Living to Survive: Bodega by Su Hwang

Reviewed By

In Su Hwang’s debut collection, Bodega, the mix of contemporary and traditional forms mirror the complex story of immigration, where one lives in two worlds—the traditions and culture of the homeland and that of the new world.

Just as the variety of forms in Hwang’s collection mirror the first-generation immigrant experience, some of the poems’ aesthetics mirror their thematic concerns. The poem “Migratory Patterns” is shaped in a “V,” the formation birds make when they fly south before winter. “Wabi Sabi” is full of indentations and white space, creating the illusion of bringing together scattered and broken pieces, an example of the Japanese aesthetic Wabi-sabi, that sees beauty in the incomplete and broken.

In terms of contemporary form, the collection also features prose poems, but Hwang finds a way to break boundaries within this model. For example, by removing the space between words that would otherwise be separate, Hwang plays with the idea of how language—particularly English—can change over time. This aesthetic style parallels the language barrier immigrants face when they come to the United States: some technicalities abide by the simple yet frustrating rule “that’s just the way it is,” a confounding principle that might not be found in the native language of their home country.

Hwang’s choice to blend words is disorienting, even to a native English speaker. Perhaps Hwang wants to put native speakers in immigrants’ shoes. Furthermore, she displays how English and language are malleable, meant to be experimented with. The first line, of one poem, “Flushingqueens” reads: “Hundreds, if not a thousandtimes driving by Exit 24 on / the L.I.E.” and is one of many examples of this stylistic choice, a display of the freedom within poetry to play with language.

As Hwang cleverly creates her poems in an aesthetic fashion according to these themes and concepts, she also holds space for traditional poetic form. Just by its title, “Fresh Off The Boat | Five Sonnets” seems to be a reprise of a previous poem, “Fresh Off The Boat | An Iconography.” However, Hwang experiments with form, as each sonnet in this collection is differentiated from another in the line numbers per stanza. Since the sonnets do not follow the traditional rhyme scheme prescribed in the form, Hwang has more flexibility in choosing words which are more accurate to the story of immigration, a story of both fascination with the new world and shame for not being “American” enough.

The immigrant’s struggle to be perceived as “American” in their new home involves proving mastery of their new country’s language––no longer pronouncing l’s as r’s and forming grammatically perfect sentences. The speaker of “Han” asserts her fluency with high, formal diction immediately in the first stanza: “It is occupation / To assume the position: transport, / Heed, baptize, sever, feed.” The speaker is fluent in another sort of language: cultural awareness. The following stanza from “Han” speaks to the duality of a hyphenated identity, one of two cultures:

Do not mistake hyphenation for lack
Of disciple or vestigial claims as
Surrender. We’re told to fear large bodies

Of water– how easily we are made

To submit. Even in the womb, we seek
Exit strategies, wrestling the murk,
No matter our pigmentation or creed.

There is no direct translation for “Han” in English. “ It is more akin to a concept, a kind of emotion where there is beauty and even hope in suffering. The poem’s thematic concerns of the refugee’s struggle “Ligaments hewed from bone, splinters / Lodged into heels” speaks to “han,” where pain shapes one’s identity and story.

The universality of living to survive, coping in any way we can, despite our ethnicity or identity, appears in other poems in Hwang’s collection. The titular poem, “Bodega” in the second section, starts with an epigraph from Adrienne Rich: “But we have different voices, even in sleep, and our bodies, so alike, are yet so different and the past echoing through our bloodstreams is freighted with different language, different meanings.”

These different bodies, containing different voices and stories, make up the ensemble cast of characters in “Bodega”: Mrs. Kim, who works the register; Raul, the Hispanic man who stocks the shelves; Jimmy, whose identity contains the duality of an English name, more “American” than his Korean name Kim Jin Soo; Sandy, the customer who goes under the radar simply because she is white; and Joseph, the customer who Mrs. Kim watches vigilantly simply because he is black.

Hwang is not afraid to shy away from a taboo topic within Korean and Asian American spaces: the racial tension between Koreans and African Americans. She also acknowledges another topic fraught with racial tension: the Asian American’s desire for proximity to whiteness through beauty standards. The speaker of “Face | Off” recalls this desire through a childhood memory:

                                          In the throat of this hidden cave, I inhabited
whiteness without retribution. No longer
                                         ching-chong-china girl––I, a ravishing blonde
                                         trophy with perfect proportions.

She uses her poetry to push back against such topics and oppressive cultural narratives, such as the model minority myth, notably found in the poem, “Conjure: Daughter.” The speaker unloads the burden and shame of not fulfilling the model minority through honesty:

                                                        Dutiful, so mild-mannered! To be picture
Perfect (handmaid in the making) for me

                                                                    An impossible feat. I was, after all, no violin
                                         Or piano virtuoso, merely third chair at

Flute, zero scholarships to medical school.

Similarly, in the third sonnet of “Fresh Off The Boat | Five Sonnets,” the speaker laments of a bleak, disappointing future with, “no hope of / getting into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, / of becoming a doctor or engineer.” Grouped together, certain poems focus on the shame a first-generation immigrant experiences due to falling short of the expectations from their family and the collective culture.

Bodega is one of the most experimental and ambitious projects that I have encountered. Hwang, like her immigrant parents who moved to an unknown land, takes a risk by experimenting with form, making innovative aesthetic choices, and writing sweeping narrative-driven poems. Furthermore, I appreciated Hwang’s unapologetic willingness to delve into African American and Korean race relations, an important topic concerning the ripple effects of the 1992 LA riots. It is tricky to discuss race with sensitivity and honesty, especially when one must call out racism perpetrated by those in their own ethnic and racial community. Hwang makes a revolutionary and noteworthy achievement in doing so within Asian American literature, a space where a writer can be tempted to discuss the dynamics only within their ethnic community.

The difficulty for a poet to write an autobiographical work steeped in a different cultural experience from the majority culture is that it can isolate those who do not come from such a background. But the opposite effect can also be true: readers learn a new experience and can therefore hold empathy. Hwang has achieved the latter. With high diction and abstract language, the poems in Bodega are vulnerable, baring open a raw portrayal of immigration and assimilation.

Emily Kim is a fiction MFA student at American University in Washington, DC. She graduated with a BA in English from the University of Maryland, where she was a part of the Jimenez Porter Writers' Group and was a finalist for the Jimenez Porter Literary Prize. She has experience working abroad in Australia for a college student group and now currently works in higher ed administration for the School of Public Affairs at American University. More from this author →