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Monica Youn’s ‘From From’ Explores The Asian American Experience Outside of Identity

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In her latest book of poetry, “From From,” UCI associate professor of English Monica Youn chronicles an exploration of the Asian American experience through the lens of the Western definition of Asian identity. Youn held a reading and discussion of her book in conjunction with the MFA programs in writing at UCI the day after the book’s launch on March 7. 

Youn describes the poetry in this collection as poetics of difference rather than poetics of authenticity. As a daughter of Korean immigrants who grew up in Houston and attended Princeton as a legacy student, she has struggled to think of Korea as her homeland. Despite this, Youn still faces a reality where Korean has been prescribed as her most identifying factor.

“I felt like there was so much space for discussion of Asian Americanness in terms of authenticity, but I am not an ‘authentic’ Korean. I wasn’t born there, I don’t speak the language, so I wanted this book to explore that space of deracination, that space where identity should be, but isn’t,” Youn said during the discussion.

According to Youn, the title of the book refers to the question faced by most if not all Asian Americans: “Where are you from? No, where are you from from?”

Through forms such as parables, prose and her signature “Study of Two Figures” style, Youn uses the poems in this collection as a way to reckon with Asian American identity outside of the Western monolithic definition of “Asian.” 

Youn read four poems during the event: Parable of the Magpie and the Trap, Parable of the Magpie and the Mirror, Parable of the Magpie in the West and Detail of the Rice Chest.

Before reading the parables, Youn reflected on the fact that the perception of magpies changed from signs of good luck and fortune in Ancient Greece to omens of misfortune and evil in biblical history. Her parables liken the magpie’s experiences and ostracization to those of Asian Americans.

Youn has always been interested in Greek mythology and the little studied ways that the definition of Greekness has been achieved by othering Asians throughout history. Her first three collections “Barter” (2003), “Ignatz” (2010) and “Blackacre” (2016) all follow themes of Greek and Norse myths and their contrast to an Asian other.

“Writing poetry is like building a staircase without knowing where it’s going,” Youn said in reply to an audience question regarding her writing process. “I start with just a thought and build from there.”

Before coming to UCI in fall 2021, Youn taught at her alma mater, Princeton University, in the creative writing program. Her poetry has been widely published in titles such as Poetry Magazine, The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Best American Poetry. She’s lauded as a Guggenheim Fellow, a Library of Congress Witter Bynner Fellow, a Stanford University Wallace Stegner Fellow and winner of the Levinson Prize from the Poetry Foundation. Youn has also completed residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation, the Lannon Foundation, Civitella Ranieri, Yaddo and MacDowell.

Prior to pursuing her career in poetry full time, Youn also served as a lawyer after receiving her J.D. from Yale Law School. Right after graduating from Yale in 1998, she accepted an offer from the Stegner Fellowship. 

“My parents didn’t speak to me for nine months after that,” Youn said to an MFA student in the audience who is also making the swap from law to creative writing. The student, who is also Korean American, asked Youn about her family’s reaction to her change in career and wanted Youn’s advice on whether or not she was making a mistake.

“It can feel hard to make that change, but ultimately it’s your life and there comes a time when you have to ask ‘Okay, what are my passions?’ Then sort of figure it out as you go,” Youn said. “It was the right choice for me, and if you’re here it’s probably the right choice for you.” 


Dhanika Pineda is the Editor-in-Chief for the 2022-2023 school year. She can be reached at eic@newuniversity.org.