Rajesh Parameswaran and Joeun Kim Aatchim in Conversation ‹ Literary Hub


Writer Rajesh Parameswaran (I Am An Executioner: Love Stories) and painter and multimedia artist Joeun Kim Aatchim met at Yaddo in 2023, where they struck up an interdisciplinary friendship. In this conversation, they discuss the distractions of residencies, how much viewers and readers should be asked to imagine, artistic layering, shifts in perspective, the mortality of memories, pain, and Emily Dickinson.


Rajesh Parameswaran: So, we met during a residency at Yaddo. What were you working on during the residency?

Joeun Kim Aatchim: I actually had this clear plan. I had a project which was titled “Messing Up the Melodies For Chasing After Missing Lyrics.” So basically, you’re looking at so many details that you’re messing up the whole song. But I couldn’t do that. And my other plan, which was to do a memory-based project of what happened last winter with my health and my personal things in Korea, also didn’t happen because I couldn’t get into the space, the memory space, because, as you know, we had to have (communal) dinner every day.

And usually, when I do memory-based projects, I have to get into the space. So I pretty much isolate myself and imagine the space and time. I have to be elsewhere. But I couldn’t get into the space because of meeting new people.

RP: Like me.

JKA: There are so many writers and inside jokes to remember.

RP: Is it easier for you to work when you’re back home in your own studio?

JKA: Yes and no. Now I can do the memory-based project of my time at Yaddo. It’s a kind of game. Like, I try to remember my room in Yaddo, and try to remake it here.

RP: Did you find the interdisciplinary aspect, although distracting, to also be productive?

JKA: Oh my God. That distraction is the best part of being in a residency like Yaddo, which has other people in other disciplines, because I don’t meet those people in my studio, and I usually don’t even go outside much when I’m working in my studio.

RP: I mean, your work is kind of multidisciplinary.

JKA: Yeah. I write a lot… It was so embarrassing to be with the writers.

RP: I feel like your relationship to language was one of the things that interested me about you and your work, because you seem to be really engaged with language, even in the dinner conversations. You know? And so can you talk more about that, how language operates in your work?

JKA: Because I’m dyslexic and also I’m not a native English speaker, English, to me, was like material to just play with. Going back to the question of why I go to residencies, even if it’s distractingit’s because I collect those languages. That is why I loved being with writers, actually, because they’re such good storytellers. I just collect all these things, like if somebody teaches me new vocabulary, I remember that person with that word, like a “doula” or “janky.” I don’t think you taught me any new words. Oh, you did, actually; what was it?

RP: I can’t remember. And then sometimes you use text in your work, in your drawings. Why do you do that?

JKA: I’m assuming other people may have the same problem as me, that if there is no (visual) attraction, they cannot readwhich is not true. It’s almost like when you want people, or yourself, to look at certain words, you highlight them or mark them. So when I want some language to be highlighted in my work, I just write it and put images over it so that it attracts. It goes both ways; image to highlight language, language to highlight image.

RP: That’s really interesting. And you feel like the language does something that the image cannot do and vice versa?

JKA: I think so. I always listen to audiobooks because I’m dyslexic, So I was listening to your book after you left (Yaddo). And oh my God, what a sick… [inaudible, laughs]. No, I’m just kidding.

As we talked about before, you don’t describe spaces that much in your work. So you gave me so much space for me to imagine. Where and what’s happening; because a lot of your stories are conversations or inner monologues, and there are not many descriptions about the space or details, the architectural space or other things, and I need those. So I was trying to imagine the space, and if there is already an image, like a visual image, I don’t think that’s possible.

RP: So it was not frustrating that I didn’t describe the space, but it was kind of an invitation to you. I feel like maybe your work has an opposite, or inverse, or a converse effect. I forget which word. Because in your work, you really describe the space in detail, and there are characters there, but the narrative is mysterious. There’s a suggestion of emotion and there’s a suggestion of narrative, but the viewer’s imagination is invited to fill in the gaps. Whereas as a writer, it’s my job to create the narrative.

JKA: How do you make it a believable story without giving locations that are believable locations? Because I feel like I use either my observation or my memories to make those images, and I want people to believe that I remembered it correctly or that I saw it correctly. So that’s why I tend to give a lot of details. But, theres a saying that goes, if you are gonna lie, give a lot of details, and people will believe you. So no one will know if I’m lying, ’cause nobody can fact-check me.

RP: I think that your drawings are very convincing. There are some that I’ve seen that I look at and think, surely this must have been something that happened that you remember, but then you told me that it’s actually a fiction or something imagined. So your work is very persuasive that way.

I think that my approach is to give just enough detail, just the necessary details, knowing that the reader can fill in the restbecause you’ve been in a million houses, you’ve seen a million kitchens. So if it’s not important exactly how this kitchen looks, I can just give enough detail, and just make sure it’s logical. Like I might have a real space in my head, and often that’s the case. I imagine these characters moving through a house that I have seen or a real space.

But I don’t have to wasteI mean, quote unquote wastetime describing the whole space, I can just describe a few details and I know that it’ll work because I’ve walked that way in my own life and I think itll make sense for the reader. I think that it is almost like a trick. Like, if we’re each kind of playing a different kind of trick on the audience, it’s like I just have to put enough details to make it plausible, and the reader does a lot of work without maybe even knowing that they’re doing the work of creating the rest of the world. And I can get away with it, especially in a short story. I think novels are a bit harder because you have to sustain that lie. [Laughs]

JKA: The lies! You have to remember. [Laughs]

RP: It’s like a liar who has to remember their lie a year later. You’re like, oh yeah, how did I describe that space back on page 10?

JKA: What you say is really right, because there is just enough information that the spaces can be applied to many different cultures. Because all different cultures have different kitchens.

Like in Korea, we have a bathroom with a sinkhole in the middle of it, so people take a shower in an entire bathroom, and they clean the whole bathroom altogether. I were to draw, I would draw a lot of details of my cultural-specific things, because my drawings are based on my memories. But your stories, they give just enough informationI think probably, the way you wrote them and the way I remember them are different; they take place in different spaces, have different images.

RP: Oh, I’m sure. No doubt that you’re not imagining the same kitchen that I was imagining. And because yours is a visual medium, you have to provide that visual information. But the story I impute to the drawing, it probably has nothing to do with what you had intended. Like, even the emotion might be different. Let’s say you have a drawing that for you is about sadness and the viewer sees it, and for them it’s about love or vice versa. Is that something that you invite or that’s something that you don’t?

JKA: That is always the question. It’s always so interesting how people look at things differently and how I look at things differently as time goes on or how I feel changes. For example, I drew an image of my mother washing my hair when I was immobile or when I couldn’t move. Yeah. Like, I was leaning over a chair, and then she was washing my hair, and I thought, it’s such a beautiful image of care. And then, at one point, it looked like she was torturing me.

RP: Oh, wow.

JKA: I drew that image over and over to make it look like a loving image. But you know what, once I saw itand the bathroom, the lighting, and all these thingsas a very torturing image, water torture, then I couldn’t see the loving image anymore. Although my memories of it haven’t changed, the image has. I don’t know, that one thing just clicked, and I saw it, and now I cannot unsee it.

RP: Do you always know what a drawing is “about” when you’re making it?

JKA: When I start, I know it, but then it changes. How is it in writing?

RP: Similar. I might have an idea of what a story is about, but I expect it to changeand I want it to, because if it remains exactly the same, it’s probably a pretty simple or boring idea. But if it’s complicated, it’s something I want to explore to understand better myself. And so the meanings will kind of reveal themselves in the writing of it.

JKA: How much of your personal life, your memories, or your observations of things get into your writing?

RP: When I first started writing, it was very removed from my own experience, at least on the surface. The subject matter was in some cases fantastical, or even about non-human characters. But of course I think some part of you is always in the work and it’s really about you in some way that’s probably deeply personal, but not obvious. I think as I’ve become older, I’ve become more transparent.

Now I might write a non-fiction essay about my life, which feels both similar and different. I mean, I’m exposing myself in both cases; with any kind of writing, you’re exposing what you want to expose and you’re also creating a fiction, even when you’re writing nonfiction. But nonfiction does have a different feel, because you know that you’re inviting people to view you in a more personal way.

From what I know of your trajectory as an artist, I wonder if you view it in a similar way, because your work used to be less personal, I think. And now your drawings seem very intimate and personal.

JKA: Right. I used to try to avoid anything first-person voice. And even if there was a first-person voice, I put, I don’t know, like a faade, a ventriloquist, or some faux concrete that looks like concrete but it’s like soft foam inside, just like me [laughs] or like faux mosaics. But then, at one point, when I decided to go back to drawing, I decided … It was very much like “I decided,” a very deliberate decision that I was going to only talk about what I know and what I see, because I had this urgent feeling that there’s not enough time for me to reference other things, or make points of institutional critique, or do any of the other things I used to be very into.

I felt that I only had time to talk about the stories that only I, in this whole world, knoweven if those were very small, trivial things, like you know, those stories that you tell with people, your friends, in little settings, like funerals. But those little anecdotes like, you know, “one day, I met that person in the hallway, and we talked about this and that,” those things. Only that person and I knew.

Little stories, you know, really small stories, but ones only I know, and if I don’t leave them (in my work), they will just disappear from the world. And then I began to feel so much compassion toward those little things. And then I started to draw still-lives of every single gift that I’ve gotten, and every single conversation I had. So I made myself be very diligent about making things that refuse those, big questions of, like, “what are these about?”

There’s no time for those. I just need to live every day because there’s no time to waste. I have so many things that I cherish that I need to leave traces of… It’s probably like what some people would call “mindfulness,” but it’s just my way of working, and cherishing life.

RP: That’s really beautiful and intense in a way. You stress that you have the sense of not enough time. Is that because you have so much to convey? Or was it a sudden realization of mortality?

JKA: I think it was a realization of the mortality of things, or the mortality of memories. More than the mortality of myself. Although those things are all in my work all the time. Like hospital scenes, or friends or a family getting sick, or death, those things. I’m not afraid to talk about these thingsbecause I probably don’t get those social cues telling me this or that is a taboo. I don’t have a filter in terms of what I need to talk about, or what I want to talk about, when it comes to drawings. I want to be fully transparent.

RP: At the same time, it’s not as if the work you make is clearly legible as to what its about. Like a viewer cannot necessarily tellI don’t know how to say it, but it’s like you said, there’s room for interpretation in the drawings; there’s some mystery to the drawings. And the narrative is not always clear. And sometimes it’s a sort of a fictional narrative and sometimes it’s something from memory. So even in the act of, as you say, full-on transparency, there are some layers built in.

JKA: The layers are important. So for example, I drew some explicit scenes that I went through. And then, in another layer, I felt so sad about this thing wilting, so I made drawings of it. When I layer them together, it became really confusing; viewers would not know why these scenes were shown with these beautiful flowers or rotten bananas, or I don’t know what.

Viewers are so conditioned to look for the meanings of why elements are together, but when it becomes art, sometimes I just pair them together and then see what can come out. They all come from me with the same sincere intention. But they become, somehow, surrealor something starts a new narrative that I didn’t even intend. Which is really interesting, actually. There’s some types of work I make; there are two or three layers. And people think I would plan; like made these and then put them together. But it actually doesn’t happen that way. It’s almost like matchmaking.

People who come to my studio know, I make massive, massive amounts of drawings and writings. Not every day of the whole year, but there’s a phase when I do that. And when I am my “future self”who doesn’t make artwork, but who usually does make decisions in writing, and decides what goes with what, I just put all of them together, and see what aestheticallyor narrative-wise, I don’t knowworks. I’m always amazed at how they come out.

There was a work that I showed last yearin my solo show, “Homed”which fused together two images that are 10 years apart. I couldn’t believe how well they went together. I would’ve never imagined them to go together, ever. In this sense, it’s very hopeful because even if I make something terrible this time, like really something that is not satisfying, I can always think that maybe it is a part of something in the future that I’m going to make. It’s going to be the crucial part that will complete the thing that I will make in the future. And I’ll just continue working.

RP: That’s a beautiful process. It’s nice because it’s a combination of intention and chance, to some degree. Although you’re playing an active role at both stages. But like you said, your intention when you begin the drawing is not the whole story. Later on there’s another stage where you’re pairing that drawing, and there is maybe some chance involved with that. Or you see connections that you didn’t see before, and it creates a new meaning that may not have been in your head originally.

JKA: Yes, because life is not a film. We are not directors of films who make stories that are so linear. Life is multiplicity, you know. Things happen simultaneously. But memories sometimes are very linear, because we think of life as a timeline. Actually, in your memory you were sad, but in real life you also felt hungry, and then you also laughed at watching something. There are so many things happening, but in memories, there are often not. So if I make a note, if I make small drawings, or if I stay diligent at staying in each moment, I may capture some of the multiplicities that are happening.

I don’t know how you can manage to write a long story. You’re writing your novelhow can you stay on one topic? One storyline?

RP: It’s not easy. Sometimes it’s really overwhelming. And I feel a little bit insane. If I can say that.

My first book is a collection of short stories, so I could make a big shift every time I started a new storyevery three months or six months. And there was a lot of variety. I think part of the challenge of the novel is figuring out how to make it feel alive and have a sense of multiplicity and layers. Sometimes I’ll go to a museum and look at a painting and I just love the immediacy.

Like, it’s all happening at once on one surface. A film or a novel is so linear, and so it can be a challenge to capture that sense of everything overlapping. I guess what the novel affords is the luxury of time, of layering things over time, but it’s a challenge. And I think it’s also why I’ve tried to work on a few different things at the same time. So they can sometimes inform each other.

JKA: Tell us what you are working on?

RP: Okay, okay. I am working on a novel and it’s been a very long process, but it’s got a large cast of characters and it’s got historical elements and so it’s very different from the short story collection that came out years ago.

And you have a show coming up soon-ish. Tell us about the show.

JKA: It’s going to be November, in LA with Franois Ghebaly. But hopefully, I can get into the memory space that I couldn’t get in at Yaddo. It is about a very rare experience I had, internally. I like to observe and I like to see through things; but I realized that even if I can feel it, I cannot see myself “inside.”

RP: You mean literally?

JKA: Yeah, inside of my body. I was so obsessed with imagining how the pain was formed. What creates pain? But I was trying to imagine things more. I think it has become more fantastic than how I usually work because I cannot see those things. And I was on a really high dose of a painkiller [laughs]. I probably imagined things that I would normally would not imagine.

RP: So the work will have a hallucinatory aspect and an imagined aspect.

JKA: I would say so, yeah. I don’t know how to describe it because those are things that I haven’t seen yet.

RP: But you were going to explore the unseen world of the inside of your own body.

JKA: It’s similar to how I discovered I am stereoblind by drawing things, comparing things with other people, and then realizing that other people don’t see the same way I do. I realized that we were not actually talking about the same thing at all. But we have the same languagewe talk about things as if we are talking about the same things. And what I’m saying is the painhow can I tangibly draw it? The pain, oh, not in a painful way of the pain, but more like a battle, like characters. That’s something that I’m trying to do. And my, I was so in love with my surgeon. So he’s the Knight.

RP: Now he’s going to know.

JKA: Yes. And then my pain is like some unknown creature. Then he just like [verbal noise of sword fighting], how would they you transcribe [noise]? Put a cuff on the neck of the monster.

RP: The pain monster.

JKA: Yeah. My pain is vascular compression pain. So I was only imagining, because there’s no such tangible thing that I can see.

I was thinking of medieval stories, like a dragon is going around town and that beautiful knight appears with a horse, then puts a cuff on the neck of the dragon. Yeah. So it is based on the actual, like medical procedure. But I’m trying to make it a beautifula fantastical story. Which is challenging for me because I like to draw a lot of things that are believable scenes.

So how can I make it believable? I don’t know.

RP: You mean literally believable? Like so that it looks like something that really happened?

JKA: I want things to be standing on the ground with their own shadows. Even if I made up this character.

RP: In a way it’s exactly what I try to do. So even if I have some absurd element to my story, like a talking tiger or something. I want to believe in it in a logical way, like a physically believable way. And it has to follow certain rules and it has to have like a physical reality.

JKA: And a lot of details.

RP: Yeah. Just enough detail in my case. For you…

JKA: Never-ending details.

RP: I see emotional pain in some of your drawings, but I guess physical pain is similar but also very different, right?

JKA: Right. I have a drawing project that’s ongoing that’s called “Total Discomfort-Comfort,” that I told you about before. I’ve been in chronic pain so long I don’t even know what it’s like not to have pain. So it has become so comfortable. That may be why I have never ventured to draw actual pain before.

RP: Pain becomes comfortable?

JKA: I think, that’s what a lot of people live through. Not only literally, but metaphorically.

RP: I feel like pain is the opposite of comfort.

JKA: I think I feel like pleasure is uncomfortable. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. [Laughs]

RP: I can understand that a little bit of challenge or or a little bit of suffering could feel like gratifying. Like, like you’ve worked hard. But the timeswhich thankfully have not been manythat I’ve experienced great pain, it’s like you are no longer able to relate to the world as it is. And you’re in a different space and you’re so grateful when it’s over.

JKA: Yeah. It’s like having an unhealthy relationship. Like a trauma bond.

RP: I see. And then you don’t even know, right. What its like to not have that.

Do you know this Emily Dickinson poem that goes, after great pain, a formal feeling comes?

JKA: Is that the whole thing, or is that a fragment?

RP: That’s all I remember. I think it’s part of a longer poem. But that line has stuck in my mind.

JKA: Well, thats hopeful.

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