Near the temple chamber to my heart, I wrote a list of facts and then a list of plums. One spoke, as if in conversation, with the other.
1. First, a calf reached for my hand. I took its trunk as if it were my own. The mother blared and charged at once in my direction.
2. Do not ask too many questions. Do not push for details, colors, time. Your mother owns one photograph that proves she was a refugee. Do not include it in your manuscript of insurrection. Look as closely as you can. Zoom in, much closer still. Your mother stares out from the photograph, two hard black marble eyes and cheekbones that could cut through stone. Betray her trust. Include the photo anyway, those eyes and cheekbones that could cut through time. Betray what you once knew of trust. Somewhere nearby, a mother eats the body of her child. Somewhere nearby, a child shields the body of her mother. No, don’t shoot. Your mother asks if you can write it down, the truth, that is, two dark brown rings of ash. You nod. She nods. Okay, so write this down, my child. Nod, again, and close your eyes to write, a sea of ash, then count from one to three, then listen as the woman speaks with little interruption.
Do not push for details, pseudonyms for flowers, any span of weeks or months it took for her to either land upon or leave, eventually, that island near Malaysia. Hear yourself ask questions, anyway: Who took this photograph and why? How did you get a copy, too? What memories insist upon deflection? But did you cry? What were you forced to do? Mama, who am I now to you?
Do not ask about your mother’s memories inside the refugee camp. Many years ago, she told you, once, she crawled out of the sea, half-skeleton and rags. Do not ask for clarifying notes about the salt, the blood, or feces caked over her skin. It caked the whole boat, too, she claims. But anyway, she grins and looks away, her face shifting, again, to three or four or five disjointed parts. It does not matter, anymore, the year. It never does. Mama must live. You hear her say. You answer: yes, Mama, you do.
3. David Duncan, the American photojournalist known for taking wartime photographs in Vietnam, once challenged the U.S. government’s intentions in my mother’s country. When he stood before the Veterans Memorial in 1992, he also commented: The Wall is a sad and intimate place. And then: But remembering does not come easily to Americans. Maybe this is why the Wall is particularly painful for us, because it stands for something we want to forget.
David Duncan died in 2018 at the age of 102, peacefully, in the French city of Grasse, perfume capital of the world. On my mother’s birthday.
Lately, I’ve been overwhelmed by the sadness and the intimacy of a space insisting on deflection within this country’s landscape, punctuated by a scent that has no other name outside of death. In Nogales, Mexico, about a month after the body of Duncan was laid to rest, I saw another Wall in passing; this time, sections of a border wall that cleaved between two cities and two countries, passing through a desert holding multitudes of histories. It towered eighteen feet and rippled like an awful varicose vein right beneath the skin of rusted steel through parking lots and quiet neighborhoods and yards, and here, at the U.S.-Mexico border, I couldn’t tell exactly what this version of a Wall was trying to forget.
4. Staying Vietnamese, the scholar Karin Aguilar-San Juan writes in Little Saigons, her 2009 book, requires a strategic and purposeful encounter not only with race and racialization, but also with the past.
I thought about this act of staying when I called my mother on the first day of July, the day I travelled from Tucson—carrying in my car a bag of books and a tiny stuffed plush I’ve named Panda—toward this country’s southern border. Why? My mother asked. I heard the fear sparking beneath her voice. I answered: Because, mama, I need to see and write about what’s happening. Why? She asked again. Because, mama, this is our history, too. I felt myself soften to jelly, taking care with every word. But, why! She shouted through the phone. I didn’t know what else to say.
My childhood was filled with all my mother’s stories of escape, which were both unpredictable and permanently charred into the landscape of my brain. Beneath all this, she’d always seem to push me forward and then backward with that single one-word question: Why? Why think beyond what we can see before us as a fact? Why dream? Or why speak of the past? She’d wield most of these why’s like accusations of betrayal stitched across my corneas, the child noticing the signs her mother had forgotten, worst of all, the child who then dares to write some of it down.
In Nogales, though, a wall of migrant faces stood resilient against the border’s charge against them. I’d write that summer, after David Duncan laid to rest beneath a field of lavender. I’d think about what memories still sought asylum with the words my mother never said. Her portrait at the refugee camp pushed me why, why, why, I needed to remember, too, and furthermore, why I always felt the pull to search for her between the cracks of other borders and their current points of entry, but I did not know, rather, I did not have the language yet to tell her what I meant when I said that this was our own history, and what we made of it reflects upon our past as it informs the present.
The man: ¿Cuántos días en el mar?
The woman: Tres semanas.
The man: ¿Y tu familia?
The woman: Mi madre adoptiva murió en el barco.
The man: ¿Y tu verdadera familia?
The woman: Me dijeron que había perdido a mi familia hacía mucho.
—Hòn vọng phu (1991)
I can’t speak Vietnamese or Spanish, but I’m trying to learn. Through watching films, I find the subtitles sometimes carry me along. For example, Hòn vọng phu was a relatively unknown short film by Trần Anh Hùng in 1991. The title was translated to La pierre de l’attente upon its DVD release in France eight years later, and I watch a clip of it on The YouTube tonight at my kitchen table in Tucson.
The clip is short, and someone’s added Spanish subtitles. I stop after each line to transcribe its text into Google Translate, hoping somehow to learn both languages at once, that of belonging to my mother and that of living, here, so close to what Gloria E. Anzaldúa once called gashing a hole under the border fence in Borderlands/La Frontera.
In Hòn vọng phu, the man eventually inquires if the woman speaks French. The woman, in response, lowers her eyes. To this, the man explains in Vietnamese, translated in the subtitle: Para abandonar este campo, es necesario aprenderlo. To leave this camp, it is necessary to learn it. In other words, he says to earn our freedom, we must learn the language of the people who once killed our people. Here, I learn that crossing through the ocean and the desert aren’t so different after all.
6. In Voices of Vietnamese Boat People, Binh Le (pseudonym) writes: You must be wondering what happened to my mother.
7. Ask about the romance. Ask if people fell in love despite the imminence of violent death. And of her nights at camp, listen as your mother answers. So many noises in the dark. She giggles. Ask another question: Mama, how did you know that it was love? She answers. Passage of time, simple as that. Then desire less. Desire more. Ask if people could betray the ones they loved in spite all imminence of noises in the dark.
¿Y tu familia?
¿Y tu verdadera familia?
Ask about the truth. Then ask, again, about the romance. Know that one might cancel out the other. Do not ask any more questions. Count backwards, three to one. Desire more. Desire less. And of your family? You are my family. She answers. Know that one might cancel out the other. Ask another question: Who am I to you now, mama? Watch your mother blink. The truth. Who are you now? Three weeks at sea.
Washington D.C., July: I woke to overcast gray skies. My tiny Panda spent the night outside behind the marble neck of Lincoln’s statue. It was difficult to understand, but I could sense somehow he needed time alone. The day before arriving to our nation’s capital, we heard the song “When Doves Cry” by Prince on the radio. My tiny Panda struck a curious pose. He held it for an hour. Then a single tear rolled down the left side of his tiny face.
Later, standing in the front lawn of the White House, my tiny Panda held a single dried legume. A light rain merged with time, pulling us, next, both in and out our grip of space. The catacombs of hell opened before our feet, below the ground. I swallowed and then fell right through the temple chamber to my heart.