My Poetry Corner July 2017 features the poem “Immigrant Song” by Sun Yung Shin, a Korean-American poet, writer, and educator. Born in Seoul, South Korea, she was one year old when an American couple adopted her. Raised in Chicago, she later moved to Minneapolis where she earned a BA in English from Macalester College and a Master’s Degree in Education from the University of St. Thomas. She teaches at Macalester College and lives with her husband and their two children.
When asked about her relationship with the English language in an interview with Lightsey Darst for Minnesota Artists (January 2016), Sun Yung Shin said that strangers often question her ability to speak English without a “foreign” accent. Her fluency and sense of belonging as an Asian American offend them.
Shin’s opening verses in “Immigrant Song” from her poetry collection, Skirt Full of Black (winner of the 2007 Asian American Literary Award for Poetry), express the restraints she faces to achieve her full potential as a human being.
All birds—even those that do not fly
A constant confession
Admission of omission
In the working class “village” in Chicago where she grew up, Shin mingled with Italian, Irish, and Slavic residents. Her adoptive father is Irish and German; her adoptive mother is Polish-American. This cultural diversity influenced her interest in class, ethnicity, and the “language of the invisible.”
This is our gene flow
How do you like our genetic drift
A riff, a rift, a raft…
Too rough for the second half
Crick & Watson
This is your mother’s local phenomenon
If this is racial hygiene
Why do I feel so dirty?
In juxtaposing facts with the emotional response of exclusion and purging, Shin reminds us of the advances we have made in human genetics and the structure of our DNA—gene flow, genetic drift, Crick & Watson, Evo-devo (see Footnotes below). Yet, we still cling to outdated beliefs about race and being human.
4.6 billion years of biology
Can’t stop the ideology
Graduate from meet/mate
To fitness landscape of sexual selection
As a naturalized citizen of Asian descent and a woman, Sun Yung Shin views her writing as a means of contributing to the larger conversations about life in America that exclude or objectify her and others like her.
She closes her “Immigrant Song” with a pop and a sigh.
Plant the flag
Bury the burial mound
Put the pop in popular
And the sigh in science
This Fourth of July, I join Americans of all shades and origins in celebrating the courageous acts of kindness that hold our communities together, despite the growing narrative of exclusion and hate. For all Americans to share in the prosperity of our nation, we must turn the rift into a raft to take us across the stormy waters into a brighter future.
To read the complete featured poem and learn more about Sun Yung Shin and her work, go to my Poetry Corner July 2017.
Gene flow (1947): the passage and establishment of genes typical of one breeding population into the gene pool of another by hybridization and back-crossing
Genetic drift (1945): random changes in gene frequency esp. in small populations when leading to preservation or extinction of particular genes
Crick & Watson: James Watson and Francis Crick, together with Maurice Wilkins, won the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discovery of the structure of DNA.
Evo-devo: evolutionary developmental biology that compares the developmental processes of different organisms to determine the ancestral relationship between them, and to discover how developmental processes evolved.