On Writing about Family

A Poetry Squawk
By Rosanna Oh
Whose recent work appears in The Harvard Review Online

Author PhotoMy interest in family tropes and allegory in literature—especially Greek mythology, and the poetry of Whitman and Wordsworth—arose from my own personal experience. Before I gained any awareness of myself as an individual, I was conscious of my role as the eldest child in my Korean immigrant family. As such, I was expected to be a role model to my younger siblings and an ambassador. These were not duties that an adult should outgrow, as some of my American friends would have me believe, but lessons on love and compassion that have guided my life and writing.

My father loves to say, “If you bite a finger, the entire hand hurts.” My family of five saw itself as extensions of one another. Family meant putting another’s need first. Family meant absorbing another’s pain, not causing it. These lessons served us especially well as my brothers and I grew up at our family’s grocery store, which my parents had built from nothing.

There were long periods of time during my childhood when the hurt never seemed to cease. Working at a small family business constantly had its own challenges, but daily encounters with customers, who were mostly white and did not consider us to be a part of their world, constituted the most memorable rite of passage. I remember my parents’ reactions of frustration as much as the racism or ignorance that provoked them. And I remember still the confusion and pain I felt, as a witness and participant, that eventually moved me to poetry. Reliving those moments through writing allowed me to control some of the helplessness. I wrote almost exclusively in the first person; my emotions, my perspective, took priority.

It didn’t occur to me that writing about my family could mean, to return to my father’s metaphor, biting the hand that fed me until graduate school. A professor asked during a workshop of my poem, “Is the point ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’?” echoing Philip Larkin’s “This Be The Verse.” The subject of the poem in question was a childhood memory: a customer had said, “Give this garbage to your children,” while returning what he believed was a rotten mango to my father. Recognizing that it was ripe, I had asked my father if I could eat the fruit, but he had refused my request, and had eaten it himself. My professor interpreted this gesture as greed, which had not been my intention at all; rather, the act was one of self-sacrifice. Later, I saw the language that justified my professor’s reading, in which the narrator saw herself as a victim.

Writing gracefully about my family’s life at the store has been a challenge. Even now as I write, I am conscious of what I reveal of my family out of fear of being judged in a way that diminishes either them or myself. A friend once pointed out Louise Glück, a hero of mine, as a master of sublimating personal and familial suffering into art. “She can use that knife,” my friend argued, “because she turns the knife on herself.” Over and over, the narrators in Glück’s poems seem to speak with a prophet’s urgency to get at the truth, which is often devastatingly sharp. And they do so with such original language that the reader’s overall focus is on the craft rather than the lives whose voices ring from the pages.

After that conversation, I continued to write poems about the store. However, I made sure that the speaker was not only miserable, but also self-loathing and guilt-ridden because I believed that this winning trifecta of qualities would endear her to the audience. But even I grew sick of her. Is that all what families did—suffer? Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if everyone stopped suffering?

So the question I had to answer as a poet became: how do I remain true to suffering but rise above it? And I found the answer in the people who inspired my journey as a writer: my family. As I reworked my poems, I recalled the many moments of joy we had shared—around the dinner table or during a long night spent finishing orders at the store. I remembered the laughter that followed the arguments. These moments, despite their smallness, revealed generosity and spirit that allowed my poems to grow, and reach toward healing.

Rosanna Oh holds degrees from Yale University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Harvard Review Online, Best New Poets, 32 Poems, Unsplendid, The Hopkins Review, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She also has received scholarships and awards from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and the Academy of American Poets. A proud Long Islander, she lives and writes in New York City.