Q&A with 2020 Presidential Scholar Isabella Cho

Isabella “Izzy” Cho was selected last month as one of just twenty 2020 Presidential Scholars in the Arts, for her writing, placing her among the nation’s most talented young artists (YoungArts). She’s a graduating senior at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Illinois, and is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Heritage Review, an online literary journal exploring identity, belonging, and personal agency. We talked with Isabella over Zoom the day before her graduation, covering important dilemmas, important pop culture, and wise practices of the written word.

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VX: Because the Incandescent Review is committed to providing fresh takes, we're going to start off with some pop culture questions, if that's fine by you?

IC: Ooh, okay.

VX: So given the choice to fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses... which would you pick?

IC: Whoa. Okay, let me think about it. So one horse-sized duck or hundred duck-sized horses. Okay, I think I would pick the horse sized duck, so the former.

VX: So you can think you can take a giant duck.

IC: Yeah, I mean, I feel like it's one thing, like it's one organism. So it'd be easier to fight than a hundred different things coming my way.

VX: More focus, makes sense. Let's see... who's your favorite musical artist out right now?

IC: That's really hard. I feel like I'm pretty mainstream. Let's think... I like a few Korean artists. I like the Black Skirts — they're like an indie Korean band. I like Ariana Grande. I like this band called Cigarettes After Sex. And I mean, I like BTS — that's super basic. But yeah, I've followed them for a while.

VX: You hear about the fancams? With K-pop Twitter...

NOTE: On Wednesday, June 3rd, K-pop fans flooded police crowdsourcing apps with clips of their idols performing live, in solidarity with protestors in the Black Lives Matter movement.

IC: Oh, like White Out Wednesday.

VX: Yeah, isn't that cool?

IC: I love that. At first I was like, oh no, this is so bad — are they supremacists? And then I read a little more and I was like, yes. This is good.

VX: Now, if you could pick three writers to have a dinner party with, one living and two dead, who would you pick?

IC: That's a really good question. Okay, so definitely one of them would be Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Probably also Seamus Heaney. And for the living? Jenny Xie. She's a Chinese American poet, and I really like her work.

VX: Yeah, I read her thing in your Founder's Letter — you quoted her.

IC: [laughter] Yeah, I love her book Eye Level. I highly recommend.

VX: The classic question, now, is how did you get into writing?

IC: I feel like — I mean, everyone says this — but I feel like a lot of writing, especially creative writing, it starts with reading, and enjoying reading stories or whatever. So, I read a lot, starting when I was younger. But when it comes to actually becoming involved with creative writing… I have an older sister — she's 7 years older than me — and she's an amazing poet/writer, and I feel like I definitely followed in her footsteps. I was interested in what she was doing, so that kind of became my channel of exposure for poetry in particular.

VX: So if you could say one thing to yourself from back when you first started writing, what would you say?

IC: That's an awesome question. I think a lot of writers — especially if you have people you look up to, or writers you look up to — sometimes you tend to write in their direction, if that makes sense? You pick things up from them, or you find yourself writing kind of in their shadow, or using phrases, or using ideas that people you admire will use. I would say: sometimes, when you're freewriting, you'll encounter this image or idea that you didn't really know was inside you, and it's like, uncanny, it's kind of strange — and don’t repress that voice, because oftentimes those strange ideas are the beginnings of really original and interesting work. So keep chasing the strange in your psyche.

VX: That's nice. It almost reminds me of a literary journal, you know, when they say, "We want submissions that sing the body electric," or, you know, “embrace the strange”...

IC: Oh my god, I read that. Is that like, Dialogist or maybe Blue Shift or something? I don't know. But yeah, I feel like I've seen that somewhere...

VX: Okay, so let's talk lit journal. In the founding letter of your Heritage Review, you talk about your belief in the transformative power of words. So, you know, in your work with this journal and in your own writing, how have you seen this idea take shape?

IC: Starting with my own writing... actually, you know what? I'll start with the journal, because that answer is a bit more obvious to me. One of the main aims of Heritage is, you know, like, we call ourselves a “review”, but we're not, like, super hyper-selective about the work that we pick, you know? It's more just a platform for people to share. And I feel like in this day and age and in this culture, especially for teen writing, there is a huge emphasis on hyper selectivity, and I feel like that's definitely a way to approach it.

But when I think of power in literature, I often just think of inclusivity. So I think that is a big part of our mission... like our mission as a collective magazine, but my mission as well, as an artist, and a writer, is just to elevate and acknowledge the multitude of voices out there. And then I guess "transformative power of words" when it comes to my own writing personally... I feel like oftentimes we live relatively linearly, like we live passively. So, you know, you just have this experience, and you let it transpire and then you move on. I think that part of the power of writing lies in the capacity to look in retrospect at your own lived experiences, and just equipping yourself with the vocabulary to articulate what has happened to you — what you think about the life you're living. I think that's an incredibly valuable and constructive tool. So in that respect, I think that writing has elevated the way I approach my own life, if that makes sense.

VX: Okay, what about beyond yourself? Do you see writing as a source of political agency or outlet?

IC: Yeah, I mean, I was asked a question a while ago... like, what is the political function of art?

VX: Big question.

IC: I know, right? And I feel like it's very difficult, especially these days, to divest the political from the artistic. I think that especially if you're talking about your own lived experiences, which is almost every writer or artist in some shape or form, you're inherently bringing forth your own subjectivities, your own lens, your own perspective. And with that sort of opinionated prism comes politicized narrative. I think that simply the act or the gesture of putting forth work that elucidates your own perspective — I think that's inherently political. And then, content-wise, so much art is political in that it brings to light narratives of violence, or erasure, or oppression. So yeah, I definitely think that art, and writing, is a political tool in a lot of ways.


VX: Okay, on the topic of perspectives. You also write that the Heritage Review highlights essential, underexplored Asian writers — I noticed it wasn't Asian American, it was Asian in general, which I hadn't really seen before here. So in your opinion, what are some writers or works our readers should pick up right now?

IC: I feel like I'm more well-versed with Korean writers just because I'm Korean American, so sometimes I'm attracted to that, or I try to access a bit more of my cultural history through that. I know that there is a writer, a female Korean writer named Han Kang, and she catapulted into international stardom a few years ago because of her novel The Vegetarian, which was pretty controversial. But I read it, and I thought it was important. I’m not sure it was my favorite book, but I think it definitely provides a lot of food for thought. And then she wrote a new book, I think maybe one or two years ago, called the White Book, and I heard pretty interesting things about that too. Then, in terms of Japanese writers, I haven't read too much. But there's a book called The Emissary, and the writer, her name is Yoko Tawada – and I read that, that was super interesting. It's a novel, but the language is very rich, and it kind of reads like a poem in my eyes. Jenny Xie, I think she's awesome. She's Asian-American. Also, Maxine Hong Kingston. She wrote The Women Warrior. It's a memoir, but it's very supernatural, it's magical realism. And that's maybe one of my favorite books ever. So her, definitely.

VX: That first work you mentioned was Korean. Do you read translated English, or do you try to read the Korean itself? Is it Hanbok... Hangul?

IC: Oh yeah, Hangul. Yeah, I try to read the original Korean text, and at times, especially if you're reading a bit more antiquated works, it can be a bit challenging. So, for sure, whenever I need to refer to it, I look at the anglicized version. But I'm a big believer in reading texts in their original form. I think that translation is necessary — obviously, a lot — because people don't know how to speak a certain language, but whenever I read Korean text, and then I read the English translation, there's a lot that's lost.

VX: Yeah, I definitely get that. That's cool. I tried reading Neruda once in Spanish with my high school Spanish experience, and I completely failed to understand it.

IC: Wait, what Neruda were you reading?

VX: I was reading The Sea and the Bells.

IC: Nice, we read Heights of Machu Picchu, which is a collection of poems. I did the same — I tried to read it in Spanish that I failed at, miserably. I didn't know a single word. I was like, am I speaking the same language? [laughter] But yeah, I love Neruda. That's so cool.

VX: Thanks so much for talking with me; that's it for questions. Congrats on Presidential Scholar, by the way.

IC: Thank you so much, that means a lot.


This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.


#interview #writing #presidentialscholar #youngarts #isabellecho #politicalagency #literaryjournal #identity #popculture #kpop #asianamerican #koreanamerican

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