Bodega by Su Hwang
Milkweed Editions, 2019. 96 pp.
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
In Su Hwang’s debut, Bodega, a young speaker comes of age among inscrutable adults by watching them navigate language, race, culture, and class. The bodega serves as backdrop; it also serves as a metaphor for the collection: a single site packed with necessities; a site where humans of all stripes intersect, revealing in their intersections both awful and affirming aspects of humanity.
We learn early on that the speaker’s family of Korean immigrants works in a bodega in Queensbridge projects in the late 1980s, but the book opens with “Instant Scratch Off,” a poem set in a bodega run by a Puerto Rican cashier. The “transistor radio / with foil-tipped antennae sputters the Yankee / doubleheader” and the patter of the announcer (“swwwwwwwing and miss!”) sets the pace for the comfortable action in the store, where Nigerian and Pakistani customers select cat food and scratch cards for purchase. Men from three nations, none of them Korea, come together, and this sets the stage for Hwang’s project.
Not only is Hwang interested in the Korea-to-America experience, but she wishes to investigate clashes and commonalities among immigrants. In the long narrative title poem, Mr. and Mrs. Kim are juxtaposed with Raul who comes from a place where “there are tumble weeds and an insistent / heat.” Separated from his wife and family, “his stomach feels empty” though he lives in the “land of bounty.” In the bodega, he “stocks shelves, mops the floor, breaks down // cardboard boxes.” The Kims, who run the store, also left lives behind. In Korea, Mrs. Kim “trained to be a concert / pianist,” and Mr. Kim “was a journalist” who traveled for his reporting.
But what does that matter now when he can’t even string
a full sentence together. What is the point of language
when it was never yours.
Language becomes the fulcrum of loss, and this poem and others declare loss as a common thread in the immigrant experience. They also render the United States a place where parents sacrifice their own dreams to realize dreams for their children.
“Bodega” unfolds into an exploration of racism across minority groups; Mrs. Kim gets nervous about a black male shopper. Hwang’s collection probes these fractures as well as cross-racial alliances. In “Hopscotch” a group of childhood girlfriends “thought / ourselves Siamese: yellow & black, black & yellow” conjoined in their play, and in “Sestina of Koreatown Burning” a poem on the LA Riots of 1992, “our black neighbors…stood against / our store entrance to prevent glass // from breaking.” But these and other poems do not resolve in harmony. The hopscotching girls’ friendship ends when the speaker’s parents “flee to where it’d be impossible to revel with / sisters whose marvel wasn’t make-believe.” And back in “Bodega,” Mrs. Kim calls on Raul to ease her nervousness about the black male shopper, all the while missing the white woman stealing canned tuna.
In a collection full of characters, the most fully realized are the speaker’s parents. The frustrated communication in the family unit provides a through-line of tension. “1.5 Proof”—a poem deployed in the form of a mathematical proof—is one of a sequence of poems on domestic abuse. Hidden in the closet, the children call 911. The police arrive: “A compound fraction. Two white men / in uniform over an immigrant man and his wife // in fetal positions—neither able to comprehend their simple / commands.” Hwang lays bare power dynamics: while the Korean man has the power to beat his wife, the children leverage their power to navigate the American emergency response system. Ultimately, the white cops and the English language hover over all.
Like most children, the speaker longs for connection with her parents. In “Jesus,” the speaker bonds with the man who sweeps the floor in the shop, despite his “broken English.” Meanwhile, she observes about her mother:
our distance seems to span an ocean.
I never ask any real questions, she
never tells me more than I need
The two are depicted as most intimate when mother cleans daughter’s ears: “This / was our / only touch / when I let / her study / me—our / binding a / series of tiny / digs.” In “Cancer” the speaker travels across the East Coast with her father, not speaking, only to have this exchange at the holiday dinner table after reciting the Lord’s Prayer:
They had just taken out his kidney: the half. Life of
failure. Suddenly he opened his eyes, looked straight into me
and said, I know you. You have a frontier spirit. Where did he even
get that word: frontier. We nodded in agreement, then ate in
silence like we always do, losing our nerve. All I’ve ever wanted
him to say is: Tell me something. Tell me—everything.
In this moment, her father is oracular. Through precise and out-of-character speech, he validates his daughter. The spark is doused by silence, and the speaker is left longing.
In Bodega, Hwang revels in multiple modes of communication, deploying narratives, abecedarians, sestinas, sonnets, and dense lyrics. The opening piece is written entirely in untranslated Korean, and Korean words transliterated into English pepper the book. It is as if she wishes to communicate in every way, creating a collection that fills the gap created by loss and longing with precise language, with something, with everything.
Emily Pérez is the author of House of Sugar, House of Stone, and the chapbook Backyard Migration Route. She earned her MFA at the University of Houston, where she was poetry editor for Gulf Coast and taught with Writers in the Schools. Her poems have appeared in journals including Poetry, Diode, Bennington Review, Borderlands, and DIAGRAM. She teaches English and Gender Studies in Denver, where she lives with her husband and sons.