Mary-Kim Arnold

Mary-Kim Arnold

I: Individual Collectivities

Karla Kelsey: In both Litany for the Long Moment and your new book of poems The Fish & The Dove you work with archival sources to tell a story both personal and political, taking as catalyst your adoption to the United States from Korea at two-and-a-half years of age. The linked essays of Litany for the Long Moment employ documents, photographs, school lessons, and letters, deftly revealing many ways in which visual material communicates. For example, the photographs you include document time and place while catching the fleeting thing we think of as personality: the figures in your photos are often caught mid-gesture as they exchange smiles, whispers, glances.  Documents like the chart of the Korean alphabet reminds us how much communication is evoked by the forms and shapes of letters—a fact that you echo in the rhythms you create with paragraphs of various sizes beautifully arranged on the page.

The Fish & The Dove continues many of the themes of Litany, delving into what it is like to grow up in America as a woman of color. The book’s series of eight visual poems expands the personal into the larger historical field by overlaying rectangles of museum-styled wall text that describe quotidian objects (a tobacco pipe, a girl’s locket) over a report by issued by the Republic of Korea’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission detailing the human rights violations of the Korean War. 

Your work serves as a rich model for many techniques a writer might choose from in including historical and personal archives. A difficult thing to decide is the amount of mediation an archival document should go through: should it be scanned and printed? translated? woven into dialogue? rendered as story? 

What kinds of things do you consider when deciding on the form archival incorporation will take? Do certain kinds of documents ask for particular modes of presentation? 

Mary-Kim Arnold: Thank you for this question and for such attentive engagement with my work. 

I think I am attempting to strike a balance between instinct and intention. 

For the personal documents, I rely primarily on instinct, the way I respond to the documents themselves, what it feels like to look at them, to be with them. I try to be attentive to where the energy or heat of the object is for me, where it feels particularly significant. 

I’ll take for example, the letter that became the cover of Litany for the Long Moment. It was one of a series of handwritten letters between On Soon Whang, the director of the Orphans’ Home of Korea, and my adoptive mother. I was drawn to this letter because it documented one of the more transactional aspects of the adoption. There is money exchanged. My mother sends a few items – dress slip, vitamins, doll, socks – in preparation for my trip and a check for $25. In other letters, there are some references to small sums of money – sometimes referred to specifically to cover postage. These are beyond the official costs of the adoption – the administrative fees, travel expenses, cost of required home studies and necessary medical examinations, all of which together were likely to have been tens of thousands of dollars. 

So here is a reminder of the transactional, rendered through the motion of the hand on the page. I was not able to reproduce the blue airmail page, but I found the small, cramped handwriting very moving, the fact of it, the trace of the hand, the hand addressing my mother. This seemed to me a close approximation of a core paradox of the adoption. Transactions represented and exacted through the physical body – of this woman’s hand, but also, of course, in exchange for, in anticipation of, the actual body of the child, delivered. 

I was also drawn to this particular penmanship, its smallness, its tightness. On Soon Whang’s letters – and the couple photos included in the book – constitute the only evidence that I existed before my arrival here in the United States. So as evidence, as objects, I am looking for a lot from them. There is a way in which they carry all this information, but what I most want to glean from it remains enigmatic and resistant to my interpretation. For it to be reproduced, for it to be represented as itself – as much as itself as possible – and not through my interpretation of it – seemed important. 

The photographs – most of which I took myself – are already mediated, and I attempt to consider that mediation by drawing in Barthes and Sontag – so the fact that they are rendered in black and white, and not as “true” to their original form is less significant. Fidelity to the original is not where the energy of the photos are for me. 

To consider as another example, the Report from the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation, which you reference, and which I use in the last pages of The Fish & The Dove. The energy from that document comes not from its physical object-ness. My only engagement with it is virtual – as a downloadable pdf on the Commission’s website. What I was trying to show from it is the fact of this language, the seeming endlessness of line after line recounting the torture and murder of Korean civilians. What was important about the document was the sense of its scale – page after page, and of its language, so to the extent that you might be able to read it, you know that it takes on this particular administrative tone, a kind of bureaucratic droning. Using the passive voice, e.g., “the investigation was poorly conducted,” leaving no human trace, no embodiment of the responsibility. The language is distanced from the perpetration of the act. That distance, and the suggestion of what it was obfuscating was where the energy of the artifact existed for me. 

Perhaps what I’m suggesting is that the more mysteries the object contains, the more enigmatic, the more it seems important to represent it in a way that stays close to my own encounter with it. 


II: Collective Entries

Extended versions of these original questions can be found here 


The Call of the Object: Have you experienced a “call” from an archival object or text that led you down the path of response?  

Mary-Kim Arnold: I love the idea of an object “calling.” 

It wasn’t until after my mother died that most of the artifacts from my adoption came into my care. Among them, the clothes I arrived in – the simple dress I was wearing over a long-sleeved shirt, tights, saddle shoes, a wool hat. I had packed these away, decades ago, and rarely had any need to consider them. 

While I was working on the manuscript that would eventually become Litany for the Long Moment, I was spending time with the documents and photographs, and at a certain point I wanted to photograph the clothing as well, but discovered that the dress was missing. Had I lost it during a move? Had I, in a sudden desire to purge, to symbolically “let go” of the past, thrown it out? It’s hard to imagine that I would have done that, but whatever had happened, the dress was gone and its absence presented this dead end. I remember standing in my basement, having done through all the other bags and storage bins.

And then I thought, what if I just make it myself?

My mother had taught me to sew and as a child I was often sewing doll clothes and simple skirts. After she died, I also inherited a trunk full of fabrics and patterns, a bunch of projects she had started but never finished. And when my own daughter was young, I had made a few dresses for her, dresses not unlike the one I was missing. And so I rummaged around and found the pattern I had for the dresses I made for my daughter, and I had these fabrics from my mother and those circumstances together felt very evocative, so I set out to reproduce the dress. 

There was something so meditative and engaging to making the dress, to working with my hands. It was not working on the book, but it felt adjacent to it, so after the first one was complete, I made more. 

When I had about a dozen, I hung them up on little hangers together and found something very compelling about seeing the one dress, multiplied. I was not alone, I was one of many. 

I read that there have been about 200,000 Korean children adopted abroad in the last few decades. That number was incomprehensible to me, and I wanted to try to understand what it meant in terms of actual lives. I knew I could only come to a clumsy, insufficient approximation, so I settled on trying to make 200 – one for every thousand. 

So over the next year or so, in the evenings, I would sew these dresses. Although at times, I would try to make the process more efficient, no matter how many different ways I pieced the work, in the end, each one required about an hour of attention, and it seemed important to acknowledge that too. (As a note on scale, I calculated how long it might take to make 200,000 dresses. If I worked twelve hours a day, every day, it would take 46 years (which coincidentally represented my entire lifetime to that point) to make them all.

I made the dresses all in white, because white has traditionally been associated with mourning in Korea, and I wanted to at least suggest – to invite the possibility that adoption is not automatically a happy ending for the child. To complicate the dominant narrative, which so often was from the perspective of the adoptive parents. 

And I decided to use recycled domestic fabrics – tablecloths, bed linens that I bought mostly at second-hand shops, so that as I made them, as I handled and worked with the fabrics, I had to confront the fact that there was no way of knowing where they had come from, what prior narratives might be embodied in the cloth. 

The installation that resulted, (Re-)Dress: One for Every Thousand, was part of a textile show locally at the Jamestown Arts Center, and it worked out that I was able to have my book launch event there while the show was up. 

In the final installation, each of the 200 dresses bore a tag with a unique identification number, which corresponds to the birthdate – actual or estimated – of an individual currently active in the Korean Adoptee Search Database, hosted by Korea Adoptee Services in Seoul. Date of birth is followed by the country of current residence. I wanted to link the dresses to real people, real lives. 

(There are some photos and documentation of the installation here.)

The Ethics and Aesthetics of Archival Work: What is one of the most powerful experiences that you have had as you’ve engaged an overlooked or silenced element of the archive?  


Preservation and Access: If you could create any kind of archive you wanted, anywhere in the world, to house any kind of materials, what would you create?

Mary-Kim Arnold: I thought I might consider both questions together to talk about something I am working on now, which I think arises both from an absence in the archive (and here, I use that word in a broad sense, to mean generally acknowledged and known stories) and also from a wish. 

Over the last year or so, I have been developing the idea for a project (working title: Artist Unknown, Korean) in which I would create a personal archive of notebooks, correspondence, photographs, and other materials for a fictional Korean American artist, whose timeline approximates that of my birth mother. 

The fictional framework of Artist Unknown, Korean is that it documents the life and work of Korean-born American artist Song Hee Park, an invented character who abandons her infant daughter in Busan to pursue an art career in New York City in the early 1970s. I am thinking about three related elements for the project: 1) the invented archive of Park’s art works, notebooks, correspondence, and ephemera; 2) a series of public exhibitions and workshops that show and contextualize the artist’s work; and 3) the book that draws from real and fictional archives. 

The creation of this character and these personal effects is an attempt to invent into several types of silence: the suppression of Korean language and culture during the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945); the gaps created by historical marginalization and institutional neglect of Korean and Korean American feminist artists; and the “dead-ends” in lineage for Korean adoptees after failed searches for birthparents. 

In my book, Litany for the Long Moment, I claim that I am writing “into the site of rupture,” into the absence left by my separation from my family and nation of birth. The rupture also refers to the division between North and South Korea at the end of the Korean War, which was one of many factors that set the stage for transnational adoption of an estimated 200,000 Korean children in the decades that followed. 

Traditionally-accepted representations of Korean birthmothers as desperate, impoverished, and in need of intervention by white American families flatten and dehumanize women to caricature, while reinscribing racially-charged ideas of American altruism and benevolence. To imagine a Korean birthmother who makes the decision to relinquish her child in pursuit of personal fulfillment troubles the desperation narrative, and creates space for the possibility of agency and full personhood. 

Widely-held convictions that the adoption of a child can be considered a “happy ending” for each member of the adoption triad also impose the expectation of lifelong gratitude and the burden of shame on adopted children. To be “chosen” for adoption is to be saved by the promise of a new, better, more privileged life, the cost of which is often the erasure of all prior familial, social, and cultural connections. In Artist Unknown, Korean, the character of the adult adoptee inherits the personal archive of the birthmother she never knew, allowing her to reclaim the interrupted lineage. She is also granted, in place of memories of lived experience, the intimate artifacts of her mother’s own life and work. 


III: Exchange Question

Lucy Ives: I came across Julietta Singh’s No Archive Will Restore You (2018) via a conversation with a student in the class I am currently teaching (the class is about memory and mnemonic devices). Having read Singh’s essay, I started to wonder about the limitations of the concept of the archive, as well as of individual or actual archives, in themselves. I’d be curious to know: Have you ever been disillusioned with an archive—or, with the very practice of materialist historiography archives seemingly enable? Should we question the ubiquity of the term, as well as the way in which many artists and scholars (myself included) have a tendency to attribute great value and significance to archives both real and theoretical/imaginary?

Mary-Kim Arnold: I was grateful to be pointed to this essay, and while I don’t have the experience of being a doctoral student that Singh describes, nor have I really had any sustained engagement with scholarly research, the longing for a kind of resolution or redemption that might be presented by the archive, real or imagined, is a recognizable one. 

I am not sure I know how else to respond to this provocation, except with the memory that this essay stirred up in me. 

After my mother died, we packed up her personal effects – clothing, mostly, some costume jewelry, a few trinkets. We filled six large black trash bags, destined for the Salvation Army. 

If I could go back, I would keep them all. I think I might like to take out each item and describe it, write about it. This is the dress my mother wore to the ocean, when we walked the boardwalk at night. This was the coat she bought to wear for Easter, but then that Easter was too warm for a coat. 

Here was a skirt she made herself and wore on one of the afternoons I remember her happy. 

My mother, in her moment of being, the ordinariness of a woman, moving through her day, choosing an ordinary dress for an ordinary day, feeling a little ordinary joy at the end of it. 

Singh says, “The archive is a stimulus between myself and myself.” 

What can be said about it matters only in the sense of my telling it, my tracing it, my holding it. 

She was my mother. She wore a dress. Now both mother and dress are gone.   

Mary-Kim Arnold is the author of Litany for the Long Moment (Essay Press, 2018) and The Fish & The Dove (Noemi Press, 2020). Other writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Hyperallergic, Poem-a-Day, The Georgia Review, The Denver Quarterly, and The Rumpus, among others. She teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University and in the low-residency Newport MFA.