May 21st, 2019
Sophie Kim is a playwright, filmmaker, LGBTQ activist and the
Los Angeles County Youth Poet Laureate. She just finished her senior year at Harvard-Westlake School in Southern California and will be attending Harvard University in the fall.
Read more about Sophie.
Read more about The Passionistas Project.
Passionistas: Hi and welcome to the Passionistas Project Podcast. We're Amy and Nancy Harrington and today we're talking to Sophie Kim a playwright, filmmaker, LGBTQ activist and the Los Angeles County Youth Poet Laureate. Sophie just finished her senior year at the Harvard-Westlake School in Southern California and will be attending Harvard University in the fall. So please welcome to the show. Sophie Kim.
Sophie Kim: Hello.
Passionistas: Thanks so much for being here. We're so excited to talk to you.
Sophie Kim: Thank you.
Passionistas: Sophie what are you most passionate about?
Sophie Kim: I mean I think I do a lot of different things like slam poetry I've really been interested in that. A lot of filmmaking documentary filmmaking, playwriting, poetry in films. But I think that I feel like all those things kind of bring together like using artist as activism. For example, I identify as queer and I came out in like eighth grade to my family and friends and from there I kind of realized, oh this is something that I really care about and that I feel like I can really talk about through art specifically. Because I think that like especially with some activists like topics sometimes it's hard to like engage people in conversation because it's like maybe talking about like harassment is really difficult or talking about your own experiences maybe you're still trying to figure your own your own identity out. And like you're not super like you're not ready to like kind of talk to a whole big group yet which is like cool. I think that with art it's really fun and kind of easier to bring people to the table. Plus it's just there's so much freedom. Like you don't have to limit yourself in any way because art is just there's so much diversity in it. So I think that that's something that I'm really interested in is like using art as a way to bring about change and just kind of have like conversations with other people.
Passionistas: And you obviously have not limited yourself. You do so many things. Let's start by talking about when you started writing poetry and why you were drawn to that form of expression.
Sophie Kim: I started out writing like short stories like as an elementary schooler. But I think I started really getting into poetry in middle school when I was reading and watching these slam poets and just written like poets that just write words to be read on the page. And I was kind of realizing that there's so much freedom and there's really no kind of limit to what you can say in poetry. I think I was kind of realizing like this is such a cool art form and you can say so much with it depending on your audience. And I think also one of the reasons why I got into slam poetry in particular was actually because I did 'Shades of Disclosure" which was like a show that was at the Scarlet Theater in Los Feliz. And it was essentially I'm in a writing group with other LGBTQ writers. So it was like a show that we created with our own monologues about like the AIDS crisis and LGBTQ history pretty much up until the 2016 presidential election and then beyond. So we were talking about like all these different issues. And it wasn't poetry it was like performed more theater monologues. But I think like doing that first and kind of being able to be on stage and performing for like complete strangers as opposed to like my friends also really got me into slam poetry because I realized like having an audience and being able to kind of speak like the stuff I was writing as opposed to just like giving it to someone on the page that was super exciting.
Passionistas: In June 2018 you won the title of the Los Angeles County Youth Poet Laureate for your civic engagement, writing and performance. So talk about what that means to you and what that actually means.
Sophie Kim: The Los Angeles County Youth Poet Laureate position. It's a program of Urban Word Los Angeles which is actually a branch of Urban Word in New York. And that's a that's a program for youth who are really interested in slam poetry and civic engagement. And it basically supports like youth who are interested in those things and a lot of other organizations I think like Beyond Baroque, the L.A. Public Library, a lot of different organizations. And the award is basically given for not just like writing and performance but also social justice activism. Yeah. And when I got received it in June I was like, "What? Sorry? Who?"
So part of it is doing performances like with organizations. But another big part of it is actually I'm going to have a book of my original poetry published in June, June twenty ninth. Is the official day. I'm very excited about that. So that was is really cool that I'm working on right now is kind of figuring out like how I'm gonna put together a book of poetry because I've never written a book of poetry. And something else I've really been able to do over the past few months is perform at different like, I performed for the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations which is they're working in Los Angeles specifically around human rights issues. And I was able to perform at an award ceremony when they were actually commemorating all these other L.A. activists. So I was kind of being like wow like you know role models. We're gonna celebrate them with a poem. That was really fun and kind of stuff like that. I think it's been really fun to do so far.
Passionistas: Are there common themes that run throughout your poems?
Sophie Kim: Well there's a lot about LGBTQ identity. A lot of the stuff that I write is kind of to make issues that I deal with as an LGBTQ person or as like my friends do a little bit more nuanced. For example, I wrote this poem called "Queerphobia: or, love, restricted," which I actually performed at the L.A. Los Angeles County as poet laureate ceremony. And that one is essentially about how like I is a person who identifies as queer was kind of feeling not just like judgment like from outside the LGBTQ community but also within it. And that was a situation that a lot of my friends found themselves in as well. Something I'm really interested in exploring is how there's not one way to be LGBTQ or like be received as whatever you identify as. And other stuff that I kind of write about I think is sort of like kind of this like uncertainty about the world or like what I like want to see in the world. So like for example, this poem that I wrote actually about gun violence. And it was kind of inspired by my feelings about what happened at the shooting at the Florida nightclub Pulse in June 2016. Which essentially like it was 50-some like people who were there were killed and there there's like 40-some others who were injured and that was like at a gay nightclub. But also it was there having something called Latin night. So it's like mostly like not just LGBTQ people but like LGBTQ people of color. When I heard that news and I read it like the news on my phone I was like Oh my God. Like this is really scary. And I think I wrote a poem sort of about how uncertain the future can seem and how it's seeming more uncertain sometimes because that poem that I wrote about gun violence and not just gun violence as it exists like oh stuff like this happens but the fact that stuff like this could happen in the future as well. I was kind of trying to explain this feeling of just not feeling safe anymore in concert venues or just like places that used to be places of community and comfort. So just kind of about like how fast the world is changing if that makes sense.
Passionistas: Will the book have a central theme? Is it new stuff old stuff?
Sophie Kim: It's definitely work in progress but I think that definitely I'm kind of finding that there's a lot of things that I'm super interested in exploring around like what's happening the world today. I think LGBTQ things are always something that I kind of come back to because there's always... I feel like there's always more to explore because I feel like the cool thing about identity is that it's not static. You know I think if you ask someone like what do you think you about today maybe you'll be maybe like me. For example if I asked myself that I'd be thinking about like oh how can we help LGBTQ homeless youth. Or like how can we push back against like really binary like notions of how people can present themselves like in their clothing and stuff. So I think a lot about identity is really interesting to me. I write stuff that's a lot of based on current events and stuff like a really like alarming news article or headline I'll be like Oh that scene that sounds like a poem. It sounds weird but I'm kind of looking forward to or kind of anticipating like this stuff that's going to go down in the next couple months in terms of like how our society is reacting to things and how different minority groups are kind of being treated and are fighting back for themselves. And I think that's really going to inspire my writing as well.
Passionistas: So you've also been inspired to work on a number of short films. So tell us about your first short "From AIDS to Advice: LGBTQ Plus Seniors Tell Their Stories."
Sophie Kim: So I made it as actually My Girl Scout Gold Award project over two summers. I essentially finished the final edits this year and I started showing it. Actually I had a showing at the L.A. LGBT Center recently which was super exciting. It's interview based. So like I interviewed like I think 25, 20-something LGBTQ senior citizens and 10 of their final stories kind of comprise the film. So it's very based on people's like actual stories and how they were kind of perceiving events. And at the showing that I had at the L.A. LGBT center some of the seniors who had been in the film were actually in attendance. And it was super exciting because we've got to do like a Q & A with them and it's kind of like continuing the legacy of that film and bringing the people to the stage. The reason why I kind of made the film in the first place and I chose LGBTQ senior citizens in particular was that I was doing a lot of LGBTQ activism kind of at school stuff like kind of having presentations about like LGBTQ history month or like poetry month for like LGBTQ poets. And I was kind of realizing that in school and kind of just generally I didn't know a lot about a LGBTQ history or like I'd learn about something like some historical figure in history class. I'd just kind of Google them and then be like wait they're gay. Why you didn't tell me that. They'll be exciting for me, of course. But also kind of disappointing cause you know maybe that person made a lot of contributions or something to LGBTQ history but that wasn't seen as relevant to the greater history which is you know something I was taught to fight back against. Or like I kind of talked about stuff like the AIDS crisis for example isn't really viewed through an LGBTQ history lens. It's viewed through more like a political lens. This is an effect of the Reagan administration not so much this as the experiences of like tons of people.
I think that was definitely something I want to talk about not just saying that like LGBTQ history isn't something that we learn but also that it's it's important. And that it doesn't just affect LGBTQ people. It's like history is history. And I wanted to have people kind of be able to speak for themselves. And LGBTQ seniors and senior citizens in general, I just feel like that wasn't a group that I really was hearing from even as a person who does a lot of activism. I feel like as a young person when I was making this I was in high school. And I was thinking you know I really don't, most of the people I'm talking about activism with are like my friends and like people who are pretty close in age with me. And I was like there's a whole there's all these other experiences being had by people that I really want to hear about and I think other people would want to hear about. So that's sort of why I chose the topic.
Passionistas: Is there something that you learned that was sort of the most profound thing that you learned while making the film?
Sophie Kim: I think I realized that something that's super important and that can sometimes be something that we lose sight of when we're trying to do things like end homophobia or like you know gain equal rights. These really big things that we're thinking about is just to kind of listen to individual people. There's such a great power in just listening to people. I mean it wasn't just about like making a film and be like Okay we're going to edit this and it's going to happen. It was really about processing our own traumas and our own kind of thoughts about our own identities and selves when we're doing those interviews. At least I kind of felt like that was happening. And I kind of realized trying to find me as like a younger LGBTQ person I'm trying to find my place in the LGBTQ activism movement and an activist movements in general. And I was kind of thinking you know as a young person there's so much that I can do to be a listener and just to kind of say well you know these are things that I can take and I can uplift these you know LGBTQ senior citizens and their stories. So I think just the value of just kind of listening and slowing down and realizing like there is a big movement and you're part of it or you can be part of it. But there's also like individual people in front of you and they're really important.
Passionistas: Tell us about your next film "Playas de Tijuana" and what it's about and what drew you to that subject.
Sophie Kim: So it's a short film that's actually a based on a poem that I wrote and performed in it. So I took a trip actually with this organization called Peace Works Travel. Essentially what they do is they have these digital storytelling trips. So like we traveled to the Mexico-U.S. border, we traveled to San Diego and then we traveled to Tijuana and the border while there. And we spent like I think it was like five days there just kind of interviewing people asking them what are your experiences like living here you know. Maybe some people have been deported. What was it over there expenses there? We talked to them in order to make these films and to kind of raise awareness of like you know these are people's voices because especially with all the kind of negative media about like oh like you know all this like anti-immigration stuff just kind of this news that was really very reductive and kind of talking about like all immigrants like there are like one thing or like all refugees like there are one thing. What we were really trying to do with those films was to kind of dispel that idea. And again like kind of what I say about my other film to kind of get people to slow down and really listen to people's stories and kind of think about when you talk about something like blocking people from entering the country or like wanting to you know detain people like a lot of them at once or something like that. You know you're talking about real people. What I did was I kind of went to these interviews and asked people these questions. And then what I did was write a poem. I was trying to like synthesize all this stuff that I've been thinking about and kind of my reactions and other people's reactions in our group.
And I think something that I really talked about that I was really interested in talking about because I was acknowledging that this is my voice that kind of dominates the whole thing. You know as opposed to other films that I made that are more other interviewees people's voices talking was that I was kind of speaking from a place where I was realizing that I was an outsider. And that I was kind of coming, I was coming in from like America and California kind of traveling there for like five days days and then leaving. And that's you know that's just how it was. And I was talking to people but at the end of the day I was going back to my own home where I didn't necessarily you know I wasn't suffering from these problems that these other people were dealing with everyday. And my poem kind of talks about that how you know exploring this idea of what kind of activist am I? And what am I really doing for this cause? It doesn't have answers. I actually I kind of I say you know "I'm leaving with the tourists goodbye." And that's something that I'm really interested in exploring. That I was really interested in talking about after this experience. Because we kind of talked about how there's a difference between being a traveling tourist. And I kind of felt like despite kind of our best efforts and despite my best efforts I knew that I was because of the shortness of the journey and kind of the fact that like you know I was only able to talk to all these incredible people for maybe like an hour half an hour. I was still kind of a tourist. I knew there was a lot that I still didn't know about these people stories and a lot I couldn't relate to. And that doesn't mean that you know for activism to act to do activism for other people you don't have to like be exactly like them. I mean we need allies. But I was really interested in exploring and kind of asking myself like what are you doing here. You know why are you here? And by extension kind of asking the people who would be watching the film who would be my classmates and my teachers and parents of them kind of asking us all collectively like you know what can we do for causes that we weren't born into. Like I feel like I've been born into the LGBTQ cause that I am LGBTQ. But other things you know that have not been part of my life. I'm trying to figure out how I can help those causes we're immune.
Passionistas: We're Amy and Nancy Harrington. And you're listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Sophie Kim. To watch a video of Sophie reciting her poem " Queerphobia: or, love, restricted " at the Los Angeles County Youth Poet Laureate awards ceremony go to PopCulture.Passionistas.com/Sophie Kim. And now here's more of her interview with Sophie.
What are the LGBTQ issues that are most important to you and maybe you and your friends?
Sophie Kim: I think that's something that I've actually been kind of exploring a lot through poetry and that I also wrote about in my poem " Queerphobia: or, love, restricted " was kind of this idea of Oppression Olympics. A lot of the stuff that I've been getting like for myself and from my friends other activists that I known, that I really love it can get exhausting when it seems like some as we're all fighting each other and saying you know I'm more oppressed than you essentially. And of course like we're not all of an on an even playing ground that's like what activism is like predicated upon. Is that like there's all these different levels and complexities and we're all not just like given an equal opportunity or viewed equally. That's just the truth.
But that's sort of what people who have more power would want us to do and like to self-destruct ourselves and kind of divide ourselves. Like you know we're doing that work by ourselves which is not good. Of course there's sort of this thing. I don't know if people really call it this now but it's called like Call Out Culture and basically it's where as activists and American as and myself as well can be very unforgiving when people we don't know might say something like insensitive or might not like know about every single issue that affects the group for which they're advocating at a given moment. That I think that kind of scares a lot of people away from activism you know and I've kind of felt to myself in some circles it's like it's a little bit like you know you have to be perfect activist all the time. And people are not perfect. So how can you be a perfect anything? Doesn't make any sense. But I think in activist circles I think that's something that I feel like we — and when I say me like me and my friends because you know that's who I know — are kind of still dealing with is this idea of being able to grow and change together. Of having trust. I think that's sort of the main thing because it's like we're talking about these ideas and we're talking about our issues and struggles and stuff and how we want to make the world a better place for ourselves and a better place for our friends and for people we don't know but that deserve to live and have a good time. And kind of talking about how trust and realizing that we're fighting for each other you know we're not fighting against each other at the end of the day kind of realizing how important that is to keep in mind. I think is something that at least I found that as an activist and LGBTQ activist and just an activist in general I really care about.
Passionistas: Is there something that we as podcasters, the media or just society in general. Is A question that we should be asking the LGBTQ community that we're not?
Sophie Kim: I think first of all something that I've really. And this is not just me this is comes from having a lot of friends who this is really important to in a lot of role models little mentors. But I think pronouns. And what I mean by that is she, he, a lot of people use this pronoun pronouns a lot of people use they or like other those are not the only three. There's like other pronouns that people use to identify themselves with. And I think that while sometimes in some spaces like you'll go and they'll have you write name tags I'll be like Oh put your pronouns here. Or like sometimes people will have like a little pronoun button that they like wear events and stuff. I think that in most places and especially places that are not really activist-focused which is where we mostly spend our lives. In most of those spaces where people aren't really thinking about stuff like that. They're kind of just wants to like other stuff asking for pronouns or acknowledging that people use other pronouns and you might assume they do based on their physical appearance is not at all seen as important. Talking to a lot of my friends about pronouns and stuff that it's important to them not just to kind of have is like oh you know like we want to be more diverse or we want to be more accepting not just kind of as a action to kind of you know appear more accepting or something but to actually acknowledge that people have experiences are different than your own and things that they parts of their identity are different from your own that you might not have realized.
Passionistas: So you've accomplished so much so far what's been the biggest challenge for you and how did you overcome it?
Sophie Kim: Knowing that I only speak for myself and I think my teachers you know who I trust to kind of talk about my writing with my friends are really good about this asking me like, "Is your writing speaking for you or are you trying to speak for something you don't necessarily totally understand? Is your writing assuming anything essentially?" For example, I write about gun violence. Like I wrote about a poem essentially where I imagined that I was in a gay nightclub and that there were shooters there and like kind of those last moments of what I would be feeling like. And how I feel thinking about how that could happen to me as it did happen for so many people at the Pulse nightclub and so many other people we don't hear about. But you know I was talking to my teacher and I was kind of thinking over to myself like but I've never been in that situation. Like I've never been to a gay nighclub, first of all. And I've also never been in a situation where people are shooting at me. You know that's just kind of. That's totally made up from what I imagine you know from movies and films I've seen, news articles I've read. And to an extent that's kind of you know that's that's fabricated. So kind of thinking about how I can write about these things and kind of get people to engage in talking about things like gun violence and how that affects the LGBTQ community specifically. But also also recognizing where I'm kind of less qualified or I kind of maybe should have more experience before writing about those things I think has kind of been challenged seriously to think about.
Well I think this is the biggest challenge that I've faced is kind of thinking about how to bring people in. And I think you know I think I kind of thought about that along with my film. Especially because that one is very it's very historical but I also wanted to kind of have it be dynamic and have it be a conversation. Not like I'm telling you stuff. But like you know this is interesting and you're listening to these people but you can also you can have your own opinions. You know you can kind of say well this what I think about that person. And having creating things that are not just accessible and relatable to the group that they're about. You know because when I write stuff it's like I'm not just perform for LGBTQ audiences. Like that's just not how it is. I want to like reach people who kind of have different ideas and different thoughts and might react to what I'm writing or creating differently. Just kind of a challenge that I've been really thinking about lately and that I always kind of think about what I'm creating stuff is how can I bring people into this issue that they might have not thought about? But not in like a condescending way and like a come here come here and we will have fun and learn and talk to each other kind of way. And not learn like I'm teaching you a thing like we're talking and like listening and absorbing and sitting there and feeling stuff.
Passionistas: What's been the most rewarding part of what you do?
Sophie Kim: I think for me personally I perform that poem that I keep talking about "Queerphobia: or, love, restricted." I perform at the classic slam which is the biggest use poetry classic festival in the world and that's put on by the Get Lit Players which is a program for youth. There is this huge audience and it was kind of like this this auditorium style where it's like it's almost like an amphitheater. It's kind of like things the rows stuck up really high and you're looking up and they're like all these people and you're like Oh my God. And I'd written this poem and it's a very accusatory poem. It's like you know this is what society has taught you to think. You know this is how society is wrong and we should maybe not do that. I performed the poem and it was it was scary. I didn't know how people would react to it. This is my first time performing it and it was also kind of scary because I didn't know if people would just kind of shut it out. You know it wouldn't really be anything new that people hadn't heard before. But I think at the end I heard from a lot of people and I kind of felt it when I was there. Was that people were like thank you for speaking to this because I relate to it. People my age have come up to me and said like oh you know like I have a friend who wants to come out to their parents were like you know their parents are kind of not really accepting. Can I get a copy of your film to show to them? And I'm just like crying now.
You know it's like that's what I that's what I want my work to do I want it to go beyond myself and to help people who aren't as privileged is me. Because I'm super privileged. It's kind of this feeling that you can kind of free yourself a little bit. I mean I think that we all have baggage that we just get it towed around everywhere. I think being able to write about that stuff and just kind of say it is just pretty liberating. And when you find other people that can kind of talk to you about it and say like I feel you. Like you know there's this weight that's been lifted off me and like in this room we're kind of created this place where we could all listen and just kind of feel a little closer for a little but even though we're strangers. I think that's really wonderful.
Passionistas: What advice would you give to a young girl that wants to be an activist and maybe even more specifically an artist activist?
Sophie Kim: So I guess only art part — something really weird about our society is that we kind of have this tendency to categorize stuff as like good or bad. And also furthermore to kind of categorize it as like more mainstream or more experimental. And like I know why people do it because there are standards of art that have like been accepted for centuries or generations. So like by definition something that doesn't fit into that you would put in experimental because you're just making other category for yourself. But I'm not a fan of categories. So I think that what I'd say if you want to be an artist and do activism is to not feel like you have to create art that fits a certain, fit certain parameters and not to create art that you're like this is good or like this is except or this is. This follows the tradition of art that's come before me. If that kind of means that you have to betray your vision and what you want to say. Because a lot of my friends who do a lot of visual art and do a lot of film that you wouldn't show at like the Arclight. They wouldn't be on the Oscars on the red carpet at the Oscars because their work doesn't fit into this narrow category that's being seen as acceptable mainstream. But their art is great. You know and it's it pushes, it pushes the boundaries of what we think. And it's you know it asks questions and it's very, it's very brave and it's making changes. And I think that as an artist I'd say don't feel like you have to conform to what others think is good. Don't feel like you have to compromise just because of what other people think. It's just like a good life thing. It's hard to do but you know just nothing.
And for being activist knowing that you have a support system. And that I'm say this from a place where I have a lot of support. So this is what I believe. But it might not be what everyone believes. But I think that what I've found is that there are always people who will support you or who will care and understand what you're going through. And even if they don't, they'll want to support you through it. Of course this is speaking from my perspective. What I found is that yeah. You know there are tons of there are literally thousands and millions of people who don't want people like me to exist. You know I know that's true. But I've been able to find people who do and who are you know maybe they're maybe they're like literal like my family members maybe their teachers or friends you know people that have kind of found. But that even with all the opposition, there are people who will love you for who you are. And I think that's really, I think that's really important to remember as an activist. It's easy to get burned out. It's easy to get discouraged and it's easy to feel like you know it doesn't matter but it does matter.
And I think for being girl what I'd say is that essentially that like this idea of what a proper woman or proper girl should do — and I'd like to think that we're a little bit past this and don't need this advice but I still kind of think it's relevant — is that standards for womanhood and for being and for like girlhood and being girl and acting like a girl will you know and your role and the sort of stories you should tell the kind of person and the kind of personality you can have and how you can go through the world and your path that you can take to the world. This idea that that's all based on gender like biological sex is just stupid. It's stupid. I said it. I still think that there is just so much stuff that's still ingrained in us about like how you should move through the world as a certain gender or assigned a certain gender. And I think that is really detrimental. Maybe this isn't the case for everyone. I really hope not. But I still think that you know societal attitudes are hard to dispel. So I'd just say like just be yourself and essentially just if you feel like you know limited by anything like people who are saying like oh you know you can't raise your voice or oh like you should be more polite or whatever just like don't do that if you don't want to. Why should you do that?
Passionistas: What's your secret to rewarding life?
Sophie Kim: I think remembering that just like people are good and that there's so much good in the world. I think that's why I think about a lot of times especially when I'm like read the news and be like oh my god like things are going really bad. You know that can be really depressing. And I think that especially social media and the fact that a lot of us are really like engaged and tapped into the world all the time. You know that kind of can build up. But I think that you know something that I really think is true is that while there is so much sadness and so many terrible things in the world and things that not just terrible terrible things but like things that you can't control as like your own person like you're just one person you're not like a nation. You're just living your life. I think that remembering that we can, we do have the power to make moments of like this community or this happiness, moments that we can empower ourselves and remind ourselves that like we matter. It's hard to remember sometimes that fact when there's so much stuff going on and so many big movements and protest marches that you know it's almost like you feel a little bit less like an individual a little less, less significant. Just remembering that they're poetry books or movies or you know cool music on the radio and just that there is good. You know it's sort of the thing we're like if you like someone's is one negative thing to you and you remember it for like a much longer time than if someone says like ten compliments to you, like we just focus on the negative sometimes. But remembering that the positives are there and the good stuff is there.
Passionistas: Thanks for listening to the Passionistas Project Podcast and our interview with Sophie Kim. Since we interviewed Sophie, she's finished her first book "Sing the Birds Home," available June 29. To preorder your copy visit her website at TheSophieKim.com. And be sure to subscribe to the Passionistas Project Podcast, so you don't miss any of our upcoming inspiring guests.