‘Revolt and remembrance’: Joel Scott in conversation with Don Mee Choi

By and | 15 September 2022

DMC: Let me pick up the thread with this quote I used in the opening of my book, Hardly War (2016): ‘It is funny about wars, they ought to be different, but they are not.’ Gertrude Stein, Wars I have Seen (1945).

Moving families. Families are definitely on the move at the moment, but also from other war-torn places too, like Syria. And from climate catastrophes in various parts of the world, I’m sure. When we first met in person, next to Templehofer Feld, I was reminded by a stranger, a Berliner—while I was waiting to meet before you the poets and translators Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey—that Tempelhof was a site of ‘Berlin Airlift’ during the blocade of West Berlin by the Sovets. Uljana mentioned that a few thousand Syrian refugees were temporarily housed in the hangars. So, now, I associate our first meeting with this history of Tempelhof and also the scene from Herzog’s prophetic vision in The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974)—people endlessly walking up the hill is what I is what appeared in my mind when Uljana told me about the Syrian refugees. I think I have several stock images of refugees on the move in my mind because my mother has instilled in me her memories of being on the move as a refugee during the Korean War. I have a feeling such memory transfer has taken place as early as when I was in her womb. Perhaps this is why I often think of placenta as a fleshy memory filter.

Moving aunts. I have another aunt, the younger sister of Aunt Brazil, who I refer to as Aunt Australia in my mind. They are both my mother’s cousins. My mother was very close to her paternal aunt and so she continued to stay close to her aunt’s children. I don’t think any of them had imagined that they would all end up in Australia as they all came of age during the Korean War. The way I have named my mother’s cousins is based on common Korean practice of referring to people according to places. My mother calls Aunt Brazil as Aunt Toongabbie because that is where she lived, one of the suburbs of Sydney. And she calls Aunt Australia as Aunt Chatswood. And Aunt Chatswood’s husband ran a weekend Korean language school for kids in an old cheap house he found in Redfern. It was his volunteer work for many years. I still remember him in transit to Sydney from Seoul. He stayed with us in Hong Kong (probably mid 1970s) for a couple of nights. There were no direct flights from Seoul to Sydney then. I could tell he was devastated, leaving his family behind, but he risked the ‘moving’ to find a more tolerable life for himself and his family outside the military dictatorship-locked South Korea.

Your beautiful, yellow chapbook Cornears (Trees and Squash Press, 2012) can be thought of as a book about ‘moving’ and how the ‘moving’ was regulated and controlled through language by the Australian border and immigration policy. Each word from the sample passages from Australian Dictation Test used during the White Australia Policy (1901-1957) are highlighted yellow with strikethroughs. They look like corn kernels with teeth marks on them. I should remind us that the US also had its own version of white-only immigration policy until the 1965 Hart-Celler Act. Prior to that cheap, exploitable laborers were brought in from China, Japan, and the Philippines, then later some from Korea and India. Once they were brought in and no longer needed, various immigration acts were set up to prevent any further influx or through family reunification. Tell me about the process of subverting the ‘kernel’ texts and also about the acronym SIEV that appears as the only footnote in the book. Of course, I love the sound of SIEV—so sonically appropriate as in sieving out who can enter and not. My ‘moving’ aunts somehow made it through the sieve of immigration. And I’ve been partly sustained by my mother’s memory placenta, another kind of sieve.

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