choa magazine, building something with intention

by Mirae Lee and Harriet Kim

Mirae Lee (she/her) is a cultural producer, bilingual writer, translator, and illustrator. She has worked with various Tkaronto-based not-for-profit arts organizations until recently when she moved to Asia to explore new possibilities.

Harriet Kim(she/her) is a photographer, writer, community arts organizer, and environmentalist. She is the co-creator of a portrait series called Dressed in Layers: A Hanbok Project and the founder of the Korean Canadian Writers’ Collective.

In August 2020, Mirae Lee and Harriet Kim launched choa magazine, an online publication devoted to recognizing, examining, and understanding the nuances and complexities of Korean female diasporic experiences, as well as their inaugural volume.  

Here, they reflect on the initial ideas for choa, their Korean diasporic experiences through books, language, and storytelling, and the need for a care-based focus in this kind of work.


Harriet Kim: Before we started formally working on choa magazine, both of us were sitting on an idea of it without really realizing that it would become what it is now. I remember our first thought for choa was to create an anthology. When we met at a local cafe back in 2017, creating a publication wasn’t on my mind. I was obsessing over the medium of photography as a way to explore Korean history and migration. But towards the end of our conversation, your comment about creating an anthology stuck with me.

Mirae Lee: In 2017, I received a book from one of my anthropology professors called Han Kut: Critical Art and Writing by Korean Canadian Women, which was published in 2007. It’s an enthralling collection of works exploring diverse experiences and histories surrounding the lives of Korean Canadian women, from queerness to un/belonging to Korean shamanism, “comfort women,”[1] kirogi kajok[2], and ajumma[3] as a third gender. The anthology shows the complexities and nuances of people who must deal with, reconcile, and move through this world as an Asian, a Korean or the “Other,” a Canadian or a “foreigner” on the motherland, a hybrid “Korean Canadian,” and as a woman, an individual. I have yet to go through every piece—they each need time to sit with, especially since not one piece shares the same theme as another.

I remember feeling incredibly excited about this anthology. It was my first time seeing a publication or a collective work by Korean Canadian women. I was mulling over the idea of bringing together Korean Canadian women in some form at that time, so receiving this anthology felt like a perfect coincidence. And soon after, I mentioned it to you. I don’t remember why we met up that day, but thinking back now, it was certainly an important turning point. And about two years later, choa magazine launched and we are journeying forward in creating this space.

I remember feeling incredibly excited about this anthology. It was my first time seeing a publication or a collective work by Korean Canadian women. I was mulling over the idea of bringing together Korean Canadian women in some form at that time, so receiving this anthology felt like a perfect coincidence.

Harriet Kim: How interesting that you received a copy of that anthology in 2017.

In 2016, I read A Quiet Odyssey by Mary Paik Lee, who was among the first Koreans to move to the USA, and was the first book by a Korean that I read. In 2017, I read my first novel by a Korean author, I’ll Be Right There by Shin Kyung Sook. I make this distinction because I’ll Be Right There feels like a personal benchmark [(although, it should be noted that Mary Paik Lee is a remarkable woman and I think her autobiography is essential reading). I’m not sure what it was but there was something about it that brought up for me a weird mix of familiarity, shock, confusion, even heartache (although, I wish I could tell you that it was excitement). I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the emotions. But it seeded this deep hunger to read more stories by Korean authors more widely, let alone stories by Korean Canadian authors—apparently, so much so that I often mistakenly reference this book as the first book I read by a Korean author.

I haven’t read Han Kut, but I’m excited to read it. The people behind this anthology, and many others including those who go unnamed and unrecognized, are doing the necessary shared work of producing, creating, and collaborating and have laid the groundwork for us to be where we are now. It’s amazing when certain books make their way to people like us and create connection points for us to build upon.

Mirae Lee: 2017 was also the year that I began to actively read texts by Korean writers. I wanted books to be another avenue in my ongoing consumption of Korean epistemologies, culture, and history. Although I am easily categorized under the umbrella term of Asian/Korean Canadian, my experiences diverge from the mainstream immigrant and diaspora discourse, and I’ve been finding myself leaning more towards the words of Korean writers. For the past couple of years, I’ve been subscribing, on and off, to a young Korean writer, Lee Sulla’s monthly texts. Every weekday for a month, she emails a story, a comic strip, an interview with people that inspire her, and many other creative pieces. Her work often shares moments of her daily life or relates to a certain socio-cultural or environmental issue, like animal rights or the impact of the Sewol ferry sinking on survivors and the victims’ families. Other times, her work simply depicts her experience navigating the world as a young, freelance artist, in an honest, self-reflective kind of way. I’ve been finding solace in her words. Although I obviously cannot fully connect and sympathize with the experiences of growing up and living in Korea, I find her nuances of feeling, interacting, and living in this world more relatable. This probably has more to do with my relationship with the Korean language, as I’ve always required it to express and describe subtleties and intricacies of my experience. Korean is a language for my diaries and poetry, which may be why I feel more intimacy in words by Lee Sulla and many other Korean writers with a similar genre.

You mention the words “deep hunger,” and they are a perfect description of why starting choa magazine was so important to me. For a while, I’ve been feeling itchy from the stories surrounding the Asian diaspora in North America. We often see them tied strongly with one’s cultural identities with attribution to parents, memories, or nostalgia, which I think has a risk in essentializing or even exoticizing our narratives. I crave stories that go beyond—stories that share an experience of a person navigating this world without always having to perform Koreanness, as if to give reasons to our experiences. I also think it’s important to build connections to larger happenings, systems, and structures, such as taking the time to really understand the existence of “han 恨,” not just in the past but also in the present. Many diasporic Koreans reference “han” as a part of their life, expression, or experience, but how does it persist today? What are the political, social, and cultural issues underlying this feeling or concept, and how does it bring all of us together or not?

I think these are ways of normalizing our experiences rather than feeding into the mainstream discourse of what our experiences should be, which is often a romanticization of hardships and “otherness.” I think it also allows us to truly understand our relationships with larger issues and nuances of our experiences to avoid succumbing to tropes. This will be a difficult and long process, but I believe it’s a possible future. And I think what we’re aiming to do with choa is important in creating a platform that recognizes, examines, and understands the nuances and complexities of the Korean female diasporic experiences in relation to various large-scale issues.

Many diasporic Koreans reference ‘han’ as a part of their life, expression, or experience, but how does it persist today? What are the political, social, and cultural issues underlying this feeling or concept, and how does it bring all of us together or not?

HK: I think that’s part of the reason why reading I’ll Be Right There brought up a mix of emotions for me and impacted me as much as it did. The story follows a group of university-aged friends during a personally and politically tumultuous time in 1980s Seoul. Although I’ve never lived in Korea, let alone during the 80s, this book speaks to what you said about relating to works by Korean authors. This story is about these young characters experiencing profound loss, grief, and political turmoil and the ways that these experiences affect their relationships. This story is specific to Seoul during this particular time, and in many ways, that has everything to do with the story but at the same time, it doesn’t have anything to do with them being Korean in Korea. There are stories of Korean Canadian (and American) experiences that have impacted me for the ways they mirror some of my own lived experiences but this book was a sort of out-of-body experience for me as I thought about the many young people who lived through such a complicated time in Korea’s political history.

This isn’t to say that identity doesn’t have a meaningful and important place in this conversation but I think the line between the kinds of conversations that don’t collapse in the face of scrutiny and the kinds that become an all-consuming trope, in many ways, is more precarious than we think. I realize that the conceptualization of race is different in Canada than it is in Korea, but I also think that as long as those of us in the diaspora exist as visible “others” in and because of a white supremacist system, it can also feel impossible to talk about how we move through the world without having Korean identity preface everything.

But I agree that as difficult and long of a process it will be, we are more than that, individually and collectively, and the kind of future you’re thinking of is possible. I know we’ve had many conversations like this in the past and will likely have many more. I also appreciate that we’re creating this platform to invite others in the process of holding and honouring our Korean identities and our desires to go beyond that while being critical of the structures that make that difficult. It’s also talking about the hardships that we, and those before us, have been through while understanding that it’s not just the hardships.

… I also think that as long as those of us in the diaspora exist as visible “others” in and because of a white supremacist system, it can also feel impossible to talk about how we move through the world without having Korean identity preface everything.

When we were asked about the various difficulties and barriers we face and how we’re addressing them with choa, I’ve been thinking a lot about what barriers we are trying to address and for whom. It’s not that we, as creators, don’t face various socio-political and economic challenges ourselves or that we’re not meaningfully trying to make this magazine accessible. But when it comes to barriers, it’s hard to know where they’re located and if you’ve overcome them, and what to do if you’re the one creating the barriers.

As much as I think about the various structures and barriers that exist, I personally didn’t set out to address them explicitly with this magazine. This is an oversimplification but I say that because approaching the magazine in that way feels like too much to take on, especially for any one person (or two!). I’d say we’re building something that we wanted, needed, and felt was missing for ourselves. These things feel distinct, as much as they are related.

And when I say building something up, I also include acknowledging and working up to our relationships and responsibilities with and on Turtle Island and building this into the foundation of our magazine. As much as it is important for all of us to individually listen and study and learn, these things don’t exist in a vacuum. We also need to take action and our relationships with this land will necessarily change as we do that in relation with each other, our funders, our partners, contributors, readers, the broader Korean community, and beyond.

ML: Working in community arts, independently and through Project 40 Collective, I have been constantly asking how to create spaces that can directly address barriers; however, I have learned that you can never fully understand the barriers that everyone faces. Some of these systems are so ingrained in our every day that there will always be a blind spot. Instead, I have been focused on intentional care, specifically the offering of a listening ear. I want to bring this into the magazine’s foundation, not just in how we interact with our contributors and readers but also in how we engage with the themes we choose.

… I have learned that you can never fully understand the barriers that everyone faces. Some of these systems are so ingrained in our every day that there will always be a blind spot. Instead, I have been focused on intentional care, specifically the offering of a listening ear.

It begins with our process of choosing the theme. For our inaugural volume, we both recognized the urgency of climate change and the necessity to call it a crisis; however, we also recognized the pressures that the words “climate crisis” could bring to the general public, including ourselves, in starting a conversation. We decided on water as an accessible gateway into getting into this heavy topic while also allowing us to explore and showcase other meanings of water. As I have quoted in my letter from the editor, elder and founding member of the water protectors movement, Grandmother Josephine Mandamin reminds us, “water can hear you”—I also ask in turn, how can we listen to water? In our inaugural volume, we approached the natural resource as a necessary, all-around entity while recognizing the intricacy of its existence with human activity, such as the high rise of flooding on urban infrastructure, the instability of climatic temper on displacement, and the livening wildlife on our privilege to travel. This relates to what you said about working to acknowledge our relationships and responsibilities with Turtle Island, and I would add, also with the people we share the land with.

In the process of choosing the theme for the second volume, we also reflected on what questions or ideas felt relevant, necessary, and important within the diaspora. We chose Jip-bab, which means home-cooked meal in Korean, as it not only conjures up food but also notions of home, care, and emotional nourishment. This feels evermore pertinent in our current moment, as well as histories, traditions, and relationships. It’s also an apt segue from water as we break it down into ingredients and crops that are impacted by the climate crisis, and highlight the invisible labour that helps to bring jip-bab onto our tables.

In the process of choosing the theme for the second volume, we also reflected on what questions or ideas felt relevant, necessary, and important within the diaspora. We chose Jip-bab, which means home-cooked meal in Korean, as it not only conjures up food but also notions of home, care, and emotional nourishment.

I’ve been mulling over visual artist, community activist, and educator Syrus Marcus Ware’s words, at a panel for Ursula Liang’s film “Down a Dark Stairwell,” on the need to transform our current system to prioritize care—that we need a new system where we will take care of each other and make sure everyone has what they need to survive. A magazine feels like a small presence and action to build on the care-based system, but it’s still a platform which means it has the privilege of capacity and possibilities.

HK: A focus on intentional care and offering of a listening ear is a beautiful way to put it. As you said, I hope readers will see the kind of care practiced in our exploration of water, not only understanding that there are many different facets of our physical relationships to it, but that they’re also layered with spirituality and emotion. We see that from the nostalgia and vulnerability of communal bathing rituals to the fears and anxieties that come with the dynamics between the climate crisis, ableism, and power.

We started 2021 with a call for submissions for our second volume. Along the same lines of how can we listen to water, how do we listen to the food that nourishes and the people who feed us? The themes of water and Jip-Bap speak to our shared humanity in the most basic terms—we all need water and food to live—and of our shared imaginations of what we want for the future. How do we practice care for the stories we share about ourselves and the stories we might share about others? How do we transform our system to centre people and our experiences? What kind of actions can we and do we need to take for all of us to get there together?

We also recorded an episode with the podcast Inside Out with Jane Z. We talk about the process of creating an online magazine, including the care required in picking a magazine name and how we approach curating content. I think about our process and the responsibilities that come with it. Although the idea for choa was initially an anthology, it makes sense that we decided to make it an online magazine instead—for the ways we can push certain boundaries or to take our time with what we put out there. Having this platform still feels like a new thing. It feels new in the way that we’re building and expanding on that groundwork to imagine many more possibilities for care. It’s encouraging how many people have taken and responded to the work we’re doing. I’m hopeful for and excited about all the ways we can explore that with this platform.


ENDNOTES

[1] “Comfort women” is a term given to describe women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army.

[2] “Kirogi Kajok,” or goose family is a common phenomenon amongst Korean immigrants where the mother and children move abroad while the father remains in Korea to finance the family.

[3] Ajumma refers to a middle-aged woman.



Mirae Lee (she/her) is a cultural producer, bilingual writer, translator, and illustrator. She has worked with various Tkaronto-based not-for-profit arts organizations until recently when she moved to Asia to explore new possibilities.

Harriet Kim(she/her) is a photographer, writer, community arts organizer, and environmentalist. She is the co-creator of a portrait series called Dressed in Layers: A Hanbok Project and the founder of the Korean Canadian Writers’ Collective.

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