ary-Kim Arnold is the author of Litany for the Long Moment, winner of 2016 Essay Press Open Book Prize. Presented in the form of an extended lyric essay, Litany represents Arnold’s attempts to claim her own linguistic, cultural, and aesthetic lineage—via critical conversation and lyric elegance, poignant personal history and primary documentation. Arnold was born in Seoul, South Korea and lives in Rhode Island, where she works as a multidisciplinary artist, writer, and teacher. Five years ago, I had the good luck to meet her at a Tin House Summer Workshop. We spent a charmed week together in Portland: reading, writing, sharing lunches in the grass, and attending daily creative nonfiction workshops with Maggie Nelson. From there, Mary-Kim and I stayed in touch as colleagues at The Rumpus (where Mary-Kim succeeded Roxane Gay as Essays Editor and invited me to join as an assistant). I’ve long admired her work, and drawn unabashed inspiration from her ability to blend intimate longing, intellectual acuity, and essayistic observation into spare yet moving prose. When I learned of Litany’s impending publication, I jumped at the chance to catch up. The ensuing email volley covered everything from the textual power of images and artifacts to translation, fragmentation, and the protean nature of the essay form itself.
LW: I’d like to begin by asking you to speak a bit about your decision to use documents, photographs, letters, etc. in Litany. Naturally, and as you acknowledge yourself, the approach reminds me of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee; but also other genre-blending pieces (like Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay, or even something like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home—various approaches to collage within and between the pieces of the essay, or image and text as a substitute for quotes or research in a more tangible, conversational form). As a visual artist as well as writer, how did your conception of this collage approach take shape?
MKA: Well, the images and quotes operate in a couple different ways. I had a handful of photos that I had taken on the trip, and at least on one level, I think those function the way photos in a scrapbook or travel journal might—as illustrations of what’s being discussed or referenced. But I like to think the inclusion of Barthes, Sontag, and of course, references to the work of Francesca Woodman, all offer ways to think about how the photographs function, how their inclusion can complicate meaning. How they attempt to represent something that is no longer present or even possible. I like to think that the question of what a photograph actually is, what it captures, is present in the text throughout.
I also thought a lot about Claudia Rankine’s use of image in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, particularly how the television screens function as section breaks. Rankine wasn’t using these images to illustrate or further define the text that came before—the images had their own integrity as formal elements. And brought their own symbolism and significance. So I was thinking about how and to what extent images can function formally as a kind of refrain, or a moment of transition, or a moment of rest.
And then there were some things—like the inquiry letter my mother sent to the Orphans’ Home of Korea, the letters that the Director sent back in her own handwriting—those just seemed really beautiful in a way, and I wanted to show them. The fact of these letters—that they exist, that I have them in my possession—is so important, when you have so little information to go on, so few things from which to try to put the narrative of one’s own past together. So I wanted to include them, to let these documents assert themselves, insert themselves into the “public record," if you will.
LW: I was so moved by the irony and effectiveness of the passages describing the introductory Korean language class you and the other adoptees took part in during your trip in search of family connections. For instance, when you learn to say, in Korean, “do you speak Korean?"—and then, also in Korean, “No, I do not." How does this pseudo-translation, these scraps of language handed to you as if to emphasize just how much you don’t know, will never know or understand intrinsically—connect to your use of other languages, to your role as creator or destroyer, elsewhere in the book?
MKA: My interest in highlighting the learning of the language started from a question about grammar and syntax. There were the classes we all took in Korea, but a few years ago, I studied Korean again, more formally. I was interested in how knowing the syntax and rhythms of another language might affect my writing. Korean seemed an obvious choice, and I guess I had this half-formed thought in the back of my mind that having been born in Korea and lived there, steeped in Korean language for the first two years of my life, would make the language familiar. That something in me would remember the language, that it might come more naturally.
It really didn’t, and so I started doing some reading about language acquisition and language loss. I came across this concept from cognitive linguistics—linguistic embodiment —that suggested we can only express in language what we can conceive and perceive and what we can conceive and perceive derive from embodied experience. In other words, the way we make sense of our reality is mediated by the nature of our bodies. So then one of the questions that emerged for me, as an adoptee, is when a mind is shaped in one language and one’s earliest bodily experiences transpire in one culture, what is the effect on that mind, on that body, when it is taken from that culture and placed in another?
And of course, poets have lots to say about language and rupture, language and the body. This idea offered yet another way back to Cha, for me, and to Myung Mi Kim, both of whom could speak to this experience of not fully Korean, not fully American, and how that sense of alienation permeates experience, and animates the work.
LW: There’s such power in the fragmentation that occurs towards the end of the essay, the conflation of mothers, the telling of knowing and not knowing, beginnings and endings…can you speak to the ordering of the material in this regard, the short prose and—I won’t say poems, but certainly lyrical and broken structure towards the end? How you created the narrative arc within this collage, chose where to locate Woodman, Cha, and others woven within and between your story?
MKA: Once I decided that the questionnaire would act as a kind of organizing prompt, I knew that the letter itself would bear the emotional climax. Throughout this questionnaire, there are all these impossible questions— “What is your opinion of Korea?" “Have you had any difficulties in life?" and so forth. I mean, I think I know what they are looking for, but the questions also seem kind of absurd, you could write volumes in response to each one. I wanted to try to capture that sense of absurdity. What do you write to the mother you have never met? You can only fail to communicate.
I lost my adoptive mother when I turned twenty-one, so there have been decades without her, as well. And she kept inserting herself into my attempts. Her death was its own trauma of course, but it became the manifestation of a grief I could not name—the mourning for my first mother, my first life. It became impossible to speak of one without the other.
The grief is of course, cyclical and ongoing, circles on itself, collapses on itself. I think much of the book is an attempt through that, each time circling through the same material, perhaps some new insights emerge.
LW: Speaking of circling back, let’s end on a note from Carla Harryman’s introduction. She describes Litany for the Long Moment as "a compelling contribution to the essay as open form." Did this project always exist as "an essay" in your mind? Did it take on other iterations—memoir, poetry, etc.—before it landed here? Knowing you, as I do, within the context of the essay (first in Maggie Nelson's nonfiction workshop at Tin House, then as Essays Editor at The Rumpus, now with Essay Press), I'm curious how your ideas around the essay as a form, and creative nonfiction as a genre, have changed or stretched or crystalized over the years, over the course of your various editorial and authored projects.
MKA: It’s funny that in the many ways I have thought about my work and about myself as a writer over the years, it’s not usually as a nonfiction writer, not as an essayist. When I was first in graduate school, Creative Nonfiction wasn’t really its own genre, and so what I was doing then—text, image, fragment—sort of fell under this kind of “experimental fiction," label, which could accommodate a great deal of work that was otherwise difficult to classify. And so that is how I thought of myself. But your question really reflects the path back to me and makes it pretty clear!
There are parts of what ended up in Litany that had previously existed as poems. The trip to Korea began as one long poem. I don’t think any of those poems or fragments remain in the book in its current form. And as you know from our workshop together, the thinking on Woodman and Cha began in a more critical context—essay as lyrical co-consideration of the two artists.
In general, I am not that invested in distinguishing between genres, in saying if you do this, it’s a lyrical essay, if you do this, it’s a poem. But, having written more seriously in different modes, I do recognize the different rigors that each demands. It takes a long time for me to find the right form for what I am trying to do and I expect that much of what is in Litany will find its way into other things, other forms. Some of my core preoccupations—as a writer, as a thinker—exist here. I think they will keep evolving. I hope they will.
MARY-KIM ARNOLD is the author of Litany for the Long Moment, winner of 2016 Essay Press Open Book Prize. A multidisciplinary artist, writer, and teacher, her work has appeared in a number of literary and art journals, including Tin House, The Georgia Review, and Hyperallergic. She has received fellowships from the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts and the Rhode Island Foundation. She holds graduate degrees from Vermont College of Fine Arts and Brown University, where she teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, and lives in Rhode Island.