Con Edison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter, Issue No. 53
Featured Artist: Grace Jahng Lee
Born stateless on a U.S. military base in Seoul, Grace Jahng Lee is a writer of prose and poetry. Fragmented lives, memory, metaphorical border crossings, and the search for home are central themes in her writing, which is inspired by transmigratory experiences growing up on four continents. Her writing centralizes the “other”; those who belong to multiple communities on the margins.
She attended the Simón Bolívar Conservatory of Music in Caracas and holds a Bachelor of Arts in cultural anthropology from Smith College and a Master of Public Health and Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from UCLA. She is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation workshop and a former fiction fellow at the Hambidge Center. She has been awarded residencies at AIR Budapest, Jentel, Caldera, the Paden Institute, and the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony.
On Friday, January 17, Grace will read an excerpt from her autobiographical novel-in-progress as a part of Pangea: Readings and Performances at NYFA from 6-9pm To RSVP, click here.
Q: You have a fascinating cultural background spanning across four continents. Can you tell us more about your history and how these experiences have influenced your writings? Is there one place in particular that has impacted the work or fragments of all these places?
My parents immigrated from South Korea to the U.S. prior to my birth and ironically, after enlisting in the U.S. military, my father was assigned a tour of duty in Korea one year after arriving in the U.S. I was born on a U.S. military base in Korea and was denied citizenship from both countries, as I did not meet the requirements for either country.
Growing up, my family moved constantly. As an adult, I worked in international public health, which took me abroad again. I have lived in Germany, Korea, Venezuela, East Timor, Guatemala, Brazil, and multiple states in the U.S.
It can be easy to romanticize a global upbringing but the experience was often alienating and isolating. Although I can now appreciate having seen so much of the world, it was an unsettling experience not to have a place to call home. Even as a small child, I was always cognizant of my status as an outsider, and this has influenced my writing and work. I have always been drawn to people on the margins, those who have been excluded or denied participation in society.
Q: Your diverse cultural background is equally matched by your varied professional career path. How have these different fields informed or directed your current practice as a writer? Have you always been writing or is this a recent decision to focus on poetry and prose?
My interdisciplinary training has enabled me to think creatively. From a young age, writing gave me an outlet for my thoughts. I was an extremely shy child and grew up in a household where my native language was different than my parents. Since we moved often, I was forced to leave friends behind with little notice and my notebooks became a kind of substitute companion.
As a teenager, I enrolled at a music conservatory in Caracas on a scholarship. I studied with a Russian teacher there who revolutionized my relationship with music. My decision to study cultural anthropology was influenced by my experiences of growing up as an outsider or perpetual foreigner. At the urging of my undergraduate advisor, I decided to pursue graduate studies in public health, which allowed me to return to Latin America.
I believe all immigrants are creative people, artists by choice or by circumstance. Although I had been writing for years, it never occurred to me to pursue writing as a profession. In my family (as with many Asian immigrant families), the only “respectable” professions were medicine, law, or engineering; art and creative pursuits were viewed as a luxury reserved only for the wealthy. Despite these obstacles, I decided to pursue my passion for writing and have been working on an autobiographical novel.
Q: What bought you to New York City? Tell us about your experiences so far. What you enjoy about living in NY? What challenges do you encounter? Do you have advice that you’d like to share with our immigrant artists?
I am a person who appreciates being an underdog among giants – it humbles me and really pushes me to work harder. Being here provides access to accomplished authors, literary events, grants, residencies, writing and publishing opportunities that I could never have dreamed of anywhere else. I’m still in awe over the unparalleled literary scene in New York City.
I love that New York is a city of foreigners. I love being able to walk freely without getting double-takes. I don’t feel out of place here. I love how hardworking the artists are here, the energy of the streets, the freedom of being able to hop on a train and be immersed in completely different surroundings that take me out of my comfort zone within minutes.
More than anywhere else I’ve lived, New York City has made me realize the importance of having a strong network of friends. It can be very difficult to survive here. I think that as immigrants, we often hesitate to ask for help and worry about burdening others. New York is not a city where one can survive in isolation. I was blessed to have good friends who opened their homes to me and helped me to adjust when I arrived with nothing more than two suitcases. Housing, job leads, advice on navigating the city, even dating—everything happens more easily when it’s mediated through friends and their extended networks.
It’s been very difficult to be so far from my family. My parents are quite elderly now and I constantly worry about their health. I feel guilty for not living closer to them where I can be useful. Having lacked the opportunity to grow up surrounded by extended family, I always yearned for the day my family and I would live in the same city but it hasn’t been possible.
One has to work so hard to survive in New York City, to constantly be on the grind and hustle. It can be exhausting and sometimes I find that it takes away from my writing time. It can be a sensory overload. But the city also provides endless inspiration for my writing.
Q: We were introduced to you through your selection into the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program in 2013. Can you speak to any impact you felt from the program — What has resonated with you since the program’s conclusion last September? Is there anything you learned that would help other immigrant artists working here in the City?
When I met my mentor, Rien Kuntari, she shared her story of becoming exiled from her homeland due to the publication of her highly political book that exposed human rights abuses. She continues to inspire me with her incredible strength. Her story illustrates the power of words to completely change lives.
I would recommend seeking out a mentor – if not through a program like NYFA, through your own networks to meet with regularly. Another piece of advice: apply for every opportunity, even if you think you’re not qualified. As immigrants, we can sometimes have a tendency to be self-deprecating. I never thought that I would be selected for NYFA’s program and I am grateful for the opportunity, as it has opened many doors for me.
It was amazing to meet a group of extremely talented immigrant artists from multiple disciplines. Spend time investing in your relationships as you focus on your art. You never know who knows somebody who knows somebody; we can all be supportive resources for each other.