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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Kimiko Hahn
(b. 1955)

Kimiko Hahn’s poetics are strongly intertextual, often explicitly so. She responds to phrases in other texts that she finds evocative. One text that she frequently returns to for such “cannibalization” (her term) is Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), by Lady Murasaki Shikibu (978?–1026), generally considered not only the first Japanese novel but the first psychological novel. Hahn also refers in her writing to the influence and inspiration of other women writers from Japan’s Heian period (794–1185).

Hahn’s literary debt to Japanese women writers, however, should not be thought of as due to some essentialist connection between Asian American and Asian writers. In her poem “Cruising Barthes,” Hahn explores the profoundly ambivalent and mediated nature of her exploration of Japanese language and literature: “The way I fear speaking Japanese and adore / speaking it.... / What is Japanese? blood, / geography, translation by white, Occupation-trained/academic men?” Her relationship to Japanese literature and culture were shaped, she says, not only by her Japanese American mother but also by her German American father’s aesthetic interests in Japanese culture and her own formal study of East Asian cultures in college and graduate school. Language for her is not only a writing tool but also subject matter. Fluency in more than one language highlights language itself as a construction that can be interrogated and played with.

Kimiko Hahn was born in 1955 in Mt. Kisco, New York, to two artists, her mother from Hawaii and her father from Wisconsin. Hahn majored in English and East Asian Studies as an undergraduate at the University of Iowa; she received an M.A. in Japanese literature at Columbia University. Her poetry was first collected in book form in We Stand Our Ground (1988), a collaboration with two other women poets. Hahn is the author of five collections of poetry: Air Pocket (1989); Earshot (1992), which was awarded the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and an Association of Asian America Studies Literature Award; The Unbearable Heart (1995), which received an American Book Award; Volatile (1999); and Mosquito and Ant (1999). A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she has also been awarded a Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award. Hahn was an editor of the magazine Bridge: Asian-American Perspectives. She cites her experience with the American Writers Congress as having a major impact, and she identifies Marxism as a strong intellectual and political influence.

Thematically, Hahn’s poems explore the relationship between gender, language. body, desire, and subjectivity. Formally, her poetics of fragmentation, quotation, and multivocality propose new models of gendered and racialized subjectivity. The notion of the autonomous individual is questioned and replaced by a sense of the subject as inhabited and haunted by “other” voices. Her poetics of female intersubjectivity are manifested in the arcs of The Unbearable Heart, a collection of poems that mourn her mother, and Mosquito and Ant, arranged as a series of correspondences between the speaker and an older-sister figure.

Desire is the strongest thread running throughout Hahn’s poems. The passion she uses to write love poetry is similar to the passion she uses to write political poetry. The libidinal charge of Hahn’s poetry confounds distinctions between private and public, the intimate and the global. Her poems are senual, lyrical, heartbreaking, intellectual, and political. They are challenging in the most pleasurable sense. Meditative yet urgent, full of integrity and sensuality, suffused with a multilingual sensibility and “sense memory” (the title of a poem), Hahn’s poetry is extremely compelling in its inscriptions of Asian American female desire and subjectivity.

Juliana Chang
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

In the Heath Anthology
Resistance: A Poem on Ikat Cloth (1989)
Strands (1992)
Cuttings (1995)

Other Works
Airpocket (1989)
Earshot (1992)
The Unbearable Heart (1998)

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Becoming the Mother
Text provided by the Cross X Connect site.

In Childhood
The text of Hahn's poem provided by the Readings in Contemporary Poetry site.

Kimiko Hahn
A biographical sketch.

Secondary Sources

Yamammoto, Traise, Masking Selves, Making Subjects: Japanese American Women, Identity, and the Body, Berkeley: U of California Press, 1999