Susan: Bo Hee! I loved your debut collection Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs, and I’m so excited to connect with you!
We first met in person at a bookstore in Flagstaff, AZ. You came up to me after I’d participated in a reading, and I don’t remember what you said, but I remember that you were so generous and warm in your consideration of my poems that I never forgot your name. Do you remember that first chance meeting? I’d driven up from Phoenix for that reading, which was, I believe, a part of that year’s Northern Arizona Bookfest.
Fast forward a few years later, and I think we reconnected again because our debuts were coming out within a few months of each other. What was the writing process like for your debut? When did you start writing and how long did it take?
Bo Hee: I am very excited to connect with you, too, Susan, and thank you for your kind words! Your book Dear Diaspora is absolutely stunning. Of course, I remember our first chance meeting. Your reading was captivating and moving—I had to introduce myself and share how much I love your poetry. My debut collection captures a psychological and physical journey which illuminates some of my personal experiences as a Korean adoptee. In my early twenties, I invested in the healing process and in therapy. A gifted therapist supported me during important moments of my search for my birth mother and in my life as I sought to heal from intergenerational trauma. I was able to do, what felt to me, very difficult things because I felt I had someone in my corner who cared about me and who truly understood me. Initiating the search for my birth mother, learning she was dead, visiting my birthplace and birth village, and volunteering at an orphanage in Korea were a part of my collection and shaped the future trajectory of my life. I worked on my manuscript over the span of about ten years. My journey back to Korea positively impacted my writing process as I completed the collection. I’d love to hear about your writing process. When did you start writing and how long did it take you to craft your debut collection, Dear Diaspora?
Susan: I wrote the majority of my collection during the last year of my MFA in poetry at ASU. Going into my third and final year of the program and knowing that I had a deadline for my thesis, which was a theoretically publishable book, I felt a lot of panic and anxiety. I had spent the first two years of my MFA writing mostly bad poems that were not about family or diaspora. In fact, I realize now that I was avoiding writing about those things because I still had so much to unpack in terms of intergenerational trauma, family history, and lost memory. It took a few years of not wanting to broach these topics in order to arrive at a space where I felt emotionally ready to interrogate my own hesitance.
In terms of process, there were a lot of other things that I did outside of writing that were wholly necessary to the collection: I took undergraduate Vietnamese language courses for three years. I took an undergraduate AAPI literature course and turned it into an independent study, meeting with the professor once a week and writing additional papers analyzing the books we read. It was actually in that course that I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. The summer before my third year, I received a fellowship that enabled me to fly back home and interview family members about their experiences before, during, and after the war in Vietnam. Before doing any of these things, I really didn’t have much of a concept about the war or my own family’s journey. I have vague memories of getting lectured about the war during AP US history in high school, and I remember feeling afraid that the whole room was looking at me, expecting me to say something.
After I graduated from my MFA, I thought the book was done. But for a while, the few new poems I wrote very much felt like they belonged to the world of Dear Diaspora. Every few months after the MFA, I’d spread out all the poems in the collection and reorder them again and again. I joked that every few months, I was trying to ruin my life. That’s how much I struggled with the ordering!
Back to your collection. If it were a color and a sound, what would it be?
Bo Hee: If my debut collection was a color, it would be a mix of pink and gold combined with sadness and heartache. The vibrant pink energy represents unconditional love, and the gold symbolizes a pure spiritual force. If my debut collection was a sound, it would be something ethereal like my birth mother and me talking on a night of shooting stars by the ocean.
I love this question, Susan. It’s so playful. How would you answer this question?
Susan: If Dear Diaspora was a color, it would be the color green! The color of summer leaves being touched by the sun and viewed from below. The ripple of sun, the shadows cast. It’s no secret, if you’ve read the book, that green appears many times. If you track the color through the collection, it changes in different ways. If the book were a sound, it’d be the sound of those leaves swaying in a breeze.
Bo Hee: I think of green, green grass, and the gorgeous cover of your book each time I think of Dear Diaspora! It was so lovely to celebrate the launch of our books together.
Susan: Bo, your book was published in the spring of 2021, well into the pandemic. My book came out a few months later in September 2021. At that point, bookstores and other venues were still only booking virtual readings. What was it like for you to debut during the pandemic?
Bo Hee: Debuting during the pandemic brought me some unexpected gifts and surprises. 2021 was a tumultuous time in America. During this time, I was deeply saddened about the Atlanta spa shooting where six Asian women were killed. I remember meditating with my online meditation group, texting with a friend about my feelings, and crying on a walk in the woods as I thought about my birth mother and the history of violence against Asian women.
When Lee Herrick, Su Hwang, and Sun Yung Shin came together to read at my book launch, it felt auspicious. As these three magnificent poets supported the launch of my book, I experienced how generosity moves as a spiritual force through life. There was sage, math poems, music, starlight, kimchee & anger, and healing forces beyond my understanding. Like a spellbinding charm, each of their voices, distinct and spectacular, rose into the space—an enchantment. I was reminded of jeong which is a Korean word that is hard to translate.
I first learned about jeong when I returned to my birthplace in Korea. My friend’s mother helped me, talking with people in my village and translating for me. We visited the public records office to see if we could learn anything new about my birth mother. Although this attempt was unsuccessful, my friend’s mother thought the people in my village have jeong, which she described as a kind of shared love that permeates a community.
The book launch was a taste, for me, of jeong — or what I imagine jeong feels like, or maybe it felt like a prayer. I had spent a lot of time in Flagstaff looking at the stars, wondering about my birth mother—my omma. There were nights when I stood in the cold air and watched the sky for signs, perhaps messages from beyond, clues about how to live my life. At the book launch, I felt the presence of my birth mother, my omma, and I felt the presence of a supportive community.
The launch was also a way to reconnect in a deeper way with friends like you, Susan.
Susan: I remember attending your virtual launch! It was truly a powerful event, and I was so moved to witness and hold the emotions in that space.
Your launch was a bright spot that spring because in 2021, I was so burnt out. From the multiple pandemics we were living through. From watching the state fail to look out for our best interests time and again. From laboring under capitalism to pay the bills and not having the time or energy for art. From the specific pressures of my university job working with students, many of whom were struggling, in the context of academic success and retention during a global pandemic. The increased violence and hate against the AAPI community. It was a tough time. Even writing this paragraph now, I felt my heart rate quicken.
But I agree with you that debuting during the pandemic brought unexpected gifts and surprises. Some of the biggest gifts were old connections I rekindled and new friendships I made with other authors who were debuting around the same time. I felt a genuine sense of camaraderie because we were all trying our best to support each other – whether by inviting each other to participate in our virtual book tour events; resharing our endless book promotion posts, which we hoped were having some sort of impact; or dreaming up ways to collaborate.
One of the fellow 2021 debut authors I met through Twitter was Joshua Nguyen. That Twitter friendship led to the creation of the annual Growing From Our Roots: An Asian Debut Showcase, which you participated in during AWP 2022.
Bo Hee: Connecting with friends and poets like you was a bright spot for me, too. I loved joining you at some of your virtual poetry events on your book tour, and it was such a gift to be a part of the Growing From Our Roots showcase. The poets and writers were extraordinary, and the audience was strikingly kind. I remember at the end of AWP in Philadelphia, we were walking together, reflecting on our experiences. I felt such a sudden rush of inspiration and love as I contemplated what you had just done—you created a welcoming, inclusive, celebratory space for Asian writers with debut works. You and Joshua Nguyen raised the visibility of poets and writers whose debuts may have been impacted by the pandemic. You launched an event that exuded happiness and brought us together as a community. I was thrilled that you continued the showcase at an offsite event in Seattle during AWP 2023. Congratulations, too, on Dear Diaspora winning the 2023 Outstanding Achievement Award in Creative Writing – Poetry from the Association for Asian American Studies. What inspired you to create the Growing From Our Roots showcase and what does the showcase mean to you?
Susan: Thank you for the word of congrats! In terms of the showcase, my inspiration was to make sure that debut Asian authors didn’t get lost in the pandemic and that they had a space to gather in community. When I was doing my virtual book tour, I had nothing to compare it to because I’d never done an in-person one before. But I definitely felt like I missed out on the sense of connection that comes with going to an actual bookstore and meeting audience members in person.
I’m so glad that you felt welcomed and celebrated at our first showcase! That’s exactly what I was hoping for, and I hope that Joshua and I can continue this series for years to come. As a poet, I feel like I’m not as familiar with forthcoming fiction and nonfiction, so the showcase has also been a really wonderful opportunity to stay in the loop about novels and memoirs by Asian writers. The event features all genres, which means that audience members are introduced to a wide swath of contemporary Asian literature.
Thinking of when we first met in Arizona, if my memory serves me correctly, I think that was when you were still living in Flagstaff. When we reconnected again, I was still in Arizona and you were moving to Texas. You also mentioned traveling to Korea as a part of your healing and writing journey. How does place impact your writing?
Bo Hee: Growing up far from my roots left me with a longing to connect with my heritage and my people. My journey with writing my collection has included allowing myself to ask questions that previously felt forbidden like what was my birth mother’s life like in our village? How was she treated and what did she dream about? If I could speak to her, what would I say? These questions reflect my desire to connect with my heritage. Traveling back to Korea was very important for my writing and my healing process—physically in the place where I was last with my birth mother, I quietly took in the maternity clinic. I spoke to the woman next door. I imagined what it was like to be my birth mother, walking the roads of our village.
In America, I often searched for a sense of connection and belonging as a Korean adoptee. Meeting poets and professors like Alison Hawthorne Deming has been meaningful. In one of her poetry courses, I wrote a poem called “Birthmother,” which touched on my vulnerability as a Korean adoptee. I found Alison’s encouragement and kindness to be so powerful. Later on, I attended the Tin House Summer Workshop and studied with Matthew Zapruder. I can still remember listening to his beautiful reading. He read his poem “Korea” from his collection Sun Bear—I felt connected and welcomed within Matthew’s workshop and at Tin House. Inclusive writing spaces have been transformative in my life.
Susan, as I think about place, I also notice that we both gravitate towards nature. I often feel a spiritual connection, peace, presence, aliveness in nature. I am struck by the imagery of nature in your poetry like in your poem “Cicada Summer” where there is “uneven fields of green,” “the roots of trees,” and “the clicking of cicadas.” What is your connection to nature and place?
Susan: The times and places that I feel the most struck by awe, by a sense of overwhelming ferocity for living, is when I am out in nature. To be outside and to explore a new place or to be in a known place but to see it with a different perspective is really important to my art practice. I need the creative stimulation that “new-ness” inspires in me. It’s easier to evoke this wonder when in an unknown place, so I have to continually practice slowing down and mindfulness so that I don’t miss the daily wonders, however big or small, that are taking place all around me. I just moved recently and right now there’s a big window above my desk where I’ve hung up a hummingbird feeder. I’ve been a bit blue because at my old apartment, hummingbirds visited frequently. So far it’s been pretty slow in the new place. It takes time for them to show up, I know. But in the meanwhile, there has been a woodpecker that keeps coming back and hanging out on the feeder. The other day, the leaves on our freshly planted trees were wet and a mockingbird was hopping through the branches, collecting water and preening itself. At our place, I never saw mockingbirds. Or robins. The other night there was a clambering on our roof, and I think it was a fox – we saw two of them a few nights later. It’s amazing that even though I’m still living in the same neighborhood – only a few minutes from my old apartment – I’m seeing so many different animals.
I hope that the sense of wonder that nature instills in me is present in my poetry. In Dear Diaspora, nature is everywhere. Much of the landscape that appears in the collection draws from my growing up in Virginia, so there’s a lot of green. A lot of fireflies and trees. Even though I wrote the collection while living in the desert, I was tapping into earlier memories because the book follows a young protagonist named Suzi.
Thinking of earlier memories… how do you see your younger self appearing in your collection?
Bo Hee: I see my younger self reaching for ways to satisfy her hunger—real nourishment. This searching comes through exploring her heritage, asking questions about her birth mother, and freeing herself from the mythology of her adoptive family. The collection explores coming to terms with my past in order to experience freedom in the present. The younger self appears in different forms, as a baby, a child, a teenager, and a young adult. These days, I am drawn to exploring spiritual love—a spiritual love that also encompasses a high level of self-love. This is the kind of nourishment my younger self longed for.
Susan: I love this idea of hunger and nourishment that you mentioned. In the world I create in Dear Diaspora, Suzi is a highly fictionalized version of myself. I draw on my memories and experiences as inspiration points but writing about a character instead of using the first person “I” voice that I was so accustomed to, which made it easier to write about identity and the inheritances of diaspora. The “I” voice, at the time of writing the collection, felt too close. I needed more distance. With Suzi, all of a sudden I had more freedom to create. To draw from the memories and anecdotes of the family members I’d interviewed as well as from the stories of Vietnamese refugees I read as part of my research. There was so much I didn’t and still don’t know – family members and memories unaccounted for. I was really hung up on that. But eventually I learned that in the space of absence, there is room for imagination. And I hadn’t previously thought of it in these terms, but I think maybe there is also room for nourishment – nourishment through the freedom to imagine.
Suzi starts off young and by the end of the book, there’s been a transition in time and she’s older though her age is never explicitly said. And there are first-person “I” poems that speak from an older vantage point. I found it easier to write and include these “I” poems after I had written many of the third-person Suzi poems.
Lately, I’ve turned back to writing a lot of first-person poems. What are you currently working on, and who inspires you these days?
Bo Hee: I am writing and connecting with the literary community in Austin, TX and beyond. I am inspired by poets and writers in Texas like Sasha West. Sasha read her outstanding poetry at an offsite event at AWP in Philadelphia. Her poetry appeared in The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood, edited by Emily Pérez and Nancy Reddy. It was a phenomenal reading, and I had the pleasure of also listening to readers like Sun Yung Shin at the event. Since then, I’ve been so moved by Sasha’s brilliance and engagement in the literary community. Sasha’s book Failure and I Bury the Body won the National Poetry Series and the Texas Institute of Letters First Book of Poetry Award. I can’t wait to read Sasha’s upcoming poetry collection How to Abandon Ship, which will launch in Spring 2024.
I’ve also had the joy of meeting Jill Meyers who is the editorial director of the imprint A Strange Object, part of Deep Vellum Publishing. Jill is a leader and organizer in the community who supports diverse voices and women in the literary arts. During my first year living in Austin, I joined in on some events hosted by Torch Literary Arts. Amanda Johnson, Founder and Executive Director, creates fantastic spaces that stimulate creativity and nurture community. In the past, we met at BookWoman, a feminist bookstore in Austin, the Austin Public Library, and Black Pearl Books to talk about books and be together in community. I really love talented women and poets who cheer each other on.
In my poetry and writing, I often explore how to connect with life after surviving trauma and abuse. I am inspired by writer and professor Laura Gray-Rosendale. At a NonfictioNOW panel, I was amazed when I heard Laura speak bravely about her research and her book College Girl: A Memoir. I was awed again, years later, when I listened to her keynote called “We Too: Survivorship, Personal Narrative, and the Collective Challenge to Violence, Power, and Privilege” at the Symposium on Rape and Sexual Violence in the Academy at Tulane University. Laura’s presence is strong and compassionate. When I’ve felt afraid about speaking publicly about what I’ve survived, I have thought of Laura as a great role model and example for women who wish to speak their truth.
I am thrilled to be reading with Ashia Ajani as a part of the Poets in Pajamas series, which is hosted and organized by SJ Stout and Aslan Gossett. Our reading will be on July 30th at 7PM (EST) and virtual. A sense of connection infuses my writing practice with joy. I am so glad to have amazing poet friends like you, Susan—what are you currently working on?
Susan: I’m trying to finish my second poetry collection! Things are still a little nebulous, so I’ll refrain from sharing the tentative title for now. I will say that I’m feeling excited, which is great. In the thick of my book tour for Dear Diaspora and all of the work that went into promoting the collection, I felt a little burnt out. Trying to promote and, really, advocate for your book involves a lot of time and energy, especially because it was out of my comfort zone. And I feel like I went into it all with minimal knowledge and guidance. I remember during the book tour, folks would ask about the next book or what I was working on and truthfully, I had nothing. I was being my own PR and marketing and events and admin person while trying to pick up the ropes of a new job with minimal guidance. And I was trying to be a person in between it all.
But I’m excited about the new poems I’m writing. I’m still very much thinking about the same obsessions: language, memory, identity. And also some new themes that I’m feeling out: I’m trying to include my desires more on the page. I’m back to writing a lot of “I” poems but this time, I’m not being self-conscious about it. I think I’m writing with a different sense of candor and self awareness.
Bo Hee, I’m really excited to hear about how you’ve been getting involved in the community in Austin! I find it courageous and inspiring that you made that move during the pandemic, and I’m glad that you’ve been finding community.
Bo Hee: Thank you so much, Susan! I am looking forward to reading your new poems. I love that you have a hummingbird feeder and your connection to the aliveness of nature. Your poetry, voice, and leadership in the literary world inspire me, and I am excited to watch your luminosity shine.
Bo Hee Moon is a South Korean adoptee. Her poems have appeared in Cha, Cream City Review, Gulf Coast, The Margins, Salt Hill, Tupelo Quarterly, and others. Omma, Sea of Joy and Other Astrological Signs, published by Tinderbox Editions, is her debut collection of poems. She previously published under a different name. Instagram: @bohee.moon; Website: boheemoon.com
Susan Nguyen’s debut poetry collection Dear Diaspora (University of Nebrasks Press 2021) won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, a New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, an Outsanding Achivement Award from the Association of Asian Amerian Studies, and was a finalist for the Julie Suk Award. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net and a Pushcart Prize and have appeared or are forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, The American Poetry Review, The Rumpus, Tin House, Diagram, and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships from the AZ Commission on the Arts, the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, and the 2022 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from the American Poetry Review, she currently serves as the senior editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review.