- Emerging Writer's Contest Winner Nonfiction
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In nonfiction, our winner is Jung Hae Chae for her story "Pojangmacha People."
Of her essay, nonfiction judge Leslie Jamison said, "A searing lyric built of sweat and salt and sorrow, hot soup and deep shame—an ode to the elderly drunk men seeking solace in the "tiny domed cathedral" of every drinking hut along the highway, and to all the women who have spent their lives caring for them. It's an essay full of pain and grace, both fruits of its uncompromising close attention."
Jung Hae Chae's work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, Calyx Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction has been anthologized in the 2019 Pushcart Prize XLIII: Best of the Small Presses.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I don't know that I've ever arrived at such a realization. As long as I can remember, though, I've always had a deep love and respect for words, their sounds and shapes, how they come together sometimes in unexpected ways to mean something very particular, precisely. I grew up with stories and myths, and sometimes miracles happened around me. As a quiet, almost mute, kid who was left alone a lot, I relied on my imagination and those stories, both within and without, to feel less lonely and more grounded. Then, when my family immigrated to the US from South Korea, I gained a whole new language to describe and understand my (troubled) interior, and how it came to be affected by my chaotic exterior reflected in my family's (tangled) history. I felt as though I'd been given this powerful, new lexicon to express my situation, to engage with an audience that wouldn't otherwise have [End Page 204] access to such alien landscapes, whether documented or imagined. Like the American Dream, the English language is a language of possibilities, in that its contours are constantly shifting, its borders ever-widening; it's rewarding in the way that a well-earned ending of a poem feels rewarding. Writing in it is both a pleasure and a privilege.
What is your writing process like?
I'm a bit embarrassed to answer this question because if I were being honest, I would say that I lack any process that truly works. Instead, I will say that my process reflects my personality: slow-brewing, detail-mongering, perfection-seeking, but mostly just slow. Everything takes so much time and care, sometimes, most times, unnecessarily. Alas, life.
What inspired "Pojangmacha People"?
"Pojangmacha People" started out as a poem ten years ago when I was working on my MFA in poetry. Its first line, "I'm thinking of the sad old men I knew," had been on the tip of my tongue for a long time before then. After I finally put it down on paper, it soon became a catalyst for recalling all kinds of memories that had been stored away intact in the innermost layer of my gut—han, the Korean word for deep lament that defines the soul of the Korean people—that had lived with me my whole life. Pojangmacha, the tiny drinking hut(s) littered along every street corner in South Korea during the 1970s (and even now), this national emblem, became for me a metaphor for depicting the hardened lives borne out by the men and women in my family and the home we left behind. In writing it, I wanted to forgive my own hardness toward the (failed) men in my life and pay tribute to the women who have since passed on—my grandmother and my mother, in particular—the two muses whose sturdy souls haunt me incessantly, but who guide me into the light always. They helped me finish this essay, finally.
Who are you reading? And who informs your work?
I've been weaned on poetry, but lately I've been reading more prose and some memoir as well. I like works that live between poetry and prose, [End Page 205] or stories that are told in the language of the subconscious and...