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Unexpected Vanilla by Lee Hyemi, trans. So J. Lee

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A sensual, surrealist collection by a young feminist poet, in an equally sensuous and sensitive queer translation.

Lee Hyemi’s poetry is characterized by fluidity and wetness, with subjects moving about and soaking in each other through curious means. The titular “vanilla”—the antonym of “kinky”—is unexpected for Lee, who subverts the vanilla norm without denying its pleasures.

Unexpected Vanilla’s exchange of liquids often involves sex, but intercourse can be nonsexual: drinking tea or alcohol, going to the beach, sitting in the same tub, crying, feeling your lover’s sweat on your palm, and so forth. In this way, Lee explores a wide variety of relationships, attractions, and sensations. Her erotically charged, surrealist sensibility can be traced back to the paintings of Leonor Fini, a bisexual Argentinian artist whom she admires.

Lee details various intimacies in her “world of the second person,” which still feels clandestine but safe from the threat of exposure. the Korean language’s scope for ambiguous gendering. The task of the queer translator is to feel out the subtleties with respect, as one does in life, and not presume heterosexuality. Just as Lee spoke out during the 2016 hashtag movement that began calling out sexual violence within South Korean literary circles, her poems recreate and hold space for agency and queerness in female sexuality.

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