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The Sum of Breathing

The Sum of BreathingThe Sum of Breathing
Brenda Kwon
ISBN: 978-0-910043-91-5
196 pages

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THE SUM OF BREATHING, a collection of stories, poems, memoir, and spoken word, trenchantly explores the inheritances of memory, loss, feminism, racism, and place. The collection explores life, family, and love as a Korean American with a keen eye for detail and with elegant, restrained language that reads like classical music.
Brenda Kwon teaches English at Honolulu Community College. She is the author of
BEYOND KE‘EAUMOKU: KOREANS, NATIONALISM, AND LOCAL CULTURE IN HAWAI‘I, and co-editor of YOBO: KOREAN AMERICAN WRITING from HAWAI‘I. Her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, and she has performed her poetry in New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Seoul. A 2005 Fulbright Fellow, she lives in Honolulu, where she teaches writing and yoga, and plays music with her band.
THE SUM OF BREATHING by Brenda Kwon, simply put, is amazing. A mixture of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, it never fails to speak truth as it expertly veers from Hawai‘i to Korea, from childhood to adulthood, and ultimately, from loss to wisdom. And what holds all this together is the book’s breathtaking core: the story of a mother and daughter, a relationship rendered so beautifully and so real, that the reader cannot help but think of his or her own mother and remember what it is to be an object of unconditional love, a burden, a puzzle, a disappointment, and a source of pride, all at the same time. The Sum of Breathing is the best kind of book—one that is sure to touch all readers on a profound and personal level.

—Chris McKinney, author of THE TATTOO, THE QUEEN OF TEARS, BOLOHEAD ROW, MILILANI MAUKA, and BOI NO GOOD



We are blessed to have, in Brenda Kwon, the warrior poet who writes poignant stories, and the spiritual storyteller who fuels her prose with poetic meditations on language, cross-cultural zones, identity, and the past her characters keep returning to and rebuilding—called home, family, love. At the core of this stunning collection are incantatory poems and page-turning stories about the gifts and woes we inherit from our parents and grandparents—their solitude and beauty, their wounds and half-realized dreams, and their rituals and battles that, won or lost, help us to outgrow, if not anchor, our grief and other heartbreaks.

—R. Zamora Linmark, author of ROLLING THE R’S, PRIME TIME APPARITIONS,
THE EVOLUTION OF A SIGH, and LECHE



THE SUM OF BREATHING is a knockout of a book. Ranging from home in Hawai‘i to Korea and Los Angeles, Brenda Kwon trenchantly explores the inheritances of memory, loss, feminism, racism, and place. At turns hip and introspective, cheeky and melancholy, she rages and weeps. The book’s hybridity—mixing stories, poems, memoir, and spoken word—meld together wonderfully, reflecting the complications of culture as Kwon ventures to find an identity she can call her own.

—Don Lee, author of THE COLLECTIVE,
2013 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature


Brenda Kwon explores life, family, and love as a Korean American with a keen eye for detail and with elegant, restrained language that reads like classical music...one minute you are enjoying its beauty and, somewhere down the line, the accumulated effect of her measured words has you brimming with unexpected tears, for all the grief, pain, humor, and loss expressed so eloquently, and with such care...we are blessed to have her words, and I am blessed to call her sister here in Hawai‘i.

—Ishle Yi Park, slam/poet/singer, author of THE TEMPERATURE OF THIS WATER,
winner of the PEN America Open Book Award for Outstanding Writers of Color



THE SUM OF BREATHING is an intensely personal book, moving because of its honesty about moments and memories most of us can share, and beautiful because of Brenda Kwon’s exquisite writing. Somewhere near the center of the book are the convoluted feelings about visiting the land of a grandfather we never knew, when our alienation spills over into our family and romantic relationships. Kwon’s poems range across a vast array of topics. There’s something for everyone here, but my personal favorites are “Where The Women At?”, which displays angry, funny, feminist leanings, and “El Vato Loco,” which paints with only a few deft strokes the tragic waste of a young life because of social inequality.

—Elaine H. Kim, writer-director, SLAYING THE DRAGON RELOADED: ASIAN WOMEN IN HOLLYWOOD AND BEYOND



THE SUM OF BREATHING gulps at life, at times hyperventilating on those nasty doubts only the honest will admit to—am I loved enough? pretty enough? good enough? —bravely exposing these obsessive anxieties fundamental to our existence as foolish beings with humor, bravado, and compassion.

—Cathy Song, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award
and the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America



In Brenda Kwon’s poems and prose, we are given visions of the complexities and simplicities of life in the diaphanous world that bridges the ancient homeland and the new. Her words and imagery create for us fresh revelations of the everyday; ultimately, they show us the triumphs of the everyday in its jubilations and confusions. This is marvelous writing.

—Gary Pak, author of THE WATCHER OF WAIPUNA, A RICEPAPER AIRPLANE,
CHILDREN OF THE FIRELAND, and LANGUAGE OF THE GECKOS AND OTHER STORIES



Kwon’s talent to witness, in prose and poetry, the power of identity is revelatory and instructive. She writes of values and practices inherent and recovered in bloodline, culture, and immigrant conflicts. She remembers, recovers, and voices the rituals and processes of life’s journey from womb to tomb, through love’s dancing excitement and paralyzing troubles. She transcends diversity that divides and leaves the reader with embers that reveal our transnational humanity in life’s breath and processes. Excellent read!

—Kathryn Waddell Takara, winner of a 2010 American Book Award for PACIFIC RAVEN: HAWAI‘I POEMS



Brenda Kwon’s poems mine subtle and lyrical veins, resolving contradictions and at the same time opening remarkable lines of thought. Who else could combine “mangoes” and “molten volcanoes,” tease out their hidden essences, and yet link their sensuous and visceral meanings for the reader? You will better understand the kinship between Nature and Nurture after reading this book.

—Russell C. Leong, author, professor, and editor of AMERASIA JOURNAL (1977 – 2010)



With tongue sharp and smooth, Brenda Kwon crafts stories honest and eloquent, personal and political. Observant to the small details which make up life, she dissects comfortable ideas of self and “home,” only to reconfigure them in new and startling ways; the familiar becomes unfamiliar in this collection of stories and poems where the immigrant past, the diasporic present, and the geography of memory converge. In THE SUM OF BREATHING, Kwon travels from Seoul to Honolulu, L.A. to Kuilima, mapping her internal landscape, as she searches for safe haven.

—Nora Okja Keller, author of COMFORT WOMAN and FOX GIRL