People watching, the search for cultural identity and the subtleties of growing up in the city gracefully intertwine as Su Hwang offers her upbringing to the reader in her poetry collection “Bodega.” Born in Korea shortly before immigrating to New York City, Hwang uses her experiences to develop an expansive collection of memories of partial assimilation that she relays through her collection of poems. Every reader experiences years of growing up in an immigrant household in the mere 94 pages of “Bodega.” Those who have already experienced this phenomenon will find the experience even more vivid as their own flashbacks enhance Hwang’s already robust sentiments.
Hwang’s exceptional ability for photographic description is the vehicle through which she shares the experience of growing up in a land separated from her heritage. Each vignette incorporates a more creatively accurate degree of detail than one would receive through their own eyesight. In the bodega-set poem “Instant Scratch Off,” Hwang picks up on the slight tensions between interacting members of different racial groups while incorporating unmistakable features of the individuals, like a Nigerian man’s “salt-and-pepper hair gathered into a seahorse.”
This meticulous level of physical and social observation juxtaposes the more rushed and self-centered standard protocol of bodega visitors, giving the everyday scene its seemingly more rare quality. The scene epitomizes what makes Hwang’s writing so charming and impactful: She manages to analyze situations and states of mind that many people, especially those of immigrant families, have been through on a more thorough level than most are willing to do — perhaps at times as a self defense mechanism.
Hwang’s most chilling works are those that tackle the issue of feeling stuck between cultures — being excluded from exposure to the experiences typical of growing up in her homeland, yet being equally deprived of the aspects of culture that seem inherent to those who are more historically American. It is the existential battle fought by the children of immigrant households as they endeavor to escape the cultural purgatory between their family and their surroundings.
Hwang convincingly highlights this all-encompassing lack of belonging: “There’s no place like home / There’s no place like home / There’s no one place.” The moment one begins life in a new land, they begin to lose their heritage — “Family trees reduced / to oral / traditions” — but one never fully assimilates to the new culture. Hwang’s pained awareness on this matter grants her collection the honest and raw nature that makes it so captivating to any audience and relatable to those who have undergone similar experiences.
The intersections of Hwang’s meticulous descriptions of her surroundings and her self-aware portrayals of internal conflicts above all connect her distinct talents to give the greatest insight to her immigrant upbringing. In “Fresh Off the Boat | Five Sonnets,” she addresses an interaction in which her family is verbally assaulted and then told to go back to where they came from. The remainder of the sonnet has two focuses: Her family’s reactions (from the fear in everyone’s eyes to her brother’s tearful face in her embrace) and her internal response, which intertwines profound anger and speechlessness with an underlying wish that she can simply escape to a place where she feels actual belonging. Hwang’s ability to echo these themes of racial tension and exclusion in her discussion of seemingly unrelated household memories and casual observances gives her collection a seamless consistency from one poem to another that few authors can maintain over the course of an entire collection.
This, then, is Hwang’s secret recipe to an impressive poetry collection. Her technique is deliberate and perfected, implementing hyper-realistic description without getting caught up in the frills of overly elaborate devices. As she adds transparent sentiments regarding her struggle and that of immigrants in her periphery, her vivid descriptions absorb the reader and she sees from her eyes what it means to grow up in an immigrant household. Most works attempting to do so still cause the reader to feel like an outsider looking in, but Hwang’s readers gaze out at an unaccepting world.