Celebrating The Mystery of How Language Courses Through The Body: An Interview with Ae Hee Lee


Born in South Korea, raised in Peru, and currently living in the United States, Ae Hee Lee is a citizen of the world, and of the word; and that’s reflected in Asterism, which was selected by the esteemed John Murillo for the 2022 Dorset Prize. It’s indicative of the collection that an asterism is a visible pattern of groups of stars in the sky that is more ambiguous—more open—than a constellation. Lee provides a literary asterism in these intimate and sensory poems of memories and languages and revelations, as well as offering a mirror in which to contemplate our own origins, and who and how we are in our own multifaceted, ambiguous lives.

In the poem “Self-Study Through Homes” Lee writes: 

“When people ask where I’m from, where I’m really from, I ready my permutations. My mélange of autumnal streets, my obscure cities, the countries I found constructed on a mound of papers and tears, the pebble-sized universe occupying my left shoe—I want to tell them everything. I want to see how far we can go.”

As someone who is also in diaspora, existing in two different cultures, seemingly of both, and of neither, I too want to see “how far we can go.” Asterism’s capacious exploration of how to express ourselves in the world, and Lee’s expansive responses below provides direction and possibility.

Mandana Chaffa

One of the recurring themes in this collection concerns how displacement alters the senses, and how there’s a fullness of experience within that: it’s not necessarily good or bad, is it? Or as you more beautifully and succinctly say in “Inheritance :: Invocation”: “I return to myself—broken and full.”

Ae Hee Lee

This might be a given, but I’ll preface by saying that any kind of forced displacement (such as those caused by war, imperialism, and colonialism) largely alters the senses in traumatic ways.

But there are also parts of myself that I think have become naturally broken with time or by my own volition, be it due to changing homes and relationships, or as I started questioning what I called “mine,” and social truths I had been raised to accept as “normal” or “right.” When I wrote the line “I return to myself—broken and full,” it was in the hope of subverting the dichotomies I once internalized of having to choose either grief or gratitude, good or bad, to ascribe to the sum of my experiences as a migrant. I feel both, so my life can be both. The fullness for me comes from this truth.

…The Napa cabbages inside are as wide
as my childish hips—rare in Trujillo, rare like the Korean pepper flakes
my mother has been saving by mixing them with ají panca. The translucent
plastic gloves covering her hands are smeared with bright candy red
and the green of spring onions. She tells me to go sleep first. I dream of her
hands carefully running between the cabbage leaves, even today,
half a continent away, making sure no white spot is left untouched.

Mandana Chaffa

In this excerpt from “Dream Series of My Mother Making Kimchi in Trujillo” and elsewhere, I appreciate the comparison of fusion in cuisine, which can be so delicious, yet sometimes more challenging when it comes to identity, which is continually shifting. What has the work on and in this collection changed for you, as a poet, and citizen of many countries (including “imaginary ones”)?

Do you feel more “placed,” with each of these poems as a puzzle piece?

Ae Hee Lee

There’s a kind of funny story behind this poem. I grew up eating my mother’s Korean Pepper Flake and Ají Panca Kimchi throughout my childhood in Peru, so when I visited Korea after a while and tried the Kimchi there, my first thought was “This is not Kimchi!”  

The experience eventually made me reflect on the notion of “authenticity.” Once in the U.S., I heard the word “authentic” tossed around especially when people talked about “ethnic foods.” But I found it odd that most of the time those who didn’t have the deepest relationship with the dish in question saw themselves as the judge of its authenticity.

Aside from how authenticity should be defined or assessed, it’s more interesting to me to learn about people’s histories and relationships with the foods they make and/or consume. Cuisines are heavily influenced by migrating populations and time, their changes often motivated by dearth and desire. Just like how identity is continually shifting, cuisine does too, and it strikes me as fascinating the ways they nurture each other in creative ways.

If before writing this collection I had felt a longing to be placed, working through Asterism led me to understand that I will always be in-between countries and cultures, continually en route, and that such life also has a place in the world. If my poems are puzzle pieces, this puzzle of mine would be an infinite one without a frame; It will keep me busy in all sorts of joyful and frustrating ways for the rest of my days. 

…In each country I call home, I
eat my way into belonging.

Mandana Chaffa

Your long poem “Self-Study Through Daily Sustenance” is terrific for the territory it covers, as well as the forms it utilizes. I love your use—your creation?—of the poetic footnote! A kind of haibun, though I hesitate to call it that. You center this as a prose poem, but then with a wink insert a poetic distillation below. Would you talk about it, in content and style? 

Ae Hee Lee

A haibun! Would you believe me if I say it hadn’t crossed my mind? Maybe unconsciously? But I do clearly remember, as a grad student, reading and feeling inspired by Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, which is entirely made up of footnotes to a non-existent text. It got me ruminating on how anything was possible in poetry.

That said, there are so many instances when I read prose and encounter poetry between the lines. 

This was also the case when I visited my hometown, Trujillo, 5 years ago, and came across an anthology on Peruvian cuisine history and identity called Cultura identidad y cocina en el Perú edited by Rosario Olivas Weston. I was filled with wonder at the intersections, the traveling and transformation of ingredients and recipes. There was so much more to every morsel I had tasted (Ceviche as a result of employing Japanese cooking techniques to Peruvian ingredients and certain traditions of pasta dishes being preserved by the diaspora in Peru but not in Italy itself). Of course, not everything I read made it to “Self-Study Through Daily Sustenance,” but the sheer complexity of what the text was trying to convey to the reader made me think I could only respond in kind with poetry.

Traditionally, the footnote’s role is to contextualize, provide notes, or cite. It occurred to me that I tend to process narratives, news, and raw information through poetry, which I view as a clarifying and simultaneously expanding force. I thought I could address the narrative aspects of what I had learned and experienced as prose poems and shed light on them further via poetic footnotes.

It felt so right with me that I have been considering writing a whole collection just in this form!

Mandana Chaffa

Naming is another theme that rivers through your poems, from the first “Disambiguation:” “my parents spread open a hanja / dictionary on the hospital bed, / their fingertips lifted / a name from the paper:” to the people who inadvertently dissect your name and are then addressing you as “Dear Love,” to this speaker:

At a coffee shop, I introduce myself as Ruth.
The cashier scribbles it down on the cup,
says, What an American name!
about the woman
who had become a foreigner
for a foreigner.

In just these few excerpts, I’m thinking about the mix of agency: what others may do to one’s name—or identity—and what you choose to do, with the last word as it were, by making these interactions into a poem, your poem.

So, too, in a world in which we are all in the state of belonging/unbelonging, how the word “foreigner” centers some over others. What makes us foreign to ourselves and each other? Who decides what is foreign, and the converse, what is familiar or even familial?

Ae Hee Lee

I really appreciate you bringing up these questions, as I’ve pondered them too. 

I understand that what is foreign, familiar, or familial can depend on an individual’s perspective, but I also think that the word “foreigner” has been all too commonly used as an excuse to exclude, constrain a person to the position of an outsider. 

In that sense, I resist being deemed as the only one that’s foreign in any relationship and conversation. I believe we are all foreign to ourselves and each other (who really knows the entirety of oneself or anyone else?). Becoming aware of that can put us on equal ground and open the door for genuine connection. This is one of the reasons why when putting a poem together there were times I chose to (mis)translate or not translate a number of words and phrases into English. I like to think of it as an invitation to the reader to be/feel foreign with me.

I’ve also asked myself: What does it mean to become a foreigner for someone else? I’m thinking in particular of immigrant parents and partners, who leave everything they know behind for those they love, be it for safer or better living conditions or to remain together. Shouldn’t such love be answered with love? And what would the world look like if we could do all of this for/with strangers?

See Also

I understood speech as a manner of wind.
Voice could be voiceless, place nestled inside palate,
the dark side of teeth or a throat’s deep.

Mandana Chaffa

This disambiguation of speech from “Upon Practicing a Second Language” is rather thrilling, especially from someone who lives through words, and multiple languages—taking meaning out of the equation to begin with, down to the particle of the wind, of a trilling, perhaps even something barely to be heard. So too the title word “practicing.” Not speaking, but practicing? What does the practice of language mean to you?

Ae Hee Lee

Having been born in South Korea, the first language in my life was Korean. I moved to Peru at the age of three and lived in a small coastal town that didn’t really have a Korean community, so my Spanish quickly overtook my Korean. My parents, concerned my sister and I wouldn’t be able to communicate with our grandparents anymore, continually asked us to at least speak it while at home. 

I learned English at school. While the course hours in the language were few, I went on to acquire it by spending a lot of time reading and seeking out conversation groups. 

Now having lived in the U.S. for over 10 years, sometimes I’m shocked to find I can’t remember a word in Spanish or the level of comfort I had in the language had diminished.

This is probably why I ended up choosing the word “practicing” over “speaking.” Not only because the act of practicing is so closely tied to the acquisition or retention of a language, but because speaking implies ease, even familiarity, which was never the case for me with any of the languages in my life. Korean was quickly made strange by the introduction of Spanish. Then English made Spanish strange, and Korean made English strange, and so on. What became clear to me was that the relationship between sounds and meanings of words is mostly arbitrary, and that meaning is not only a social construct but a personal one. The understanding led me to reach for and focus on something beyond proficiency: it made me want to celebrate the mystery of how language courses through the body.

My origin story:

My mother found me as a chestnut dangling from a
tree. When I fell onto her lap, she was eating
a copper pear with one hand, paging through
a book with the other. She carried out the burr
in the hollow of her arms; the spiny cupule made her
bleed, but she didn’t surrender me until I dropped
from the shell. Later, I sprouted needles anew, afraid
I was being nibbled away by the world.

Mandana Chaffa

How beautiful is this excerpt from “Korea :: Things to Review Before Landing” as a mythology of how you came into being that is beyond country or conventional narrative. With that kind of origin story, what isn’t possible? Having said that, given your different rootings, do you feel that your life is a series of origin stories?

Ae Hee Lee

I love the way you phrased that: “life is a series of origin stories.” I’d say I think similarly, as I often imagine narrative in the form of a circle with any point in it being able to be the beginning or end.

In this particular poem, I was also thinking of remembrance as a sort of translation, through which process we lose parts of a memory but at the same time gain new understandings about the world and ourselves. After all, the ways we choose to remember ourselves and decide which point(s) are our origin stories are part of our identity just as much as “what actually happened.”

by Ae Hee Lee
Published by Tupelo Press
February 1, 2024


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