time I started this book, I did this little experiment where, for a whole year, I only read books by writers of color. It was extremely useful because it helped me reorient my entire idea of literature. Here was the thing: I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. And then, what happened after that experiment? I was able to go back and really ask the question: What would it mean to read one of these great writers in the canon? What was great was that I was able to see them not as enemies or people on some pedestal, but as resources. These writers are often people who had the privilege to sit there, to really think through and play with questions and form—in a way that I could learn from. One summer, I read the first two books of Proust in this way, and it was great. This dude really played with sentences all day. If I could learn from the way one’s interiority might be shaped by that kind of experience, I could sidestep the whole question of Is this the best thing ever written? Or is it just some oppressive, self-indulgent white man? Those questions seemed less relevant, when I was just really reading to learn.

JY: That’s really helpful. Your novel does embrace ambiguity, as we discussed, but I guess I’m going to be a little bit like Reed and ask, for the final question: do you have any advice for aspiring activists? Anything you didn’t get to say in the novel? 

RLW: This is something that’s maybe not explicit in the novel, but self-knowledge is the key to activism for me. Activist figures that I really resonate with and admire the most were effective and inspiring because they had done an immense amount of inner, quiet, and reflective work to understand their particular role in history and their community. If you don’t have that kind of self-knowledge, you quickly spiral into the very neurotic position of “Oh well, the world is burning, and do I focus on the environment? Or focus on abortion rights, or on racial oppression?” And then this spiral makes people freeze. But more people understand their particular seats and the greater picture, they understand where to act from.

The Ecstatic Excess of Translation: The Millions Interviews Soje

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Created in 2019 by Soje, a Korean-English translator and poet, chogwa is a quarterly, public-access e-zine that takes its name from the Korean word for “excess.” Like its title suggests, chogwa takes great joy in excess, of going beyond singularity. The zine’s format is what initially caught my attention: chogwa presents one Korean poem in hangul (the Korean alphabet) and an editor’s preface in English contextualizing the poem; then, it presents varying English translations of the poem from at least ten Korean-English translators, stitched together by Soje’s editorial commentary on each translation. chogwa released a special print issue in December 2021, an anthology that drew together a community of translators, writers, and readers.

As a reader that stumbled upon chogwa accidentally, I was struck by Soje’s illuminating yet down-to-earth commentary, which tackles everything from the ins-and-outs of Korean honorifics to overweight baggage fees. Soje’s tone brims with warmth and playful insight, and is sprinkled with the occasional emoji. It’s like reading translations with a very smart and funny and open-hearted friend, who’s right at your shoulder (or in the zine margins, in this case). “When there’s one, it has to be everything,” states Soje; in chogwa, translations are allowed the space to play around. What then makes chogwa stand out for me is how its pluralistic approach to translation allows each translator to interact with, diverge from, and form a community with one another. Soje and I connected over Zoom, where we chatted about translation and intimacy, the economic precarity of translators, queer theory, and commentary as an act of care.

Jaeyeon Yoo: You’ve cited what you call the “burden of singularity” as one reason to found chogwa, and how the community of contributors that chogwa has gathered has helped alleviate that burden. What roles do loneliness and connection play in your translating practices?

Soje: A lot of writers talk about being lonely children who find solace in books, right? I read a lot as a shy, traumatized immigrant kid and would feel a kind of affinity with the characters in the stories, or with the people who created those characters. I’d always had that kind of spiritual relationship, but when I started translating and eventually started meeting authors, it went to another level. It became so much more intensified; many people have said this, but the translator, in many ways, is the most intimate reader. It’s a kind of erotic bond, in the sense that there is an exchange of power and attention being given.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has also written about the erotic submission of translation. For my college thesis, I looked at Spivak and Audre Lorde—you know Lorde’s essay, “Uses of the Erotic”? I brought Spivak and Lorde together to make a point about that exchange of power in translation, how it’s a process of trust and respect. And the more that I talk about translation, the more BDSM I get in language! But I think it’s apt because for a good BDSM relationship and a good translator-author relationship, a sense of trust is so crucial—and also a sense of play, which we’ll get to. I really tap into a kind of new interpersonal, human relationship through translation. I don’t think the author-translator relationship can replace a romantic relationship or a friendship; it’s just its own category. Translating has relieved a lot of the angst that I felt in earlier years of feeling lonely and isolated.

JY: Translation can function as a bond of power, but also can simultaneously be an act of care, right? I feel like there’s a lot of care in your commentary in chogwa that comes through, a warmth which goes beyond just tying the zine together. I’m struck by how you curate every single translation in chogwa, and how curating is often an act of deep care and attention.

S: I was amazed at how people showed up for a zine that was run by basically a nobody! I realized then that the commentary is what I can offer to translators, because they—especially emerging ones—probably feel like they’re shouting into the void, and I wanted to be a kind of echo. To remind them that they’re not alone in this endeavor. And that’s the importance of community and care for me.I get extremely nervous, even now, about hosting chogwa gatherings, but the payoff is always so great. At the first in-person gathering, after the launch of the second issue, everyone was so adorable and earnest and enthusiastic about poetry in this unpretentious way. That’s when I knew this was something special. People are connecting not only with me but with each other. We have a Slack, where people message one another and share compliments and post job opportunities. That’s been the most incredible thing: that these relationships that come out of translation. I get to talk to people about things that I’m interested in! I think that’s the greatest joy, and that’s why I keep doing it. The pay is terrible, the hours are terrible. But these life-affirming relationships keep happening.

JY: In that vein of community-building, you write beautifully about the presence of queer literature in your essay, “사람들은 역시 야한 것을 좋아하니까.” Could you speak more about your call there for solidarity within queer literature (“퀴어문학을 위한 연대”)? Fellow translator and chogwa contributor Anton Hur has similarly highlighted a conscious group effort to decolonize and queer Korean literature in Anglophone translation. I’ve been thrilled to discover all these cool translators working together and wondered, how did this group come about?

S: As a queer Korean American person at UC Berkeley, I was concerned about the experience of being a non-binary, queer person in Seoul. I was literally searching “queer Korean literature” on Google, every iteration of “queer” and “Korea.” There was this essay by Anton Hur called “The Lunar Sorority” and the first sentence is: “Insofar as a translator can be ‘well-known,’ I am not the most well-known gay translator of Korean literature.” And I’m like, “What? There’s not one, but many?!” It was of course my Korean American naivete; I admit to being ignorant, because the version of Korea that I was exposed to, as a Korean American, was through my parents and my extended family. I had this very sanitized idea of what “Korea” means. I consumed pop culture, but for the most part, I was consuming the very mainstream culture exports of Korea. So I had a very heterosexual view of Korea—until I started reading more Korean literature.

“The Lunar Sorority” is a very touching essay, and I shared it on Facebook. That spring, I had met Korean-English translator Sophie Bowman through a week-long Korean translation workshop at Berkeley. She saw that I’d shared Anton’s essay and introduced me to Anton when I flew over to Seoul. The first time I met him, it was August and we were eating 양꼬치 [meat skewers] over open flame, and obviously I was sweating. I really don’t know what he saw in this sweaty 23 year old, but he asked, “We’re about to start a translator’s collective, do you want to join?” And me, I was like, “Moi? Me with no translation credits?” He took me very seriously. To this day, it confounds me.

The group that Anton invited me to became the Smoking Tigers. Pre-COVID, we used to meet in cafes and have workshops. They were like creative workshops, but with translations, where we’d bring in our manuscripts and give one other feedback, get into arguments about how to translate something. Afterwards, we’d complain about publishing culture and how “so-and-so won’t give me the rights”—a lot of communal venting and problem solving. There was a lot of learning, especially for me, because I was so new to everything. But even within the Smoking Tigers, I was the only person who mainly did poetry instead of novels, and that’s the kind of loneliness I mentioned in chogwa. I had the best mentors I could ask for, but I also wanted more 시토크, poetry gab. That’s how I started getting the idea for chogwa, but it took me a while to gain the courage to put it together.

Cover art for chogwa Issue 11, by Gyunghwa Roh

JY: Can you say more about the publishing industry and translation’s status within it?

S: With each passing year, I continually realize that the publishing industry is a business. Part of making profits is cutting costs, and for whatever reason, most of the time that falls on the translator—particularly for poetry. The percentage of translated books in the U.S. book market is still very, very small. And the market for translated poetry is even smaller. I really do not get a lot of money translating poetry. I’m surviving off various grants I’ve gotten in relation to translation. I’m excited to be working on an upcoming poetry anthology with multiple translators that pays very well, and to shepherd all my chogwa friends into better working conditions in that way.

JY: You write, “I knew that the existence of other translations would… dare us to be a little cheekier.” I think of playful exuberance and taking pleasure in translation as two of my favorite characteristics of chogwa. Why are qualities like playfulness and cheekiness important to you, as a translator?

S: The term 장난꾸러기, or 장꾸 [janggu] comes to mind—someone who likes mischief and play! I consider myself a janggu. I love teasing; I like levity and mischief. I think that extends to my work as well. I don’t like heaviness or pretentiousness, especially for myself. I like being a fool and the idea that nothing is set in stone. Another initial metaphor for chogwa is a sandbox, the kind that children play in. The thing with sandboxes is that you can build little castles and make things, but it’s not marble, nothing is permanent. You can always build something back, and that’s the fun of it. You can leave the sandbox, and make something again when you come back to it. I like the option of renewal and do-overs, repair.

If we want to talk theory—there’s this great quote by Joseph Litvak [as reprinted in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction]: “a lot of queer energy, later on, goes into… practices aimed at taking the terror out of error, at making the making of mistakes sexy, creative, even cognitively powerful. Doesn’t reading queer mean learning, among other things, that mistakes can be good rather than bad surprises?” That kind of blew my mind, especially as an undergrad who was terrified of making mistakes. When translation is involved, I’m translating something that I deeply respect and admire, so I don’t want to fuck up. That’s at the core of everything.

But with chogwa, it’s different. Even if one person makes a “mistake,” it’s in the context of all of these other translations. That’s part of what I mean about the burden of singularity. It’s not that we get to be careless. It allows for different perspectives without damaging the source. There are translators who think much more liberally than I do about this; I’m not considered a liberal translator. I do want to carry the “essence,” whatever that means, and maybe part of it’s because I have a close relationship with my poets. It’s one thing to read their work and another to get drinks with them, to hear their speaking voice. These unrelated conversations can help me understand, “Oh now I get why she uses this particular word in that poem.”

I’m still very concerned about misrepresenting someone. But I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea of suggesting things to them. Now, I will also take the time to explain my choices back to the poets, to see what they think. I don’t really do that for the novels I translate, but a poem can be read in so many different ways. And that’s the purpose of poetry, right? To have these multi-layered meanings of language. I will give my poets the English version, but because a lot of them don’t really read English, I will translate my translation back into Korean. And that’s been a really interesting exercise, it shows what I’ve highlighted, what’s been gained and what’s lost.

JY: It seems like you have a very similar attitude towards your literary translation that you do in chogwa, this idea of dialogue and exchange.

S: Yes, but an exchange that’s really non-transactional. There’s a word I’m thinking of—communion? Let’s see, the definition of communion is: “the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level.” So, yeah, it’s a communion of sorts. Very—how to say, maybe related to ecstasy, too, because ecstasy is both a religious and sexual/drug-related concept. Queer theorist José Muñoz writes about ecstasy, right?

JY: Yup, on the Magnetic Fields’ “Take Ecstasy With Me”! Great song.

S: Exactly, and he does a great reading of it in the epilogue to his book Cruising Utopia. It’s that kind of ecstatic communion that I experience, where I am outside of myself but, at the same time, I’m not? Every translated word I put down is filtered through me, so there’s no word that is not mine. But there’s still this sense of communal ecstasy. I love Muñoz because his writing is so sexy, and he’s clearly having such fun with it! Maybe that’s the ecstatic energy in chogwa.

JY: There’s also a potential pun there with chogwa’s name. Excess? Excess-tatic? We began this conversation by talking about your intimate relationship with the author, which ties in nicely with this idea of translation as ecstatic communion and chogwa as an example of that shared space.

S: But at the same time, I’m also very deeply cynical. Humans are messy, and it’s easy to idealize collectives and artists. I mention this because, throughout history, the writing groups and literary friendships that have been highlighted are usually masculine spaces—famous male writers hanging out, degrading women, being racist, et cetera. But then it gets idealized, framed as“philosophical.” So I just want to say that there are also problems within and around the communities I’m a part of. There are conflicts, because we’re humans with emotions. I don’t want to make it sound like there’s this utopic quality to it. I think what’s great about chogwa is that people are actively working to bring a certain pure energy into the space. Everyone is earnest, and it makes it so much easier to be earnest in return because you’re not afraid.

JY: I think that’s a really good clarification. And I guess I should clarify, on my behalf, I think there’s the reality of people disagreeing and conflict, and there’s the space that the artwork itself opens up. There’s a distinction, I think. It’s important to not idealize people or groups, but there’s also an artistic energy to chogwa, the zine itself, that’s very exciting and fresh.

S: This reminds me of something the poet Claire Schwartz said in a tweet: “I don’t understand the implications that aggression is inherently more rigorous than praise, when it’s obvious how much in this world is stacked against loving well.” In my commentary-making, I try to go beyond what’s just there in the text, and I try to think about why they might have made that choice. It makes me, in this process of empathizing with the translator, a much more imaginative person. I’m not trying to say this process has made me kinder, more that it’s benefited me by expanding how I think about translation. That’s why I’m so grateful to chogwa’s contributors, because it’s been an incredible educational experience for me. If translation is the most intimate act of reading, then I’m very intimately reading the intimate reading. There’s this sense of, Wow, I really feel something, I’m really connecting with you on some level. It’s not that I like every single translation or that it’s to my “taste”—because taste is very subjective—but it’s just this process of trying to love well, as Claire said. Trying to love someone or something well, on their own terms, while not saying it’s just “perfect,” here are the ways that this can be appreciated. Calling something perfect—you’re not engaging with it.