In 2017 while in Hanoi, I wrote this poem in English about my grandmother. It remained in draft version as I worked on the translation, feeling inadequate and lost. During this month of Black April and remembrance, I remember them both by finally letting it go.
To you Grandmother,
Love your bạn, em, chị, cháu [friend, younger sister, older sister, granddaughter]:
Bà đâu rồi, cháu siêu nhớ bà.
Bà có nhớ cháu của bà không?
[Where are you grandmother? Granddaughter painfully misses you so.
Does grandmother remember her granddaughter?]
And you respond,
Hôm nay tôi mệt quá. Thôi đi về đi, tôi có nhiều việc làm.
[Today I am so tired. Sigh, go home. I’m really busy.]
Today you are tôi and I the distant stranger.
By midday you transform to chị and I em. You nurture with sisterly tenderness and wonder why I keep asking you to walk with me, eat with me, and answer questions you find obvious and exhausting.
Chị no rồi, em ăn trước đi. Ngon lắm em, ăn giỏi đi.
[Older sister is full, go ahead and eat first younger sister. It’s very delicious, eat well.]
You awaken from a nap and we switch places. You clench your fingers against your body and stubbornly shut your eyes to the world spiraling around you. Không, you utter with a force of firm defiance. The sound falls like a heavy weight between us. A hollow breath and you hesitantly blink open your eyes in a frantic search for something or someone. Your eyes slip past mine.
Em mệt, chị để em nghỉ. Em không cần gì, kệ mặc em đi.
[Younger sister is so tired, let me sleep already. I don’t need anything, leave me alone. ]
Somewhere out of time and place, you find what you have been searching for. In one sweeping inhale, you proclaim the devotional melody, “Cầu xin Chúa Thánh Thần.” Each sound a ritual invocation spanning generations, moral universes, and the before/afterlife.
- Cầu: You fall into the deep resonance of ‘pray.’
- Chúa Thánh Thần: A rising, outstretched yearning where your voice cracks at ‘Holy Spirit.’
We chant together, sing our Ave Maria’s, and you remind your granddaughter the power of faith and prayer.
Cháu nhớ mỗi ngày phải cầu nguyện và giữ lòng tin.
[Granddaughter, remember to pray each day and hold onto your faith.]
A flicker of familiarity.
Bạn, em, chị, cháu. We sleep and wake up to a new day.
A whispered profession to only you:
Bà bị lẫn nhưng cháu không bao giờ
- lẫn đường về vì bà dạy cháu cẩn thận đi theo bà
- lẫn lộn những kinh và bài hát đọc hàng ngày. Trước khi ăn, ngủ, khi lo sợ, khi đau buồn, khi thất vọng.
For much of my life I had dreamt of one day writing down my family’s refugee narrative. I had envisioned a beautiful photo, audio, and essay project that would do justice to their story. But I never quite got there.
I would begin to write, transcribe her words, and then weep. Putting into words her refugee story somehow made it real. It was not just a distant tale of heroism, escape, and hope. It was my mother, my family, me, who lived this reality.
Currently: I am re-examining my relationship to my body–that forgotten instrument, a vehicle of my consciousness, an extension of self, my best friend and foe.
Command + A step here.
Control + Zipper. No, zebra. A zigging and zagging and surrender to the zephyr on my cheek.
Option + Alt you. You hilarious tease of forgotten functions.
Mavis Beacon, did you say something?
I can’t hear you between the patterned pecks of perfect precision.
Move/Be/Do Here, there. now. Everywhere. Nowhere.
A song in my stomach, twisted into computerized contortions
A wellspring of movement, made mistakenly malicious.
The way you make me feel, I make me feel, I make me me.
Seeps out, secretly through the meticulous cracks of caked fears.
A nod. Then two.
A twitch of the finger
tips of the toes bounce in the tight space between.
>>> spam = ‘A mischievous literary litany’
A sly smile, a knowing glance
to the Miss Step, who was always there,
Shibuya, Tokyo 2018
Written to the rhythm of Dirty Computer, Janelle Monae.
I never learned the word ‘mental health’ in English (my language of primary expression) until my 20’s. It took nearly another decade until I actually began to understand what that even meant. I am still learning this word in Vietnamese (my language of communication with my parents).
However, language is more than the sum of vocabulary words. Language is context, subtle unspoken gestures, symbolic actions and its mis/interpretations. Language is when my mom made me canh khổ qua (bittermelon soup, my favorite) after I mumbled through tears that I needed to get mental health support.
I am sharing with you meaningful news of my project “Mẹ [Mom], Translated,” because you have helped to contribute to its fruition in some way shape or form–from teaching me about Vietnamese history, language, and Asian American identity to empowering my artistic voice to write, express, and share my work.
“Mẹ [Mom], Translated” is a mixed-media art project on love, language, memory and everything lost in translation. Inspired by the work of Viet Thanh Nguyen, I made this project intentionally not for the dominant audience. Rather, I sought to dwell on the act of translation — that universal human yearning to understand and be understood. Vietnamese words in the pieces are not always translated to English because I wanted to convey the complexity of comprehension/miscomprehension between different languages, generations, and also through the nostalgic and bittersweet filters of memory.However, I explain the concepts through poetic voice and through visual symbols, actions, and subtle gestures.