Violence Repeated: On Don Mee Choi’s “Mirror Nation”

By Anabelle JohnstonApril 2, 2024

Violence Repeated: On Don Mee Choi’s “Mirror Nation”

Mirror Nation by Don Mee Choi

THE PEOPLE. THE STATE. In Mirror Nation (2024), poet-translator Don Mee Choi weaves in generalities such as the nation and its constituents to address particular instances of state-sponsored violence. Images are grafted onto one another to reveal the fundamental dyad of the oppressor and oppressed. Seemingly disparate people and events are bound not by time but by motion. Of this phenomenon, she writes, “In the future, the US thinks of Gwangju, Hiroshima, Mekong Delta, even Chinook and Cherokee. And Miami—a war zone, erupting from within.” History repeats, and Choi learns. She speaks directly to and through Judith Butler, W. G. Sebald, Frantz Fanon, W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter Benjamin, Andrei Tarkovsky, Karl Marx, and more. Embedding their writing into her poetry as free-floating quotes, Choi maps language, as borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari, to understand empire. The subject of study is often obscured, or intentionally misdirected, so Benjamin speaks to the Gwangju Uprising, Sebald to the Miami Riots, Butler to the Vietnam War.

Choi begins this synesthetic approach on the first page. The work opens with a split image of Choi in 2019, standing on Glienicker Brücke, a bridge between Berlin and Potsdam, glancing back decades to glimpse her father in the same spot. There he filmed the last (but first public) spy swap between the East and West in 1986. It is purely symbolic, temporally displaced. He waves from the present yet speaks of the past, near the heart of the Potsdam Conference where a belt had been buckled around Korea’s waist decades before. In her endnotes, which blend sources with poetics, Choi writes, “The recurring images of clocks and the watches my father wore during his assignments in Vietnam are, for me, signs of grief—grief in time, hence, its eternal return.” Mirror Nation is scaffolded around this cross-wiring of space and time, as events and uprisings are ensnared in one another, and Choi frequently pushes forward, doubles back, and folds over time itself to draw out connections across empires.

She reflects often on that “eternal return” throughout the text, such that the work is constantly touching upon the same themes in a self-aware manner. “Although there are incidents where time neither moves clockwise nor counterclockwise. It remains paralyzed as if in a stupor, as it was in the case of the clock in Shōhei Imamura’s film Black Rain,” she writes early on. This lack of movement evokes a timelessness despite the urgency of the subject, resulting in the collection resembling musings much more than a manifesto. Choi returns to the same events from different angles and mediums. The repetitive content and structure encircle and demand patience from the reader.

The first half of the collection is filled with more straightforward description, a combination of recollection, confession, and theorization of violence itself. Later, Choi deepens the affective dimension of these first sections by revising themes with poetry and interspersing 한글 (untranslated Korean text). Throughout, a few images recur, turning on their own axes. The rings of a Mercedes-Benz, a circle, a hole. A grandfather clock, frozen in time. They become symbols of ceaselessness, repetition, and omission, as Choi describes: “Temporal magic frequently manifests as numbers, as zeros. They’re like the pockmarks left on a face or FOIA page. They’re entirely unavoidable.”

As in the other installments in the KOR-US trilogy, and her seminal pamphlet Translation Is a Mode=Translation Is an Anti-neocolonial Mode (2020), Choi remains fascinated by double consciousness and the mirrored self. She hesitates over Benjamin’s pursuit of “pure language” and singular meaning. Sounds and letters are stripped from their contexts to reveal both absences and multiplicity. Even when referencing her previous work and imagery throughout Mirror Nation, Choi opaquely writes, “As always, S stands for spy and swap. Obviously, swans have nothing to do with S. Occasionally S stands for sympathy or symphony, and also goes undetected.” Her alliteration is almost tongue-in-cheek, a technique to return language to sound. To Choi, the mining of language for meaning is almost a game, the rules of which are known only to those familiar with the absences she writes of.

This negation is mirrored in her collage of other mediums. Across the collection, Choi embeds photographs and video stills from CCTV cameras, her father’s collection, newsreels, and other private archives. The shapes of these, too, could be excavated, yet Choi superimposes time and intention to render them inscrutable. As the title suggests, Choi frequently doubles images; clocks, placards, and crowds all find mirrors in Choi’s collection. Hauntingly, she sets a triptych of three men plunging from high: an image from Grandes Heures de Rohan (ca. 1418–35), Seoul Spring by Kwon Joo-hoon, and A man testing the wall. Intense violence is met with a sense of inevitability. Action is deferred, or always happening. Instead of forward motion, time is oblong, folding in on itself. It flows in a circle, like the rings of a Mercedes-Benz that disturb the “magnetic field of memory.”

I encountered Mirror Nation in the first weeks following my move to South Korea, nestled in the province from which my grandmother fled five decades prior. Like many others, I read this book with grief spurred by ongoing ethnic cleansing and escalating violence in regions far from my new home in South Korea. Choi has demonstrated her dutiful attention to language in her previous work as a translator and poet, but what compels me in this collection is her sustained, universal critique of violence in and beyond national bounds.

Across Mirror Nation, Choi shifts her focus from individual linguistic dislocation to the semantics of empire. She lingers on the cyclical nature of colonial conflict, the division of history into that which can be mourned and that which must be forgotten. In plain terms she describes this phenomenon, stating, “Grief has a tendency to migrate from clock to clock, war to war, massacre to massacre, colony to neocolony.”

This movement between objects of study and the study of pure violence is exemplified in the poem “Imperial Panorama 1980”. Here, scans of Republic of Korea (ROK) governmental decrees break a thick text block of equivalences borrowed from Benjamin’s “Imperial Panorama” and “Critique of Violence”; the German Democratic Republic’s Aktuelle Kamera newscasts; “Indictment to the World: White Paper on Atrocious Kwangju Genocide,” issued by Korea’s Central Committee of the Revolutionary Party for Reunification; Busan Ilbo, a Korean newspaper; and “Miami Riot Continues,” an article in The Washington Post. Each text is distinguished only by the differentiation of font and is separated into equations. Here, Choi acts as a curator, drawing connections rather than words:

Kwangju, a city of suffering, splashed with torrential blood and piled high with corpses, is indicting the human butchers to the whole world = “But we also realize that if someone does something to us, they’ve got to be punished too” = if mythic violence brings at once guilt and retribution, divine power only expiates.

The call-and-response between the subaltern and the oppressors take on a choral quality, such that the underlying mechanism of imperialism is exposed. To read linearly is to equate across seemingly disparate actions, while to circle back is to place in time. Choi invites both approaches. Of this methodology, she writes, “[I]n my dreams, disparate places are seamlessly linked.”

The equivalencies do not flatten but rather illuminate the depth of destruction and similarities among the oppressors, both in political belief and political actors:

= liberation of Prague in 1945 =
= victory fireworks =
= Hitler’s corpse = victory fireworks =
= a civilian with a crutch in despair =
= atom bomb mushroom cloud =
= LITTLE BOY of Hiroshima =

Even as she floats between moments, Choi anchors the collection in the Gwangju Uprising of May 1980—a pro-democracy student protest against the military dictatorship of Chun Doo-hwan that quickly devolved into a state-sanctioned massacre. At the whisper of dissent, 18,000 riot police and 3,000 paratroopers flooded the city in tanks, helicopters, and armored personnel carriers, firing upon the crowds and killing—according to activist reports and census data—upwards of 2,000 civilians. Although democracy did not immediately ripple across the peninsula in the wake of May 18, the event reverberated among hushed networks of activists and civilians alike in the following months and decades. As the dictatorship continued to censor media representations of the uprising in the years to come, this climactic moment is bracketed by silence.

It is her father’s photographic footage that intervenes in this quiet in Choi’s experience and in Mirror Nation. About halfway through the collection, she punctuates the text with her father’s stills of the Gwangju Uprising, which were broadcast on “ABC News World News Tonight, New York, 27.5.1980.” Crowds of young men and women, arm in arm, are followed by the blur of tanks and soldiers, guns and fallen bodies, the desperate fleeing of youths and the helicopters closing in. On the opposite page, Choi blurs a still photograph to obscure the news anchor, drawing our eye to an animated explosion at Gwangju. The pairing lays bare how the world responded to such profound helplessness and intensity. The silence and misremembering are palpable. Choi utilizes the accompanying text to further expose history’s misdirection:

The news of the Gwangju massacre and rebellion was covered up by the military government during and after, for seven years, by arresting and torturing thousands. Hence, it was only sensible that on May 23, 1980, Seoul Shinmun reported on the “Miami riot” instead, which took place during the same days as the “Gwangju riot.” Empire is everywhere.

Don Mee Choi makes clear that to read and write and study and translate is to confront despair and grief buried by mistranslations and intentional absences. The violent act repeats in the way it blurs together historical moments along with the human pain at their center: that all burnt bodies smell the same, that freedom and death commiserate, that the only constant is return. “Nation is a nation is a nation is a nation,” Choi emphatically states late in the final section of the book, repetition in the wake of silence being as close to pure language as one can get.

LARB Contributor

Anabelle Johnston is a writer and founding editor of Syntax Magazine. She grew up in New York and currently lives in Gumi, South Korea. 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!