I returned to the Ivy Bookshop this past Saturday, Nov. 5 to see Kathleen Hellen read from her new poetry collection, The Only Country Was the Color of My Skin. Born in Tokyo, Kathleen Hellen is the half-Japanese author of the award-winning collection Umberto’s Night and two chapbooks, The Girl Who Loved Mothra and Pentimento. Her poems have won the Thomas Merton and James Still poetry prizes, as well as prizes from the H.O.W. Journal and Washington Square Review.
Hellen served as senior poetry editor for the Baltimore Review and was on the editorial board of Washington Writers’ Publishing House. She currently works as a humanities professor at Coppin State University in Baltimore.
The Only Country Was the Color of My Skin is her second collection of poetry. Hellen focuses on the beautiful, the terrible and the difficult — her family, the atomic bombings of Japan, her navigation of her multiracial identity and her family’s personal stories. Her poetry examines the complicated mythology and history surrounding her family, as well as the complicated issue of figuring out identity and belonging.
When I entered the brightly lit store, I met a cap-wearing man who asked me if I was here for the event. He pointed me to the fiction section where four people were seated in a circle and talking. It didn’t look like the event had started, so I went over hesitantly, the cap-wearing man following behind. The co-owner of the store, Emma Snyder, noticed me and waved me over.
A silver-haired woman in a textured, beige kimono — Kathleen Hellen — smiled and started a conversation with me. As we and the others in this small group chatted, I felt at ease. The atmosphere was friendly and, since there weren’t many people, the event felt less formal in a good way.
Eventually, Hellen started off the event by reading one of her poems,“Tunnel,” inspired by her childhood. During World War II, her mother had survived the fire bombings on her small city outside of Tokyo and then moved with her family to Pennsylvania when Hellen was five. She would drive Hellen and her siblings to Chinatown in Pittsburgh every month so they could still see people who looked like them. To get to Pittsburgh, they had to drive through the Liberty Tunnels.
Hellen later noticed the similarity between the Liberty Tunnels and the tunnels that her mom and fellow townspeople took shelter in from the fire bombings. This inspired her to write the poem.
Another one of Hellen’s poems,“Autobiographia Hysteria,” was about the difficulty of growing up with complicated familial and ethnic backgrounds. It began with a haiku and meditated on just how difficult it can be for one to make peace with one’s racial identity in an environment of exclusion. “Reconciliation, that dagger,” she read.
In between readings, Hellen would recount stories from her family and from her own life. Her great-grandmother was a geisha but her life was shrouded in secrecy, as the lives of all geisha are.
Her grandfather was supposed to give up his sword after the Meiji came into power, but he refused and would polish his sword in the basement in secret. He later became a Shinto priest.
In her grandfather’s village, he carried out rituals for people with illnesses and problems, and he received payment in food and money. A geisha once approached him desiring vengeance against her danna (patron). She brought her danna’s shoe to him and asked him to put a spell on it to make the danna lame. He inked the shoe with a spell and the geisha in turn paid him in unbelievable sums of money and rice cakes. He rarely went hungry. It is unknown whether or not the danna became lame.
In one of the first poems she read to us that evening,“Hello Kitty,” Hellen wrote, “I have a mouth to tell my story.” In her collection, she interprets the stories not just in her own life, or in the lives of her family members, but also in the world.
In an interview with Poetry and Power, the website and blog of the University’s Poetry & Social Justice class, she once said, “As witness, I am part of the process of the changing world, and it is my responsibility to act as ‘witness’ for others who can’t.” Part of her poetry is remembrance, and part of her poetry is activism.
After the event, most of the people stayed and had some refreshments. I talked with Hellen and others about a myriad of topics, including the disputes between East Asian governments, the idea of a Pan-Asia, the current trade war with China and the situation in Syria.
I stuck around a bit more to chat with Hellen. She asked about my own background and family history. Over the past year I had grown a desire to learn more about my family and had considered recording a family tree and collection of stories the next time I visited South Korea.
“There’s always one person in the family who feels like they need to remember things,” said Hellen. She was ever thoughtful and kind, and her curiosity about my family has since reinforced my desire to seek these things out.
“The Only Country Was the Color of My Skin” by Kathleen Hellen is in print and available for sale at the Ivy Bookshop on 6080 Falls Road, and available for order at Bird in Hand café and bookstore.