Cathy Song’s Picture Bride and Transpacific Immigration

A person’s life story is not automatically marked in history; it gains its cultural and historical weight when someone re-makes the private story in forms of writing. Without writing, everything is gone, forgotten. It is quite tempting to say that only the person who experienced a certain event has the official right to inscribe it. But imagination and empathy make it possible for another to write about a certain event, through fragments of memory, even after it has been forgotten and erased. A literary form born in the process of a courageous alternative can take the role of cultural and historical agency. Cathy Song is one of the poets who took agency, quite successfully, by marking the immigration stories of her Korean grandparents through poetry.

     According to one interview, Song had chosen the title of her first book of poems as “From the White Place,” at first, highlighting her artistic kinship with the painter Georgia O’Keeffe. The editor, however, strongly recommended changing the title to “Picture Bride,” the most appealing point for American readers. And the editor’s expectation was indeed correct. Song’s first book became a landmark of Korean American poetry.

     Song has long been considered as a poet who represents the passive beauty of East Asian culture and recalls tribal memory. Born in Hawaii of Korean and Chinese descent, Song attended the University of Hawaii and Wellesley College. In 1981 she received an MFA in creative writing from Boston University. Her first poetry collection, Picture Bride (1983), which won the Yale Younger Poets Award and a National Book Critics Circle award nomination, is frequently regarded as the work of personalizing the process of female assimilation into American society. Poems such as “Picture Bride” and “Lost Sister” were compiled in various anthologies and widely taught in English literature classes in the U.S. Critics agree that her poetry conveys the delicate, colorful voice of a third-generation Asian American with no glimpse of flirtatious, linguistic awkwardness of the first- or second-generation of Korean immigrants.

     Picture Bride, a rich text for the study of relationships between memory, culture, and writing, needs to be reinterpreted as a text that articulates the subversive power of gazing. Song’s poetic blends of deceptively quiet self-reflection and the inner force of a female subject continuously invite readers to rethink the nature of seeing and drawing. On the front cover, you encounter a woman wearing a white hanbok in the oval looking glass beneath the title. Then a few pages in, you see the title “Picture Bride” elegantly inscribed in the same oval mirror. The final line of the last poem of the collection reads “someone very quiet once lived here.” The very act of facing the glass, of gazing at oneself is a rather quiet act. The entire book is arranged in five sections, each named after a flower painting by Georgia O’Keeffe. In this way, Song cautiously shares with her readers her appreciation of art and history, and her keen sensitivity to the act of gazing. In its form, Picture Bride is a kind of perpetual commentary on testimony, on transpacific migration, on memory and remembrance, on seeing and gazing.

     In the title poem, Song traces the route of her Korean grandmother who arrived in Hawaii as a picture bride. There were so few women among the early Korean immigrants to America that in 1910, for example, the Korean male to female ratio was six to one in Hawaii and nine to one on the mainland. In the 10 years before the “Ladies Agreement” ended picture bride immigration from Korea in 1920, over 1,000 Korean women chose the picture bride route. Song’s grandmother was one of them. “Picture Bride” can be read as the vivid spot of the process of searching for her grandmother, restructuring the history of the first generation of Korean immigrants to America.

     In “Picture Bride,” Song muses on how the act of gazing forms the space of resistance as a transformative force, beyond proving the process of assimilation of alienated subjects or intercultural identities. At first, she declares that her grandmother was “a year younger than” she, just 23 when she left Korea. And then Song asks, “Did she simply close / the door of her father’s house and walk away.” Following the reminiscent eyes of remembering the long a...