I Can't Go On / I’ll Go On



by Janice Lee

I want to confess here that I have often worked to put a distance between myself and the past.

I want to confess, too, that I have recently and often thought about the ease with which I could escape all the misery of this world, singular gestures, without memory of consequence.

Though Beckett knows already:

I can’t go on.
I’ll go on.

I don’t know the how nor why of anything, but when I wake up in the morning, I can’t help but feel despair. There is a pressing, from within, and perhaps it is just the exhaustion of the journey.

For me the world began inside my mother. And too, before that. Many years before.

There is a difference between memory and history. Too, there is a difference between memory and memory.

I want to remember more, yet the more is a question I don’t even know how to ask. The cause is gone. I bend down in the rain and when the storm passes, my heart feels emptier rather than brighter.

Here is the real confession. I realize that the downward spirals I have fallen into the habit of occupying are happening more and more often. Am I happy? Am I content? These seem like the wrong questions to ask. What to hold on to? How to go on? Indeed, how?

Sometimes life is just fucked and we try to hold onto something. Anything.

I will admit here that I have probably suffered from depression my entire life and have equally suffered from a denial of that depression.

I will admit too that it is likely that depression runs in my family, that my mother suffered from depression and it manifested in mania and paranoia and desperation and regret, that my father suffers from depression and it manifests in stubborn solitude and ego and shame, that my brother suffers from depression and it manifests in frustration and contempt and disgrace. My grandfather suffered from depression and post-traumatic syndrome, two facts which I did not learn until I was an adult when it was finally revealed that he had not died from an accidental fall in the bathtub as we had been told but from the devastation of finding out that the family he had left behind in North Korea had all been killed and then, from his own hands, an act of forgiveness and shame and understanding.

But too, let’s also admit that the ability to diagnose “depression” is a cultural privilege, that in the world in which I was raised, mental illness did not exist, depression did not exist, sadness was weakness, tears were weakness, and any perceived weakness was worse than death. I didn’t really learn that “depression” was something to be “treated” until I was 21. I did not really recognize “symptoms” of “depression” in myself until only a few years ago.

And yet, so much of the pain I feel, the seemingly little traumas of my life, feel so privileged next to others. When I spiral, and it happens very quickly, from dropping my bagel onto the ground to hating my job to missing my mom to feeling the weight of the entire world to an utter despair and devastation that encompasses the entirety of my existence, to asking if it would be easier to drive my car off the ledge. In just a few moments I weave a narrative in which a clumsy accident involving breakfast becomes apocalyptic and devastating on the level of every single moment of pain I have ever felt in my entire life, every single moment of pain anyone in the world has ever felt, protracted, tightened, squeezed, the repositioning of my bowels as I only know to cry and then suddenly the shame and guilt, the pushing it all away, the need to go on, if only to mask the shame of ever having felt this at all. An easy dismissal, until the next time.

I also don’t think it is a coincidence that those friends I most connect with currently are also Korean, that though we talk very little about our families or upbringings or histories, that there is some invisible thread that somehow tethers us along a common trajectory, common ghosts and conjurations. That we can understand implicitly a combination of real and felt trauma and suffering, perceived trauma and suffering, and also an invisible trauma and suffering, a trauma that is not ours, a trauma that is not mine, yet somehow corrupts my thoughts and feelings and actions daily.

Although for much of my literary career I have resisted being categorized as a Korean-American writer and have never actively asked the questions of my family that I should have asked earlier, now, as time is literally running out before a particular historic event and time is wiped from the memories of the living, I finally have the desire to ask those questions, yet still don’t know how to articulate them.

There is of course a word that encompasses all this, a word given to describe the unique emotional identity of being Korean: han.

Suh Nam-dong describes han as:

A feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.

It is only recently that I feel like I can really understand the meaning of this word. Because it’s more than historical trauma. It manages to weave together the presence of an unresolved corporeal history and the impossibility of articulation or expression in relation to questions of authenticity, historical accuracy, individual subjectivity, lived/embodied experience, loss, shame, guilt. It is the guilt and shame of living as a Korean person. Too, it is the guilt and shame of living as a human being in the face of the absurd.

Even the Korean language and alphabet were conceived out of violence and trauma. The very language that is shared as a nation is embroiled in injustice and an impossible desire for articulation and understanding. But language inevitably fails. Humans inevitably fail.

When my father tells me stories of what he remembers about the Korean War and the time after (he was 4 when he escaped into South Korea with his family), he contradicts himself. Details from one telling change when he tells the stories again. Other stories he will not tell. He has forgotten or has decided they didn’t happen. His stories contradict the historical record. They are “incorrect” and “historically inaccurate,” and yet these are his experiences: lived, remembered, felt. How do we reconcile feeling with history?

And again, how do I speak for a trauma that is not mine yet is felt each and every moment of my life?

Sometimes I dream I am climbing a mountain.

When I was a small child, my grandfather, in the form of a prophecy, declared: “Watch out for this one. She is ambitious.”

The word for “ambitious” has a slightly different feeling in Korean than it does in English. I feel that in English it seems to imply a desire for wealth, power, a specific want with a specific goal. In Korean it feels more vague, a general feeling of aspiration and want but un-targeted.

This is probably part of the problem. I have wanted and desired so much and so rarely do I even know what it is that I want.

How do I go on when I don’t know where it is that I want to go?

Here she sleeps. Looking down at the San Francisco Bay I imagine my mother’s ghost occupying a body of water that means both hope and impossibility, access and untraversability.

The thing is, I regret so much, yet I can’t tell you what it is that I regret. I regret nothing, and yet I’m not sure if I know what happiness feels like. More than anything, I am afraid of letting down my mother, of betraying what it is that she wanted for me, of betraying the desires she had in her heart when she held me in her arms for the first time.

For the time being, I choose to go on. Probably, this is all there is. And yet I don’t know for sure and won’t know until I have lived through it all. And all is the word at the end of sentence that began with desire.

Images by Andy Cull and Stuart Moulder.

About the Author:


Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), Reconsolidation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2015), and most recently, The Sky Isn’t Blue (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016). She also has several chapbooks Red Trees, Fried Chicken Dinner (Parrot/Insert Press), The Other Worlds (Eohippus Labs), and The Transparent As Witness (Solar Luxuriance), a collaboration with Will Alexander. She is Editor of the #RECURRENT Novel Series, Assistant Editor at Fanzine, Executive Editor of Entropy, and CEO/Founder of POTG Design. She currently lives in Los Angeles and teaches at CalArts and Pitzer College.