Part of the fun of adjudicating TNQ’s writing contests is that the process is completely anonymous. Each entry is given a number, and the writer behind the words remains a mystery until after the winner has been chosen. Now that we’ve named our winners, however, we’d like to get to know the writers a little better. A number of the judges of both contests have interviewed the winners and runners-up, so you can become better acquainted with both writer and adjudicator as well. This first interview, with OV Contest runner-up Mary Kim (Kim Yong-Hi), was conducted by OV judge Carey Anne Jernigan.
The winners of the NB OV contest and our Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest can be found in TNQ # 120.
It was delight to read “Las Frutillas,” Mary Kim’s second place winner in the 2011 Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest. The poem is set in a marketplace in Chile, a day after the 2010 terremoto (earthquake) in Concepcion.
CJ: I found the poem tenderly sad and vivid in its imagery. (I could as much as taste the strawberries, and wince at the accompanying memory of an earthquake past.) The last time I travelled to Chile myself, I came over land from Peru. It was there that I woke in the night to the room gently trembling … a kind of slow and growing movement that I felt both awed by and powerless in front of. The point at which a gentle trembling shifts into a violent, destroying force is horrific for me to contemplate: a terror born from the same world that makes the sky beautiful or sustains those who live beneath it.
MK: I’m happy to hear that the tone I was aiming for came through in this poem. There was so much I wanted to capture of that moment, that walk down Tobalaba Canal scented with strawberries only a day after the quake: the quiet buzz, the disbelief, the stories shared, the surreality. Santiago was actually not very damaged, as I saw walking around the city that day; but the stories in the news and from friends and their family members of the devastation in Concepcion were very sad indeed. In Santiago I was awestruck by everyone’s ability to get back to work, whether it be mobilizing the community to help victims down south, or to carry on providing for their families. It was interesting to see how accustomed they were to these colossal shifts (throughout their lives and recent history indeed), and the man selling strawberries in the park was no different; there was no time for nonsense—one must carry on or give up, and that was out of the question. I’ve often been told that this is where Latin American magic realism comes from—moments like these where the reality can be so terrifying are where Latinos find their humour and a philosophy to give strength to their daily lives.
CJ:My Mom says that the name you are publishing this poem under, Kim Yong-Hi, honours your grandmother. Would you tell us a bit about her?
MK: Yes, my grandmother and mother really. They were both immigrants to this country (Canada), and brought with them wisdom and many tales from the old country (Korea) that shaped my aesthetic and desire to read and share stories. I was probably the furthest away from them I will ever be, living in South America, and yet felt the closest to them; I reflected on one of the biggest shifts (immigration) they made in their lives and the somewhat analogous experience I had in living as an expat, and understood a lot of their internal logic for the first time in my life. It also helped that there were many social similarities between South Korea and Chile—eerily familiar, in fact. There were many social aspects that I could write about for pages, but as one example, I had grown up hearing about the war and the socio-political aftermath in Korea; living in Chile where something similar had happened, though more recently, was a big eye-opener for me. Again, colossal shifting and then how people gather together to find strength, humour, creativity and healing is a major theme.
CJ: Did you indeed have a home destroyed? Can you describe it to us? Did you go there afterwards? What were those days and weeks like?
MK: I didn’t have a home destroyed. I was fortunate enough to be living in a newer part of Santiago; after an 8.0 in 1985 (which ‘Loreto’ in the poem recalls), the city put out very strict regulations on earthquake construction and so Stgo didn’t experience as much damage this time around as did the epicentre of the quake in Concepcion. I did go down there much later afterward, and spent some time with some families who had relocated out to fincas (farms) in the country while their homes were being rebuilt. Again, the strength and humour were so humbling to witness. They spent more time helping those less fortunate in neighbouring areas than worrying about when they could move back home. I visited Pen’co actually (also mentioned in the poem), a wildly arranged suburb of Concepcion by the ocean, where domesticated horses grazed on patches of grass by the road and families continued selling fruits from their carts. Other than some water damage, most of the homes had been rebuilt already and daily life carried on as best they could make it; it was inspiring and perspective-shifting. Asi es la vida: shoddy condos/adobe homes may fall; families/communities are resilient.