By Tim Etzkorn
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs’ chapbook, “Notes from a Missing Person,” reflects on Dobbs’ search for her South Korean birth mother. The story resonated in a special way for me. Presently, I live in South Korea, and her images of hunching Halmeonies, or grandmothers, scowling ajummas, or middle-aged women, her notes written in 한굴, or Korean, her scenes of barbecue grills filled with burning meat and blackened garlic, and her implications of exclusion made for a text that modeled my reality. At the core though, this chapbook is about far more than Korea and far more than Dobbs’ experience searching for her birth mother. “Notes from a Missing Person” is a text of exploration and confrontation; it takes on the pain that accompanies a turbid past. Even for those of us who don’t have a background as fraught as Dobbs’, the chap still plunges into our hearts and provides a moving exposé of how we write fiction to understand that which we do not know, how our bodies contain our history, and how we seek knowledge as a form of healing.
“Notes from a Missing Person” recounts Dobbs’ search for her Korean birth mother across political, geographic, and cultural borders, but the text seeks therapy as much as it looks for answers. Dobbs initially at least pursues healing by way of imagination; she creates stories to explain her heritage. Naturally, these tales fall short and Dobbs must turn to her body as a familial palimpsest and her homeland as a cultural tome to unearth her past.
Outwardly, “Notes from a Missing Person” falls into two camps: one of storytelling and one of healing. Dobbs makes this apparent early. She announces her wish to “[T]alk back to that void,” as if she were setting out on an oral tale exploring unfathomable myth. Dobbs then bands this mystery together with a sense of the corporeal, saying “[T]hese notes seek to suture space and shift perspective.” Like a good poet, Dobbs chooses her words with great intention. She wishes to put incomplete information together with missing parts, but she also seeks to suture space, hemming air and emptiness back together; getting at the bodily, suture denotes the medical – stitching and sewing parts of the body to make them whole again. Dobbs isn’t simply working to understand her past; she yearns to complete her self, to rectify rifts left open by a lifetime of not knowing about her history.
Rapidly, we become aware that paper can only take Dobbs so far. Artists and therapists may know that expressive therapy has marked and cathartic results, but Dobbs intensely wants physical contact with her real life mother. Only this can fill in the gaps that her imagination has failed to patch. She realizes, “I can’t write my way to Mother. She is not this page.” Dobbs strives to suture with her pen, but a stitch made of fiction will not hold up. She needs something tangible, something fleshly to penetrate. Dobb’s discovers that her notes promulgate the problem:
Each word I write distances Omma further just as I try to bring her closer
[…] My mother is missing. I am missing […] In her image, I want to touch
myself as no one can touch me to find her, as no one can touch me—gently
and with the hunger of a child search and writing her mother’s body from
what she knows of her own.
Dobbs’ words make her aware of the emptiness that stems from knowing nothing about her mother. Fictionalizing what may be true about her past only reveals the huge gap between what she does not know and what may be real.
As long as her mother is missing, Dobbs feels that her past is missing. If her past is missing, she cannot fully understand her present and thus she is not fully there: “What is this reality that is always a phantom […] It’s a fiction that haunts where the body should’ve been, a story that strikes out for a body with memory’s force.” As Dobbs owns her lack of knowledge about herself she becomes increasingly obsessed with the physical. She knows flesh will provide a degree of knowing that stories and notes cannot.
Turning to her body, and eventually the country of her birth, helps Dobbs with her search, though she continues to confront issues of identity. She faces a double-bind of outsider status. In the U.S., Dobbs is a minority and feels the tension of being a racial outsider. In Korea, Dobbs is a cultural outsider. She is what is called a giyopo, a non-Korean Korean. She is neither fluent in the language nor the customs. Visiting the adoption agency that sent her to the U.S., western adoptee parents-to-be see her and assume she is Korean: “In the agency’s kitchen, I wash breakfast plates in the sink. A middle-aged couple enters and says to each other, ‘she must be one of the birth mothers. Look at how young she is,’” Their assumption of her goes no further than her skin. Later, joining with adoptee friends and a beef barbecue restaurant, she fails the restaurant staff at being the Korean that she racially is:
Yet I’m remembering the sweet smoke of a Hongdae restaurant, adoptee
friends shouting “Geonbae!” and shooting soju, bulgogi spread like a
blackening skirt because no one’s paying attention, the scowling ajumma
running over with scissors and tongs. Hungry, I watch her balance, cut and
arrange the strips, as if her hands know the weight of the meat, the intensity
of the fire; or she’s annoyed that we’re drunk and burning our food because
we don’t know what to do. We’re trying.
“Because we don’t know what to do.” Dobbs’ line ripples like a boulder dropped in a duck pond. She and her friends can’t know what to do because they are Korean by birth only. Much like the adoptee parents-to-be, the ajumma’s judgment goes as far as her skin. She looks Korean, so she should act Korean. The balancing, cutting, and placing of the meat should be as natural to her as it is to the scowling middle-aged woman, and when it’s not, she is deemed an outsider.
Nonetheless, Dobbs discovers that in searching her body and her homeland, she finds healing that paper will not reveal. That’s not to say her imaginative exploration has been for naught; her writing moved her journey forward, maybe even made it possible, and she has sutured some of her space. She can offer up her notes as a result:
You can weigh [the work’s] awkward heft in your hands, cut it with
scissors, drop the painted strips into a steel bucket and strike a match. Lean
toward the flames—paper hissing as it curls, blackens and ashes—to see the
words return to their source.
Much like the ajumma cutting and weighing beef, Dobbs cuts and weighs her work. The meat fed her body; her writing fed her search, but now, its purpose has been served; she can sacrifice it. She concludes by turning the text onto the readers. She invites us to lean in, to cut up our own fictions and burn them so as to seek answers in our body as well as in our pens.
Tim Etzkorn completed his Master’s in English Literature from the University of Wyoming. He has taught composition, literature, and ESL/EFL. At present he teaches EFL in South Korea.