The Statue of Peace Plaza Committee (SOPPC) is an Asian American and female-driven project to build a monument in Philadelphia that commemorates the victims of the sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII. The first survivor to break the silence, Kim Hak-soon gave her testimony on August 14, 1991 and the SOPPC commissioned poets Michelle Myers and Yolanda Wisher to create poems in her memory.
I’m very honored to be part of this project, “The World After You Spoke,” commemorating the 30th anniversary of Kim Hak-soon’s public testimony about being forced into sexual slavery as a young girl by the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII. The project was funded by The Korean Council, and the poetry/performances created were commissioned by the Statue of Peace Plaza Committee (SOPPC) in Philadelphia. I’m also grateful that I shared the stage with the amazing Yolanda Wisher, whose beautiful and deeply moving poem for this project, titled “the fish woman & other poems,” had me in tears.
As with most of my writing nowadays, the poems for this project became about my Mom. So much of what I know about being Korean I gained from her stories—her particular Pathos and Ethos. Her pain. Her suffering. In my memories of my Mom, she embodies the Korean idea of Han, a feeling of profound sorrow or grief underpinned by anger that cycles among the collective unconscious of Korean people. Over the years, I have wondered if I’ve inherited Han through intergenerational trauma. Or if I’ve experienced my own trauma, as a biracial Korean American, can my sorrow even be considered Han?
While writing and planning for this performance, Yolanda and I were asked to consider the following themes: 1) The process of an experience becoming words/testimony, 2) The world before and after telling the truth, and 3) How to define peace and imagine its path in the face of violence. I chose to try capturing my thoughts/feelings about these topics through stream-of-consciousness. What came out was more of a prose poem. Eventually, this evolved into the second piece in my performance, “Our Poetry in Stealth Mode.” As I practiced reading the poem aloud and envisioned performing it, I felt like I needed an emotional catapult into the piece in order for me to be able to perform it the way that saw and heard it in my head. I decided to use one of my old spoken word poems, “She Flight,” as the entry point to where I wanted to be emotionally as I began performing “Our Poetry in Stealth Mode.” But when I recited both poems back-to-back, I felt like I needed something else to create a bridge between the two poems. That’s when I decided to sing “Arirang” as that bridge.
All roads lead back to my Mom. As I practiced singing, I remembered when my Mom first taught me how to sing “Arirang.” I was in college, and I had joined a student club—the Asian Student Association. Most of the other people in the club were Filipino, but there was one other Korean student in the club: Anna. Or at least that’s the name she used. She was an international student from Korea. For our end-of-semester Culture Show, Anna wanted us to wear Hanboks and sing “Arirang”—the lone Koreans among the tinikling and other Filipino cultural arts. But I didn’t know how to sing “Arirang.” So I asked my Mom to teach the song to me.
I’ll never forget sitting on the living room floor at my parents’ house, putting a blank cassette tape in my boom box, and watching/listening to my Mom sing “Arirang” as I recorded her. Of course, she didn’t just sing the song; she also told stories. Stories about the old people she remembered from her youth, after the Korean War, who would sing “Arirang” with tears streaming down their faces. She sang the song that way—sorrowfully. The first time she tried to hit the high notes in a sad tone, she broke out into laughter. Great big bellowing laughs. Then she sang it again, with her eyes closed, transporting herself back to the pain she felt as a little girl, after her father was killed in the war, after all the abuse she endured, each note trembling with grief, regret, and anger. That’s the recording that I took with me. That’s the recording that I learned how to sing “Arirang” from. That’s my Mother’s voice as I sing “Arirang” in my performance for The World After You Spoke.
I don’t know where that cassette is now. I have lost it—just as I have lost so much of what my Mom has given to me. But other things she has passed down to me are deeply embedded in my heart and soul. And they emerge in all things Korean in my life, whether they should or not.
Thank you so much to the Statue of Peace Plaza Committee of Philadelphia for inviting me to be part of this deeply meaningful performance event. If you are interested in supporting the Statue of Peace Plaza Committee (an Asian American and female-driven project to build a monument in Philadelphia that commemorates the victims of sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during WWII), please visit their GoFundMe page where they are trying to raise money to build the Statue of Peace Plaza in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood. https://www.gofundme.com/f/buildingpeace
Yolanda Wisher http://www.yolandawisher.com