Monday, March 31, 2008



Dance Dance Revolution by Cathy Park Hong
(W. W. Norton, New York, 2007)

Dance Dance Revolution is unlike any book of poems you’ve read before, and that alone ought to pique your curiosity enough to pick up a copy. Not quite an epic poem (too short), not quite a novel-in-verse (too fractured), it nevertheless shares with both of those genres certain conventions, while employing them to fresh new ends.

The frame story goes something like this: a 20- or 30-something unnamed Historian of unspecified gender has been frustrated in her[1] attempts to learn of her family’s past by the early death of her mother and the reluctance of her father. In prose excerpts from her memoir, she explains that her father’s former lover is working as a guide at the St. Petersburg Hotel in the Desert, and that she has undertaken a journey to find the Guide in hopes of discovering some backstory.[2] Upon arriving in the Desert, the Historian hires the Guide to show her the sights, chiefly themed hotels based on the great cities of the world. Across the bridge from the dazzling lights of the tourist section lies a guarded ghetto called New Town, home to revolutionary exiles and other political refugees. Desert inhabitants speak “an amalgam of some three hundred languages and dialects imported into this city, a rapidly evolving lingua franca,” a creole which though built on the structures of English grammar, is indiscriminately draped with borrowed vocabulary, idiosyncratic spelling, and a mixture of phonetic and archaic pronunciation. The Historian helpfully provides a few translated samples to introduce the reader to the dialect:
Dimfo me am im
Let me tell you about him


So din he lip dim clout.
So then he punched him in the mouth.

Bar goons hoistim off. Exeunt.
Security escorted him out of the bar.

And so on. The various speeches the Historian tapes and transcribes read somewhat like Oulipian homophonic translations in places, with unusual but recognizable synonyms standing in for more expected terms and a distinct pattern of patois-style clipping and elision. Once you’ve gotten used to it, the dialect is fairly easily understood even if it’s inconsistent on occasion, much in the same way one’s mind auotamticllay copmnestaets wtih jublmed lerttres.

The story within the story consists of the Guide’s speeches, once she and the Historian have put aside the pretext of the tour for the more pressing business at hand: the Guide’s reminiscences of the (historical) Kwangju Uprising and (fictional) Dance Dance Revolution. (The year is either 2016 or sometime thereafter[3], which gives Hong the freedom enjoyed by science fiction writers to blend actual with imagined events to create an alternative reality.) Chun Sujin,[4] as the Guide was known before her self-imposed exile to the Desert, was born near Kwangju, South Korea, the daughter of a famous chanteuse who dies while giving birth. (Motherlessness is a theme in DDR, yes, as are distant fathers.) As a child, she’s diagnosed with alopecia and is shunned and taunted for her “scolded ball head” and begins wearing wigs to fit in. At fourteen, she leaves her father’s house to live with her teacher, by whom she is politically influenced, and eventually joins the activist movement that opposes the dictatorial governments of Chun Du-Hwan and Park Chung-Hee. It is at this point she meets and falls in love with Kim Yoon-Sah, who will later become the Historian’s father. Sujin possesses the gift of gab, a talent that not only befits her future occupation as a Guide, but also serves her well in the revolutionary climate of the late 80s in South Korea. She becomes a popular agitator for the pro-democracy movement, but many of her followers still cannot tolerate her appearance:
…Dim call me voice o Kwangju
uprising’s danseur principal…but samsy, es funny,
I’s voice o Kwangju since dim multitudes who
cryim fo acceptance shun mine presence…

…I’s lose me wig en passion o rally,
mine ball head nekked, mine oysta eyes
filla-up wit wadder, stompim podium,
spout ricanery to rally crowd…

…but crowd dim boo me, t’row rocks a’me
rocks intended fo plis boi patois, balfastards, trown a’ me![5]

Sah convinces Sujin to return to the cause via pirate radio station, as the arrests and spying and suppression ratchet up all around them. On the day Sujin throws a kerosene bomb into a schoolhouse being raided by police, the Kwangju Uprising ensues. Whether or not she is wholly responsible, she blames herself for the massacre that follows. Unable to face her guilt, or the possibility Sah may not have made it out alive, she flees to the Desert to live in the farming enclave known as the Ginseng Colony. There she participates in another uprising a few years later, which also results in many deaths. A disillusioned survivor for the second time, she angrily vows to pursue “only pleasure from n’won.” In 1988, the revolution for which the book is titled takes place.[6]

Ironically, we learn little about Dance Dance Revolution from the Guide, who did not participate. Presumably the Historian is less interested in this part of the story, since her father’s path has also taken a divergent turn. At some point after the Kwangju Uprising, Sah traveled to America, abandoned political science for med school, married the Historian’s American mother, and finally became a doctor in Sierra Leone, etc. This is my chief complaint about what is otherwise a superbly imagined, highly entertaining narrative: What did dancing have to do with the revolution, exactly? Are the swim-caps handed out at the entrance to the New Town dance hall a kind of homage to the bald Guide, who is now celebrated as a hero? We’re left guessing by the gaps in the tale.

During the course of her storytelling, the Guide manages to smuggle the Historian over the bridge into New Town, where the Historian is also able to document speeches by various characters and other noise from the cultural mishmash of the colony’s marketplace: hagglers wheedling, hula hoopers tantalizing, snatches of songs from the dance hall, an auctioneer selling copyrighted phrases. These bits are chances for Hong to play around with variations on the fluid creole of the Desert, and she takes full advantage, to the reader’s delight. One particularly compelling poem emphasizes a key theme in the book, the blending and compressing of a truly global culture, the oscillating experiences of foreignness and familiarity from the perspective of a “double migrant”:

Lo, brandied man en rabbinical cape
dab rosy musk en goy’s gossamy nape,
y brassy Brahmin papoosed in sari’s saffron sheet
swoon bine faire Waspian en ‘im wingtip feet,
les’ toast to bountiful gene pool,
to intramarry couple breedim beige population!

Lo, union o husky Ontarian y teacup size Tibetan,
wreath en honeysuckle y dew-studded bracken,
lo, union o Cameroon groom kissim ‘e gallic Gamine’s cheek
en miscengnatin’ amour dim seek to reek
les’ toast to bountiful gene pool,
to intramarry couple breedim beige population!

Clap away, Greek chorus o gay sashayim crowd,
clap away, chatty flackmen y pre-nup hackmen,
bine fort, ruby-lined pachyderms who trundle here proud,
bine fort, madders who nag fo proposal enactment,
les’ toast to bountiful gene pool,
to intramarry couple breedim beige population!

Dance Dance Revolution is a much larger book than the sum of its parts, leading the reader on an ambitious, somehow sweeping tour of pasts and futures both real and imagined, laid out in an intricate plot full of fun science fictionish tweaks, and rich with linguistic invention, ornately textured speeches, and verbal gymnastics, as poetry should be. If in the end I’m left wanting to know more about Dance Dance Revolution, New Town, and the beige population of this fantastical Desert, Hong’s provided enough material for me to imagine a whole second volume. Sequel anyone?

1. Though some reviewers have read the Historian as male, I read the character as female. Go figure.

2. This is not a spoiler, despite Adrienne Rich’s weird assertion in her introduction that this personal connection between the Historian and the Guide “is gradually revealed.” The Historian refers to the relationship as the reason for her trip on the third page of her foreword, the book’s first chapter.

3. It is unclear from the Guide’s chronology or her stories how long she has served as the head guide for the St. Petersburg hotel, but she was appointed to the position in 2016 and has worked for the hotel off and on since 1989.

4. Korean names that have not been Americanized are ordered family name first, given name last. Kwangju is sometimes spelled Gwangju, and hyphenation and capitalization in the other Korean names here follow the book, though they may appear differently elsewhere.

5. These ellipses are not mine. They appear throughout the book to indicated lapses in the Guide’s speeches, because the Historian’s audio recordings have been slightly damaged.

6. Konami’s video game called Dance Dance Revolution was not introduced until 1998. If you were wondering what the revolution and the video game have to do with each other, there is no direct connection, unless Hong means to obliquely suggest that following blinking lights in dance steps bears some relation to living under a dictatorship. But this seems unlikely to me. Perhaps she means to highlight that dancing, i.e. pleasure, is complicated by restrictions upon or responsibilities inherent to free will.


Shanna Compton is the author of For Girls (& Others), Down Spooky, and several chapbooks, as well as the editor of GAMERS: Writers, Artists & Programmers on the Pleasures of Pixels. She's also the founding editor of the DIY Publishing Cooperative and Bloof Books. She lives in New Jersey.

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