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Translating Mo'Um Paperback – March 1, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
In 27 rough, yet tightly focused lyrics and narratives, Cathy Park Hong is Translating Mo'um i.e., interpreting for mom, that bane of the first generation, yet also bringing her into her own work. A Korean-American from Los Angeles and Brooklyn now attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Hong effortlessly reduces stereotypes to phonetic rubble: "Korean characters, like stiff phonetic Legos, wait to join with one another while St. Jerome writes with his single eyelash quill in his painfully exact studio." Whether issuing an "Assiduous Rant" or exploring the multilingual possibilities of forms of "Androgenous Pronoun," Hong delivers "the hissing world, cold rain, and a tale that burned in its preamble."
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Technically, Hong demonstrates quite a palette. Almost nothing she writes escapes a surreal twist: "I grew a petri dish of princes, all replicating and jostling each oher for my hand" "winds / sprouted like weeds, while we sucked juice / from matronly oranges" "never the opaque doll but the battery that ran it" "We barely knew each other yet he confessed to me until his face clattered off like a hubcap." She's capable of a fluid music as well: "Palpitation, cyst, polyp: skin licked, / tongue pioneers among topographic pulp."
I could find no moment that threatened sentimentality, although many times I was left without an emotional response to the material - just a cerebral appreciation of her syntactic or imagistic manipulation. One weakness of the book it its occasional thematic monotony; I grew tired of reading about the men she'd slept with or who were attracted to her because of her ethnicity, as well as to sex words thrown in not so much as equals to their contextual elements (which would strip their taboos and return them to the everyday) as strategies to shock.
There is much to recommend this book: her lyricism is not abstruse, her autobiography not staid or precious, her metaphors fresh, and her control of language admirable.
Often, with so called Asian American literature, the critics opt for the easy reading, proclaim the text to be about "maintaining one's traditions," and "identity," then close the book. Mission accomplished. True, the book deals with these issues, and to a reader who fails to take a closer look, Translating Mo'um might seem familiar, monotonous, droning.
Instead of the either/or (either exclusively Asian or American) or the indefensibly simple-minded Asian + American = Asian American (yay!) perspectives, Ms. Hong writes from the Neither/Nor stance, neither Asian nor so-called American.
Here, there is always something lost in translation, in that "labor of crossing." Ms. Hong writes from that negative space in between. Note the epigraph by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: "She mimics the speaking. That might resemble speech." That loss of agency where "the word / speaks / without you"
Before this turns into an academic paper, I'll just mention the book's preoccupation with the grotesque body, "...a body in the act of becoming." The quote is Bakhtin's and the idea is a keystone figure. To talk about desire in this book is to talk about the grotesque, and vice versa, which generates the nexus from which Ms. Hong discusses sexual repression, image control, and considers the question of where the power of speech as an act resides. Who decides what is grotesque, exotic, impossible, or desirable, and by what means?
As the context of Asian American life changes, so does the conditions of its problems. Though difficult at times, Ms. Hong's work finds a language with which one can begin to speak about that which has not been allowed to exist in a whole form: the Asian American; the Korean American female.
An excellent first book.