Class of 2020
Madeline Kim’s AAA Essay:
My grandfather taught me nearly everything I know about writing the truth without ever having to speak to me. Deaf-mute from childhood, as both of my mother’s parents were, he lived with my family ever since my parents got married, and I grew up in a dichotomous world of quiet in the house and every kind of sound at school. For a long time, I struggled with how silence is stigmatized outside the home, but I took comfort in writing about it. Writing was curative; it allowed me to explore facets of the world around me I’ve never completely understood, fears, worries, dreams. It lifted a foreignness I had felt within myself.
Although I’ve written about matters very personal to me before, writing my grandfather’s eulogy was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done—not just written, but done. Before then, I had filled journals with poems, stories, and entries about my family, including my grandfather, documenting experiences and reflections. But when my mother asked me to write a eulogy for my grandfather upon his passing this past summer, I was terrified. I felt responsible for giving him a voice to a group of people who had only ever seen him as voiceless.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about grief, it’s that the mind does everything it can to avoid the realization of loss. But every time my mind began its faithful work of denial, of forgetting, a reminder would appear and reset its progress: a half-filled glass of water on his nightstand, a straw hat and recently-worn pair of sneakers by the front door. In the week leading up to the funeral, I sat at the kitchen table with my laptop every night and found that I could not write, half-expecting to hear my grandfather’s footsteps in their regular rhythm as he headed toward the kitchen with an empty mug.
My first few drafts were regretful, confused, angry—they weren’t eulogies. It took me several tries to realize that I needed to write about my version of him, how I knew him, in order to pay him homage and make my own peace. I needed to write the images that I had known, that had been there all along: my grandfather washing the dishes, watering the plants in the backyard, repairing anything I had broken, handing me napkins at the dinner table when I reached for them. I pieced together the things he left behind—his shoes, his sunhat, his screwdrivers—to form a true picture of who he was and what he meant to us. I wrote what I knew: our family as a garden of flowers, half-wilting and bundled close together, and he as the faithful gardener, tending to all that was broken.
If art is supposed to capture some beautiful truth, I think that eulogies are the closest thing to a beautiful truth that I have experienced. My grandfather’s eulogy not only helped me gain a sense of closure over his absence, but it also taught me what it means to be a writer, the necessity of mining images and experiences for honesty. I don’t know that my eulogy scratched the surface of my grandfather’s complexity, or if I’ll ever fully capture his complexity, but I know now that I have to try. Deaf culture, Korean culture, the role of ableism in the United States, my grandfather’s impact on my family, life, death, and love have rooted themselves in my world since I was born, and I can write about them, in little pieces or all at once, to better understand the world around me.
Now, I am fearless in exploring subjects very personal to me in my writing, one of them being my Korean-American identity. The complexity of Korean-American and Asian-American relations has never ceased to interest me; as a child of parents who immigrated to the United States when they were young, as a grandchild of two North Korean escapees and a witness to the interaction of deaf culture and Korean culture, my cultural identity is one whose depths I may never fully understand. By writing about the Korean-American identity and its many faces, I hope to give voice and power to a group that is sometimes viewed as voiceless, to make an impact on the Korean community the same way my grandfather impacted my family and my writing.
If fortunate enough to be awarded the Korean Ancestry Grant, I will study English and creative writing at either Yale University or Stanford University, both of which I have been admitted to. At either of these institutions, I will have the resources and guidance to aid me in honing my craft and making connections that will aid me in establishing my voice as a Korean-American writer in the contemporary literary world. I hope to increase Asian-American representation in fields in which representation is scarce: American literature, media and television, politics, social activism, and many others. For I believe that writing has the power to impact all of these fields and more, as literature has an incredible ability to touch others and instigate change.
I am so grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given to study at one of two institutions with some of the strongest creative writing departments in the country, and with the aid of the Korean Ancestry Grant, the cost of my tuition will be such that attending one of these schools can become a reality. I want to hear my voice resonate one day, whether it be in journalism or poetry or fiction, a voice whose development has begun since I was born, a voice that will grow and transform considerably in college. I want to do my grandfather justice by representing his heritage through language, and I am comforted by the knowledge that I can. For I feel so close to the uncharted truth in front of me, a territory that both terrifies and excites me, and I’ve never felt more ready to explore it—with notebook and pen in hand.