E. J. Koh is the author of the memoir The Magical Language of Others (Tin House, 2020), winner of the 2021 Pacific Northwest Book Award, and the poetry collection A Lesser Love (Louisiana State University Press, 2017), winner of the Pleiades Press Editors Prize for Poetry. Her poems, translations, and stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. Koh is the recipient of fellowships from the American Literary Translators Association, Kundiman, and MacDowell. Koh earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Columbia University and is a PhD candidate in English Language and Literature at the University of Washington in Seattle. You can find her on Twitter, @thisisEJKoh.Credit: mauromod
Seattle is a city of independent bookstores, libraries, presses, journals, arts organizations, literary readings, festivals, events, and programs—a city of writers, readers, and booksellers, but also a city of visual artists, theater directors, and musicians. In 2017, Seattle was designated as a UNESCO City of Literature, joining Dublin, Edinburgh, Québec City, and other UNESCO literary cities around the globe. The designation makes Seattle “a place where a writer working in any language in the world can find passionate readers,” says Washington State poet laureate Claudia Castro Luna. It is “not an arrival, but a portal.” The relationship between the city and its literary life continues to be redefined by its communities and individuals, often engaging across disciplines in their artistic pursuits. There is a devotion to books in Seattle and a reckoning with what lies ahead to support our diverse experiences, languages, and traditions. The UNESCO designation is a chance for Seattle to cultivate anew, with imaginative understanding and loving perception, a sense of a city and a place inherited by the future.
I first moved to Seattle from New York City to reunite with my parents. When I was fifteen, my parents returned to South Korea and left me behind with my brother in Davis, California. My mother started writing me letters in Korean, a language I could not fully understand at the time. Almost a decade after she first wrote to me, I arrived in Seattle and found in a box forty-nine of her letters. I showed them to Korean American poet and translator Don Mee Choi outside the Seattle Asian Art Museum located in historic Volunteer Park. We walked through the park and Choi read the letters at the Water Tower lookout, the highest point on Capitol Hill with a view of the city. Choi told me that in some Buddhist traditions forty-nine is the number of days a soul wanders the earth looking for answers before the afterlife. I began to translate the letters, though I had never suspected I would read them again.
Publishers and Publications
I wondered whether a Korean American story mattered to Seattle. In essays, books, and records I read about Seattle’s 10,000-year literary history, from the oral tradition of Coast Salish peoples, predating the settlers, to the city’s small presses changing the publishing industry of the twenty-first century. The city is also where I met in person for the first time another Asian American writer, Don Mee Choi, winner of the 2020 National Book Award in poetry for her collection DMZ Colony, published by Wave Books, a local independent press publishing contemporary poetry, poetry in translation, and writing by poets. It was Choi who advised me to translate my mother’s letters, which would later become a part of my memoir, The Magical Language of Others. After four years in Seattle, I started my doctoral research on Korean and Korean American literature, history, and film at the University of Washington in Seattle under Shawn Wong, a pioneer of Asian American literature who edited, alongside Jeffrey Chan, Frank Chin, and Lawson Inada, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, first published in 1974 by Howard University Press. A third edition was published in 2019 by University of Washington Press (UW Press), which has been dedicated to scholarly and general interest books for nearly one hundred years in the Pacific Northwest. Wong is establishing a catalog of Asian American literature that has gone out of print, like Louis Chu’s Eat a Bowl of Tea and John Okada’s No-No Boy, with the Shawn Wong Fund in Asian American Studies, a book series by the UW Press that supports the publication of Asian American authors.
Located north of Seattle in Port Townsend is Copper Canyon Press, which has been publishing poetry exclusively since 1972. Copper Canyon poets include Jericho Brown, Victoria Chang, Lucille Clifton, Natalie Diaz, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Arthur Sze, and Ocean Vuong. The independent press has published over 400 titles and regularly cosponsors events with literary organizations in the area such as Seattle Arts and Lectures, Hugo House, and local bookstores such as the Elliott Bay Book Company and Open Books. Copper Canyon has been an active part of the Seattle literary community for decades.
The Stranger is Seattle’s beloved newspaper. The long-running advice column Savage Love by Dan Savage continues its run, and their arts section features upcoming events and artists. The Seattle Times has a monthly book club and spotlights authors and things to do in the local literary scene. There are also long-standing literary magazines like Poetry Northwest, established in 1959 with a reputation for having published writers like Annie Dillard, Philip Levine, Czeslaw Milosz, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Oliver, Theodore Roethke, and Anne Sexton. Published semi-annually in June and November, the magazine includes poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays about poetry on their website. Poetry Northwest editor in chief Keetje Kuipers recently spoke to Poets & Writers Magazine about how she hopes the dynamic energy of the Northwest will be reflected in the magazine. Founded in 1983 by Linda Clifton, Crab Creek Review is a woman-run literary journal that welcomes original, previously unpublished poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction and generally has open submissions in the fall. Crab Creek Review seeks to introduce readers to “the best writing from the Northwest and beyond.”
Every one of Seattle’s communities is distinct while contributing as a whole to the city’s devotion to literature—disparate yet together. The Jack Straw Writers Program is a fellowship for writers to jumpstart their literary careers with a circuit of local readings, radio shows, coaching, and collaborations. The program has supported hundreds of Pacific Northwest writers across genres over the years. Just north of Seattle on Whidbey Island, the Hedgebrook retreat hosts women writers from around the world for two- to four-week residencies, at no cost to the writer. Their writers-in-residence program has raised awareness on issues from incarcerated women prisoners to political strife in Cambodia to radioactive fallout in Ukraine. Close to my heart is Kundiman, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to nurturing writers and readers of Asian American literature that hosts an annual retreat, and readings and workshops. Kundiman fellows living in the Pacific Northwest gather every season for salons, readings, and workshops, offering a safe space for writers in the ever-changing diaspora while engaging the larger literary community of Seattle.
Since 1998, Hugo House, named after poet Richard Hugo, has offered writing classes, workshops, and consultations with local writers, as well as programs and readings such as the Made at Hugo House fellowship and the Hugo Literary Series. In 2020, the Writers of Color Alliance (WOCA), composed of writers Anastacia-Reneé, Claudia Castro Luna, Dujie Tahat, Shankar Narayan, and Harold Taw, began calls for community-led changes toward an equitable and diverse environment at Hugo House resulting in the resignation of executive director Tree Swenson in February 2021. “Moving forward, Hugo House’s community, not just the Board, must have a seat at the table and share real power in selecting the new ED and creating a transformative race equity process—in addition to clear, open and transparent communications,” Luna said in a press release written by WOCA. The recognition for community-led equity, accountability, and transparency offers hope for teachers and writers along with Hugo House teachers, students, former employees, and the diverse literary communities of Seattle.
There are a number of programs for young poets and artists living in Seattle. Youth Speaks Seattle has been the city’s premier collective for youth spoken word poetry. The first Youth Speaks Seattle Nerd Slam was hosted in 2020 by poet and arts educator William Nu’utupu Giles at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, where youth poets took the stage, speaking to diverse histories, ethnicities, sexualities, and identities. Youth Speaks Seattle continues to hold open mics regularly and transitioned to a virtual platform on their Instagram page during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nikkita Oliver’s Creative Justice focuses on youth most impacted by the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline, examining root causes of incarceration while creating art. Oliver, a poet and musician, along with Seattle-based writer Aaron Counts, organize programs for youth to work with artist mentors to create original artwork and learn new skills. Gay City is an organization and center launched by a group of community activists that offers resources, wellness, and community for LGTBQ youth and adults. For twenty-five years, Gay City has provided not only programs and resources, but is also home to the largest LGBTQ library in the Pacific Northwest with over 9,000 donated books that cover a wide range of LGBTQ topics. Their arts program connects with local artists to create and support queer arts across disciplines, including theater, music, dance, comedy, spoken word, and visual arts.
There are more than thirty independent bookstores operating in Seattle. Open Books (2414 North 45th Street) is Seattle’s poetry bookstore with an extensive collection of out-of-print chapbooks and hard-to-find poetry titles, journals, and writing by poets. The shop was formerly located in Wallingford but has moved online as of April 2020. There is also the Elliott Bay Book Company (1521 Tenth Avenue) in Capitol Hill, an indie bookstore with an unparalleled lineup of author readings and a four-decade history of providing the city with books. Third Place Books has three locations in Lake Forest Park (17171 Bothell Way NE), Ravenna (6504 20th Avenue NE), and Seward Park (5041 Wilson Ave S). The bookstore was named after Ray Oldenburg’s theory of the necessity of a third place—neither home nor work but where one can be with a community.
Estelita’s Library (2533 16th Ave S) is currently Seattle’s only Black- and Brown-owned community bookstore. Estelita’s Library focuses on community book talks, classes, meetings, and history lessons to strengthen and develop social justice. The newest indie bookstore, Paper Boat Booksellers (6040 California Avenue SW) in West Seattle, adds to the city’s reputation for its growing community of bookstores.
Readings, Venues, and Storytellers
Seattle has a rich history of storytelling and storytellers. There are lively events around the city, and many have transitioned to virtual platforms during the pandemic. At the Inkwell Seattle puts on a translation reading series celebrating National Translation Month every September. MarginShift: Friends in Poetry is a Seattle-based poetry collective that highlights poets of color, LGBTQIA+ poets, women poets, undocumented poets, and cross-genre writers, like Sueyeun Juliette Lee, who projected a film of herself in a Korean hanbok during her reading, and Arlene Kim, who orchestrated a movement class in tempo with her poetry. A theater group in West Seattle, Twelfth Night Productions, presented a show in 2020 called The Book Club Play written by Karen Zacarías, where Seattle authors gave presentations at the start of the play with books supplied by nearby bookstores—an intersection between local theater, local authors, and local bookstores.
Seattle Arts & Lectures, Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, UW Libraries Special Collections (carrying the Bulosan, Hugo, and Roethke papers in its archives), Seattle Public Library (with its architectural wonder Central Library, Bushwick Book Club, Short Run Comix & Arts Festival, Cadence: Video Poetry Festival (presented by Northwest Film Forum), and Bumbershoot (a music and arts festival), are bustling with performances, screenings, panels, lectures, and readings, establishing the city’s cross-genre and collaborative nature.
There is a long list of writers connected to Seattle. Octavia Butler, Raymond Carver, Ted Chiang, Charles Johnson, Anastacia-Reneé, Ijeoma Oluo, and Theodore Roethke are just a few of the historical and contemporary figures. There’s also Alan Chong Lau, who writes about the lives of the Asian Pacific Island community in the International District; Monica Sone, whose memoir, Nisei Daughter, about the Japanese American family experience of America’s concentration camps during World War II is set near the Seattle Waterfront; John Okada, author of No-No Boy and considered to be the first Japanese American novelist, exposes the aftermath of the Japanese American internment post–World War II in Seattle; Peter Bacho, whose novels and stories on the Filipino experience in the United States take place in Seattle; and Carlos Bulosan, whose legacy of writing, labor activism, and advocacy of the Filipino and Filipino American community is heralded in “The Carlos Bulosan Memorial Exhibit” at the Eastern Hotel in the International District.
After just eight years, I am rooted to this city. In its libraries and coffee shops, I completed my poetry book and memoir. It is here that I embarked on my doctoral research at the University of Washington under the mentorship of local scholars and writers. Though not a complete literary guide, this is one that heralds others and welcomes people who love and safeguard books. I often think about one of my mother’s letters, in which she says in Korean: “Times like these, read a bunch of good books. Things you don’t know, things you can’t experience, all of it lies inside of books.” I couldn’t have known how her words would define for me a sense of humanity. In forty-nine letters, she asks me to read so that I may understand and forgive her.
Seattle is a city that advocates for readers and writers around the world—a literary hub pursuing artistic exchanges both local and abroad on issues of racial, social, and economic inequities. No doubt there will be challenges, some imperceptible and others ongoing, like the historical underrepresentation and discrimination of marginalized voices. The city and its literary recognition continue to be reshaped by a perception of our lives beyond American imaginings. Seattle’s literary organizations, independent bookstores, publishers and small presses, libraries, arts organizations, readings and events, and its readers, writers, teachers, editors, and booksellers, are prepared to face such challenges together.