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Published: Sun Oct 1 2023
Eva Lin Fahey, Dreaming of the Mother Tongue (detail), 2021, watercolor and acrylic
Online 2023 Family Spirituality Relationships

An introduction to Afterlives: An AGNI Portfolio of Asian Adoptee Diaspora Writing

For years as a graduate student, I sensed a male presence listening while I read drafts aloud and tinkered late into the night, so I wasn’t surprised when a Korean shaman elder, her back bending and left eye closing as his spirit possessed her, said how much he enjoyed watching me write poems. 4번째할아버지, my four-times great-grandfather, had been a man of letters, owned many cows and good land.

Haraboji has followed me, he intimated, ever since I was sent to the U.S. as an infant. And because I came back from the dead as a teenager—a Tulsa emergency room doctor shocked my heart and I survived an overdose of sleeping pills—I resemble Bari Gongju, who travels to the underworld to bring back medicine for her dying parents, the king and queen. Disappointed at her birth to have a seventh daughter, not a first son, they locked her newborn body in a fine jade box and summoned the Minister of Rites to cast her into the magpie shoals in the sea of blood as an offering to the Dragon Kings of the four seas.

At the king’s and queen’s funeral, Princess Bari, who becomes the first mudang,

Loosens the seven knots that bind each corpse,
Infuses breath into the flesh,
Infuses breath into their bones,
Inserts magic pearls into their eyes,
Pours sacred water into their mouths,
And they revive at the same time.

Quietly, discreetly, I’ve lived with spirit sickness since childhood, but I didn’t know what to call it. The adoptive names that white Oklahoma transmitted to me leaped with hellfire, dialed 1-900-PSYCHIC, or wore canvas straitjackets belted to a chair. So, when offered the choice between 불사굿 or full initiation, I chose pulsa gut to seat a single ancestor to suppress my shinbyeong and to be able to care for my family, rather than a pantheon to let me go on to help clients, because I was afraid.

Removed from family, unnamed, forgotten, erased, does an adopted person have ancestors? What if the spirits don’t descend and I’ve been haunted by something else or nothing at all? I didn’t know enough about Korean culture or shamanism to realize I was being tested each time I pulled flags during the ceremony or when I balanced a pig’s head on top of an upright trident in a bowl of uncooked rice. It all stood on my first try. What did that mean? Why does it matter? Wikipedia says spirits can’t cross water. The Pacific Ocean lies like a blade between my family and me, an exile.

Though I’ve drilled Korean into my head to be able to speak with Omma and Appa—ever since we reunited twelve years ago—there seems to be an invisible hole near my nape leaking it out again. I still rely on translation apps and mumble ashamed. Struggling to understand my ancestor’s every word, I caught snatches while I sobbed before the open door of heaven and Haraboji thanked me for remembering and feeding my ancestral family even though our relatives had abandoned me to starve.

On the wooden altar, which ran the whole length of the wall, pineapples, bananas, melons, pears, apples, jujubes, nuts, and stacks of rice cakes and sweets towered on stainless metal plates; silver liquor cups brimmed with soju; a mudang’s knives and tools tasseled with the five colors, set out in a row, waited as pillar candles flickered. Although I can’t speak enough of the language, I can kneel and press my forehead to the floor. I offered my upturned hands. I offer them now.

While I write this, Haraboji sits nearby at a distance and watches me try to untie the usual knots—Do adoptees have memory? What if they don’t know their birth families’ names? I lay the questions down and pick them back up, fearful that no one will believe me if I don’t explain. A certain stiffness sets in and then a numbness caused by repetitive motion. My senses are petrifying. When I stop looking over my shoulder, when I give up searching for answers to questions that aren’t mine, I hear my ancestor’s sleeves rustle. I follow the sound.

My friend Sungja says that we adoptees live in history’s margins and are able to move in the spaces that border an experience. Nimble, protean, an adoptee has an awareness and creativity that converse with constellations, dimensions, manifold possibilities unbound by known origins and sources. This liminality risks oblivion. Yet to imagine ourselves inside this everywhere that may be nowhere is to stake and take up space—here, I am here—even after untranslated documents, deathly embraces, a roll of shaved dice, medicine veils, wars, receipts, a fading blue, and severed roots. Here, we are here—resplendent and alive.

—J. K. D.

“the magpie shoals in the sea of blood as an offering to the Dragon Kings of the four seas” from the poem “The Abandoned Princess” in The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry (Columbia University Press, 2002), translated and edited by Peter H. Lee.

“Loosens the seven knots that bind each corpse” and following, ibid.

“here, I am here,” is a variation on lines from the poem “Salvation” in Lee Herrick’s collection This Many Miles from Desire (WordTech Editions, 2007).

Grateful acknowledgement to Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis for his constant literary allyship, which seeded this portfolio’s development.


Next up in the portfolio: “Homeland” by Susan Ito

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Future: An Impossible Image
AGNI 94 Reading Translating Family
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AGNI 99 Family Journeys Ethnicity

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is senior poetry editor of AGNI and has been part of the editorial team since 2019. Born in Wonju, Republic of Korea, she is the author of Interrogation Room (White Pine Press, 2018); Paper Pavilion (White Pine, 2007), winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize; and the chapbooks Notes from a Missing Person (Essay Press, 2015) and Necro Citizens (German/English edition, hochroth Verlag, 2019). Interrogation Room received mention in The New York Times, was praised by World Literature Today for “a vigorous restlessness,” and won the Association of Asian American Studies Award in Creative Writing: Poetry. She also co-translates Sámi poetry with poet-scholar Johanna Domokos, and their translation of Niillas Holmberg’s Juolgevuođđu, published as Underfoot (White Pine Press, 2022), received the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s Lief and Inger Sjöberg Prize. She is professor of English and Race, Ethnic, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at St. Olaf College and lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota. (updated 4/2024)

With Shuchi Saraswat, she coedited Futures: An AGNI Portfolio of Work in Translation.

With Lee Herrick, she coedited Afterlives: An AGNI Portfolio of Asian Adoptee Diaspora Writing.

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