Winner of the 2020 Minnesota Book Award in Poetry
Against the backdrop of the war on drugs and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, a Korean girl comes of age in her parents’ bodega in the Queensbridge projects, offering a singular perspective on our nation of immigrants and the tensions pulsing in the margins where they live and work.
In Su Hwang’s rich lyrical and narrative poetics, the bodega and its surrounding neighborhoods are cast not as mere setting, but as an ecosystem of human interactions where a dollar passed from one stranger to another is an act of peaceful revolution, and desperate acts of violence are “the price / of doing business in the projects where we / were trapped inside human cages—binding us / in a strange circus where atoms of haves / and have-nots always forcefully collide.” These poems also reveal stark contrasts in the domestic lives of immigrants, as the speaker’s own family must navigate the many personal, cultural, and generational chasms that arise from having to assume a hyphenated identity—lending a voice to the traumatic toll invisibility, assimilation, and sacrifice take on so many pursuing the American Dream.
“We each suffer alone in / tandem,” Hwang declares, but in Bodega, she has written an antidote to this solitary hurt—an incisive poetic debut that acknowledges and gives shape to anguish as much as it cherishes human life, suggesting frameworks for how we might collectively move forward with awareness and compassion.
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Praise and Prizes
“These poems feel right on time.”
“In Su Hwang’s intricate debut, the bodega is a vantage point for ‘taking stock of these terrible/ hierarchies’ of race, privilege and immigration . . . She asks readers to hear rather than understand ‘the gibberish/ of anguish’ spilling from dislocation and trauma.”
“These poems demand to be sounded-out and savored . . . the narrative eye and ear is gentle, encompassing, hypnotic.”
“In this formally dexterous debut, Hwang interrogates language, identity, and cultural inheritance . . . This work succeeds in using the nuances of poetic technique to amplify an already powerful message of cultural identity.”
“Bodega is one of the most experimental and ambitious projects that I have encountered. Hwang, like her immigrant parents who moved to an unknown land, takes a risk by experimenting with form, making innovative aesthetic choices, and writing sweeping narrative-driven poems . . . The poems in Bodega are vulnerable, baring open a raw portrayal of immigration and assimilation.”
“An incisive poetic debut that gives shape to anguish as much as it cherishes human life, Bodega offers a singular perspective on immigration, race, identity, and domesticity through the lens of a coming-of-age narrative.”
“[Bodega] . . . is both intimate and universal, harnessing the magic of childhood to draw readers into the stories of [Hwang's] immigrant parents and neighbors.”
“Bodega takes place in 1992 during the Los Angeles Riots, with the war on drugs as its backdrop. Set in the speaker’s neighborhood bodega, these narratives consistently and smoothly shift structure and form, complicating the American story as it foregrounds the immigrant experience.”
“Bodega is a stirring debut that testifies to the power of the imagination that glints and glitters among the shards of the American Dream.”
“Audacity. Tenacity. Originality. Craft. Bodega earns its place in American letters.”
“Su Hwang’s Bodega captures the speaker’s childhood and the unspoken traumas of fractured identities, assimilation, and immigrant labor. Through formal experimentation, this collection explores the stories of the many lives that the bodega brings together—touching and devastating all at once.”
“[Bodega] poignantly considers how every interaction between people is freighted with history and tied to identity. The collection’s poems constantly return to the titular space—those small corner stores in New York City crammed with every good one can possibly imagine—where, between narrow aisles and across the counter, the tensions evoked by cultural difference, prejudice, and class simmer and sometimes boil over . . . suggesting that the bodega is a politically-charged microcosm for life in the surrounding city, if not America as a whole.”
“To read Bodega by Su Hwang is to immerse oneself in a world . . . cutting through the fog of ignorance, shining outward from within so that others can see more clearly.”
“If we are not in denial, to name one life, one narrative, we must name many. This is a responsibility that Su Hwang steps into with elegant care. Her poems in Bodega are observant and cinematic, tracing the ways our many-languaged lives come up against each other in these united states. I’ve been waiting for a collection like this, difficult and prismatic as it is.”
“Splashed against a milieu of suspicion, shift, and tumult, these keenly honed narratives––crafted by a poet bristling with unassailable talent––are the testimonies of a child very much within and without a ‘home’ in the traditional sense. What Su Hwang has done is chronicle a small, utterly necessary life as it stumbles toward its root in a world that both abandons and embraces. You will be pulled relentlessly into these stanzas and you will see yourself here.”
“If, as Wittgenstein posited, words are probes capable of reaching great depths, then Su Hwang’s Bodega is a quarry—mining directly into the immigrant heart, the daughter’s heart, the American heart. Real excavation always rends and breaks and works to bring something new into the light. I am grateful for this book, for all of Hwang’s illuminations.”
“Su Hwang’s poems reenergize our communal memories of family and culture. She weaves story with perception and the result is the emergence of a poet whose instinct raises language to a fresh level. This unforgettable book places the poet in the forefront of experience and convinces me that Audre Lorde was correct when she stated, generations ago, that 'poetry is not only a dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.'”
“Through the poetry of family and community, the collective and the self, Su Hwang's Bodega delivers an unflinching lyric missive to, and for, the complicated hearts that power a city––those whose voices and lives, beautifully and resolutely rendered, defy dismissal.”