Project Bookshelf: Kaylee Young-Eun Jeong

My parents recently moved from Oregon, our home state of twenty years, to South Korea, where they were born and raised. Such a big move meant parting with many of the books that had filled the shelves of my childhood, taking only what my parents deemed necessary. When I arrived at our new home after my second year of college in New York, the first thing I did was scavenge through the assortment of books they’d brought, trying to fill the little bookshelf in the picture you see here. Its contents are a mishmash of three things: the worn, well-loved books of my childhood that survived the move, classic titles my parents bought and read ages ago, far before I was old enough to appreciate them, and a few precious favorites I brought overseas from my New York dorm room, knowing I wouldn’t be able to last a summer without them.

A rush of nostalgia ran through me as soon as I saw Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin in the haphazard piles of books. Its Chinese folklore-inspired tale was one I poured over for countless hours in elementary school, captivated by the brilliance of the language and the beauty of Lin’s illustrations. While I don’t remember the particulars of the story well, I more clearly remember two of her other books: The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat, about a young Chinese girl named Pacy who, on top of the average troubles of childhood, also discusses her struggles to fit in due to her race. As I had almost exclusively been reading books about white main characters, it was the first time I had seen a nuanced Asian fictional character I could truly identify with. At that young age I had no idea how badly I’d been wanting to be truly seen by the literature I read, and finding Ms. Lin’s work opened up worlds of possibility to me: worlds in which stories like mine were worth being told.

As it turned out, all three books became wildly popular at my elementary school, so much so that Ms. Lin was invited to come speak at a surprise assembly. I still remember running laps around the kitchen table, jumping and shouting for joy, upon discovering Ms. Lin was going to come to our school. And I still remember feeling like bursting at the seams with happiness and pride watching her speak.

The Nine-Cloud Dream by Kim Man-Jung feels almost like the adult version of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. This was one of the books my parents chose to bring, and when they saw me reading it they instantly launched into happy memories of reading it for class during their high school days.

I think this summer—my first summer in Korea after almost four years since my last visit—was the perfect time to read this book. The tales of enchanted mountain peaks and Dragon Kings reminded me of the elements of East Asian mythology I’d loved as a child, and the Buddhist threads that tie the story together reminded me of my grandmother, the smell of incense in her quiet apartment and the small statue of the Buddha in her bedroom. It also reminded me of a vast world of Korean literature I have yet to explore. I can’t wait to add more Korean titles to my shelf as I continue to discover them.

Having only so much room in my suitcase, many of the books I chose to bring to Korea were shorter volumes of poetry. I always hesitate to say definitively that I’ve read or finished a book of poetry, because I find that with each rereading of a poem I find that it’s become a completely different one, offering up new significances with time. All American Poem by Matthew Dickman has been with me since the very beginning of my poetry journey. I remember falling in love with his poem “Gas Station” when I first began writing poems in my sophomore year of high school, and even today I reach for his work whenever the world feels as though it’s losing its magic.

On the other hand, I only found Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely a few months ago, as assigned reading for a class on prose poetry and poetic prose. I devoured it in a single, frantic sitting, completely unable to tear myself away, and overwhelmed by some strange and desperate emotion, cried in the middle of the grocery store later that night, thinking back to Rankine’s words.

And Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is one I’ve been returning to recently, especially with the recent Roe v. Wade decision and so forth. He’s inspired me to write my own American sonnets, giving form to the tangled mess of emotions in my mind regarding my complicated relationship to my country of citizenship. Through his work, Hayes has given and continues to give me the gift of hope, defiance, and renewed strength—as do all of the writers on my bookshelf. All these books, put together, create a space that combines comfort and healing with the courage to transform myself and the world around me.

Kaylee Young-Eun Jeong is a Korean American writer, currently studying English at Columbia University. She edits for Quarto, Columbia’s official undergraduate literary magazine, and serves as a poetry reader for the Columbia Journal‘s Incarcerated Writers Initiative. A 2019 Sundress Best of the Net finalist in poetry, her work has been featured in diode, BOAAT, and Hyphen, among others.

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