The experimental tourist

There’s little linear in Mary-Kim Arnold’s writing, as evidenced by her book-length essay, “Litany for the Long Moment,” a slice of experimental writing.

Parts of Arnold’s life are non-linear as well.

Arnold was born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1971 and adopted by American parents at age 2. She grew up outside New York City with a younger sister (also Korean but not biologically related).

Her adoptive parents divorced when she was 11. She has no recollection of them formally telling her she was adopted but it’s something she came to realize as she grew up.

“I think I always had a sense of disconnection,” she said. “I didn’t have that family history that so many people have.”

Her search for place took her to South Korea at age 29. While it may have failed to meet high expectations, she is glad she visited.

“I might have expected some form of closure. I think I expected things to feel instantly familiar. And of course it doesn’t work that way, but I took in a lot of the culture, as much as I could.”

“Litany for the Long Moment” is biographical in parts and experimental in that it incorporates poetry and lists into the narrative. It won the 2016 Essay Press Prize, and graduated from essay to book form. A book launch party takes place Thursday, April 12, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Jamestown Arts Center.

Arnold’s writing calls to mind experimenters like Robert Coover, who rose to fame in the 1960s. Coover was Arnold’s professor at Brown University in the 1990s, taking early trips into electronic writing.

Her book plays with narrative structure and touches on identity and, at times, photography, sometimes with an onslaught of words and images. It takes some students time to adjust to the experimental form, Arnold said.

“I realize it may not be for everyone,” said Arnold, whose Korean name is Kim Mi Jin. “It’s like abstract art. But I would hope they’d at least approach it with an open mind.”

Arnold bills herself as a poet, writer and visual artist. With undergraduate and advanced degrees from Brown, she also holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry from Vermont College.

Arnold spent several years working for nonprofit groups such as the Rhode Island Foundation. A wife and mother of a daughter, Zooey, 21, and a son, William, 11, she lives in Pawtucket.

With a novel in progress, Arnold devotes her time to writing and teaching. She is a visiting lecturer in nonfiction writing at Brown.

At her book launch in Jamestown, Arnold will be joined by writers Sarah Baldwin and Benjamin Lundberg Torres Sanchez who will also read. Both writers are adoptees, Arnold said.

“I’ll read a bit, and we’ll have books available. And we’ll have snacks. It’s going to be fun.”

WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO DO A FAMILY SEARCH AND WHEN DID YOU START?:
I want to believe I carry Korea in me, in my blood and bones.
That my body remembers something of my mother, my father,
my first home. That Korean-ness lies dormant, waiting.
That maybe language is one way back. If I can learn its grammar and alphabet, hold its vocabulary in my mouth, then perhaps I can know something of history—my history. If I can speak it, then maybe I can know its topography—the rugged mountains that run down the peninsula like a broken spine, wild river that bisects its cities. If I can name its flora and fauna, its national flower, if I can sing its national anthem, if I can learn the right words for mother, for longing, for love, then maybe I can recover some lost thing. I fear this is asking too much of syntax. From ‘Litany for the Long Moment’ by Mary-Kim Arnold

By James J. Gillis | Mercury
Posted Apr 10, 2018 at 12:01 AM
Updated Apr 10, 2018 at 12:52 PM  


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