Last semester, Descent Magazine held its inaugural writing contest coinciding with Fall 2022’s issue 4: things left behind. Please join us in congratulating Eujean Doo, winner of the prose category, and Yusuf Rahman, winner of the poetry category! Read their contest entries down below, and see issue 4 of Descent Magazine here. You can purchase a copy from Descent’s limited print run by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org!
Descent is a student-run literary and arts magazine at USC, featuring the voices of APISA diasporic creators. They publish themed issues by the semester; stay posted on their goings-on via @descentusc on Instagram.
“My Grandmother’s Coloring Books” by Eujean Doo
Her usual spot is at our dining room table. In the months transitioning from summer to the fall, when the days reach long into the evening, that room is always washed with a dreamy yellow sunlight, so bright and so warm that it captures you in a wide-eyed daze. The old oak floorboards, feel balmy on my feet. Outside, pine trees wave; my grandmother stands and watches them through white wooden shutters, hands clasped behind her back.
Her coloring books conceal the tops of the dining room table and kitchen table. Some are in neat stacks, others splayed open, works in progress bookmarked for later. Here and there are tiny black fish, brown birds, and green flowers, all intricately detailed, colored with a careful, even hand.
My grandmother lives in Korea and only comes to America for big events. Births, deaths, weddings, graduations, and anniversaries. Whenever my grandmother comes to visit us, we help her improve her health. We help her to exercise frequently and eat healthy food to lower her high blood pressure. We massage her sore knees and back. We take her on vacations. Learning about the mental health benefits, my mother had bought coloring books during one of my grandmother’s visits.
My grandmother took in on, integrating it into all of our routines. In the mornings, she used to prepare fruit in front of me, as I sat at the kitchen table, dressed in my school uniform. I sharpen her colored pencils, dull from the previous day, and make sure that she had enough of each color. In those moments, it always seemed that we didn’t really look at each other; rather, we watched each other. I, watching her hands, deftly cutting apples, peeling oranges, washing grapes and berries. She, watching my own hands, carving those pencils into sharpened points. And then, I leave for the day, my mother’s hand pushing down the back of my head, folding my body into a farewell bow. When I come back, approximately eight hours later, I find a new page of her coloring book completed, filled with bright colors. Her pencils would be blunt, but carefully stored in the box.
Because of my mother’s stories, I feel that know both everything and nothing about my grandmother. She seemed to be more symbol and story than flesh and blood. Lying on top of her bed, me on one side and my sister on the other, my mother told us about our family thousands of miles away. In my mother’s stories, although we used the proper titles for some, our family members were given new names.
My older aunt:
- Proper title: Kun-e-mo (older aunt)
- Our name: Il-bon-e-mo (Japanese aunt)
You can never mess with Il-bon-e-mo., my mother says. No one can. Il-bon-e-mo is a strong, gentle, and patient giant who, according to family lore, almost crushed her baby sister underneath her legendary thighs while she was sleeping. Her body, at 5 feet 7 inches, ripples with an aura of power. After a lifetime of playing professional golf in Japan, she is the wealthiest in our family, although she never shows it.
Il-bon-e-mo, who barely had a father, is sorry that she was given the unfortunate honor of being the first born out of five. Il-bon-e-mo, who never got to play, used her pencils to nubs while packing new ones into her younger siblings’ bags. She woke early with her mother, carried all four of her siblings to school, and came straight to the family store after classes ended. Dressed in a kimono for her wedding to a Japanese bodybuilder who cried and cried for months after their miniature Schnauzer died.
Once, sitting in the passenger seat of her enormous minivan packed with golfing equipment, I asked her if she always wanted to be a golfer. She stared ahead at the windshield wipers rapidly swishing away the monsoon rains and the blurry streets of Tokyo. No, she sighed. I once wanted to become a school teacher.
- Proper title: Ja-geun-e-mo (younger aunt)
- Our name: E-ppeun-e-mo (pretty aunt)
There is a reason for E-ppeun-e-mo’s name. She is the quintessential wealthy Korean woman. Her speech is dabbled with cosmopolitan English vocabulary (“Oh my god!” “Of course!”), and her spacious Gangnam apartment is filled with the newest talking gadgets and appliances.
E-ppeun-e-mo spends most of her day in her apartment with her white Pomeranian named Echo. “E-cho-yaaaa~~~” she stretches out his name as she poured out his food for him. She wakes up late, hours after her husband, who works in finance, would have left for work.
When I came to visit her, I found her kitchen stocked with “American” foods that she had bought for me: soft cheeses, sweet breads, cartons of milk, yogurt, fruit jams, and so on.
She loves talking, maybe too much. She looks around herself and talks out loud as she moves, causing the passerby to wonder if she was talking to them and whether they should answer her or not. She gasps, “O-mo!” and widens her eyes at little things. The price of watermelons. A stranger’s jacket. She asks questions without waiting for answers.
Around her apartment are old things that aren’t used anymore. Baking equipment and books. She had wanted to open her own bakery. Photography equipment. She had wanted to become a photographer. Clothing, tags still on. A collection of books, not read.
She drives a German car, a collection of bracelets jingling on her wrists as she turns the wheel.
When I visit her, I sleep in a small room adjacent to the kitchen. Once, when I woke up, I stayed in bed. I listened to my auntie’s slippers sliding around the kitchen floor, and I could see her clearly in my mind. Her, dressed in an expensive silk robe. Grinding her imported coffee, tapping the grounds into her glass pour-over dripper. Dark black liquid dropping into her gilded china tea cup. A teaspoon of sugar – not too much – and a drop of cream. Her, drinking her coffee alone in her shadowy kitchen, surrounded by her white Pomeranian named Echo and her talking kitchen appliances, chirping and twittering.
- Proper title: We-halmoni (maternal grandmother)
- Our name: Dong-gul Dong-gul Halmoni (round grandmother)
Straight from SFO airport, halmoni sits on the living room floor as we gather around her. My mother massages her legs. “Look at how short your halmoni’s legs are! Can you believe she went through all her life with these short legs?”
My mother’s stories of 1980’s Seoul are filled with construction dust and teargas. Halmoni has always been dong-gul dong-gul, even when she was younger. Her store was located by the industrial section of the city, surrounded by factories. She served mostly factory workers, who were just as tired as her, cheap meals that they would eat on the wobbly little tables until it was time to go back to work.
She mothered deep into the night. Under the stars, she stomped her bare feet into a water-filled basin containing the laundry of seven people. In the blue moonlight, she bent over a basket of dried anchovies, gutting them by hand, one by one. Shadow-faced, she checked on each of her sleeping babies lying in a row on the heated floor of their one-roomed home. In a dim corner, she drew her knees up to her chest and cried silently into her hands for her own mother. She dreams of the cold waters of the stream next to her childhood home, long gone.
My grandmother forgot her own name during the war. She was around my age when she married my grandfather, who was a crazy old man. Before that, he was an angry old man. And before then? I have no idea.
Everyone knew he was going to die soon, it was just a matter of when. Alzheimer’s had transformed my grandfather, whose hands once slapped his wife and whose feet kicked his children, into a senile, childlike man. He escapes the house and wanders the streets, talking to himself. He once unintentionally stole a watermelon from a market because he remembered that it was my mother’s favorite food, despite not remembering who she was and what her name was. He slipped the hair dryer between the sheets of my grandmother’s bed to “warm it up.” My grandmother just sighed and led him back to his chair in the main room. Eat your grapes.
My grandfather, who used to call my mother “E-ppeuni” (pretty one) and sneak her candy from his coat pockets. Who resorted to verbally abusing his teenaged children when he was no longer able to physically beat them. Preferred extra salt in his dishes. Visiting his mounded grave on a wild hillside, my mother poured a drink into the earth and stood cursing him, her college diploma – which, since she was a woman, he had so vehemently opposed for all his life – clutched in her hands. Look at what I have done. Despite everything you have done to me.
My grandmother’s voice comes from deep inside her chest, a steady, rumbling litany of . There is a rhythm to it; it moves slowly, like a mantra or prayer. The intonation flows up and down like swelling waves, with comfortable pauses in between. Her voice, in joy, vibrates and crackles – rich and tonal. In sadness, it reduces itself to a smoldering dirge. Her voice is propelled by other voices, sitting beside her, coaxing, Ahhhh, nae, eung, mmm. When there is no one to listen and hear, her voice becomes quiet.
We took a walk in a bamboo forest. It was so dense that the path ahead faded into dark. We reached a small house built in the traditional Korean style, a rest stop for hikers. We kicked off our shoes, and I, unaccustomed to the summer humidity and drenched with sweat, sprawled across the soft wooden floor. My grandmother sat by the edge of the main area, leaning against one of the wooden columns and her feet dangling off the side of the house. She spoke: “This looks like the house I used to live in as a child.”
The cicadas screamed into our ears. I am at a loss for words, I am overwhelmed by it. I possess a morbid curiosity. I want to ask questions that should not be asked, to imagine what is at best should be unimaginable. From my family’s clues and my personal observations sprouted wild speculations and hypotheticals about my grandmother – inserting impossibly detailed sights, sounds, and smells.
An enormous mandala, maybe two feet wide. There were dozens of layers, like an onion, each building onto the other, just a little different from the one before, radiating out from the originating core. The colors brought out each layer so dazzlingly, so brilliantly, that I took out my camera and took a picture.
Every time I saw that the pencils were blunt, I felt relief in sharpening them for her. Every time I saw that she had finished a book, I bought another with relish. When I was away from home, I allowed myself to imagine her in her spot in the dining room, chugging away at the books, coloring in satisfying rainbows.
I imagine my grandmother sitting in the clinic, E-ppeun-e-mo at her side cradling her elbow, the young psychiatrist in the white coat attempting to sort her past with terms she does not understand. I want to believe that there are these clues left by my family – breadcrumbs lined up for me to find and follow back home. I want to believe that my family’s story is more than history books. I want to believe that this is more than just an old tragedy or a pity-story rushed through by an impatient family member, or the whispered laments I overhear, or the ghostly, unexplained references older family members make, left with the ends still frayed. And most of all, I want to believe that things will get better.
Eujean Doo is a junior at USC majoring in Sociology and East Asian Languages and Cultures, and minoring in Musical Studies. Her Instagram is @eujean__.
“The Seamstress” by Yusuf Rahman
Home 1 is fuzzy.
In my head it’s blue, small and humid.
The silverfish shimmered in the fluorescent lights,
And I crawled around the carpet when she watched weight-loss programs on TV.
We were real American, weren’t we?
Home 2 is taller.
This one had stairs and a cat I loved.
The ants celebrated, trash forgotten to be taken out,
And I stood on my two feet now, rushing to get her water when her mind twirled.
We were the weird neighbors, weren’t we?
Home 3 is dim.
We lived in the monsoon-stricken desert.
The roaches took center stage, invisible filth clung to us,
And I begged on the phone for my father to save me when I was alone.
We were always miles apart.
Home 4 is artificial.
We moved to the pretty foothills.
The pest control came when we had no food in the fridge,
And I drove around in a car older than me, microdosing on teenage freedom.
We were settled in routine.
But Home 5 is the one that haunts me today.
It’s home by necessity, home that’s legally gray.
The bugs don’t bother because there’s no hot water,
I’m a little older each time I come around and see her
Sitting at the table, delirium glazing her eyes,
Coating her hair in a gray that mumbles her mortality.
Mom can’t be the superhero anymore, dear.
We lost. We didn’t protect our home(s).
So, at night she sleeps next to the dresses
And by day she sells them,
Seams rips them, cuts them, discounts them,
Whatever can keep her fabric woven together.
Yusuf Rahman is a junior at USC majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in Linguistics. His Instagram is @yusuf.rahmannnn.