“Body as One as History” as Theological Resource
By Andie Sheridan.
Myung Mi Kim, an influential poet in the Asian American writing community, immigrated from South Korea at the age of nine to the United States and began writing about the colonization of the Asian American body through poetry. Her book Under Flag (2001), which explores the trauma of Asian American women’s bodies, includes poems like “Body as One as History.” 1 This poem in particular tries to locate motherhood and the struggle simply to survive as a phenomenon within a larger community of suffering Asian women. This location has cut-off lines ending in “[body] as large as.”2 This “body” is where Kim envisions social growth, where women can come together to recognize their own grief and their own potential for divine uplift. Without naming the size of the individual and shared body, Kim reaches for divinity and the blankness of the page to answer her plea for solidarity. Through a theological reading of Myung Mi Kim’s poem “Body as One as History,” it becomes clear that for Kim, bodies in movement and conflict, and in particular Asian women’s bodies, are the site of divine uplift and consolidation
Under the lens of a feminist theological reading, “Body as One as History” lends itself as a resource to understand Asian American women’s bodies as united in one divinity and as casting light on the way that these bodies have been uplifted and trodden on by history. The poem engages with themes of war and inherited trauma, which are key to Asian American theology. In doing so, Kim is able to layer motherhood on top of war, on top of immigration:
The crouch of the mother over machine over
a child’s winter coat over a stream rinsing diapers
when night falls while the soldiers ranged while the border loomed
and she crossed it. 3
Kim’s description of diapers sullies any presumption of the fulfillment of a clean “model minority” narrative and her border crossing counters the way that the United States stereotypically views Asian Americans as lawful petitioning immigrants waiting their turn in line. From a feminist theological perspective, Grace Kao, in a JFSR Roundtable, points out that while studies like to praise Asian Americans for their high income and education rate, “a different picture emerges–one that includes poverty and significant high-school dropout rates–if we disaggregate the data.” 4 In this way, Kim’s poem pays attention to a mother laboring over a sewing machine unearths the real poverty with which Asian American immigrants grapple. “Body as One as History” goes further to even suggest that this winter coat is a symbol of female labor that is passed on to the child, an inherited token of struggle, grief, and loss hemmed together. The body becomes a way for the poet to expose the strife and reality of bodies in motion, rather than the stationary, vertically-ascending road to success that is often painted for the Asian American experience.
Kim also explores what it means for Asian American bodies to think of themselves collectively, or “the body large as I, larger.” 5 Within Asian American theology, the politics of solidarity is tricky. What does it look like for Kim to find solace in a single Asian American body, when these bodies are of different colors, ethnicities, and economic status? Kao thinks of Asian America as an “‘imagined community,’” and that while “pan-Asian solidarity has not historically been the norm; the formation of Asian American consciousness of identity should thus be hailed as a moral achievement.” 6 Kim’s envisioning of collectivity in one body is theological in that Asian American solidarity is ideal, rather real. It must be constructed and created, rather than born. This has interesting implications for the divine body as larger than one: we must all continually contribute to it for it to exist, even while our own individual bodies may decay.
Save the water from rinsing rice for sleek hair
This is what the young women are told, then they’re told
Cut off this hair that cedar combs combed
Empty straw sacks and hide under them
Enemy soldiers are approaching, are near 7
Thinking again about real bodies, Kim is realistic about the One Body. She utilizes graphically repulsive descriptions of the collective One Body, with a “pallid pellucid jar head/gurgling stomach sack/polyps, cysts, hemorrhages, dribbly discharges, fish stink” and does not shy away from the bodily toll of motherhood, with “weight of breasts or milk and all blood. 8 Rather than idealizing the human body, the poem acknowledges the truth. Kim takes responsibility as a human with a body who is creating art: in recognizing her own body, Kim engages her poem within the reality of herself and of her readers.
The poem becomes less of a momentary fixture and more of an act that expresses everlasting grief in the face of colonization, a site in which others can congregate. Kim engages with the body as the primary site for Asian American solidarity and uplift in order to speak the truth about the variety of their experiences rather than being complicit in the model minority myth. It is from this perspective that we may feel invited to consider how the “body as large as” is a source of feminist theological contemplation. How might we imagine this “body as large as” today, in this moment now? This is the theological gift that Myung Mi Kim gives us: a feminist calling to collectively invoke a feminist solidarity, “a body as large as” the sum of ourselves in the present and the future.
Tips of their fingers touching or not. Women on a clover field where
brown rabbits have just fed. Rise of line of women stretching to the
rise of land. No one moves. Every muscle moves. No one approaches.
In their mouths, more than breath more than each sound buzzed inside
the inside of the mouth.
As large as. 9
Andie Sheridan is an undergraduate student at Pomona College double majoring in Religious Studies and English. In college, they study Western theology and its intersections with queer theory and prison abolition. They also study and write Asian American poetry to explore ideologies of assimilation.
- Portions of “Body as One History” have been republished here with permission from Myung Mi Kim.
- Myung Mi Kim, “Body as One as History,” Under Flag (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2008), 35.
- Kim, 36.
- Grace Y. Kao, “Working Contextually and in Solidarity with Others,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 31, no. 1 (2015): 197.
- Kim, 35.
- Kao, 199.
- Kim, 35.
- Kim, 35.
- Kim, 36.