Pandemic update, à la française

Part 2 of our conversation with Jack Jung, translator of Yi Sang; Michelle on the Supreme Court; Albert on the second lockdown in France and the infuriating failures that led to it.

Hello from lockdown, friends. We’ve been feeling anxious, as have many of you, about this coming week’s election. Here in France, people are also on edge with the skyrocketing COVID numbers and a spate of violent attacks, most recently the incident at a church in Nice that killed three.

In this edition, Michelle talks a bit about the Supreme Court, and Albert lets loose about the French state’s failure to control the pandemic. But first, here is Part 2 of our interview with our friend Jack Jung, poet and translator of the great modernist poet Yi Sang. (You can find Part 1 here.) In this second half, we ask him nosy questions about, among other things, his journey to America at age thirteen.

A young Jack Jung before emigrating to the United States.

Michelle: You came to the U.S. when you were thirteen. What was your relationship to English and to poetry at the time? Sketch out a young Jack Jung!

Jack: Oh gosh. I came to the States with my mother in July 2001. She had been thinking for a while about coming to the U.S. to start anew. After she and my father divorced, she felt it was even more necessary, and decided to pull the trigger. Of course, two months after we arrived, the world changed. The whole immigration process became very difficult for a while.

We first settled in the small midwestern town of Butler, Missouri. It was an hour’s drive south of Kansas City, near the Ozarks. The reason we ended up there was that we’d gotten a sponsorship from a nursing home. (Mom is a nurse.)

We were the only Asians. We really stood out. I remember hearing a lot of Jackie Chan jokes.

Albert: What was your relationship to English?

In Korea, I didn’t want to study English at all. We start learning English in Korea when we’re really young, but I hated going to elementary school, so I skipped it sometimes. (I was eventually caught and got spanked by Mom.) I hated studying, but I really loved drawing and liked storytelling, so I thought I was going to become a cartoonist.

When we came to the states, I was very overwhelmed by not being able to speak the language. When I got to Missouri, I found a volunteer ESL teacher from a local Baptist church, and with her support and some help from school I started learning English.

We spent two years in Missouri, and after we got our green cards Mom decided to move to New Haven, Connecticut, where she had a connection to St. Raphael’s Hospital. Her boss there had an in at Notre Dame High School, an all-boys Catholic school in West Haven. We decided that would be a good option for me. By the time I got to college, I didn’t know how to talk to girls.

[We all laugh.]

At Notre Dame I wasn’t really exposed to poetry. I had great English teachers, but they only taught novels. Maybe in one class we read Edgar Allan Poe together. But that was about it. So when I got to college, I didn’t even know poetry was a thing, or that people still wrote or read it. I was looking through the course guide and saw a class called “Poetry Workshop.” I thought, “That’s odd, there’s a class in poetry?”

I tried to write some free verse poems. I had no idea what I was doing. But I submitted them as part of an application for the workshop, and luckily Jorie [Graham], who was always so generous to first-time students, allowed me in. That opened up my world.

I was reading all these English poets. I came across Shakespeare and Milton and fell in love with those guys. I wanted to translate Yi Sang for my thesis, but the English department didn’t allow that, so ultimately I wrote my thesis on Milton.

I did a minor in the East Asian Languages and Culture program, so I was still exposed to a lot of different classes that way. I took classes in Korean culture and literature, and I was invited to translate poems. And after I graduated I went back to Korea, and decided I wanted to introduce Korean poetry to a U.S. audience.

Jack with his mother, who came to the U.S. as a nurse.

MK: I’m interested in what you said [in Part 1] about how your mother introduced you to Yi Sang’s poetry.

JJ: When we first arrived in the United States, my mother was working sixty to seventy hours a week. For our first twelve years, we were moving almost every six months to get better pricing on rentals, and living in very small spaces. So she didn’t have time to talk about poetry.

Once I got into college, her work schedule stabilized and she was able to buy a house. When I began asking her about Korean poetry, she started to point me to all these poets. I was like, “Wow, Mom, you know so much!” It came out that at one point she had had ambitions of becoming a writer herself—but then she became a nurse to support her family.

I always tell her now that she needs to write, but she says, “Oh, I haven't written anything in Korean for years. I can’t, I’m not a good writer anymore.” So that’s one of my life missions: to get her to write something, at least a memoir.

MK: I’d love to read that.

JJ: Yeah, and I tell her that I’ll translate the book into English for her.

MK: I want to hear how you feel about your relationship to Asian-Americans and “Asian-America.”

JJ: Since the pandemic, I’ve started posting my translations of Korean poetry on social media. And as the BLM movement surged throughout the states, I felt a need to share some of the political poems, the forms of resistance, that historically came out of Korea.

As I started sharing these translations on Twitter, I got a lot of interest from second- or third-generation Korean-Americans. Some of them didn’t know Korean, or knew some Korean but didn’t know exactly what something meant in the poem. A lot of the translations of poems in Korean anthologies are also really hard to get. So I started to share more poems, and my translations of them. A lot of people wrote to say reading these helped them feel more connected to the “homeland,” and that certainly felt very gratifying. For so long I’ve felt like an outsider in the Korean-American community. This was the first time I felt like I could be a bridge between these two experiences.

When I moved back to Korea to work on my master’s at Seoul National University, my friends expected me to stumble through social situations, but I ended up doing okay. They made the observation that I’m very good at code-switching between formal Korean social situations and casual American ones. When I’m in Korea, I’m very Korean. (Maybe that’s why I like Yi Sang so much, because of this mirroring and doubling!)

AW: Were there any cases where you were outed as non-Korean?

JJ: I’ve made mistakes. Once, after a conference, an older Korean male professor was going around offering everybody a glass and pouring beer in it. When he got to me, I put the beer on the table and didn’t drink it. Suddenly the professor got very angry with me. Only later did I realize that the etiquette was to drink the shot right away, give him back the glass, and then pour him a drink. (Yes, he was getting really drunk.) You have to be very nimble on your feet, especially at drinking afterparties—it’s kind of ironic. And you can’t relax when you're drinking with older men. I never made that mistake again!

AW: So what do you prefer more, translating from Korean into English or translating from English into Korean?

JJ: I definitely do more translation from Korean into English. Once I noticed that I was being quite liberal in how I was adapting English into Korean. While when I was translating from Korean I was more literal and strict.

I do wonder maybe I had some subconscious allegiance to my first language, that it has to be as it is. As opposed to English, I must have been like, “Oh I can do whatever I want it to be.”


But the truth is that you want to have both going on at the same time.

MK: Okay, I have a question about Milton. Can you explain to us the context of this quote that we like?

“A broad and ample road, whose dust is gold,

And pavement stars—as stars to thee appear

Soon in the galaxy, that milky way

Which mightly as a circling zone thou seest

Powder’d with stars.”

JJ: Oh yeah, that’s Book Seven of Paradise Lost. Archangel Raphael is recounting the creation of the world, telling Adam everything that happened. And that’s, I think, at the end of creation. It’s the sixth or seventh day, and everyone wants to rest. And Rafael says, “Check out the stars—how beautiful they are! It’s a broad and ample road!”

[Jack points to his left in a dramatic gesture. We all giggle uncontrollably.]

MK: What does a broad and ample road mean to you?

JJ: Are you going to ask everybody you interview this question because it’s the name of your newsletter?

[We all laugh again.]

Well… I’m not a Milton expert, but I do remember being struck by a comment in Gordon Teskey’s seminar on Milton and Melville. Teskey mentioned how a certain “Biblical thinking” infused the work of both of these writers. All their writing alludes to the Fall and the coming of Christ and resurrection; every story becomes a foreshadowing or foretelling of what’s going to happen. At least in this Christian Biblical imagination, where there’s this V shape, from the fall to the nadir—which is the sacrifice of Christ—and then the eventual resurrection and the triumph and onward march of the kingdom of God.

When you think of it like that, whenever you talk about stars in the Biblical context, you’re immediately thinking about Abraham and all the stars he’s seeing. God is saying to Adam: You, you’re going to have all these kids and your descendants will be as numerous as the stars. [Laughs] I think Milton is doing something similar in this conversation between Raphael and Adam. It’s a wink wink—this “broad and ample road” is this triumphant shining pavement that you and humanity will walk on. And it’s written in the stars. That’s my reading of it.

MK & AW: [Laugh] Well, we’re relieved it wasn’t an incredibly bad moment in the poem.

JJ: No, no, Book Seven is short and really positive. War in heaven is done. And Christ, or the Son, is sent out to, you know, basically create the world because he’s the Word. Milton is trying to pull the Gospel of John and Genesis together into this beautiful English blank verse. It’s like, wow, it’s a lot of work!

MK: What’s your favorite book of Paradise Lost?

JJ: Well, the first two books are definitely eye-catching. There’s all that ruin and perdition going on, and you get sucked into it.

To tie Milton back to Yi Sang, I will say that one thing that’s interesting about Milton’s time as well as Yi Sang’s is that these are times when technological innovations and the way people think about the universe are leaping forward.

Yi Sang’s sense of time was shaped by Einstein’s discoveries. Milton met Galileo personally in Florence, and looked through his telescope. He describes Satan’s “ponderous shield” as the surface of the moon, as if seen through the optic glass of an astronomer in a Tuscan field. This gives you a sense of writing that’s cosmic in scale; it’s bewildering to think of a being that has a shield like that.

Galileo’s sketches of the moon (1610).

Jean Pierre Simon's Paradise Lost, Satan Alarmed (1794).

At the same time, Milton is imitating the description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad, saying, “I can do better with all this technological stuff.”

In “Poem No. 8,” Yi Sang uses the language of the X-ray to talk about alienation from the self and reality and unreality. For a poet, this is a “learnable moment.” All the new stuff being developed and invented could become a source for new kinds of expression, new kinds of experiences with language. I think that’s one of the reasons I have a passion for these two time periods, the English Renaissance and 1930s Korea.


This past Wednesday, Jack had a terrific conversation with the writer Alexander Chee at Prairie Lights Bookstore. You can find the recording here.

Pandemic update, à la française

Paris under lockdown.


And like that, we’re back in lockdown. Reality has mandated it: last weekend, the number of positive COVID cases rose to more than fifty-two thousand. French public health officials predict that intensive care units could be full by mid-November. French hospital workers—already overburdened by more than seven months of dealing with this crisis—are on the brink of collapsing from exhaustion.

Public health scientists like Devi Sridhar have been warning about an impending second wave of the virus since June, so it’s been infuriating to watch how unprepared the Macron government has been. As Sridhar points out, every government that has successfully contained the virus has relied on a pretty simple formula: test, trace, and isolate. The French government had months to build an infrastructure for comprehensive testing and contact tracing; it failed. Wired gives an accounting here, but one epidemiologist sums it up well: “They are doing it haphazardly. There’s no logic, no strategy, and that’s not good.”

Four weeks ago I had a firsthand experience with this failed testing regime. I woke up on a Saturday feeling like death, thinking I might have caught COVID. I made a virtual appointment with a doctor, who prescribed a COVID test immediately.

So far, so good. The confusion began when I tried to make an appointment for said COVID test. Doctolib, the online appointment platform used for most medical services in France, told me the first available test was in two weeks. Was I supposed to wait at home for two weeks? If I did in fact have COVID, how would I self-isolate in an apartment that usually holds five to six people? (We share a nanny with another mother, and on weekdays there are two babies here, and sometimes the other mom as well.) Waiting for two weeks was not an option.

The other option was to go to a public testing site and wait for a test without an appointment. On my bike ride to school, I had seen lines stretching over two blocks, all people waiting to get tested. My students tell me that waiting three hours is not atypical.

I got lucky. When I checked Doctolib again, an appointment had opened up on Wednesday. The testing process was smooth. But I still had to wait a week for the result. I never got a notification about my results; I had to constantly check a website. Ten days after my initial symptoms had emerged, I received a negative result. If I had actually contracted the virus and slipped through the cracks, how many other people could I have infected in that time? This experience convinced me that the system has too many holes: too long a wait to be tested, too long a period of uncertainty about your status.


It’s been clear for two months now that the second wave of COVID is here. By mid-September, France was counting more than ten thousand new cases a day. Why didn’t the government act more quickly? What was its threshold? New Zealand’s government shut down the city of Auckland in August because of four coronavirus cases. Fine, New Zealand is not France. But in Germany, authorities took immediate action as soon as the number of positive cases passed ten thousand.

Two weeks ago, Macron went on TV to announce a curfew in several metropolitan areas. In his speech and the interview afterwards, he came off as haughty, unable to reflect on the government’s failings. When pressed by interviewers, his attitude was scolding: It’s your fault for not wearing masks properly and observing social distancing. It’s your fault for not downloading the government’s COVID app. It’s your fault, young people, for partying and going to clubs. This is why he organized a curfew at 9 p.m., which he said would decrease transmission.

This type of scapegoating isn’t backed by the statistics. Studies have shown that 60 percent of COVID transmissions happen during normal working hours, at workplaces, schools, or universities. Almost everybody I talked to agreed that the curfew wouldn’t do much. So why didn’t we lock down two weeks ago and hope to be out by Christmas? We lost two valuable weeks. More people have been put at risk, and we’re in a lockdown anyway, one that’s now all but guaranteed to last until January—even if the government won’t come out and admit it.

In conversation, French friends have repeatedly reminded me that French people love their liberty and that the government has limited options. This offends me on multiple fronts. For one thing, it posits a dichotomy between the free West and compliant East. In March, when the first lockdown went into place here, it was high compliance that “flattened the curve.” People were willing to make individual sacrifices for the broader social good.

More insultingly, this attitude also assumes that we “Asiatics” don’t love democracy, that we acquiesce unthinkingly to political authority. In March, Ian Johnson argued persuasively that the United States and Europe have a tendency to “fixate on China’s authoritarian political system,” which “makes them discount the possible value and relevance of its decisions to them.” Two democratic Asian countries, South Korea and Taiwan, have successfully suppressed the coronavirus. Nobody can seriously argue that Taiwanese and South Koreans do not cherish their freedom. In 2014, more than five hundred thousand people in Taiwan took to the streets to protest a free trade agreement—and they succeeded in blocking the bill. In South Korea, demonstrations by more than sixteen million people—a third of the population—helped topple a corrupt president. I reject any explanation that hinges on “cultural difference” between a liberty-loving West and a rule-following East.

The failures of the Macron government lie in a persistent inability to take this virus seriously. As late as March 9, Macron strolled in a crowd on the Champs-Elysées without a mask, a show of “confidence” intended to bolster the French economy. Later, he flip-flopped on masks. He personally visited Didier Raoult, the microbiologist pushing hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment. Even this Wednesday’s announcement of the reconfinement was haphazard: for the twenty-four hours following the announcement, the media could only speculate as to which businesses would be able to remain open.

Macron’s mishandling of this crisis will only give more fuel to the far right in France, which is already seeing a rightward shift after several high-profile terror attacks. As early as January 29, the far right leader Marine Le Pen attacked Macron’s government for "minimizing” the risks of the disease and for its “totally incoherent” policies. Unfortunately, as the old adage goes, a broken clock is right twice a day. A reckoning has already begun for this government: the houses of several senior ministers, including former prime minister Edouard Philippe, have been raided to investigate whether the French government knowingly delayed its response to the pandemic. Watching the vultures gather, I feel nothing but dread.

“You fools go ahead and have your fun”


Everything I want to say about Amy Coney Barrett and the Supreme Court has been said.* So I’ll keep this short.

As I grow older, I become more convinced that we must organize politics around a belief in broad solidarity, anchored by common needs. We cannot rely primarily on intervention from the courts. Trump has appointed 215 federal judges and three Supreme Court justices. His Attorney General has chosen at least 210 immigration judges, half of whom previously worked for ICE. Certain legal battles, such as asylum for those fleeing gang and domestic violence, died the moment these appointees put on their robes.

This is not to diminish litigation, which plays an urgent part in building solidarity and obtaining justice. It holds powerful actors accountable, protects the freedom and dignity of marginalized people, and creates a paper trail that exposes wrongdoing, contradiction, and hypocrisy. The ACLU’s work in finding the parents of 545 separated children, for instance, is a vital battle against evil.

Still, I am reminded of the legendary lawyer and scholar Derrick Bell, who later questioned his own work desegregating the South through litigation. “The sense of vindication that Brown provided black people,” he wrote in 1979, “obscured the fact that the country as a whole stood to benefit [more] from the abandonment of official apartheid than did blacks.” Among those benefits was the boost in America’s prestige in the fight against Communism. Quoting Du Bois, Bell observed that Brown gave the U.S. government a credibility to lead the “free world” that would have been impossible had segregation been “kept legal in over a third of its territory.”

Today it’s a commonplace to observe that schools are more segregated than they were during the Brown era. A young Thurgood Marshall, who helped litigate Brown, understood that the fight doesn’t end with legal victory. Hearts and minds still must be won. As Bell tells it, the day Brown was decided, Marshall walked into a party at the NAACP headquarters in Manhattan, frowning. “You fools go ahead and have your fun,” he said, “but we ain’t begun to work yet.”

That said, let’s pack the court.

* Here are three pieces that pretty much sum it up:

This was an extremely unusual event: a swearing-in ceremony held in the dark of night, scarcely an hour after the culmination of an extremely rushed confirmation process. The oddity of the event was intended to signal that this was political theater. This was an event intended to signal to President Trump’s base—and to the American public—that President Trump has delivered on his promise.

It’s an anti-democratic form of politics. I think history will judge this moment very unkindly, as a moment of a clear attempt to subvert democracy. An appointment occurring barely a week before the presidential election— the blatant defiance of a political process that reflects the will of the majority of the American people will taint not only this particular justice, but the reputation of the court as a whole.

Shout-outs to some friends who have books out this year:

What we’re listening to this week

The legendary trumpeter Clifford Brown would have turned ninety this week. Tragically, he died young, at the age of twenty-five in a car crash that also killed his wife and the pianist Richie Powell. Here’s “Joy Spring,” my favorite Clifford Brown tune.

Some lightness: