“Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips” Melanie Hyo In Han (Finishing Line Press) – book review

Melanie Hyo In Han Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips book cover

Melanie Hyo In Han was born in Korea, raised in East Africa and lives in America. Her poems are drawn from her experiences and explore culture, belonging and identity and knowledge gained through translation work between English, Korean and Spanish. The collection starts in Africa. “Morogoro, Tanzania”, set in the drought of 1999, gives the collection its title

“sandpaper tongue
parchment lips
dry and cracked
where life had given up
and succumbed
too weary to continue

and on tuesdays
he would come
with a wheelbarrow
rusty and laden
with the world
that creaking, crying wheelbarrow

collecting then carrying
out a mound of skin and bones
who at least no longer felt
that thirst

His pain tore the skies back
and His tears became
our life as life began to spring up again and
that Drought ended”

The poem ends with the image of that wheelbarrow “scorched in my mind”. The minimal, powerful imagery sticks. The wheelbarrow is as dry as everything else in the drought as the sun dries any oil that might have been used to stop the creaking. That his regular once a week collections are needed illustrates the fatal, ongoing damage of the drought. The narrator focuses on the grief of the wheelbarrow operator, his traumatised reaction to his job to illustrate the wider trauma and grief shared by villagers.

“To Miss Tranquist” is addressed to a teacher and explains why Hyo In became Melanie. After the awkwardness of having to explain how her same was pronounced and watch the teacher interact with children with American, “pronouncable” names, it ends

“You were the reason behind my many fights with my parents who kept insisting ‘Hyo In’ was a beautiful name, but I didn’t care that it meant ‘wisdom from dawn’ or that it represented my family, my heritage, my culture, my language. All I ever wanted was to be called on without hesitation and be greeted every day by name.

“It’s been over fifteen years since I started going by ‘Melanie,’ a name that means ‘dark,’ because that’s what I am to you. You can finally say it without feeling embarrassed; I hear it often and from the lips of many people, and I guess I like it.

“But at what cost?”

Names are crucial identity markers and the teacher’s unwillingness to learn to pronounce Hyo In marked the girl as ‘other’, someone not part of the class. This decision had further implications as the girl was left out, not spoken to and had a constant reminder of her difference. It could have triggered a lack of engagement, the child sitting back and opting out since the teacher had given up on her.

A similar lack of engagement or curiousity in other cultures is highlighted in “Can I Roll, Slice, Stack Memories?” where an eight-year-old, remembering sights in Meyongdong Market, takes a packed lunch of kimbap, hoping her classmates will be impressed,

“But when lunchtime finally rolled around and the kimbap
container was opened, all I heard were the quiet ‘Eww’s as
I felt the slight shift of people moving away from me. My
shaking hands found themselves tossing the kimbap into the
open and hungry mouth of the trash can.

Their perfectly triangled white sandwiches, perfect pale
skin, perfect light eyes (they looked easy enough to gouge
out). Sunshine rested in their golden hair while night and
fury nested in mine. Did I want to die or be white?
At home, that afternoon, I shut myself in the bathroom
scrubbing my skin raw and crying my eyes dry until
exhaustion called my name. The front door clicked and I
threw angry words at my mom. She never made kimbap
again. And I avoided Korean food.”

Childhood memory aside, the narrator buys kimbap at the market and finds her “tongue is momentarily stunned as it remembers” but tastes salt as she phones her mother. The childhood memory of her classmate’s disgust clearly stuck, but so does the memory of insulting her mother’s food, prepared from a place of care and nurture.

One day the schoolgirl comes home and finds her grandmother has gone back to Korea. Her mother offers the explanation that grandmother is missing grandfather and is bad at goodbyes but the girl suspects it’s because she refused her grandmother’s lessons in Korean,

“So you went
back to your homeland,
a land I didn’t feel
was my home,
with nothing but
6,381 miles, 12 hours
on the plane, and
hurt between us.”

But grandmother has left a letter for her granddaughter,

“You know I grow up in Korea while Japan abuse
forbid speak our language as child force learn
Japanese language of oppress and change
my name to other country. Yoshiko, they call me.
Many word gone when release from Japan.
Japan burn thousand and thousand book
force study Japan forbid our language
prison for people who wrote our words.
Release from Japan regain our language miracle.
I proud of my people my movement regain
history country culture. Yeast, grow up
in foregin country no use our language.
And what do you know about war for our country?
Last wish for Yeast. Learn language.”

Korean language has two different meanings for grandmother and granddaughter. For the grandmother, it’s a symbol of resistance, something that survived being forced to learn Japanese and living with an enforced Japanese name. Korean means freedom, strength and pride. For the granddaughter, it’s not American. It means separation and difference, not fitting in, something that brings shame. The letter had its desired effect: the granddaughter did learn Korean.

The girl grew up too. Here she sinks into a hot bath, “But This is a Pain I Enjoy”,

“And if I really
tried hard and
the memories
I blocked out
of the many
droughts I
lived through
as a child
and the fires
I put out
as a teen,
I would maybe
do something
more, but
right here,
I just drop
beneath the
silence of the
still water.”

The balm of self-care through taking out some time to be oneself and create a space where worldly concerns don’t intrude, even just briefly. The short lines contrast with the languidness of lounging in a bath, like a nagging voice of guilt.

In “Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips”, Melanie Hyo In Han explores what compromises are made to belong when your cultural and ethnic heritage differs from the people around you and asks how far those compromises should go. She acknowledges her attitudes towards heritage and language and how these impact those closest to her. There is trauma, sensitively approached and probed. Ultimately, these are compassionate poems, driven by a desire to share and communicate, carrying the reader as witness to reach a shared understanding.

“Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips” is available from Finishing Line Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Book table at the launch of “The Significance of a Dress”

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