Words in a Mirror: On Don Mee Choi’s “DMZ Colony”

December 2, 2020   •   By Jae Kim

DMZ Colony

Don Mee Choi

A 1.5-GENERATION Korean American living in St. Louis, such as myself, will most likely never realize the fact that they’re living near the 38th parallel north until they come across DMZ Colony, the latest collection of poems by the poet-translator Don Mee Choi, whose opening section takes place in St. Louis. Snow geese say to Choi, “SEE YOU AT DMZ,” flying over Forest Park in formation for three pages, figures in the distant canvas of the sky. Choi has replaced the geese with letters, as though the letters were stick figures representing the geese: Ds on the first page, Ms on the second page, Zs on the third page.

Snow geese used to fly over the lawns in Alaska, where my mother and I lived when we first moved to the United States. Looking at the beautiful letter-geese on the pages of Choi’s book, I can almost hear them cry. It feels as if I’m watching a movie on mute and I’m filling in the sounds. Now my mother lives in Incheon, South Korea, and I live in St. Louis. As a family, we straddle the two countries. Choi seems to be drifting through both.

“DMZ” stands for demilitarized zone. Koreans generally think about the Armistice Line (휴전선[hyujŏnsŏn]) when they think of the border between North Korea and South Korea. Only when they visit the border are they reminded of the fact that the line is not a line but a strip of land, in which there is even a village. Choi has visited this village, located inside the DMZ south of the Armistice Line (sometimes called Freedom Village) and spoken to one of the political prisoners who live in it, named Ahn Hak-Sŏp.

Choi translates several testimonies by Ahn. These translations are very jarring for a bilingual reader of Korean and English. On the one hand, the translations capture perfectly how the old man must have spoken in Korean; on the other hand, the poetic intention of the translator is palpable:

That is how we slept
like spoons
like bean sprouts
Then terror came

The way Choi yields to Ahn’s voice while bringing out its aesthetic dimension reminds me of the stories in The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald. As a translator, Choi embodies the Benjaminian ideal: to perform a creative act whose aim is to discover what was already there, hidden. The question becomes not about whether the beauty was found or imposed, but rather about who is listening and who is writing.

Sometimes her translations are purposeful mistranslations: one of the clipped photographs that she includes alongside the testimonies is the Korean word 태로, which means terror (transliterated from the English). The first syllable 태 appears, in Choi’s handwriting, like the English letters “GH,” which she interprets as Global Humanity. 로, as Choi explains in the end note, means “toward,” and so 태로, to Choi, appears to mean “Toward Global Humanity.” Such a purposeful mistranslation juxtaposes Ahn’s and Choi’s lives, through their respective preoccupations, and places them in a continuum, demonstrating their shared, ongoing history.

I saw countless charred bodies. I saw rows and rows of corpses.
A year later on a rainy summer day I heard cries from the pit. Oblong oblong.
I saw ghosts floating about in the forest. They circled and circled me.

This poem from “The Orphans Series” is titled “Orphan Kim Seong-rye.” It is a translation of an imagined diary entry of an imagined orphan. Choi wrote their accounts first in Korean, by hand in a notebook, and the photograph of the notebook page fills the page underneath the title, as though to suggest that the handwritten Korean, the photograph, is the main part of the poem, the English translation only a commentary on the photograph. Though the diary entries are fictive, the imagined accounts are based on historical evidence. They are persona poems, pieces of historical fiction.

The translations, as Choi notes, are not exact (as no translation ever is). The “oblong oblong” in the second line, for example, seems to describe the cries from the pit. Or perhaps it is an attempt to capture the sound of “빙빙”[bingbing], an onomatopoeia that describes the circling.

When asked in an interview with Words Without Borders to give an example of an untranslatable word in Korean, Choi answers that duplicatives, “adverbs or adjectives that are repeated to form a pair,” poses a challenge. “Such doubling is the norm in Korean, and it accentuates the sounds, which can also have the phonetic or mimetic effects of onomatopoeia.” Her solution is often to use a similar tactic in English, such as “swarmsswarms” or “waddlewaddling.” In “Orphan Kim Seong-rye,” she uses the doubling technique twice: “Oblong oblong” and “circled and circled.” While the latter sounds natural in English, the former is more difficult to digest. It demands the reader’s attention, and the reader lingers over the phrase — oblong oblong, oblong oblong… — until all that remains is the sound.

In a later section, Choi discusses mirror words.

Parts of this section also appear in Choi’s chapbook Sky Translation (Goodmorning Menagerie, 2019). The chapbook pages are semi-transparent, and so the reader can look at the back of the page, where mirror words are no longer mirror words. However, by having the reader flip the page, mirror words have already done the work they were supposed to do: to have the reader become a translator. I’m reminded of Borderlands / La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa and its long passages in Spanish. When I was introduced to Anzaldúa in a classroom setting, my classmates pointed out how the passages in Spanish intrude violently on the non-Spanish speaker’s reading experience. I could only admire how beautiful the incomprehensible passages were, how confident and uncompromising.

Mirror words are comprehensible, but for a split second, they aren’t. Decoding them takes more effort than one might suspect. The passages in mirror words make me want to read the passages in “order-words” from the back, so that they’re a little harder to read — as though I were reading them in a foreign language, as though English were foreign to me.

Anzaldúa challenges the fiction of White Superiority through Spanish; Choi endeavors to undermine it within the framework of the English language:

Mirror words are meant to compel disobedience, resistance. Mirror words defy neocolonial borders, blockades. Mirror words flutter along borders and are often in flight across oceans, even galaxies. Mirror words are homesick. Mirror words are halo. Mirror words are orphaned words. Now look at your words in a mirror. Translate, translate! Did you? Do it again, do it!

The section focuses on the events leading up to Chun Doo-hwan’s coup d’état in 1979 and the Gwangju Uprising in 1980. Questions are posed using mirror words:

Ruoy Ycnellecxe, Si ti Laitram Wal?
Ro na elbattegrofnu nossel?
Ruoy Ycnellecxe, Erehw si Nuhc Ood-Nawh? Ruoy Ycnellecxe, Era uoy evila?
Si Nuhc evila?
Laturb Noitan! Era uoy evila?

The questions are accompanied first by a photograph of a protestor, then by two identical photographs of a baton-wielding soldier. It is as though these questions — Ruoy Ycnellecxe, Si ti Laitram Wal? — are being asked by the civilians and military alike.

ㄱ – ㅏ – ㄱ – ㅎ – ㅏ – ㄱ – ㅖ – ㅇ – ㅓ – ㅁ – ㄹ – ㅕ – ㅇ – ㅇ – ㅣ – ㅂ – ㄴ – ㅣ – ㄲ – ㅏ

In the essay pamphlet “Translation is a Mode=Translation is an Anti-neocolonial Mode” (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020), Choi borrows the term “order-words” from Deleuze and Guattari and writes, “I traverse such order-words and map them, and superimpose another kind of map — the map of my dislocation.” Choi’s dislocation is not only geographical but historical, and she returns again and again to the modern history of the Korean Peninsula: “In 1945, it took less than thirty minutes for order words to be carried out, to divide the country I was born in, along the 38th parallel north.”

In “Ahn Hak-Sŏp #1,” the first of Ahn’s testimonies, Choi writes,

I’ll leave it up to your imagination what a DMZ village looks like, what his house looks like, what his dogs look like, how many of his teeth are missing, how fit he still is, how he carefully peels sweet potatoes roasted in his woodstove, how terribly beautiful the Han River looks behind the endless barbed-wire fence […] whether the acacia tree was in bloom or not.

The fact that I don’t know what the DMZ village looks like makes my own lateral, translational displacement that much more palpable. Ahn’s words fly as geese do, straight east, and speak to me in codes.


Jae Kim is a writer and translator based in St. Louis. His translation of a collection of Lee Young-ju’s poetry is forthcoming from Black Ocean in 2021.