Where the Sidewalk Bends: Interview with Larissa Min

By Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren

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The adventurous, globe-trotting Larissa Min is currently at work on two ambitious writing projects: an account of her family’s double migration from Korea to Brazil to the US, called Breaking English, and a hybrid fiction/creative nonfiction book called Wondering Gondwana that interweaves narratives of Antarctica and the Amazon, the last wild places on earth. A professional writer who has been honored with fellowships from organizations including the Fulbright Foundation, Hedgebrook, and the National Science Foundation, she is also a talented amateur photographer. Her camera’s lens, much like her writing, usually finds itself focused on dramatic landscapes and intimate portraits—sun-lit mountain ridges in Antarctica, where she spent a year stationed at the South Pole’s McMurdo Base; three young girls making tortillas in Rio Dulce, Guatemala; a close-up of a goateed cyclist in Seattle titled simply, “Peter in focus.” Photography helped her escape a severe case of writer’s block a few years ago; it was also photographs of her own family, just arrived in Brazil, that she came across unexpectedly in an old newspaper, which first inspired her to write Breaking English. At present, Min is researching, writing, and photographing from her hometown of Curitiba, Brazil. Our interview was conducted over email this past week.

Tell me about the photograph of your parents that you found in the Brazilian newspaper, and that first wave of Korean immigration.

Six years ago I returned to Brazil after having emigrated to the US over twenty years before. On impulse, I visited the Curitiba public library, a place that belonged to my childhood mental map of the city. In a room that kept municipal and state records, I found physical copies of old newspapers. It was while leafing through an edition of the “Estado do Parana” from January 1966 that I came upon an article about the first wave of Korean immigration to the state, and on the following page, the photograph of my mother—then a young woman—smiling while holding my older sister as a baby in her arms, still aboard the Dutch ship in the port of Paranagua. That image just shook me—seeing my mother translated into print, the materiality of holding that image in my hands, while at the same time becoming conscious of how precarious her story was, as the paper was literally falling apart. To me, it drove home the point that their story—their global migration—was part of a larger history: a process of twentieth-century immigration and globalization that had meaning and weight. And also that their experience was, in a way, overlooked and in danger of being forgotten. In order to try to recover the weight of my parents’ story, I decided to try and write about their global migration, which has led me back to my country of birth.

The author's father, mother, and uncle just arrived in Brazil.

On your Web site, you include an undated chronology of important moments in your life such as “born amid shoes in a year of social revolution” and “First Great Escape to neighbor’s house. Est. freedom=5 hours.” What was your early masterpiece that you mention in this list, The Callus, about?

To clarify, The Callus is not an early masterpiece, but a symbolic entity that has followed me since childhood.  When I was very young—probably a toddler—I was briefly placed in a facility that worked as a nursery/kindergarten and kept children of various ages mixed together. One day the caregivers placed me before a board with two pieces of sandpaper affixed to it. I was told to pass my hand over the surface of each—one rougher, one smoother—as some sort of learning tactile exercise. And I was left there. I remember feeling frustration after what seemed like an interminable time rubbing my skin against both surfaces. I looked at a round table where some older children sat and, clumsily holding onto pencils, had their first attempts at drawing letters. I watched what they were doing and felt an incredible sense of curiosity, mystery, wonder. Part of me knew it was not the kind of thing that I was supposed to be doing (at least yet), but I knew that that was what I wanted to be doing. So after that sandpaper day I went home and learned to write on my own. And in the process I developed a callus on my right ring finger from holding the pencil in my own way, and the callus has remained with me.

Where is your ideal place to write?

I don’t know if I want to pinpoint a place I prefer to write, because I find that’s a dangerous way for me to think, leading to all sorts of excuses not to write. Yes, ideally I would work in a room that opened out to the sea so that I could write in the intersection between interior and exterior, hear the water and smell the salt and feel the inspiration of life overflowing, all while surrounded by fluffy pillows and chocolate. However, most of my life is about carving a space where my mental attention can be stilled on the page, and very prosaically I do that through a pair of decent headphones and music. Today I woke up and there was construction outside of my window. So I sat down on the couch with music coursing through my headphones until I forgot it was there. My workplace in Curitiba is suspended five floors above a busy artery of the city and is a study in contradictions: incredible light and space, an immense crystal table where I can lay all my papers out, and I write from a faded red velvet couch taken from a hotel, my back propped up by a pillow, and when I come to and realize where I actually am I feel dull back pain, which is assuaged by the music.

What language(s) did you speak at home?

My first language was Korean, as when I was about a year old my grandmother came to live with us and brought me up.  I am told I spoke Korean fluently, but when she left to go back to Korea and I was placed in childcare, I learned Portuguese and forgot Korean. So growing up in Brazil we spoke a mix of Portuguese and some Korean, and once we went to the US we added English to the mix. We do a lot of code-switching, especially when talking across generations—for example, when my parents speak to me, the language they’re most comfortable in is Korean followed by Portuguese, so their sentences have more Korean and Portuguese, while my answers have more English and Portuguese and less Korean.

Was it a conscious decision on your part to write your creative nonfictional account of your family’s migration from Korea to Brazil to the United States in English? How do you think it would change the way you wrote about your family, or what you wrote about them, if you wrote in Portuguese?

The question intrigues me—I hadn’t thought about that, and yet at the same time, the process of being in Brazil to write their story leads me to confront that very question, because I’ve inserted myself back into a Portuguese-language context while writing our story. My daily life, thoughts, conversations, and dreams are populated by Portuguese in a way that hasn’t happened since I was a child—and I often find myself having to go through a process of consciously switching my thinking back to English when trying to write creatively. I guess I am trying to say that the question is a deep one which I’m feeling “na pele”—in the skin—as we speak.

But if I am to at least begin to find an answer, I would say that beyond the “intraduzivel”—the untranslatable—that occurs when one switches from one language to another, I think that one has the question of pain. The pain of being dislocated and re-translated into not only one society but two, and of having to adopt and forsake ways of being and identities several times, and that in each turn, each language adds a layer of complexity, and thus burden, that causes psychic pain. There are hidden gifts, of course, from that metamorphosis and the pain but sometimes it feels incredible to navigate through so many language and cultural systems at the same time, and see how they become resolved in the self and its social expression, and how the amalgam creates something that while unique, is also difficult, precisely because of its uniqueness.

You were the recipient of a 2012 Antarctic Artists and Writers Grant, and spent a year living in Antarctica. Now you’re dividing your time between Curitiba and São Paulo on a Fulbright Fellowship in creative writing, and you have plans to travel to the Amazon soon for research on your second project, called Wondering Gondwana. How did you pick that title? What kind of research are you doing for the book, which is a mix of nonfiction and fiction?

Wondering Gondwana came from my attempt to synthesize what seemed like wildly disparate realities and locations. The narratives of Antarctica—and, hence, ways of seeing that place and its meaning—that I came across tended to come from a North American and European perspective, most often a history of European exploration such as the race to the pole, or of North American “might,” including the physical exploits of contemporary athletes and adventurers striving to demonstrate endurance and will, or the large-scale, state-driven efforts to establish habitable centers and carry out scientific research, the largest being the American McMurdo Base in the Ross Sea.

These stories and the meanings they carry are in and of themselves interesting—but I wanted to be able to say something different, and to open complex views of Antarctica and its significance in the world.  I also wanted to turn the tables on what was considered  important: what views and concerns would come to the fore if one were to look at the question of human relationship to wild places from a developing world’s perspective—be it a remote continent covered in ice or the other superlative extreme—of the largest, most biodiverse rainforest on the planet. So Gondwana—the name of the supercontinent formed hundreds of millions of years ago which South America, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica came from—seemed like the way to begin a narrative that would link two seemingly separate, opposite regions of the world—Antarctica and the Amazon—and highlight the connections between them while touching on issues of development, social justice, conservation, and global climate change from a developing world’s perspective. It is an ambitious project that requires substantial research as I delve into many domains of knowledge and talk to people in all sorts of fields and places in life, while trying to do primary research and feel, “in the skin,” a bit of the reality and complexity of these locations.

When did you start getting into photography? How would you characterize the interplay between your photographs and your writing?

I started getting into photography when I hit a wall and stopped writing. Not a natural by any means, I came upon it as I searched for relief from the silence I found myself in, as the drafts of my writing sat untouched beneath pounds of graded student work and graduate research. In the loss, disappointment, and grief, I found a relief in the simple application of moving through space—in the quiet—and seeing. Photography, in comparison to tackling wordlessness, was easy: an infinitesimal pressure on a button and the shutter released. As a kind of foreign language, it reminded me of possibilities: take someone without a photographic eye, place her in a vast silence with only a camera in her hands, and the need to make something will overcome what seems like insurmountable obstacles—eventually.

 The Adelie Penguin Colony in Cape Royds, home to about 4,500 penguins, and Ernest Shakleton's Hut. (Photo courtesy of the author)

How did you come up with the idea to use a drone to gather visual material for the sections of your book that take place in the Amazon?         

The idea to use a drone was a bit simple, really: necessity is the mother of invention. One, while in Antarctica I stayed at a field camp on top of Mount Erebus—an active volcano with a lava lake at its bottom—and the challenges of gathering data from inside the volcano forced us to try all sorts of means to get instruments within its walls.  Like other situations where it is tricky/difficult to place humans with instruments, drones are one option. And the Amazon region—with its incredible scale and physical complexity—invites us with an equal pull to gather information from its canopy and above. So unless I charter a helicopter or plane, drones are a much more cost-effective solution. It is all an experiment, however, so I wont know if it works until I try.

The title of your family and historical narrative is Breaking English. “Breaking” is not only a violent verb, it implies an intentional violence; it’s also worth noting that it’s in present continuous tense—that is, this is a process that is still happening. Why did you choose this name? How does it relate to not only the subject matter of your work, but the language of the work itself?

I think the use of “breaking” depends on how it’s being viewed—beyond whether the verb is a gerund or in the present continuous tense, in this case it is also part of a two- word expression: Broken English. It starts perhaps with the negative judgment associated with immigrant speech–how their words, written or spoken, are considered “broken,” or incorrect. From another perspective, as someone who cares about writing and language, I find that it is in the attempts by those who stand “outside” a language that startling moments of innovation, creation, discovery, and beauty occur. The speech of immigrants, or those whose speech falls outside accepted rules and conventions, may be in a way “broken,” but it does not mean they are not in themselves meaningful, and thus “whole.”  And so, by taking the expression and foregrounding the act of “breaking,” I emphasize that process—that you can create beauty and meaning by breaking a language’s conventions, and that language itself is a process of continuous reconstitution. Yes, there is something defiant—and thus subversive, violent—in continuously breaking the accepted norms of a language or culture, but for me language is most beautiful when played at its edges.


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