Identity; Queer, Poet, and Otherwise: An Interview with Sung Yim

Lately, or maybe more frequently than I think, I have been really thinking about queer poets of color and how they express themselves through poetry. And for me, as an emerging, or up and coming, or whatever, queer poet of color, I want to get at this idea of queer poetry of color politics or respectability. What does it mean to be a queer poet of color? What do you write about? How do you share your work? For me, I think these types of conversations are important. However, I am just one human being, therefore I am biased to my own thoughts and ideas. So.. why not ask other people.

I met Sung Yim while at Columbia College during my first semester in Poetry Beginning Workshop. And honestly, I was immediately intrigued by their work and the themes they were getting at. I thought they were a genius. They read at my reading this past month, White Noise, and the audience loved them. And, of course, so did I. Therefore, it was only right to interview them and pick their brain about some of the things I have been tossing around in my head.

Luther Hughes: Explain your identity.

Sung Yim:  I’m a South Korean immigrant and a bisexual genderqueer person. That means I’m gendered without consent day to day and experience misogyny because I’m read as a woman. A lot of people don’t even believe in nonbinary genders or know what they are, so my identity is often erased or invalidated in daily exchanges. I’ve also dealt with a lot of biphobia from both straight and gay people–I’ve been told that bisexuals are just confused, that we’re greedy, that we “might as well be straight.” And there are a lot of harmful stereotypes that are perpetuated within queer communities like “never trust a bi girl”or “bi girls are just straight girls trying to prove something.” All of those have simultaneously invalidated my gender identity–how can I be straight or gay if I’m nonbinary? There are a lot of questions I want to ask, and  there’s a lot of unpacking I want to do of these harmful notions in the face of these interactions, but I seldom find the courage because it’s rare for me to find a space where I feel safe and comfortable as both a bisexual and nonbinary person.

But first and foremost, I’m a Korean immigrant. All of those intersections of my identity–my gender, my sexuality, and the expressions of them–are filtered through my navigation of a culture that fetishizes stereotypical notions of East Asian femininity. And as much as people love to ask why we need labels, I don’t see it that way. For me, differentiating aspects of myself this way by saying aloud, I am queer, I am yellow, helps me communicate to others that this is my daily experience and affirm to myself in a world that doesn’t seem to think I’m real that yes, this is true and yes, there’s more.

LH: What does it mean to be a queer poet? What does it mean to be a queer poet of color?

SY: One of the challenges of being a queer poet for me would be having the confidence to present myself without apology or explanation. I tend to falter in my references to queer attraction because it feels like straight readers will stumble over it and respond with all sorts of questions and demand for context. It often feels like my work will either be swallowed whole by or eclipse my queerness completely. The same challenge applies for being a poet of color, and at times I find myself negotiating what of myself I can fit on the page.

LH: How does your identity dictate or move your poetry?

SY: I’ve noticed an entrenched orientalist bias in the publishing industry. One harmful facet of this industry bias is that writers of color will rarely get a platform to discuss the universal. When white editors read our submissions, those of us with distinctly ethnic names are immediately othered on the page. They’ll be looking for an explanation for our names in the body of our work, an origin story of some kind. This translates into an immense pressure on East Asian authors to conform to accessible tropes. There are certain experiences I’ve wanted to discuss that most of my audience will have no cultural frame of reference for, and this makes me pause in the writing process. I agonize over exposition and wonder how much I must explain or how much of the discussion will be dominated by western curiosities when my work is unpacked by readers. So as much as I have many tender feelings of appreciation for where I come from and what I’ve known, it’s discouraging to feel as though I won’t be recognized for my exploration of universally human feelings because people will be distracted by an aspect of self that can’t be expected to contain all of my experience.

LH: Do you think there is a difference between the language queer poets of color use than other communities?

SY: Being Korean means at times my poems will be partially bilingual. And there will be terminology specific to queer communities when discussing those concepts. Beyond that, I can’t say. I think we should all strive to being inventive with our language and draw from our roots and environments, but I don’t think there’s anything essential to being queer and of color beyond this in a linguistic sense.

LH: How do you handle literary spaces where you feel being queer is unsafe?

SY: I don’t. I don’t like to rub elbows with people who hold hostile views about queerness, and I don’t personally handle those situations well. I’m not explicitly out to everyone in my life and situations where I can’t safely be out are distressing. My gender expression will adapt in a way that’s not comfortable–my shoulders will narrow, I’ll shrink down, and I’ll speak in a higher register. I’ll be hesitant to speak and find myself interrupted frequently because I’m too afraid to assert myself. I can’t reconcile myself with that type of interaction any more than is necessary in daily living, and I refuse to support spaces that don’t support my existence or that of my community.

LH: Explain your respectability politics.

SY: Respectability politics is something I only play for the direct protection of my people. For example, many of us reserve certain intracommunity criticisms. I don’t hold those discussions in the same space as those belonging to the dominant classes because that’s not their business. That’s not something for them to speak on or even acknowledge. Issues between Asian Americans are to be addressed by Asian Americans. Issues between queer people are to be addressed between queer people. Another way I practice this is, I don’t invite white or otherwise non-Asian people to use anti-Asian slurs or make stereotypical jokes. However others feel about reclaiming slurs and sharing our culture, I refuse to broaden the privileges of those who benefit from racism by giving them permission to reclaim something that isn’t theirs to reclaim. But that’s the extent of it–it’s ridiculous to burden those already maligned by systemic oppression with the onus of resolving racism. We need to allow ourselves to be jubilant, get angry, to grieve, in whatever way humans do. It’s not right to police human expression based on the narrow or acerbic perceptions of others.

LH: Anything else you would like to address?

SY: I want to emphasize how important it is to support local artists and keep the local literary ecosystem thriving by sharing work, donating at readings, and purchasing printed work by small presses whenever possible. Share links to your writer friends’ work and promote their events all over social media. Even more than that, it’s important to keep writers of color, queer writers, and the narratives surrounding those experiences at the forefront of our literary discussions.

One thing I’ve noticed is that whenever I call for a more inclusive curriculum, young white writers sometimes respond with defensiveness. I’ve been asked, “How can I pursue my art as a white writer while supporting more diverse representation?” or “Well, should white writers stop writing?” I’ve even had one successfully published white MFA graduate jokingly say, “I guess I’ll just stop publishing, then.” My answer to this is that actively supporting marginalized voices does nothing to take away from anyone else’s spotlight. It’s important to acknowledge that it takes real effort to seek out and amplify marginalized voices when we’re seen as minorities and our work is written off as “special interest” topics. So I would ask that people examine this defensiveness and really open up to consciously seeking out works by the oppressed. Listen to queer writers of color speak out about their own experiences instead of reading a straight white writer’s interpretations of them. We don’t want to take anything away from you, but we want to be heard just the same.

2 thoughts on “Identity; Queer, Poet, and Otherwise: An Interview with Sung Yim

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