A Cruelty Special to Our Species
by Emily Jungmin Yoon
Ecco Books, 2018; 80 pp
Reviewed by Danielle Susi
Born in the Republic of Korea, Emily Jungmin Yoon’s brilliant debut full-length collection of poetry, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, challenges the history of sexual violence against women, particularly so-called “comfort women.” These young Korean women were forced into sexual slavery in Japanese-occupied territories during World War II. As she notes in her author’s note at the start of the collection, Yoon wants her poetry “to serve to amplify and speak these women’s stories, not speak for them.”
The collection begins with “An Ordinary Misfortune”—not to be confused with the eight other prose poems by the same name. This series of poems, peppered throughout, lays a devastating foundation for the collection’s focus—a demand of the speaker’s gratitude even when their race and gender are threatened.
In the book’s section entitled “Testimonies,” Yoon draws directly from the testaments given by former comfort women. Written in first person, the poet embodies the voice of each woman. Each poem is a retelling of the way the woman was forced—sometimes stolen—into becoming a sexual servant to Japanese soldiers. Their eventual escape or release is revealed and each is uncannily similar—back to a life in which they are unrecognizable to even themselves.
Yoon is an expert in forming these testimonial poems, combining a masterful use of language meant to echo the syntax of a non-native English speaker with searing imagery of the kinds of diseases and afflictions these women were subject to in their imprisonment.
In the time of The Handmaid’s Tale, Muslim travel bans, and immigrant children being separated from their parents, Yoon’s work feels urgent, familiar in its need, and eerily relevant. This collection is an immigrant’s story, a prisoner’s story, the story of someone seeking voice. As she finishes her author’s note, Yoon writes, “I wrote this book to say that one has the agency to command and preserve their own narrative.”