[The Feminist Press; 2021]
My impulse to call Grace M. Cho “a singular voice” exposes certain precepts of mine that, in light of her memoir, I’m inclined to rethink, hence this searching sentence. To praise her literary and intellectual contributions along those lines alone would rudely bring out of register what is too complex a project to put down as a great book by a great mind. It also feels inappropriate to approach Tastes Like War as a scholarly text, which it both is and isn’t. The human concerns Cho centers in her writing — the project of loving specific people, of remembrance — are as real and immediate as anyone’s living. This is not to say the archives she engages, and the one she enacts, are not also alive, but that Cho has managed a deft presentation of an uncertain and critically underserved past.
Tastes Like War chronicles something that is only ever expanding from its crux: a woman’s relationship to her mother’s relationship with herself, as conditioned by her mother’s schizophrenia, which implicates the entire relational chain and a generational one beyond that. Biographically speaking (which is but one of the book’s modes), Cho is well-equipped to manage this highly plural task. Her first book, an academic study called Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War, tests methodological presumptions in the field of sociology and explores the violent imperial legacies of sexual relationships between Korean women and American GI’s. The child of one such relationship, Cho calls Tastes Like War an “unintended sequel” to her first book.
To say “singular,” then, as a tribute would be inaccurate, or at least totally incomplete, in that Tastes Like War is no standalone inquiry or conveyance. My desire, moreover, to praise Cho’s as-if-contained writerly achievements runs concurrent to the impulse to situate other texts around hers, to create an expanded grid upon which to consider its open registers, particularly in a climate such as ours: think Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, or Anna Tsing’s Mushroom Hunting at the End of the World — both of which, in any order beside Cho’s, beckon reading for how they interact.
To say “voice” in reference to literary presence, although Cho’s writing commands a strong one in that context to be sure, might further mislead us. The notion of a single consciousness animating a single narratorial vector is something that Cho’s mother’s condition and the multiple voices that attended its reality — and presently tend to its memory — naturally disrupts, or even dispels. Indeed, her schizophrenia is a subject of much of Cho’s book, if not itself a primary character — or chorus of characters — stippled across chapters, dates, and locations. This schizophrenia was an organizing principle in her late mother’s rich and complicated life, which has in turn organized so much of Cho’s. Among her mother’s longtime wishes for her was to see her become a published scholar. As a sequel work, Tastes Like War reiterates the realization of a shared, multifaceted dream.
In Chehalis, Washington, where Cho grew up in the late 70’s and 80’s, we learn just how deep bigotry ran in rural America, just how insidiously a system of thought can expand when isolated from its imagined root. This is as true of the racism, it seems, in a rural town where three of its some 5,000 people, as of 1977, were Korean, as it is of Cho’s mother’s emergent paranoia as one of those few. Were people trying to sabotage her family? Was the town talking? Yes and no. Mostly yes. Mostly absolutely. When a group of White guys in a car follow you and your daughter home, laughing, you start to wonder. What is safety? But a major part of the reality Cho underscores is that the convictions her mother had about the world were like any form of social messaging: both highly influential and, to a not-yet teenager in the passenger seat, extremely confusing. Because it’s your mother, and you look like her, and you don’t.
As ever, to write about a thing without containing it requires a certain ability to know when to not write about the thing, which Cho manages without foregrounding the negative as a Neat Technique. Truly, this project feels like it’s expressing a fundamentally complex thing about immigrant experiences, about the experiment that is Korean America, about womanhood, mental illness, and grief. This expression occurs in the simplest possible terms, saying the truest possible thing without losing sight of what’s essentially unknown to even the people closest to us. In some cases, only the end is known, that it was doomed.
But maybe it wasn’t. Or at least that’s the spirit I glean from this book. Maybe it doesn’t have to be, if we don’t end with the end as we first conceived it. If we reorganize things a little, find another route, forget rational paths — they never fought for us anyway. For those who’ve scavenged American soldiers’ trash piles for meal scraps, who’ve lived themselves as discards in their own country only to find themselves alive and alone in another one that hates them, it often boils down to food.
Some will recall a turn in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer when the narrator, feeling spat out by the film industry and, I imagine, thoroughly gaslit by existence, returns home to a maternal figure, Madame, who tells him to “Have some pho . . . It will make you feel better.” Pho takes him “home” even further, as it were, and reminds him he is home as much as he isn’t. At a verbal level, it also brings the character down a notch from the highfalutin mania of explaining himself to White people and feeling subsumed by the very dynamic he’s trying to critique. It also addresses more simply a felt pain with a bodily need. That’s the enveloping charm of slurping your legacy.
As much as it’s a comfort, food is a control variable, the meal an event itself but also a space holder for conversation, a stage for relationship, a kind of theater or proxy for living, a motivation, an excuse. Towards the end of Cho’s mother’s life, food was a mutual occasion for them to meet, for Cho to love her in great detail, to “break bread with her voices.” Food as a memory-agent is something of a trope, as is the conception of one’s palette as another native tongue, but it’s a major facet of immigrant experiences at large and a particularly tender one for Cho, whose role as caretaker observes the difference between her mother’s dishes and the Korean peninsula’s, the latter evolving where the former clings to its historical referent. Food, then, becomes a kind of visitation, a time capsule occasioned by ghosts. The inverted role of a daughter feeding her mother, especially as a serial act, and the double valence of the mouth as destroyer and sensor — per Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ idea from Racial Indigestion, which serves as the epilogue of Cho’s section two — restarts a very specific hourglass and invites ghostly conventions. Tastes Like War sets and resets that scene.
Without glancing too much at the next table over, it seems important here to acknowledge that Mom’s Cooking is at the heart of another seminal memoir by another biracial Korean American woman who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H-Mart, spawned from her popular eponymous New Yorker essay. I’d like to celebrate the fact that there are two categorically resemblant stories to speak of here, without, I hope, detracting anything from their total uniqueness. Consider the urge to compare them merely a symptom of never having had until now the privilege of being able to do that: there’s never been more than one Korean American thing to talk about at a given moment since the industry seems to think there can only be one voice per racial category on a publisher’s list per season, as if there aren’t countless novels about White people contending with their New York Cities all the time. Now, there’s a sudden cluster of diasporic narratives and expressions surfing the Korean Wave. It’s only the suddenness that makes them feel like so many surfacing fish.
To its credit, Tastes Like War never panders to that majority, I don’t think, which is one of the discoursal traps awaiting Asian American writing more broadly, especially when the stories are so overdue and feel burdened to accomplish so much for so many. On the contrary, Tastes Like War explains what needs to be explained and enjoys for itself the underexposed dimensions of memories, a kind of embracing of the “other face” that is so often assumed of our own faces, that burden of explanation turned in on itself. If you can’t put your finger on the dissonance, fine. That’s precisely where this project’s lifeforce is found, in the sense that Cho, in sounding out these pages, uncovers only more secrets in the mix, more intimations and entanglements to explore. And why does that have to be a deceit? Illegibility doesn’t have to be a deceit; it can be an artistic conceit, a thing to behold, that’s the point.
Food, to that end, is not the point. Probably Cho knew that, and the discreet unfulfillment of the “food memoir” project is retrospectively notable; but she vacates her own premise in order to make room for broader vantage. Cho’s primary argument is in finding the most accurate statements to guide us through a fraught legacy. It would be most accurate to say that her uncle died “during the Korean War.” That her mother’s schizophrenia developed in Chehalis. That her mother was a bar hostess that serviced American military bases. That she died with schizophrenia, if not of or from it. That it was there, in any case, presiding. That hospitals were not there when her uncle had cancer, the War too in the way, a thing they didn’t know until too late. That the juvenile detention center in Chehalis where Cho’s mother worked the graveyard shift was later found to have reported systemic sexual abuse cases. That she’d told Cho she was a counselor there, that she’d broken up a fight once by hitting one of the inmates with a chair, but Cho was never sure exactly what she did. That if she was some kind of night guard, Cho “wondered why they needed a counselor when people were sleeping.” That, for a time before that job, Cho’s mother voraciously foraged mushrooms in Washington forests, and those days, appeared lucid, driven, and happy.
Mostly, I’m in awe of what Cho has managed to do in this relatively slim and measured catalog of memories, scholarly insights, and creative formulations. We could call it a mother-daughter memoir by a serious scholar addressing the human core of her essential scholarly commitments — but that would be cutting to a rough chase, which, out of respect for this book’s dedication to resisting quick takes, we shouldn’t do. Cho’s academic background, moreover, never over-disciplines her writing for the so-called general audience, but in fact only sharpens her maneuvers through historical fabrics that are always also personal. It’s not a trick that she slips designations in her suspension of judgements; rather, it’s a managed marvel that grants the widest permission for the rest of us to proceed, to share stories in whatever forms they require.
So, in breach of my policy to not do this in reviews, I can’t help but also think of my own mother, whose respective degenerative illness (hers, Parkinson’s), also emerged against the backdrop of a small American town (albeit not as rural as Chehalis), and feels to me a comparatively complicated diagnosis and (post-)reality as Cho’s mother’s. Further, as a biracial Korean American of a later generation than Cho’s, her recollections, and their porous frame, illuminate for me — and I can only imagine for others in similar boats — a crucial dimension of geopolitical violence through which can be traced radiant generational pains, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes subdued by the passage. The diasporic musculature through which these pains run, prior to my reading this book, I think, were deeply atrophied. Because I didn’t know it was there, or how there it was, to what degree it could claim movement. We walk to feel our bodies in a way; we read to feel our minds. In Tastes Like War, Cho has sent a vital current through a history towards a more considered life, a more felt conception of history as it involves us.
In one sense, the book is a critique of a Cold War trauma, a celebration of a personal hero, a challenge to diagnostic frameworks. But it’s predominantly an argument for writing, I’m inclined to believe, as remembrance or homage, and as an architecture for survival. The many voices in this book coalesce on that issue: they’re all saying, emphatically, “This is me surviving.” In part, Cho echoes Audre Lorde’s refrain from “A Litany for Survival” by opening with it in her first section and later employing it explicitly as a device by joining the poem: “In Chehalis,” she writes, as if part of a great multiple, “we were never meant to survive.”
And yet, here we are, and here is this book, like a gift from the chorus. In the recent shower of Korean and Korean diasporic awareness in North America, this is the comet that burns brightest in its field. I can only hope the perceived transience of most “timely” revelations of its kind is a media illusion, because as it stands, the lively testimony of Cho’s text, her certain tenderness, feels like an apparition. It deserves our fullest attention while the hour is here. We’re having a moment in the sky, the digital one that unites us, but the moment doesn’t feel like ours. Tastes Like War, though, does.
Jed Munson is a Fulbright scholar to South Korea. His chapbook, Newsflash Under Fire, Over the Shoulder, is forthcoming with Ugly Duckling Presse.