On Food, Memory, and Writing: Three Questions with Jung Hae Chae
Jung Hae Chae’s essay “The Great Meal” appears in AGNI 86.
Grace Yun for AGNI: “It was forgetting at the heart of drinking, forgiving at the heart of communal eating” (“The Great Meal”). What is at the heart of cooking for you?
This morning, my seven-year old daughter, Audrey, looks up from her breakfast table, and tells me excitedly (again) about her life ambitions, one of which is to become a world-class chef or “cooker” as she sometimes calls the profession. Lately I’ve given over to her demands of helping me cook, so I let her slice, dice, chop, julienne carrots, potatoes, celeries, even onions. She stirs soups and stews, stir-fries veggies and fish patties. With a quick swish of her wrist, she sprinkles salt and garlic powder (sometimes too much) on everything. She does so, not for content but for form. (She’s all about the form!) Don’t forget the garnish, she says, as she reaches for spring onions.
Form is to ritual as cooking is to remembering. And it’s true that everything worth remembering happened in the first seven years of my life. So, I cook and I remember. The smell of the wood burning inside that dark, bunker-like kitchen of my grandmother’s house, the warmth of the fires from her wok, its afterglow on my cheeks in winter evenings. I remember the early-morning screeches of the roosters behind our house, the smell of the fresh raw pig liver that I fetched for my grandmother on Saturday mornings to help with her eyes. My grandmother, the Man in the house for all of us three generations of women. I cook and I remember the lights of the night market igniting the small dreams of the 1970’s post-war South Korea and its people. I remember because I loved the complex smells of the dirty streets, the cacophony of the black market vendors haggling or cussing or whatever, even the dirty looks of the old men glaring at my wee-year-old self as I ran away from them. I remember the layers of pains associated with a childhood lost to lost dreams, in between the layers of myths held untouched by a child somehow. I remember my dead grandmother and my mother. I cook and I remember.
Do you think writing is also communal?
Most definitely. Writing is an act borne out of community. I often hear many “voices” speaking to me, as I try to form the language to express “them” and “their” experiences. Quite literally, in writing, the speaker is not I, but a conglomerate of experiences of the people I am interested in giving voice (power) to. I have been preoccupied with the voices of women in my life, and my “ancestors” in a broad sense of that term. For me, these are the people who haunt me the most.
Finally, does the process of writing involve some level of forgetting and forgiving for you?
I think so. I find writing to be a humane act, not far from an epiphany. I read in some self-help book that to forgive is to remove the illusion that the past could have been any different than it was. To do so requires a brutal truth-facing—or, at the very least, an exploration into the (often uncomfortable) unknown, requiring a reckoning of some sort. I think good writing, like any religious experience, happens when one is pushed to the limits and awakened to the truth-seeking soul, when clarity of the imagination meets some Scary Truth via language authentic to lived experience. In recalling a primal memory, and rendering a sober take on the human experience from an imagined viewpoint, you forget who you are, and forgive the illusory gravity-bound existence. That is to say, I forget and forgive the unreflected self, in favor of the ever-searching one.
Grace Yun is an editorial assistant at AGNI. (2/2018)