Art Is: Su Hwang

Su Hwang is a poet, activist, and the author of Bodega (Milkweed Editions), which received the 2020 Minnesota Book Award in poetry. Born in Seoul, Korea, she was raised in New York then called the Bay Area home before transplanting to the Midwest. A recipient of the inaugural Jerome Hill Fellowship in Literature, she teaches creative writing with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

AIRED: December 10, 2020 | 0:05:11

(upbeat music)

- I was born in Seoul, Korea.

My family and I immigrated to the United States in 1982.

My grandfather is a renowned writer,

considered one of the top literary figures

in modern Korean letters.

And my uncle is a renowned poet and scholar also in Korea.

So I guess I always grew up with knowing

that I had this literary legacy back in Korea,

but having this sort of other life in the United States.

I guess for me, writing has been an attempt

to write myself into my family's legacy.

My name is Sue Hwang.

I'm a poet, activist, burgeoning essayist.

And I like to say I'm a witch in training.

I'm currently taking a class

in ancient Hellenistic astrology and I also read tarot.

(funky electronic music)

I've always been sort of a voyeur in many ways.

I hate to say that I'm a keen observer,

but I feel like I take snapshots of situations.

And I don't necessarily have the best memory,

but I think I do, I do have this sort of like bank

of images from my childhood and just life living

in New York and San Francisco and Oakland.

I started writing poetry about what I was seeing,

daily life and the disparities of American society.

As a person of color, a child of immigrants,

it's just something that I witness every day.

And so my poetry then started to become more statements

about, I guess, race and identity.

When I was in the program at the University of Minnesota,

I was writing my thesis at the time,

which now became the book "Bodega."

And I wanted to tell the story of my parents

but also of immigrants and marginalized communities

during that time when I was growing up

in the late '80s and '90s.

And I use the metaphor of the bodega.

My book was published by Milkweed Editions in October 2019.

It's called "Bodega."

And it was just awarded the Minnesota Book Award

in poetry this year.

"Fresh Off the Boat: An Iconography"

One, tongue unfurls in ruins,

low and guarded,

as if each syllable unsheathes a fresh wound.

Severed foreign bodies clutch foreign limbs.

No place for proper burials only tacit uprisings.

Two, wander through deluge.

Shield from gusts of wind song.

Shingled eaves rise.

Dreams are not yours to be shared.

(calm acoustic music)

My dad was a journalist back in Korea

and my mother was a teacher.

But when we immigrated to the country,

they became small-time merchants.

They opened up a, first a dry cleaner's, then a corner store

in the Queensbridge projects in New York.

Here I have a couple pictures of my grandfather.

This is when he was, I guess, younger.

I don't really know him that well though.

I guess having these pictures,

it kind of brings me closer to him.

And then these are a couple of his books,

my grandfather's books,

that have been translated into English.

This is, he dedicated it to me and my brother back in 1992.

I guess when he visited.

And then here I have some postcards of our students at MPWW.

The Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop is a collective

of writers and we've taught

over 100 creative writing classes

around the state at different correctional facilities.

And we've I think reached about 1200 men

and women inside Minnesota prisons.

- Hi. - How's it going?

- Okay, how are you? - Good.

- Hi! - Hi.

- Yeah, I guess I wanted to talk

about our students' work for the upcoming journal.

So I was invited by Jennifer Bowen,

who's the founder of Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

And, you know, I didn't know this is the type

of work I wanted to do when I first was invited

to be a teacher.

I have to say it's the most important thing

that I feel like I'm doing right now in terms of my work.

(bright electronic music)

I used to suffer from terrible stage fright,

and I was really afraid of public speaking.

You know, I think I was holding onto that vision of like,

oh, if I'm a writer, I can just stay in my little cave.

And I don't have to really engage

with the world outside of that little cave.

But since the publication of my book,

I've slowly come out of my shell I think.

And I'm learning that I do have something to say

and that I can offer something to the world.

And I'm excited to sort of see what comes next.


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