Thank you from an almost thirty-year-old

When I was 16 going on 17, I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. When I was 16 going on 17, I tried to read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That year in AP English, my teacher’s comment requesting that he keep my homework musings on home kept the tender embers of desire to be a writer alive. Thank goodness.

4 years later, I re-read Beloved in a Black Studies and literature course. The other young women and I marveled at our brilliant professor, especially as she was young, black, female, and did I say brilliant. That year I was applying for a teaching program and ripping down Teach 4 America posters on campus. My mentor and advisor stopped our meeting to make copies of bell hooks’ Teaching to Trangress. I didn’t know it then, but he was handing me yet another mentor. Thank goodness.

About 9 years later, I was teaching and learning about excerpts of Pedagogy of the Oppressed with middle schoolers. I had them playing with Morrison’s language to learn about poetic line breaks. These writers and thinkers paved the ground I walked on, and I kept their work alive, while stoking the fires in my young charges. They taught me how to break open my heart and let them in. They flood me to this day, and I have cried more than ever. Thank goodness.

About 13 years later, I am teaching undergraduates, and today I tacked up a collage of Kendrick Lamar reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes at my desk. Morrison was a poet, who became a professor, who wrote novels, who changed us. I ponder now about my work, my writing, and what’s next for me.

Age is a funny thing. While I am so ready to be 30, I am still 16 going on 17. Still eager, still social introvert, still reader, still laughter, still nervous and moving. But also, I am so not 16 going on 17. Not pining after some baseball player, not wishing to fit in with the right clothes, not wondering about college, not crying under the sheets, not anguishing about my thighs, not writing poems in a secret notebook. Nope. Now I talk too much sometimes. Now I risk not fitting in more. Now I cry in public—all the time. Now I love my body more than ever. Now I don’t wait for no man. Now I write poems in journals and journals and journals. Even read them aloud. Might even call myself an artist or something, sometimes.

***

Age in a funny thing. When my mother was 3 years older than me, she gave birth to my brother. About a year later, she gave birth to me. When I am 33, I may give birth to a book. About a year later, another. In her thirties, Toni Morrison raised two boys and wrote her first novel.

***

Age is a funny thing. Sandra Cisneros might call age an onion, layers on layers that you feel at times. I think it’s more like leaves on a tree, shimmering all at once in the wind. And as these leaves flutter and I stare—mesmerized in the sun—I am full of wonder, joy, appreciation. Disbelief.

When I was a toddler, I would cry when given gifts. I would overwhelm myself. I don’t know exactly why I cried at 3. Now at 30, I know I cry because I feel so much. I am full of all those who made me me, as I am becoming me. I am full of immense gratitude that my body cannot hold without release. So I cry. I cry because I am 3, I am 16 going on 17, I am 30. I cry because—thank you.

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Where is There freedom?

I begin this essay at the beginning of my second day of my MFA program. One orientation week and one day in, I am showered with opportunities to learn, to create, to publish. I am reminded that almost every hour I have here may be used as a choice– to study, to write, to play, to rest. Though I am a Teaching Assistant, I am utterly privileged to do essentially whatever I want with my time. While I relish in this, I also find the disparity of opportunities like these in institutions like these compared to what is available to the everyday working person, shameful. An MFA graduate once called his program’s financial support and outcomes an “embarrassment of riches,” though I think I am emphasizing a literal definition of “embarrassment” more than the writer.

Yet, in some ways, I came here for this, for learning, for tools, for writing time, for freedom. I reflect on how my applications to programs last fall discussed the value of protest poetry and literature as well as its trap. How do we speak to people? Move them? How do we maintain accessibility and become artists who break boundaries? How do we free ourselves from their and our expectations? When we write for freedom, do we find ourselves in another kind of trap?

Yesterday, I was given a sign that these are the right questions when I came across Ravi Shankar’s interview with Gregory Pardlo, where Pardlo says that Callaloo’s Creative Writing Workshops “have a more catholic conception of diversity. And in terms of the theoretical constructs of identity that you are talking about, I think we interrogate identity in a way that a simple statement ‘I am a black writer’ or ‘I am a white writer’ reduces me to a two-dimensional concept. There’s no way that term can contain the breadth of my worldview and my sense of myself. And yes, it is a kind of shorthand that we use to trade between people in order to arrive at some brief and quick understanding of one another, but if the conception of myself that I bring to the page is merely that ‘I am an X writer’ then it could be that I am limiting myself of that I am acquiescing to the bureaucratic logic of the very institutions I would oppose.”

Pardlo goes on to say, “The world on the page is not the world outside. The rules that apply in our social world, and yes, we need community, whether hyphenated or not, these shorthands are very useful out in the world, but on the page, my imagination needn’t be delimited by a particular worldview or cultural imperative.” Shankar replies, “Of course, your experience will be inflected by that perspective of being a person of color, but you’re saying that it doesn’t need to be overtly manifest. Not unless you want it to be.”

As much as our identities are important, we may be limiting ourselves when we write. Shankar and Pardlo discuss the importance of choice. What are you choosing to do? Can you weld writing intelligently– as a tool– with precision? Can you put down the tool and choose to write for some other purpose? Some other kind of freedom?

I hope so, and honestly, I write this today to reaffirm that amidst crazy-making interactions with a housemate; the very white and wealthy town I live in; and the perceptions of undergrads, peers, and professors, I can make choices. I am not only in a physical location I realize, but also in a new psychological moment (as well as a historical moment nationwide). A moment where I am checking how I present myself against how others may perceive and receive me. A moment where I remind myself I may want to hold my cards closer to the vest. A moment where my whole self may not be welcomed. A moment where my mistakes may alienate me further personally and professionally. “Further” as in beyond how my gender and race already push me aside or erase me. I have experienced these moments before, but now they come in a package called Graduate School.

But now I come with more experiences, insights, and tools to make choices.

I reaffirm to myself everyday and every night who I am. For the breaths I have the right to take. I reaffirm I can choose who will know me fully. I reaffirm my desire to approach the page for personal freedom. I reaffirm my desire to work and write for collective freedom. I know this is not some ideal of freedom, but I get to make some choices. I will not let it trap me– not protest literature, not this institution, not this place, nor this moment.

Lift up your head and keep moving, (keep moving)…

Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart

On my sleeve, let the runway start

You know the miserable do love company

What do you want from me and my scars?

Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence

How many times my potential was anonymous?

How many times the city making me promises?

So I promise this, nigga

And (I love my myself)

When you looking at me, tell me what do you see?

(I love myself)

-Kendrick Lamar

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Update: Write. Right? Right!

Hola mi gente. It’s been a minute, and I have news and reflections to share. First off, I’m going to graduate school! *Insert celebration here.* Not much to say about it except that it’s been a long time coming. As I turn 30 this year, there is nothing greater I could have done for myself except this radical act of self-acceptance.

Second piece of news– I wrote almost everyday in April for National Poetry Month. It was amazing how much came out of me. I didn’t like all of it, but much of it I did like. It even became overwhelming at some points to edit and transfer my writing onto the computer because there was so much to do. The good news is that I am writing, and it’s not stopping. The bad news is that I will probably always be playing catch-up with journals that need to be typed, poems that need to be edited, and collections of writing that want finalizing.

Third– I am committing myself to finishing a poetry collection in July before I leave the Bay Area for school. It will give me something to focus on this summer– as if preparing for an interstate move wasn’t enough to fill my time. It will also mean closing out a period of writing between my chapbook in 2012 and now. Just like graduate school, it is time, and I have more than enough material to shape.

So about this… I have at least two books worth of poems, at least. I also know that some poems are not worth publishing– whatever that means. How does one make peace with this? Decide that some part of you is worth more than another. What do you think? There is the organized and anxious part of me that wants to make sure nothing falls through the cracks and that I have consciously decided every word and not “lose” anything. Impossible. I suppose selecting poems is an exercise in humility, an acceptance that some things are not shaped in a way that is ready to share with the world. Or it’s an act of marketing, selecting the things one knows will sell or connect with readers? Or this agony is a part of art-making, the process in which one crafts a unit and deems it beautiful?

Either way, I am happy to have gleaned clarity and acceptance that I have been writing about two central subjects. I write about home, family, and being Vietnamese. I write about love and sex– think Sandra Cisneros’s Loose Woman. (I guess that’s five subject, oh well.) All of this, I imbue with ethnicity, race, gender, politics– obviously, memory, the body, place. 

It makes me envision what else I want to write. There are so many stories about Vietnamese or Vietnamese Americans connecting to a sense of two homelands and– of course– the Viet Nam War. I see this even more clearly now with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books. I see the value in the topic, and I have read and will continue reading these writings. But where are the stories about second or even third generation Vietnamese Americans? What if the duality of two cultures no longer exists or at least isn’t felt consciously? I want to change our place in relation to immigration, not because the connection isn’t there, but because some of us are heavily “American.” And this means our language, our culture, the people are diverse. Where is the hip-hop in our stories, the activists marching with Bayan, the girls dating Mexicans? (Quick side note, I’ve been thinking too about Asian American “protest literature.” I don’t know what that looks like or if it already exists. Some may not consider it art, but it’ll be important to envision, both for writing it and escaping it.)

Okay, wrapping up. I am grateful to be where I am. I am excited. I am nervous too. At the end of the day, I am writing, and I am thinking about writing, all the time. I mark that as a win. It makes sense that entering an MFA program has allowed myself to claim my writer/creative identity even further (even if I held my breath last night when a friend introduced me as a writer). I am entering graduate school with a sense of what I write, what I want to write/read, and a deepened connection to writing. Awesome, right?

 

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Reading List Review 2016

This list is shorter than I hoped, and there are two books on it I still need to finish. However, as this Gregorian calendar ends, I think of what I have done instead—not including wasting time on T.V. or browsing blogs. I have:

  • continued a messy, non-linear process of healing
  • practiced invaluable skills for texting and interpreting emojis
  • applied to too many graduate schools
  • submitted writing to a variety of journals and magazines (and gotten published)
  • purged things and limited how much I bring into my life
  • been a pretty darn good teacher.

In this listing, I won’t include the books I’ve not finished from years past. I only promise that I’ll finish them… one day! So here’s what I’ve read this year:

  1. Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat (because a friend reminded me about our work and position as migrants.)
  2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (because #BlackLivesMatter.)
  3. The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates (because he made me fall in love with his mind the first time. This one just confirmed it. Really enjoyed the playfulness.)
  4. Lord of the Flies by William Golding (because work. And the canon…)
  5. The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyanne Chin (trigger-warning: sexual abuse, child neglect, verbal abuse.)
  6. Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day by Nikki Giovanni (because classic poetry.)
  7. New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (one of the most painful non-fiction reads I have ever read.)
  8. Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones (OOF! get ready to feel poems in your gut.)
  9. Renaissance by Ruth Forman (because she was literally one of my teachers.)
  10. Ceremony by Leslie Silko (because a friend gifted it and someone compared it to Morrison.)
  11. In the Name of Salomé by Julia Alvarez (poetic prose, mother-daughter story, and one of my favorite novel structures.)
  12. Black Movie (chapbook) by Danez Smith (because I can hear his twang in my ear and imagine new poem forms.)
  13. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison (dear U.S., we need to talk.)
  14. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee-Boggs (because our lives depend on it.)
  15. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (because I challenged myself to challenge the kids.)
  16. Dated Emcees by Chinaka Hodge (because it’s poetry by one of Oakland’s best poets, playwrights, rappers, black girls.)
  17. Night Sky Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (because. Poetry. Family.)
  18. Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie (because it’s Sherman, and #StandingRock, and we are feeling blue.)
  19. Bloodchild by Octavia Butler (because prophesies are needed!)
  20. I’m hopeful about fitting in another novel here.

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Two Sides of the Pacific

I am from words unspoken

silence at the dinner table

I am from are you hungry?

meaning I care about you

I am from why didn’t you visit?

meaning I like seeing you

 

I am from dry crushed ramen

hot Cheetos from the green corner store

red dye staining our fingers

I am from free school lunches

and chili cheese fries

I am from race rumbles

cool girls in overalls and dark lip-liner

 

I am from the highlands of Viet Nam

Hue’s heat and delta coconuts

I am from grandmothers

who plant me guava trees

a father who grows

passion fruit in California

his dreams resisting common sense

 

I am from the poet in the Citadel

forever protected

forever inscribed

safe from your Offensives

 

I am from wedding dresses in tin boxes

far-off eyes and the spirit of freedom

I am from exploding mortars, peasant food

fine silks and world-class tailors

I am from 16-hour flights and layovers

I am from so much history and too much distance

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Filed under asian americans, culture, immigrant, Oakland, poems, viet nam

Love and its Recent Journeys

In it




Love makes me a hotbed of tears

I am a prayer turned inside out

A god with fire

A holy crown swallowed

I am here




the most constant and stable of flames

-July 2016

 

I journaled this summer: “How lucky can a person be to love deeply, take risks, and follow their hearts. One of my greatest fears in life is to not be able to follow my heart, to not be true to who I am. 2016 has already provided countless, unexpected opportunities to do what’s right for myself, break my own heart, fall in love, and follow my feelings in scary and challenging ways. Tears come to my eyes to think about what a lucky human being I am. I am so grateful to be in community with people who support my big, heaving heart. What did I do to deserve so much goodness?”

This year has included ending a relationship that truthfully had been unhealthy. Not in some big way, but unhealthy in the small, repetitive ways we lower expectations and accept a love not big enough for our whole selves. I accepted less time. I accepted waiting. I postponed my own happiness. Somehow I reached the hump in the hill, and on the other side I was strong enough to say no more. He agreed.

Months later, suddenly in a new relationship and yet in another country investigating my feelings for someone else, my new love wrote me that he trusted me. Essentially, be safe and do what you need. I trust you, he said. I cried so hard. How could I possibly be hurting someone and their response be that they love me, that they believe I will be who I need to be, that they accept me. Even now, I cannot write this without tears in my eyes.

This old friend whom I was visiting was the subject of strong, unspoken dreams and feelings that had lasted 6 or 7 years– concentrated by the force of distance, time, and mystery. You can only imagine how haunting these feelings are to a romantic like myself. Unrequited and silenced love is unacceptable, so I made this journey over countries and seas. And yet, dare I be bold to say, I knew my feelings quickly. I knew who’s loving I was going to choose. This didn’t make my trip easy, of course. I needed a chance to feel the dimensions of this relationship. My friend and I struggled over how to spend time together. There was laughter, silent looks, and our usual good conversation. There was a reconciling of my understanding of who he was with who he is. And ultimately we left it at “I’ll miss you” and once again those unspoken words, which I could understand now. Upon leaving, I cried so hard and in a way so involved that I missed multiple announcements about my flight and almost missed it altogether even though I sat at the gate.

All this had happened, testing and building my strength and courage, reminding myself I could tear apart– even in my own hands– and still be whole again. Now back home, in conversations with me and my many feelings, my man tells me it’s okay. When I judge myself, he is still there. With this radical acceptance, I try to hold my heart gently. Again, it has not been easy and has already been the work of my almost-29 years. Yet, his consistent presence and strength makes it simple enough. I try hard to accept this love and to love him even better and harder. I know it is changing me.

So I write this now for myself, to mark my feelings. And maybe I even write this for the heartache of others. I do not make any promises or offer advice. I just intend to celebrate my hardiness and to do for you what I want for myself– to hold you gently and love you fiercely.

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For Racial Justice– towards an honest, internal look

What a week. I am listening to Beyonce’s Lemonade album all the way through for the umpteenth time, feeling in-love, excited, melancholic, and nostalgic. And that’s just on a personal level, not even considering our current, painful political climate. Of course I have been thinking and feeling, as most if us have about the murders of Black people and people of color in our country. These concerns have been intensified by international attacks in France to Turkey to Baghdad and the ongoingU.S. violence abroad. It has been a rough two weeks to be an empathetic human being in general, and even more so if one is black, queer/trans, woman, working-class, migrant, and other oppressed identities. As I hurl into my future and think about my various roles, I think of my parents’ adage– look at yourself first. Look internally, they would say. To diagnose the problem and think of solutions, we need to look internally. Even on the national level, we do not have to go too far to consider what we need to do for healing and justice. At least a part of what this means is to look at ourselves honestly as a country. Will the people (particularly officials) be upfront about the racist policies we have created, carried out, and continue enabling?

A few days ago, I returned to Michelle Alexander’s amazing book The New Jim Crow, after needing an emotional and intellectual break from it. Her research and the narrative she weaves is horrifying, illuminating, and so necessary. And I ask again, are we all ready to be honest and brave enough to acknowledge it? Only then can we dismantle these systems of injustice and create something different.

Will we acknowledge that the War on Drugs was stimulated to attack communities of color? Alexander writes, many studies have found that during the War on Drugs, law enforcement and media used a “predictable ‘us against them’ frame[…], with ‘us’ being white, suburban America, and ‘them’ being black Americans and a few corrupted whites” (Alexander, 105).

Will we acknowledge and critique that the Supreme Court has essentially legalized implicit bias? In the case of McCleskey v. Kemp, clear and well-researched evidence of discriminatory sentencing  in Georgia was not enough for the Supreme Court to consider the state’s practices unlawful. Alexander explains, “The court accepted the statistical evidence as valid but insisted that evidence of conscious, racial bias in McCleskey’s individual case was necessary to prove unlawful discrimination” (110). In other words, even if the prosecutors applied the death penalties in clearly racist patterns, it cannot be used as evidence of racism unless someone explicitly used race as part of the reasoning. And in today’s U.S. society, who is going to sentence someone and– for example– include a racial slur? What’s more, the McCleskey case evidence was so strong, it questioned the validity of the entire criminal justice system, to the point that the Supreme Court wrote, “Taken to its logical conclusion, [Warren McCleskey’s claim] throws into serious question the principles that underlie our criminal justice system… [I]f we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty” (Alexander, 111). The Court openly worries about claims of bias would weaken the criminal justice system. Their ruling that implicit bias could not be used as evidence of racism then could be read as an example of the corrupted system trying to save itself.

Finally, will we acknowledge and critique that the Supreme Court has essentially legalized the use of race-based discrimination? The “Supreme Court has indicated that in policing, race can be used as a factor in discretionary decision making. In United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, the Court concluded it was permissible under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for the police to use race as a factor in making decisions about which motorists to stop and search” (Alexander, 131).

These disgusting facts keep coming in The New Jim Crow, and I deeply hope these points are brought up more often in the national conversation. While recent events are about the murders of individual men, it is well-researched that racist policies enable and exacerbate these interpersonal encounters with police. Sometimes in our hashtags and comments, we do not raise just exactly how deeply rotten is our criminal justice system (and government). When the President invites people for meetings about police brutality, are government officials able to admit to this level of wrong-doing? I believe we need these conversations, and I hope some emotional vulnerability and rigorous analysis is happening from all parties.

That said, we are emotional beings and need to bring our honest and vulnerable selves  to see and to be seen by others. We need support to to do so, in personal ways and in systemic ways. I believe we must engage as a country in a truth and reconciliation process to begin to heal wounds and have space to continue systemic changes. National discussions would lead to a washing of deep wounds and hopefully bring us to some shared understandings. Without heart and historical clarity, any progress made in one generation will be maimed and contorted by the following. I hope we can move towards this as part of the work to end police brutality and the larger efforts for true justice.

There is a deep need to look at ourselves. We need cold, hard objective facts. We need warm, tender, difficult feelings. We need to look at ourselves honestly to create a healthy and just society and planet for ourselves and our loved ones. Finally, because we need uplifting and spirit and the intangible, I want to end by sharing this an amazing video from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater doing their thing with Beyonce and Kendrick as a soundtrack: Alvin Ailey “Freedom” Chereography.

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Filed under blacks, essays, race, violence