Five questions for Janice Lee

After a little hiatus, I’m back with this interview with writer, editor, publisher, designer, and scholar Janice Lee. Currently based in Portland, OR, Janice is the author of three books of fiction: KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), and Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), and two books of creative nonfiction: Reconsolidation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2015) and The Sky Isn’t Blue (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016). 

She is also the founder and executive editor of Entropy magazine, copublisher at Civil Coping Mechanisms, a contributing editor at Fanzine, and cofounder of The Accomplices LLC, as well as an assistant professor of creative writing at Portland State University.

Anna Maria Hong: You work in many areas of writing and literary production as a poet and prose writer, artist and designer, publisher and editor, scholar and professor. What drives your current inquiries — in any and all areas — most urgently? 

Janice Lee: Currently, and most urgently, I’m thinking about inherited trauma (especially via the Korean concept of han), personhood and interspecies communication, and the relationships between healing and making. I’ve been writing about interspecies communication and han for a while now (and it looks like there is a book of essays in the works) and have been exploring different modalities in my own personal journey via shamanism, animal medicine, qigong, and pedagogy.

In the classroom, I’ve been exploring these questions in seminars and short workshops: How are the frames of reference and relationships between and of living beings activated? That is, how do different bodies and worlds articulate each other, or, how do we learn to be affected? How do we reconcile personal experience with historical fact? How do we reconcile history with memory? How do we reconcile truths with other truths? How does writing open up space while processing trauma or grief? 

In these workshops, we’ve been collaboratively exploring the articulation of personal experience, identity, and trauma (both lived and inherited) and looking at the relationship of personal history and identity with aesthetics and narrative. This involves exploring how the presence of unresolved corporeal history and the impossibility of articulation or expression lead to new encounters in language and narrative via various aesthetic writing practices, and exploring notions of personhood and interspecies communication through exercises in seeing, writing, breathing, and sensing. This all happens through writing prompts, guided meditations, intuition exercises, shamanic practices, divination, mapping, unbinding wounds and trauma, and communing with plant and animal beings. And more and more, I’ve been utilizing these practices both in my personal life and professional one.

Hong: One of the things that strikes me about Entropy magazine, which you founded and publish, is its ethos of generosity toward other writers, as it features lists of where to submit, mini-syllabi, and other resources, in addition to reviews and other regular literary journal features. In what ways do you see Entropy shaping the literary landscape for writers and writers of color?

Lee: Entropy began as a space for writers to engage with others writers in a literary community that wasn’t exclusive, hierarchical, or cliquey. We wanted a space that felt space, where people could collaborate and feel included and heard. For me, this means a few different things. It means that we offer support for marginalized voices and identities through publishing, resources, and community building. (We publish many writers for the first time, often publishing things that other journals might not, and have been told by several writers that they trust the space Entropy has created to share their vulnerable stories. We also offer resources like a Where to Submit list and small press interviews, among other things. All of this is done by volunteers who care and want to support the community.)

It also means that the space has room for new writers to continue to build and change the landscape. Entropy’s growth is due to the enthusiasm and energy of the community at large. Many of our editors approached me with new ideas, new gaps they wanted to fill, new series they wanted to start, new series in which they might showcase marginalized writers. We always have room for compassionate and open-minded thinkers to help shape the landscape for writers like them. (Be the change you want to see). And also, we’ve partnered with Writ Large Press and Civil Coping Mechanisms to form The Accomplices. I think of our dedication to supporting each other (writers, authors, other editors, each other in all of its capacities), to centering marginalized voices, and to continuing to work to transform the publishing and literary landscape. As we state on our website: “There is a power in publishing, in sharing our words with our communities, and declaring them for all the world. We believe that through publishing we can move the center and practice living a bold, radical, sustainable future.”

Hong: In your opinion, what are some the most exciting developments in recent Asian American poetry and poetics?

Lee: That there are more Asian American writers being published in multiple genres and modes and narrative types. When I was younger, there were almost no books available by Asian American authors, and if they existed, they felt so distant from my own experience or interests. Now we have Asian Americans writing science fiction, experimental poetry, novels (that aren’t just centered on immigrant narratives!), fairy tales, etc. We have more Asian American women in positions of power (as editors, publishers, decision-makers), and there is more engagement with Asian American poetry and poetics in multifaceted ways. Dorothy Wang’s book Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry is an important work in this vein.

Hong: You’ve taught a course on the concept of han as it manifests in Korean and Korean American experimental writing. Could you say a bit about how you see this concept animating Korean American poetry and poetics in the 2010s? 

Lee: Yes! The syllabus can be found here, I recently edited a small pamphlet on the subject for eohippus labs, and I also recently was a guest on this CBC radio documentary by Eunice Kim. The thing about han is that it’s so hard to describe. It’s an emotional concept, it’s culturally specific, and even among Koreans, there isn’t a consensus on what it is exactly or who can have it. In my introduction to the pamphlet, I write this: 

I don’t know how to write about a trauma that is not mine, yet invisibly and with utmost uncertainty, I have inherited its wounds. I don’t know how to write about a wound that I cannot see, a wound that I don’t remember receiving, a wound that is often forgotten but somehow felt. 

I am thinking about how, as Korean American writers, there seems to be an invisible thread that somehow tethers us along a common trajectory, common ghosts and conjurations. That we can understand implicitly a combination of real and felt trauma and suffering, perceived trauma and suffering, and also an invisible trauma and suffering, a trauma that is not ours, a trauma that is not mine, yet somehow corrupts our thoughts and feelings and actions daily. 

When I think about han, it is really all about a reluctance or inability to let go of the past. Non-Korean friends have tried to find relationships between Western existentialism and Korean han, but existentialism is so much about the future, dread and anxiety about the unknown, about what is to come, whereas han is so much about regret, suffering because of past events, the residual buildup of wounds that can span generations. For many Korean American poets and writers, we don’t have direct access to the major events that shaped the han of our parents and grandparents like the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, or the Gwangju massacre.

Han isn’t only about the trauma from large-scale historical events, of course, but this is how we often come to understand the generational effects of it, the way it is passed down indirectly, often through silence or avoidance. This silence is what many of us have inherited, and is what seeps into contemporary poetry and work, and most definitely my own. I read the work by my friend Chiwan Choi, for example, and for me, his work is full of han. It’s incredibly devastating and beautiful at the same time. This is the paradox of our current circumstances.

Hong: Your own writing concerns many fascinating subjects including the poetics of space, interspecies communication, and the apocalypse. What does the post-singularity future look like for API [Asian Pacific Islander] Americans? 

Lee: I hope that there is lots of food, so much food, stronger rituals and connections with ancestral lineages, stronger kinship with our plant and animal companions, and the ability to take time, to take real time, and to be able to shed the burden of and dependence on linear time and see how connected everything really is.