Emily Jungmin Yoon’s poetry is not meant to be pretty. In writing about gender, race and violence against women, she intertwines the histories of her native Korea and the United States, revealing the painful echoes of the past. It is through such memories Yoon finds a particular beauty.
In September, the UChicago PhD student released her first full-length poetry collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species. Across 80 pages, the Busan native confronts the histories of sexual violence against women—focusing on the Korean “comfort women” forced into sexual labor by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
“Poetry is not just relief; poetry is tension,” Yoon wrote in an author’s note. “Poetry is departure. Poetry is return. Poetry is memory. I wrote this book to say that one has the agency and command to preserve their own narrative.”
The new collection has been lauded by critics and writers alike. “Miracles of clarity and precision,” said Pulitzer-winning poet Vijay Seshadri. “A heart-wrenching debut,” wrote Elizabeth Lund for The Washington Post. “A lovely, moving, and ultimately devastating book,” said Pulitzer Prize finalist Chang-rae lee.
The book marks a career milestone for the poet and scholar. A fourth-year PhD student in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Yoon never dreamed she would continue to write poetry after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, let alone be published. But after attending New York University for her MFA, Yoon discovered a community of poets who helped shape her writing and inject a new seriousness into her work.
“NYU is a relatively diverse program, and the poets of color there and I gathered to talk about social activism, the role of poetry within activism, political poetry,” Yoon said. “I learned a lot from my peers, and that definitely affected my writing. I gradually began to feel that writing poetry wasn’t just about me.”