One of the wonderful things about the literary scene is that these pockets of creatives form where we all get to come across each others’ work time and time again. To be honest, I think I can trace most of the connections I’ve made back to a single professor from college who keeps launching his students into orbit around the same literary circles. One such connection is the incredibly talented Melanie Hyo-In Han. We were honored to feature some of Mel’s work in Serpentine Volume 2, and were thrilled upon finding out about her soon-to-be-released chapbook.
Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips is collection of poems centering around the experiences Mel had growing up as a Third Culture Kid. The poems tenderly– and honestly– focus on what it means to think about identity and culture. Line and form guide readers through the places and spaces that have shaped their author as she explores brokenness, the challenges of life, and coming to terms with self.
What better way to get pumped about this chapbook than to hear from the author herself? Thanks to Mel, for being so gracious about the 13-hour time difference between us; and thanks to Google Docs, for making this interview possible.
Hey Mel! Thank you so much for sharing with us all about your new poetry chapbook, Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips. The Serpenteam is a big fan of your work, and we are so excited to hear more about your inspiration and process for this chapbook!
What inspired you to share these experiences through a poetry chapbook?
Initially, I started writing poetry because it was a way for me to express myself and reflect on my experiences. I realized that, after a while, I had enough poems to perhaps put together a cohesive collection that eventually turned into my debut chapbook.
What does being a “Third Culture Kid” mean to you?
Traditionally speaking, “Third Culture Kids” are people who are raised in a culture that isn’t their parents’ during a significant part of their development years. TCKs grow up being exposed to their parents’ culture through the context of their host culture, thus creating their own “third culture” that is uniquely theirs.
Could you give us a little background about your own “Third Culture Kid” experience?
I’m Korean by birth, but I grew up in East Africa for the majority of my life. Even though I was born in Korea to Korean parents, we moved to Tanzania when I was a baby, and I spent most of my childhood in Tanzania, then started attending an American boarding school in Kenya at the age of 9 where I stayed until I graduated at 17 and moved to the U.S. for college. A combination of my Korean background and Tanzanian upbringing, in conjunction with the exposure to American culture I had growing up have shaped me into who I am today.
Identity is a tricky thing for everyone growing up, but especially when you’re experiencing multiple cultures at once. What was the most valuable part of that experience for you, and what was the most challenging?
I think experiencing multiple cultures at once really encouraged me to be open-minded and learn to adapt quickly to different environments. The most challenging part of being a TCK, though, is that I never felt like I fully belonged anywhere. I didn’t feel Korean enough even though I look Korean, but I knew that I wasn’t really East African either.
Do you have a favorite poem in this collection? If so, which one and why?
My favorite poem in this chapbook is “Dar es Salaam Delicacies,” mostly because it gives me an opportunity to think about happy memories I had growing up. It was also the poem that launched me into writing (more) poetry. I wrote this piece a long time ago in one of my undergraduate poetry classes, and with the encouragement of my professor (thanks, Mark Stevick) I submitted it to a writing competition where it won first place and gave me the confidence to pursue more writing.
Which poem was the most difficult to write and why?
“Holding On” explores some of the darker events in my childhood, so that was probably the hardest piece to write. However, it was necessary to reflect on some of these memories and I felt a sense of relief once this poem was completed.
Thinking about some of your past work, like in “My ex came to me in a dream last night’ and “and you told me,” you play a lot with form (and it’s amazing!). Is that something you’ve also done in Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips or was there another element you focused on more in this collection, if any?
I did play around a little bit with form in this chapbook, but not as much in my later works. My full length collection, which I hope to publish in the near future, definitely has more experimentation when it comes to form!
The title of this chapbook is incredible! What was coming up with that like?
When coming up with the title of this collection, I went through each of my poems and picked out a few lines that were especially meaningful to me. “Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips” is a line from the poem “Morogoro, Tanzania,” where I talk about a drought that I lived through, but once I’d chosen this as the chapbook’s title, I realized that it was a double entendre: one that was focused on the physical sensation of experiencing a drought, and another that dealt with the metaphorical elements of feeling like I couldn’t find the words to communicate with my family in Korean.
What is your hope for readers picking up this chapbook?
My main hope is that others might find a sense of belonging while reading this chapbook and that they realize that “home” isn’t a place, but rather, memories and experiences.
Excited to read it? Pre-order your copy of Sandpaper Tongue, Parchment Lips here.
Vicki Barclay is the Editor-in-Chief of Serpentine Literary Magazine.