Campbell’s Stone House
Joanna Cho says that her first collection of poems, People Person, “at its heart and as a whole, is a love letter to my mother”.
Joanna Cho is a Wellington poet whose first collection of poetry, people personis published this month.
The 29-year-old was born in South Korea and emigrated here with her parents and two siblings when she was 2 years old.
She completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in 2020 and received the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry. She works as a publishing assistant at Lift Education and lives with her housemates in central Wellington.
She talks to Sarah Catherall about respect, guilt, and being tired of keeping secrets.
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Many poems and essays are about your mother, tell us about her life and why it was important to write about her?
Mom came from a wealthy Korean family. She studied fine arts there and worked in fashion. She got married and had three children – I’m the youngest – and we moved to New Zealand in 1995 when I was 2. It was the dream of a better life for us and a better education.
Mom and dad worked here as cleaners for Green Acres. Mom stopped working when dad left her for another woman. I was 6 years old at the time. Mom couldn’t find a job so she was unemployed until I was 18. I talk about it in the book, how hard this time was for her as a divorced woman and single mother. Mom didn’t speak English and she couldn’t fit in as well as me.
I’ve seen how you can move to a new place and have everything taken away and people don’t treat you with the respect you deserve. Mom had been in a place where she had all these opportunities and she moved here and had nothing.
I was lucky to have all these opportunities, but I don’t necessarily do what I should and sometimes I feel guilty.
Did you move around a lot as a child and teenager?
We mainly lived on the North Shore because there is a big Korean community there. We rented so we were constantly on the move. I went to seven primary schools. It was really hard, especially because I was very shy. Going to many schools, I have always been the “Asian kid”.
I grew up here and disconnected from my culture and therefore disconnected from Korean children. It’s only recently that I’ve been trying to learn the language more and connect more to my culture.
You returned to Korea when you were 7 years old. How was it ?
Mom made us win plane tickets to go to Seoul. I went to two schools but I hated it. The second school had a really scary teacher who beat up a kid in front of us. We had no money and we were constantly on the move. We would stay with mom’s friends or an aunt and we would still have to move.
It was hard to adjust, but it was cool to meet my extended family and mom’s friends, and the city was exciting. But eventually I snapped and asked mum if we could go back to New Zealand and we did.
When did you start writing?
I loved to read when I was a child and I liked to be alone with a book. My friend gave me a notebook for my ninth birthday and that’s when I started writing short stories.
When and why did you start writing this collection?
I started writing this in 2020 when I was doing my masters, but I wrote a few poems the year before. I had written a few things about mom when she was sick a few years ago. She had breast cancer and I left university in Auckland to go to Korea to be with her.
For some reason, this writing is what obsesses me and what I gravitate towards. I wanted to tell some of mum’s stories because it can be empowering and empowering to have your struggles known, and I was often frustrated by the common misconceptions around her and others like her – because her story doesn’t is not uncommon. But I had no angles. I just wrote down what was going on in my life at the time, and the things I had been thinking about, and it all fell into place.
You write about going to therapy?
Therapy was life changing. I was very avoidant, there were a lot of things I hadn’t dealt with. At the time, I was 25, very depressed, doing odd jobs, then I quit, feeling hopeless. My therapist taught me to be kind to myself and to set boundaries.
Why did you add Korean in the text? It feels very natural and powerful.
It was natural because Korean is what I speak to my mother. Mom also did all the illustrations for the book. I can put Korean in my book and no one cares. It’s exciting that more diverse voices are being recognized and heard.
What do you hope people will take away from your book?
I find it hard to talk about my book, partly because it’s too soon, and to be honest I’m pretty exhausted, but also because I feel like talking too much about something can lose his power. I hope my work speaks for itself.
I wrote a very personal book, then I stuck my face to the cover, and looking back, I think I had had enough of the secrets and just wanted to be honest, but writing about personal things doesn’t doesn’t necessarily mean I want to talk about it.
As I wrote it, I discovered stuff about my family, mom, myself, as well as new ways of telling stories and the politics of being published. I hope readers enjoy it and walk away feeling the love I tried to write in it. I think at its core, and as a whole, it’s a love letter to my mother.