Between the Lines
We are not who we are without stories. I come from a line of storytellers. Growing up, I heard a new childhood recollection, tall tale, or urban legend daily. A new story always starts the same way: my family gathered around the dinner table and my mother or father saying, “Để mẹ/ba kể cho con nghe…”
I have always been fascinated with my family’s ghost stories. Ghost stories intrigue me as much as they terrify me. In a way, I am my own ghost story. My whole life, I have been caught between worlds, between cultures, and between languages.
Being a diaspora poet is a weird space to occupy as far as language. Often, you barely know your mother tongue, but on the other hand, your native tongue barely knows you. I think the biggest misconception about being bilingual is being bilingual means you are fluent in both tongues separately. But my brain doesn’t compartmentalize language that way. I speak fragments of both languages to make whole sentences. I often describe the relationship between English and Vietnamese as two harmonies, one filling in where the other can’t reach.
Unfortunately, language has been the gatekeeper to the social circles I’ve been allowed and not allowed to enter. In some interactions, I have often been ostracized for not being Vietnamese enough for various reasons, whether it be my limited access to or understanding of Vietnamese or my Southern Vietnamese dialect. In other interactions, I’ve been regarded as too Vietnamese. In these instances, I turn to poetry to work through my feelings and my frustrations, but poetry doesn’t safeguard me from these interactions. If anything, the nature of putting my work into the public eye exposes me to them.
If you become a diaspora poet for the external validation and the accolades, you’re in the wrong profession. Most of the time, when I bring my poetry to workshop, it gets torn apart, and most of the brutal comments come from a lack of understanding of my experience and sometimes a refusal to. In my experience, my creative writing workshops have been mostly white, and I have often been the only person of color in the room. I have come out of brutal workshops ready to quit and burn all my writing, but deep inside me, there is a need to persist. Existing as a Vietnamese-American diaspora poet is inherently a political act. My existence inherently goes against the grain. Quitting would be a betrayal of my identity.
I combat ignorance of my experience by writing unapologetic bilingual poetry, without translations. In effect, I’m essentially writing a ghost story. The only audience that will have the most immediate access to my poetry is one that also floats between two languages the way I do. In this way, I create levels of access in my work and these different levels of access protect me from the two worlds I’m caught between.
I have been so lucky to have had wonderful influences who have paved the way ahead for me. I’m an avid reader of other Vietnamese-American poets, and my work is often in conversation with theirs. I do regret that there are not more female Vietnamese-American poets, however, or that if there are, they have yet to break out into the mainstream.
Among my goals, I hope to develop more of a prolific career so that a path can be paved for more female Viet-Am poets. That said, Ocean Vuong, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Bao Phi, Paul Tran, and Chrysanthemum Tran are wonderful poets whom I absolutely adore, and their poetry has gotten me through the toughest of times. Their poetry has given me a reason to go on and to continue the work I do. Above is a recent picture of me and Hieu Minh Nguyen.
To close, I want to share the first poem I wrote in college. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever written. I have grown so much as a writer since this poem. But this poem is honest, and it’s representative of what I have been through. This poem changed the course of my life forever, and if it hadn’t been for this poem, I wouldn’t have spent the next four years dedicated to writing poetry. It’s called “I Am Made of War” and it became the title of my first book. Here it is:
I am made of war. I was conceived by the bloodshed between the North and the South, born from the vicious rivalry between communism and democracy. I am the byproduct of a refugee’s choice between the comfortable past and the free future. But I cannot be of both.
I am made of war. I am the constant wrangle between the old and new. I am the lack of compromise between tradition and progress. I am the irreconcilable differences between what it means to be Vietnamese and what it means to be American. But I cannot be both.
But why can’t I be both? The North and the South eventually became one.
Communism will someday progress to democracy. The refugee is both parts his past and his future! And the old with some work can perhaps become new.
And progress can still be rooted in tradition, and for heaven’s sake, I am Vietnamese-American.
You taught me to war with myself.
You likened my soul to a word for it is broken when it is torn in two
and likewise you tore me in two
so I would be a broken word, a torn-in-half piece of paper that even tape cannot fully ever fix.
But I put myself back together and in doing so I realized that I am not a broken word, I am in fact a hyphen bridging two words into one intertwined unity. And you can believe that I am a torn-in-half piece of paper, but at least light shines through my cracks.
I am not made of war.
I am made of hyphens.