On Search and Recognition: Jennifer Kwon Dobbs

On Search and Recognition:

Adopted Korean Diaspora and Poetry


Unlike the stranger returning home to discover his childhood village disappeared, the poet enters Korea as a social ghost resisting erasures that stripped him of family, geography, history, language, and memory and sent him overseas for adoption to one of 15 western receiving nations.

One of an estimated 200,000 adoptees from the world’s largest and oldest adoption program that has continuously sent children overseas since 1952, the poet transgresses simply by arriving again in South Korea because her Korean passport and orphan paperwork were designed for a one-way trip overseas. With this arrival, the poet breaks the original adoption contract predicated on alienation and authorizing someone else to design her identity.

As an adult, the poet can speak for himself. The poet can represent herself. Imagining themselves, they betray the bureaucratic abbreviations, shorthand, dashes, and blanks facilitating their forced child migrations:

Father’s Name: No Records. Mother’s Name: No Records
Father’s Residence: No Records. Mother’s Residence: No Records

                             …. Include here guardian’s attitudes and motives in
                            Releasing child: President Kim would like the baby in a nice home.
                            $450 Payable, Dec. 76. Remarks/File No. ___ Child’s attitude: N/A

                                                           (J. Kwon Dobbs, “Face Sheet”)[1]

This agency language devours itself, rips out a Korean tongue even as its syntax describes an orphan’s mouth, “N/A” as in Not Applicable. Yet he talks anyway speculating on what songs his omma might have sung before she surrendered him for adoption. He listens to the tremulous quiver:

…that deep chant of a mother
saying goodbye to her son. Who can really say?
Sometimes all we have is the blues. The blues means
Finding a song in the abandonment, one

you can sing in the middle of the night when
you remember that your Korean name, Kwang Soo
Lee, means bright light, something that can illuminate…

                                                           (Lee Herrick, “Salvation”)[2]

She reads each hang’ul letter as a gesture: tree, kneeling tongue, unlatched door, bird meat. She builds a vestibulary:

hanging, an execution of duty;

                             crow approaching unfamiliar limb;

letter folded into flag;

infinite tympanum of God.

                                                           (Sun Yung Shin, “ciue  ㅈ”)[3

They began as Seeds from a Silent Tree (Pandal Press 1997), edited by Tonja Bischoff and Jo Rankin, the first anthology of adoptee poetry and writing. Now a diasporic grove, they include Them Averick, Thomas Marko Blatt, Dana Collins, Molly Gaudry, Lee Herrick, Anyssa Kim, Eva Tind Kristensen, Casey Kwang, Maja Lee Langvad, Mara Lee, Katie Hae Leo, Anneli Östlund, Nicky Sa-Eun Schildkraut, Sun Yung Shin, Kim Sunée, myself, and others to come. Not a school or even an organized literary community, they nonetheless share a common history of erasure through overseas adoption to which they have responded with vigorous experimentation ripping apart their adoptive languages and sometimes fleshing it with the Korea they know or dream of. Hungry for embodiment, they write in the language of their assimilation – English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, French, German, Italian, or Spanish – which is also their first language of desire. They publish books speaking to their adoptive countries and win awards and grants for these acts of psychic survival.

Without the dongpo’s (동포) usual cultural resources inherited through family and immigrant community, the poets’ imaginations turn to blood, skin, hair, and teeth – the body’s vocabulary – and to speculation, tectonic movements, winged migration, shreds of paper collaged together, fragments, found and destroyed documents, military maps, botany collections, syntactical disruptions, and multiple voices stitched together for words truer than flesh and more sturdy than bone to give erasure a face and to name its movements.

Sometimes she searches as an artistic impulse through the Korea she cannot forget even as Korea has unremembered her while constructing its economic miracle.

Sometimes his syntax limbs in the direction of search, not for nostalgic relics, but for historical remnants to imagine beyond absence widening as progress quickly strips the forest for graveyards and razes buildings for new urban construction. His mapping stakes a claim in the direction of possibility. What place might the poet, who was never supposed to return after his adoption, create through this undeniable document, this map of blood – his body inherited from generations before him?

How might the poet’s family recognize her? How might they reach across the table without tripping? Can this poet’s dream pass through translation to touch a Korean audience who might be her father, mother, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, grandparent, or even you reading this?

It’s an understanding of languages’ vulnerability to each other that possesses more feeling and insight than the correct textbook answers:

det koreanske ord도 er en lyd, der ifølge 15.000 tegnsordbogen har 121 forskellige betydninger…
Jysk udtalemåde af du[4]

(Eva Tind Kristensen, do/)[5]

Like reuniting with family, reading this poetry might be discomforting as a translating stranger leans in whispering, and yet it’s the promise of felt insight that compels this act of attention, this difficult yet necessary dialogue turning erasure inside out:

Are you disappointed that I was adopted to Denmark and not to the US, as you have always believed?

Should you have not given me up for adoption: What consequences do you imagine it would have had for my sisters, my father, and yourself?

(Maja Lee Langvad, “20 new questions for my biological mother”)[6]

 Diverse in prosodic style and wildly resourceful, these poets present a new diasporic literary direction that offers an embodied vision of reconciliation with the very erasures that produced them as adoptees. They give witness to that violence’s vicissitudes or speak from an intimate knowledge of silence’s cleaving embrace:

                    if last night was a dream, I remember
                    not her words but what I felt when the silence
                    turned white and

                    the lonely piano drowned in smoke.
                    much (and much too often) strays off beat

                   when the lion roars for no reason like
                   the gaping waves of the sea that curl above
                   a lost child:

                                                 (Them Averick, “Baffoon”)[7]

At language’s source – smoke, the lion’s roar, and gaping waves — the poet finds himself a maker of a beauty that cannot be easily forgotten. Like him, she remembers the proper names against linguistic deprivations while inventing new ones that have the power to renew. May they be recognized not as strangers but as poets and welcomed as kindred and kin.


JENNIFER KWON DOBBS, Ph.D. is assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at St. Olaf College and has received awards and grants for her writing.

[1] Dobbs, Jennifer Kwon. Paper Pavilion. Buffalo: White Pine Press, 2007. Print.

[2] Herrick, Lee. This Many Miles from Desire. Cincinnati: Word Tech Editions, 2007. Print.

[3] Shin, Sun Yung. Skirt Full of Black. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2006. Print.

The Korean word 도 is a sound that has 121 different connotations according to the 15,000 characters dictionary.


The Jutlandic pronunciation of you.
(Danish/English Translation by M.J.T. Nielsen.)

[5] Kristensen, Eva Tind. do/. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2009. Print.

[6] Langvad, Maja Lee. “New Questions.” Journal of Korean Adoption Studies 2.1 (Spring 2010): 157-168. Print.

[7] 김성현and Them Averick. 메트로폴리스. 서올: 한솜, 2008. Print.