Cover Art & Design by Kenji Liu ÂŠ April 15, 2010 by Kartika Review
Kartika Review publishes literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction that endeavor to expand and enhance the mainstream perception of Asian American creative writing. The journal also publishes book reviews, literary criticism, author interviews, and artwork, turning its focus on works relevant to the Asian Diaspora or authored by individuals of Asian descent.
KARTIKA PRESS San Francisco, California
“Picnic at a Hanging Rock”
Suejin Jo, 2009 Oil on Canvas, 54” x 40”
Elmaz Abinader ▪ Peter Bacho ▪ Alexander Chee ▪ Justin Chin ▪ Tess Gerritsen ▪ Amanda Griffith ▪ Michael S. Janairo ▪ Porochista Khakpour ▪ Don Lee ▪ Min Jin Lee ▪ Eugenia Leigh ▪ Yiyun Li ▪ Ed Lin ▪ Peter Tieryas Liu ▪ Victor Luo ▪ Tasha Matsumoto ▪ David Mura ▪ Thai Le Nguyen ▪ J.A. Pak ▪ Barbara Jane Reyes ▪ Shawna Yang Ryan ▪ Josh Stenberg ▪ Lac Su ▪ Aimee Suzara ▪ Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai ▪ Thrity Umrigar ▪ Sung J. Woo ▪ Vuong Quoc Vu ▪ Bryan Thao Worra
MISSION STATEMENT Kartika Review serves the Asian American community and those involved with Diasporic Asian-inspired literature. We scout for compelling Asian American creative writing and artwork to present to the public at large. Our editors actively solicit contributions from established virtuosos in our community in hopes their works here will inspire the next generation of virtuosos. We also showcase emerging writers and artists we foresee to be the future powerhouses of their craft. Ultimately, Kartika strives to create a literary forum that caters to and celebrates the wordsmiths of the Asian Diaspora.
TABLE OF CONTENTS ISSUE 07 editor’s note Kenji Liu
fiction J.A. Pak
The Gratitude of Bones
Peter Tieryas Liu
Searching for Normalcy
Vuong Quoc Vu
Cha Tôi Ngủ: My Father Sleeps
Between Heaven and the Bedroom
Barbara Jane Reyes
One Question, Several Answers
We, too, made America
Amanda Griffith Thai Le Nguyen
Michael S. Janairo
Author of Snakes Can’t Run, This Is A Bust, and Waylaid
author interview Ed Lin
MEDITATIONS ON HOME
Christine Lee Zilka Jennifer Derilo
Author of Children of the Roojme, a Family's Journey from Lebanon and In The Country of My Dreams...
Author of Entrys, Cebu, and Dark Blue Suit, among others
Author of Edinburgh and The
Queen of the Night Justin Chin
Author of Gutted, Harmless Medicine and Bite Hard
Author of over 20 books, 117 including The Keepsake, The Bone Garden, and The Mephisto Club
Author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects
Author of Wrack and Ruin, Country of Origin, and Yellow
Min Jin Lee
Author of Free Food for Millionaires
Author of The Vagrants and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Author of Snakes Canâ€™t Run, This Is A Bust, and Waylaid
Author of Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity
Shawna Yang Ryan
Author of Water Ghosts
Author of I Love Yous Are for White People
Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai
Author of Thought Crimes and Inside Outside Outside Inside
Author of The Weight of Heaven, If Today Be Sweet, and The Space Between Us, among others.
Sung J. Woo
Author of Everything Asian
Bryan Thao Worra
Author of Barrow, Winter Ink, and On The Other Side Of The Eye, among others.
“Pontchartrain” Suejin Jo, 2005 Oil dry pigment on canvas, 39" x 39"
“Where Rivers Meet”
Suejin Jo, 2003 Oil dry pigment on canvas, 60" x 44"
Suejin Jo My paintings are the product of intuitive navigation between the two worlds of my life; understated delicate lines of the Asian sensibility and assertive corporeal Western one.
Suejin Jo, 2009 Oil dry pigment on canvas, 12" x 12"
I start with the lines. I let the first layer of paint seep under the lines organically. Then I build the muscles and the skin with oil and dry pigment. With a palette knife I knead the dry pigment onto wet oil paint at various drying stages. This is the process of "River of No Return." There is no room for afterthought.
Suejin Jo, Korean-born abstract painter based in New York, studied with Stamos and Vytlacil at the Art Students League. She paints with unique medium of oil and dry pigment which gives a picture surface much like old fresco painting. Helen Harrison of The New York Times described her painting as having “the character of an ancient wall painting”. She exhibited widely in and around New York and in Korea. Her most recent solo show was at the Broome Street Gallery as a result of winning Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Solo Exhibition Award 2008, sponsored by the New York Artists Equity Association. Her work is in many private and public collections including Library of Congress, Chase Manhattan Bank, General Instrument Company, Embassy of San Marino, Sogang University, Ahl Foundation, and Korea Exchange Bank. Her paintings are currently displayed in the US Embassies in two countries, East Timor and Mexico.
EDITOR’S NOTE KENJI LIU As a child, I'd often max out my library card and bring home dozens of books. Curled up in the sun on my parents' old couch, I devoured stacks of sci-fi novels in long sittings. As an adult I have less time, but I still use writing to examine my world and imagine new ones. I think good creative writing sparks a partnership with the reader because the imagination is evoked. This is an active relationship rather than the more passive one that television provides. To riff off of Paolo Freire, writing can help you examine the limits and possibilities of your life, and by extension society. Writing by Asian Americans has often struggled for readership and distribution. We have often had to start our own presses, create alternative media and promote our work at the grassroots. Aside from a few notable exceptions, this is still the case. Additionally, readership isn't guaranteed. Up until a couple years ago, literary reading was on an alarming decline in the US, especially among young people. (Unfortunately, these studies did not include Asians.) We need to cultivate future readers. Towards this it's with great pleasure that I debut as Poetry Editor at Kartika Review with a wonderful selection of contributions in this issue. Although the second half of this issue is specifically themed around “home,” in my mind this threads through the first section too – home as physical, imagined, alienated, changing, gone, or pieced together. For fiction, J. A. Pak writes of a grandmother who earns and loses a chance at true happiness. Peter Tieryas Liu's characters wander a city seeking lasting human connections with uncertain results. In Victor Luo's small town, a sakura tree brings a little magic into a young student's life as he or she considers the possibility of a mediocre life.
In poetry, Vuong Quoc Vu draws us into the dream of an aging father haunted by the past. The tenderness and precariousness of a working-class family is depicted in Eugenia Leigh's poem about a mother's love for her small daughters. Barbara Jane Reyes asks a simple question about a father's home, unearthing numerous fragments. Aimee Suzara evokes Langston Hughes while firmly avowing the place of Filipinos in US history. In creative non-fiction, Amanda Griffith and Thai Le Nguyen show us the sweet bond between a young girl and her dog. Ancestry, citizenship and social class mingle provocatively in Michael Janairo's evolving relationship with the Philippines. Two lives arc toward each other and then apart in Tasha Matsumoto's remembrance of her relationship with her grandmother. Lastly, Josh Stenberg struggles with his assumptions as he recounts a late-night encounter with a migrant shopkeeper in Shanghai. I urge you to read these wonderful pieces actively, teasing out the themes, complexities and contradictions. Curl up in the sun somewhere with your laptop, e-reader, print out or actual paper book. See what kinds of worlds you find yourself in. Welcome to our seventh issue! -- Kenji Liu, Poetry Editor
“Return of Echo”
Suejin Jo, 2009 Oil dry pigment on canvas, 36" x 42"
THE GRATITUDE OF BONES J.A. PAK My maternal grandparents once owned a piece of land deep in the countryside. A couple of acres big enough to farm, surrounded by green hills and mountains. One day, my grandmother was digging in one of the fields when she uncovered a cache of bones. Human bones. This was a few years after the war and it wasn’t unusual to stumble across bones struggling out of shallow graves. During the war, no one had had time to observe proper burial rites. So many people had died, the country in an uproar, people fleeing this way and that as they themselves tried to keep alive. During war, as in any terrible time of upheaval, burials are merely quick words and a scattering of dirt, if the dead are lucky. After all, the rites of death mimic the rites of life. Only when wars end and people once again find places to live and are granted the time to dream do they begin to preoccupy themselves with the comfort of the dead. My grandmother sighed when she realized she’d dug up the cache of bones. How unlucky to disturb the dead, she thought. Supporting herself with her garden fork, she bent down and examined the sudden unearthing of misery. The bones were long and fine, probably the bones of a woman, she thought, a woman unusually tall. Poor daughter, poor wife, poor mother. Taking pity, my grandmother gathered the bones and reburied them high up in the hills where they’d be safe from further disturbances. The reburial took a great deal of time and it was now near sunset. My grandmother said a quick prayer, wishing the dead peace, and hurried home. There was still so much to do before bedtime. That night, as always, she went to bed exhausted. And then, when it was almost morning, before the sun had begun to rise, my grandmother received a second shock. She woke with a start to find a tall figure standing in her bedroom. My grandmother, thinking it was a burglar, was outraged. Jumping up, she screamed “Hey! You! Who do you think you are, walking into someone’s house like this! Get out!” 12
In spite of my grandmother’s hostile exhortation, the figure did not move but remained still and calm. My grandmother was now only about two feet away from the intruder and she was surprised by what she saw: the intruder was a woman, an unusually tall, regal woman dressed in fine clothing. Quite unexpectedly, the woman began to bow, and she said to my grandmother: “I’ve come to thank you and to tell you that for as long as you live on this land, you will be happy.” Before my grandmother could reply, the woman disappeared into the darkness. Understandably shaken, my grandmother lit a gas lamp and walked out into the courtyard. Where had the woman gone, she wondered? And how had she gotten into the house? She decided to check the large front gate, which sealed the house and courtyard from all intruders; she was certain that she had locked the gate before she’d gone to bed. Even deep in the countryside, it was unsafe to leave your house so vulnerable as to leave the front gate unlocked. But the gate was securely locked. No human being could have gotten into the house. No human being. That was when my grandmother knew she’d been visited by a ghost. The ghost of the bones she’d found. And the ghost had brought my grandmother a most wondrous gift: “For as along as you live on this land, you will be happy.” The next morning, in time for breakfast, my grandfather finally came home after several days of carousing. Excited, my grandmother told my grandfather what had happened, how she had found the bones, how she had buried the bones high up in the green and peaceful hills, how the bones, in gratitude, had come to her in the middle of the night and had sown happiness into their land. My grandfather scoffed. It’d just been a dream, he said dismissively, a dream of a stupid and silly woman: “Now leave me in peace and let me eat!” Sadly, a few years later, my grandfather, in need of some quick cash, sold the land, thereby throwing away all that fertile
happiness, as he did with so much else. Heâ€™d never been much of a farmer.
J.A. Pak's work has appeared in a variety of publications, from Everyday Genius to Art/Life, UpRightDown to VerbSap. More can be seen at www.ja-pak.com.
SEARCHING FOR NORMALCY PETER TIERYAS LIU Dedicated to Neej Gore I. My obsession was listening to other people’s phone calls. A single voice dwelling in a park on a swing, an auburn morning fading into the purple oblivion of pollution. I peeled away my sensations, musing about the way skin withered off, silicon plastics embedded in my forehead like nails torn through my brows in a painful masquerade. I spent my mornings thinking about all the things that would never be, life being that series of conversations over coffee and coke and phone booths. Past subway rails and empty picnic tables and torn school books. All the other stuff was filler, never the fulfillment of one’s ravenous lust that consumed like a Neanderthal run amok. I stood and listened to people screaming into their cell phones, lonely whispers outside phone booths, pressing my ear against a glass box or waiting in line for unwanted calls. I didn’t try to remember names, a john or a jake or a jenny or a jane. Heard a girlfriend asking a boyfriend why he no longer loved her and a boyfriend asking a girlfriend why she no longer loved him. I traveled from street to street, waiting next to obsolescent phone booths, collecting what people said like a connoisseur of eclectic conversations. It all began with moments. There was a day I woke up late cause I’d received a phone call telling me an old friend had passed away. My wife of four years was sleeping in a separate room. In the morning, I slept through the alarm, eventually got up and showered. The living room sofa had been neatly set up. Even though my wife had been out of a job for a year, she was gone. There was a phone call. I picked up expecting my boss. Someone asked for my wife. “She’s not here. Who’s this?” He remained silent. Then hung up.
Later, during dinner, I remembered a time as a teenager when I’d gone to a friend’s house. As her parents ate, they didn’t say a single word. The mother served the food, the father read the newspaper. It was an act that played out every night, same time, same place without variance. I swore I would never be like them. But here I was, my wife reading some obscure cookbook, me, mute. When we’d met, we were like two sailboats in a fleet of ocean liners, our sails torn asunder, anchored together by the stratifying mishaps of ritualized tedium. Routine was the breeze that drove us forward, cynicism tethering our hulls together. Even after thousands of conversations, I was struck by how little we actually knew each other. The poverty of dialogue and the inability of our words to sate either of our appetites for companionship left us famished and lonely. It was hard for me to filter through the present coldness to one that had once smiled, lit up at the sight of me. Her expression when we made love or chatted about ancient history and music till four in the morning, damning fatigue and exhaustion. The following day, I went on a business trip for three days. When I came home, there was a note that read ‘good bye.’ I never spoke to her again. I tried to lose myself in work. As a marketing guy, I dealt with people everyday, selling them things they didn’t want or need. I’d tell them the exact same lines in the exact same way with the exact same pose and the exact same smile. People would lie to me and we both knew they were lying but it was okay. It was all within the rules, the boundaries of pleasant deception. One day, while wandering through the city, a phone began ringing. I blinked, saw it was a payphone. Not sure who it was for, I picked up. “I’m gonna rape your fucking ass and cut off your legs and tie you up and bitch fuck you all day,” a coarse female voice said to me. I stared blankly, shifting awkwardly. “Excuse me... Do you know, this is a public payphone?” “Of course I do you fuck. You think I don’t know that?” 16
“But-but-you don’t know me...” “I’m watching you right now.” I hung up and immediately left. For two days, I gave into all my conspiratorial paranoia and isolated myself, refusing to pick up the phone or step outside. Only when it was over did I realize something- I felt alive. And it began. I noticed there were moments when a person thought nobody else was around and they were completely alone on the phone- a few minutes, thirty seconds, an hour- I heard something in their voice. Honey, I’m going to be home a little later- no, don’t wait for me. The inflection, the subtle drop, the quivering in the throat, the unconscious hair sweep. Meaning under meaning, watching from afar, confirming something even if it was a vulgar reality, bare and viciously raw, unpolished, unprepared, unpresuming. It was pure in an adulterated way. I began with small steps. Sometimes, people would dial the wrong number and reach me at home. Instead of hanging up, I asked questions, encouraged them to talk. And they would start telling me things about their life. Others would hang up. But many wouldn’t, instead, doing something I’d never understood. Like an age of confession. Obsessed with one’s own drama. Describing things miniscule as grand. One’s self-absorbed pain being the most traumatic, a stranger to another. They never asked me any questions. It was almost like I wasn’t there, just a broken mirror hanging invisibly in front of them. Watching people, trying to partake in their phonecalls. I wanted to know if they knew what I did. I wanted to hear the truth in their voices. At work, I couldn’t focus anymore. I’d be given assignments to contact this person or that, and then I’d hear them talk in the same jovial bonhomie that meant nothing. What was the point of talking if everyone said the same thing but knew it meant nothing? So, I stopped speaking. People would talk to me and I wouldn’t answer them. They’d be confused, upset. They’d ask if I was sick, ask me to respond, a desperation in their tone. Sometimes, I could hear a residue of truth, a trace that reminded me they were real. But most times, it was only frustration and false morality. It wasn’t long 17
before I left my job. Left my home. Left my career. My family. I grew tired of not hearing them. II. I was on a long street with cars, some with headlights on even though it was day. Business suits and suitcases blended into the massive billboards selling trends and beliefs, acolytes and disciples of the corporate church that gave you something to live and die for. Standing next to the phone booth, I was eating a piece of a bagel someone threw away. A man in a blue business suit furtively entered the booth. He had half a mustache, curled oily hair, a suave veneer in his aquiline face that meandered between confidence and fear. He didn’t close the door, just took out a bunch of quarters and dialed random numbers. I could hear voices on the other side asking, hello? Hello? HELLO???? He didn’t answer, just stood there, listening. He repeated this about forty times. Men, women, children. I could hear them quizzically wondering who it was. Some cursed. Others hung up, terrified by the silence. When he used up all his coins, he came out, ready to leave. I approached. “What do you want?” he demanded. “What were you just doing?” I demanded back. “What is it to you?” “I just saw what you did.” “And?” he asks. I stared at him without saying anything. He laughed amusedly. “Walk with me through the park.”
III. “It’s silence I want to hear,” he suddenly said. “That single instance where a person is bare and pure and doesn’t know how to feel. The silence that follows. That’s all.” IV. “What do you get out of this?” he wondered. “What do you mean?” I asked. “I can tell that wasn’t the first time you’ve listened in on a conversation.” “I don’t really want to talk about it,” I replied. “Why not?” “Words can cheapen an experience,” I said, “misrepresent a truth, especially when you try to describe it exactly.” He laughed. As we walked along, I asked him about himself- why he started doing what he did. He answered, “I got tired of losing things because I wanted them so badly.” “I don’t understand.” “You’ve never lost anything?” “What’d you lose?” He hardened his eyes. Then said, “They say that people only have a few motivations for anything they do. You think people ever do anything without any reason?” “Love, hate, jealousy, what real reason is there for any of it?” “The disease is existence,” he said. 19
“What?” He grinned. “I’ve never thought nature beautiful. I always thought people made up the word beautiful just so they can look at something forever. What if they discarded the words beautiful and ugly? Would any concept of physical judgment disappear?” “No,” I answered. “Then words don’t really mean anything.” “Why?” “Because they’re just symbols for what we really mean,” he said. “Symbols are important because they give things meaning when they normally wouldn’t have sense of anything,” I said. “Maybe,” he replied. “Let me tell you a story. I once met this woman by random chance. We were both looking for champagne in the supermarket. She’d just finished graduate school and wanted to celebrate. We exchanged awkward laughter, and I asked her with who she was celebrating. She frowned. No one. I remember she was wearing a black frock and a pair of jeans. Her hair was short, cut off right above her shoulders- and her eyes- they were like embers doused in a field of honey. Her skin was really pale and touching her was like running my fingers through a burning desert. You know in Morocco during WWII, the soldiers would heat up eggs on their tanks cause the armor plates got so hot. They’d sizzle sunny side up or scramble it with a canteen but you never used your gun cause you didn’t want gunpowder mixed in with your eggs. A little spark and everything would go boom. That was her. I wanted that moment so badly. She was sad to be alone. I insisted I would do something for her if no one else would. She pretended to be shy, refused initially, but I broke through all the barriers. Back at her apartment, she told me how she’d been studying hard for the last few years. After a few drinks, we made love on her bed. I know most people like to sleep right after sex, but I can’t. I have a hard time with anyone next 20
to me. She was happy cause she thought I wanted to talk. This was her most intimate of moments. She told me about her exhusband, how they’d been together for three years. One night, she came home and found him with another woman. He didn’t apologize even though she would have forgiven him. Instead, he cut off contact and refused to speak to her again. “It was dark but I could feel her. I could feel all those lost moments, regret, pain, innocence shattered. She’d lost something pure. And I don’t mean her virginity. A man can fall in love just as easily in the span of a second as he can in ten years. She continued talking about her ex, describing what a scumbag he was, how he went from girl to girl. All I could think about was her wasted love. She’d be suspicious, reluctant of me after a while. We’d probably have a scene a few weeks into the relationship, she’d ask for space and time, demand that I prove myself trustworthy. It was already written. I didn’t want to play my part. So when she fell asleep, I left and never looked back. Truth is, if she had shut up, I would have loved her. But in this case, as in most cases, the truth wasn’t worth knowing.” “But the truth is what makes her interesting.” “What do you mean?” “I love people for their scars,” I replied. “No scars and they’re a bore.” “Self-induced scars are signs of stupidity.” “Then I’d be the stupidest man alive.” He laughed. “It’s curious how normalcy seems so abnormal when surrounded by abnormalities.” “Then it’s normalcy you’re searching for?” “Or the lack thereof,” he replied. We conversed for a few more minutes. He excused himself to go use the restroom. An hour later, I realized he wasn’t returning and was filled with a pang of regret. I wished I could have at least said farewell. 21
V. As a nine-year old boy infatuated with imagined histories and treasure coves of lost fortunes, there was no moment more exciting than when my mother brought home twelve boxes filled with old telephones. Her younger brother, my uncle, died in a motorcycle accident and left them to her in his will. We set them up all over the apartment, oblong ones, and coldly metallic ones. There were phones I thought carved from dead dinosaur bones, others from ancient Egyptian ceramics buried with resurrected pharaohs. There were cords made from the leather of old British armor sets and hides from sharks that struggled violently with fishermen for weeks. Many of the cases had been constructed from frozen plastic secretly harvested from the moon. It was a laboratory for the senses, all the phones hooked up so that one ring would result in a chaotic opera of discordant ringtones vying for domination. I’d run to pick up, curious who it was. I’d hope for a sword swallower, a piano virtuoso with cerebral palsy playing with her tongue, an eco-terrorist that poured strawberry ice cream inside fuselages. Instead, it was almost always, “Is your mom home dear? This is JC Penny,” or some anti-climactic bore of a voice wanting to talk about bills and ‘special offers.’ My adulthood would be different. I’d meet a million different people, holding conversation parties with the entire world. My ear would be a permeable vessel for the turbulence of their thoughts, a balloon brimming with the hydrogen of inspiration and the volatility of revolutionary musings. We’d chat about a world without smell or a metropolis where people only spoke in musical chords. We could plan a city made entirely of vegetables, Carrot Lake, the Celery Towers, Radish Hall. Ardor had a thousand permutations and we’d discuss the ramifications of dissecting each. But to my disappointment, no one ever really wanted to talk about anything except their problems. That’s when they wanted to talk. At the end of our relationship, I couldn’t get my wife to say anything no matter how hard I tried. I called her from all over the world and all that ensued was a rote, automated conversation that could have lasted one minute as easily as three thousand. I wondered how many passionless ‘I love you’s,’ had been carried across the transatlantic cables, how much lusterless joy and rueless 22
savagery that blended apathy with hatred and bliss. My words felt like a dulled rifle blowing holes into my kidney until my spleen was overfilled with the gangrene of suppressed bitterness and verbal martyrdom. Even my hatred felt obtuse over the phone. Many had their destiny invisibly carved by phones, ones with the musty smell of disuse and dirt, or the lean fragrance of congealed honey and ketchup stains. I knew a man who killed himself cause his girlfriend left him, not realizing she would call him eight minutes after his suicide, confessing her mistake and expressing her desire to return. One woman stopped to take a wrong phone call for 12.33 seconds. On her way to work, the delay caused her to run a yellow light as it turned red, resulting in the car on the other side ramming her from the left. I knew of an uncle who could never forgive himself for missing his wife’s phone calls as she lay dying in a hospital because he’d turned the ringer off to take a nap. I grew up surrounded by his phones. VI. I often strolled through the park alone. This particular morning, I noticed a young woman playing chess by herself. She had light blonde hair that undulated into a field of cherry freckles scattered across her dapper cheeks. Thick glasses launched daintily in front of her small nose and she had wispy lips to offset her vanishing chin. She possessed an airy posture as though she were floating, continually swaying her body from side to side, gripping her seat so that she wouldn’t fly off. I sat across from her and asked if I could join her. She nodded her head without expression. I noticed she was several moves into her game, playing herself. “Who’s winning?” She didn’t answer, absorbed into making her moves. I stared as she moved her pieces, retreating or defending appropriately. The rook took bishop; pawn, the knight. After a few moves, the game was over. She set up and started again. 23
Some time passed before a man came by. “Excuse me, what are you doing?” he asked. “I was hoping to get a game of chess.” “And?” “She hasn’t really said anything to me.. I’m sorry- is she your-” I hung on the ‘your.’ He dutifully completed it for me. “My patient. She’s deaf and mute… I think it’d be best if you leave now,” he said. “Does she come here every day to play chess?” “Sir.” “Maybe she wants some competition.” “She’s been doing this every day of her life for the last ten years. I don’t think she wants any company.” I looked at her. Then got up. She was still absorbed into her chess game. As far as she was concerned, I was never even there. VII. But I couldn’t just walk away. VIII. She wasn’t there the next day, or the one after. But she was there on the third day. No one was around and I sat across from her. She said nothing, kept on playing. I thought about the conversations I’d heard earlier that day. A couple of guys asked some friends out to play croquet on donkeys. A young lady dressed in expensive clothes called in sick as her male friend waited outside the booth. A teenager was telling someone about a problem.
“I’m obsessed. I can’t stop drinking shampoo and cologne. I get so caught up with the idea of violating and destroying all the disgusting smells inside me. It’s like taking my hand, sticking it down my throat and ripping out my larynx and splattering it all over the floor cause my shoes and shirts stink so bad. It runs through my head a million times. You’re at work typing fifty billion words about nothing and giving people change and you’re thinking about your bad breath and everyone else too, especially your five-hundred bosses who have no clue what they’re doing. You try to think about this lady’s nice Tiffany necklace and how much her husband spent getting it for her and there’s all the beautiful people in the world and all of them stink to hell when they die or take a shit or wake up in the morning. All I’m thinking is, when is work over so I can go and chew on soap. I can’t stop myself. I know it’s going to screw me badly but even then, I just think, one more time, one more time. It can’t hurt. I need relief. I’m so tired of bad smells. Everyone else gets the real deal, real happiness, the hot wife with the nice car just cause they sold a ton of fungus. All I want is to swallow perfume. One more bottle, one more can.” The chess player waved her hands at me. I startled, looking up. She was making a writing gesture with her fingers. I checked my pockets, found a pen. She ripped out a piece of paper from her notepad and wrote, “am i here?” I stared at her. “Uhh. I-” But she shook her hand and gestured that I write it out for her. “Yes,” I wrote. “how can you tell?” She had very pretty writing. “Because you are sitting across from me.” “how do you know im not just part of imagination.” “You’re playing chess.” “touch my face.”
She grabbed my hand, and then directed it to her face. When my palm pressed against her cheek, she closed her eyes and held it. Abruptly, she let go and wrote furiously on the paper. When she finished, she pushed the paper across to me. It read, “i am disappearing everyday. no one wants to talk to me. my parents stopped coming long ago. eventually, i will be gone. i cant speak or hear anything. nothing exists for me, just like this chess game. i play and play everyday but no one remembers, no one can tell you who died on the battlefield and who sacrificed their life for victory. i collected feathers to try to see, marbles and crayons from countries you’ve never heard of and colors that no longer exist. but none of them convinced me i was real. even you dont exist. i cant tell that you do. i feel your touch but i could be imagining it. sometimes, i pretend i can hear people but i know i cant. if you cant hear people and they cant hear you, you dont exist.” “I don’t exist either,” I wrote back. “No one hears me and I don’t hear anyone else.” “symbolic deafness and muteness dont count.” “How do you know I’m not really mute or deaf?” I wrote. “You can’t hear me and you can never tell if I’ve heard anything you said.” I wondered if that last line would provoke her but I decided to give it to her anyway. She laughed. “thats true... why are you here?” I thought about it, thought about it for a good long time. “i’m here because i can no longer hear myself, i cant hear anything- everything’s so distant and alien... but i’m hoping i can remember my voice by listening to others.” “any luck so far?” I sighed and shook my head. “all i hear are echoes that faded long time ago.”
She held my hand again. “at least you can hear the echoes,” she wrote with her other hand. I gripped her fingers. Then in a moment of inspiration, reached across and kissed her softly. Her lips felt like dead peaches. She was shocked, her eyes dilated wide. She broke out into an awkward giggle, her fingers nervously tap-dancing across my face. A few minutes later, her guardian arrived. “Tomorrow?” I wrote. She nodded. When I returned the next day, she wasn’t there. I searched several more days for her. But she was nowhere in sight. Maybe like she said, she’d finally vanished. IX. Unfortunately, my essence too was just a shard, a sublimation of everything I’d wanted. It was evening and I found a hidden area in a park where I could sleep. I guess it was possible for me to find a home again, possible for me to try to get a job- try to live a ‘worthy’ life. I remembered one night shortly after my wife left me, I was sitting in front of my computer surfing the web. There was a mosquito flying around which I tried to crush with my hands. I walked to my bathroom and on the way back, noticed a dead butterfly on the floor. I picked it up and realized it was actually just a leaf cut into pieces. For no explicable reason, I smashed the wall and threw my CD’s and DVD’s and flung plates at the glass table my ex-wife had purchased. Death was the normal end for everyone- there and only there, would my search for normalcy end. With the slither of a warm liquid down my numbed forehead as I felt nothing other than the voice of someone yelling in misguided desire that would eventually climax in another false set of emotions that really were a facade for pure bestiality.
Peter Tieryas Liu has recently had short stories accepted for publication in the Binnacle, Prism Review, Quiddity International Literary Journal, Yomimono, and ZYZZYVA. He’s worked as a technical writer for Lucasfilm and is currently a character technical director for Sony Pictures on Tim Burton’s, Alice in Wonderland.
MAGIC TREE VICTOR LUO The fully blossomed sakura tree that suddenly appeared on the school lawn had been discovered on June 19, 2005, but the records will show it was discovered on June 20, 2005. It had been during that period when the school year had just ended and summer classes hadn’t started yet. Because the 19 th was a Sunday, no one had been on campus and the walls around the schoolyard prevented the surrounding suburbs from getting a general view inside. It had been the janitor who, for the records, found the lone tree, which had stuck out from the few purple jacaranda trees lined up at the sides, right in the middle of the lawn at 6:00 AM, June 20th. There had been quite a commotion regarding the sakura tree’s appearance. The police, called in by the administration, had worked on the angle that the tree might have been planted as a prank or by some fervent environmental group using “guerrilla-style” tactics, but could not conceive of a way that a 30-foot pink tree could have been transported without anyone noticing. Scientists had rushed to check the tree for some undiscovered strand of plant hormone that could have caused the tree’s rapid growth, but had found nothing out of the ordinary other than the astounding possibility that, had the tree been transported, its roots had been maintained perfectly and that it could be supported by the surrounding soil. It hadn’t been too long after that the townspeople, especially the small Asian population, began to rumor that the tree was magic. A militant group of faculty members, led by English teacher Ms. Kawazoe, had devoted themselves to keeping the tree on campus, rejecting the pleas of scientists wanting to cut down the tree for further analysis. After a week of unchanged observations, the scientists had willingly left the tree alone with the simple request that they be informed if there were any sudden changes. I should mention that Ms. Kawazoe, the only Japanese faculty member, and I are the only ones at school who refer to the tree as a sakura. The predominantly white administration, in every proceeding regarding the tree, always referred to it as the cherry blossom tree. I suppose a few people within the Asian 29
population of the town referred to it as the sakura, but the few Asian students I knew mainly called it the cherry blossom tree. I myself am Chinese and not Japanese, but I just like the rolloff-the-tongue pronunciation of SA-KU-RA.
I was the first one who found the tree, on one of the loneliest Sundays I’d ever had. Graduation was that Friday before and seeing everyone walk the stage threw me off my emotional balance. What was supposed to be a moment filled with joy and congratulations was substituted with a loathsome obsession that I should have been up there walking with them, going off to college instead of being stuck here. Being left behind felt so unfair. No matter how hard I’d tried these three years, I could not make up for the year I lost being in a coma. In the summer finishing eighth grade, I remember taking the bus to the library to apply for a volunteer position over the summer. I was an ambitious one, thinking about college applications and choosing top-rate schools by then. Call it an Asian stereotype if you will, but it was my way of getting to some metaphorical top. I’m not a particularly arrogant person, but I’d always felt like I belonged somewhere better that here, this rinky-dink town. School, home, family, friends—by fourteen, I felt bored by everything around me. I felt different from everyone else, but saying, “my life sucks” made me feel like everyone else. Mind you, I never complained much and I didn’t want to fall into the predictable teen angst, so I worked hard quietly so I could be in that better place someday. Looking back at my fourteen-yearold self, I figure I was just never comfortable in one place or one time. I suppose that I felt trapped by the normalcy of being a kid and that I just wanted to grow up so I could be somebody. Being eighteen, however, I still don’t know who that somebody I want to be is. After filling out the application, I decided to wait for the bus home by flipping through a book. I don’t remember which book it is that I picked up, though. All I remember is picking one up and sitting at an empty table to read it. As I read, the words crawled off the page slowly, and I let out an echoing yawn that filled the library. I didn’t care that everyone could hear me at 30
the time because I felt very tired, and soon I’d drifted off to sleep. A whole year passed while I slept, but it didn’t feel like it at first. I awoke, thinking I’d nodded off in the library, but finding myself attached to an IV and lying in a hospital bed. The doctors were at a complete loss to the trigger of my coma, unable to deduce how I had woken up. They told me that the strangest thing had been my unusual level of brain activity that had remained consistently at a high point where they had expected me to wake up at any minute. My body’s metabolism hadn’t slowed that much and my muscles hadn’t atrophied at all. I had even grown two inches. It was like I’d just taken a quick nap instead of a yearlong sleep. My parents were thrilled that I’d finally awoken, kept hopeful by the fact that my vital signs remained strong. The house hadn’t changed at all, and the only thing that felt like a year had passed was the sight of the calendar. Chronologically, I was fifteen years old instead of fourteen when I woke up. I wasted an entire year of my life sleeping, and I felt cheated by time. The world around me had aged while I had done nothing. I felt like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, “unstuck in time” and cruelly left to wallow in mediocrity while everything and everyone moves on. That’s a bit melodramatic, I admit, but I was frustrated that time had robbed an entire year from my life and that I was expected to just pick up where I left off with a smile. But I’m a post-modernist now (Whatever that means. Like the word “sakura,” I just like to say it), and time seems to pass so irreverently, unconcerned with me or anyone else. “So it goes.” I’d fallen a grade behind and I had to start high school as a freshman while everyone I’d grown up taking the same classes with were now a grade above me. I wasn’t bothered so much by that or by the fact that everyone in my grade was younger than me. All I wanted was to be back on track, to make up for my lost time. Every summer after my freshman year, I took classes at the high school and the community college to catch up. I didn’t make it in time to graduate this year, but I negotiated with the administration to give me my diploma after finishing two classes this summer. 31
I applied to six out-of-state colleges, three of them Ivy League, but none of them accepted me. I suppose I might have been too ambitious, but I didn’t want to compromise by staying in state for four years where I’d be expected to come home every weekend. Settling for going to community college for a year or two and then transferring, I felt like time flipped me off again. Of course, everyone tells me it’s not so bad, and my situation really isn’t bad at all. But having to tell myself that makes it feel like such a lie. I’ve been left again just to wander around in a place I don’t belong, waiting for a time I don’t know when it will come or what it will look like. On the Sunday I didn’t graduate, I wandered around campus dreading the summer classes I’d have to take and knowing I had no choice. I walked around the school lawn, mulling about the stairways and attempting to climb up the jacaranda trees. The enclosing walls made the school feel like a prison, but it was nice to wander in privacy. I then proceeded to sit down in the middle of the lawn to read Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which I finished in about a twenty-five minutes. My remarkably increased reading speed was one change I noticed after I awoke from my coma. Strangely though, it only seemed to work with novels because I still had to read slowly over my textbooks. Sometimes, it didn’t even feel like I was reading quickly. Even as I picked up a book I’d never seen or heard of, I would have an unerring feeling that I’d read it before. I theorized it might be that because I fell into a coma in the library, my spirit had actually stayed in the library. I quickly dismissed that idea, but thought how cool that might be if that was the case. This ability certainly helped in English classes, but it wasn’t worth the year’s loss in time. Anyway, as I thought about the religion of Bokonism with its idea of a karass as a group of people often unknowingly doing the will of God together, the wampeter as central point of the group, and the kan-kan as the thing that brings one into the group, I faded into a nap. Even though the grass was itchy, the sun beating down was a warm, comfortable blanket. When I woke up, an hour had passed and I returned home. Nothing about the lawn had changed as I blinked. I snuck out of 32
the school, making sure no one would see me and think of me as a trespasser. My parents, away on a month-long vacation back to China that they had pleaded me to go on, had left some money in an envelope on the kitchen counter for food. I decided to order a bunch of things like fried rice, fried noodles, egg rolls, sweet and sour chicken, broccoli beef, and BBQ pork from the local Chinese delivery so I could eat leftovers for about a week. I could never order this food while my parents were here because they’d complain how it wasn’t authentic and note how the delivery boy is almost never Asian. True, the food isn’t authentic, but it tastes good nonetheless. When the doorbell rang, I picked up the envelope and met the delivery boy. Yep, my parents’ voices said in my head, this guy isn’t Asian. He could’ve been Hispanic or Filipino. He could have been Chinese I suppose, because I’ve had friends who were 100% Chinese and mistaken for Mexican at times. I paid the guy, who did an awkward bow as he accepted the money and left. When I counted the money in the envelope, I realized an emptiness in my side pocket. I didn’t have my wallet. Realizing that the only place I had gone that day was the school, I grabbed an egg roll and ran out the door, chewing with difficulty. Sneaking in the school by climbing the sidewall, I sprinted the last stretch to the middle of the lawn. It was then I discovered the flowering sakura tree where I had slept, and my wallet right in front of it. With a convenient breeze wafting through, the sakura tree’s branches swayed with surprising flexibility, its flowers rhythmically bouncing along. Flashing through my mind were the hundreds of storybooks this scene came from. Counting that many plots, I was still awe-struck by the unassuming silence that the flowers danced to. As I picked up my wallet, I touched the swaying tree and a single blossom fell on my forehead. It was then that the thoughts about the unnatural appearance of the tree led me to entertain the possibility of magic. It could 33
have been magic or it could have been reasonably natural. I billed the tree as beautiful either way, and I went home content with that explanation. After summer classes started with Ms. Kawazoe’s triumph in protecting the tree, the rumors were in full swirl in school and in town. The superstitious old biddies would refer to the tree as a good luck gift from the gods, some of them even coming to collect the falling blossoms for a tea that would “ensure longevity.” Since the school’s gates remained open during the summer days, families with young children were drawn to the lawn like a park for picnics. From the World Literature class I was in, the guys stuck retaking the course looked down at the lawn, calling all the purple and pink such a gay color combination and that the cherry blossom tree should be cut down, all of them sneering and agreeing all the way. Ms. Kawazoe, our teacher, couldn’t stop talking about the tree as she reminisced about her childhood in Kyoto. She insisted that we use her first name, calling her Ms. Sayuri. She did not look anything like a Sayuri. From her obviously highlighted wiry black hair to her gummy smile, Ms. Kawazoe was on the wrong side of forty, acting like a woman in her twenties. She made terrible puns trying to get the class to laugh, bringing her aging hand with long nails, middle and ring fingers tucked in, to her mouth as she let out a high-pitched giggle. She was an entirely competent teacher, but sometimes it was clear to everyone that she was trying too hard when students put on their cloaks of apathy. On the first Tuesday back after the July 4 th Weekend, Ms. Kawazoe proudly pronounced that the class would be celebrating Tanabata, the Japanese star holiday, on the 7th. She explained the holiday’s story of the celestial lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi who were separated by the stars being allowed to meet once a year on that day. In a romantic adrift sway of her communicative hands, she described her childhood memories of writing wishes on small pieces of paper and hanging them in trees, believing that writing in poetry would increase the chances of her wishes coming true. She offered extra credit to the class to write two wishes in the forms of poems, one related to academic goals and the other to personal whims. Because the class was clearly struggling with 34
Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, everyone gladly accepted the offer. I got a call from my parents from China that night, telling me that they’d be back after this week, asking me if I was okay and that they had bought a secret present they knew I would love. Giving them my usual uh-huhs, I quickly told them everything was fine. I didn’t really care about anything they could have bought me, because in all likeliness it was just clothes. I wanted them to have fun so they’d be more inclined to take vacations more often. I wanted them to forget about me on their trips so it’d be easier for them once their only son moved out. I went to my room, thinking about what to write. The Brothers Karamazov was on the desk, already finished within an hour over the weekend. I didn’t need the extra credit, but it wouldn’t hurt to be safe. I decided to go with haiku, since it was an easy form and no doubt would appeal to Ms. Kawazoe’s attention to Japanese tradition. The first poem was easy to write: School, the vital path To succeed brings great honor, A lifetime’s dream done. A little cheesy, I thought, but it’ll do. There was nothing specific about a wish, other than my wanting success in school. School never seems to be a dream, just a way of getting there. Better to get it done and move on. Just thinking about the second wish was hard. I didn’t know where to start, so I just started with whatever sounded right. At one with the stars, Seeing all time pass with care, Feelings of fate’s joy. I was convinced poetry wasn’t my forte. It sounded fine, but I didn’t understand how it all connected, or rather, I couldn’t explain it. How poets could string together lofty meanings was beyond me. It was good enough for Ms. Kawazoe though. On the 7th, Ms. Kawazoe was dressed in a pink kimono and had decorated the class with paper lanterns with sakura patterns 35
on them. Traditional Japanese festival music was playing from her CD player, and she had even brought a traditional biwa lute. She couldn’t play the lute well, but she simply laughed it off with her signature giggle. She passed around small, colored parchments on which to transcribe our wishes, and some string. My short haikus took only a minute to transcribe on the light blue paper. We were then led out onto the lawn to the sakura tree where Ms. Kawazoe had set up a stepladder for us to reach the branches to hang our wishes. “Traditionally, we hang Tanabata wishes on bamboo, but I think it’s okay to improvise with a sakura tree. There are important differences between the two in symbolic Asian mythology, but we can make do with what we have. And the fact that this is a magic tree could make a difference!” Ms. Kawazoe lectured in a giddy smile. One by one, the students lined up, showing Ms. Kawazoe their wish-poems and hanging them on the sakura tree branches. When it was my turn, Ms. Kawazoe beamed, complimenting me on my use of haiku. I chose the tallest branch I could to hook my wish onto. A breeze wafted through the branches, cradling my wish in the airflow while the string held steadfast. Ms. Kawazoe then presented us a platter of rice crackers, giving us twenty minutes of free time before we headed back to class. It was strange that Ms. Kawazoe approached me just then. Teachers rarely approached me because my grades were good, not great, and I didn’t stand out. “I understand that when you finish this class, you will have graduated in three years.” “That’s right. I’ll be going to community college in the fall.” “So you’re going to transfer to a university?” she asked. I nodded. “Which one do you want to attend?”
“I’m not sure yet, but I want to go out-of-state, maybe East Coast.” “Ivy League?” “I’d like to, but I’m not sure if that’s within my reach. I guess I’ll just have to wait two years and see.” “Going wherever the wind takes you?” she observed, wandering around the sakura tree, “Have you thought about what you want to study?” “I’m not so sure about that either,” I answered, laughing to alleviate my nervousness. “I see. You don’t have to decide now,” she replied. “Sometimes it’s better to just wait and see what works.” The other students were chattering away, texting and gossiping. If I hadn’t been talking with Ms. Kawazoe, I probably would have just sat and stared at the sakura tree. “I enjoyed your haikus. A little rough around the edges, but it’s a deceptively easy form that’s difficult to master.” “Thank you.” “I’m curious, though, about what your wish in the second haiku meant.” I stood in silence, looking at Ms. Kawazoe with a confused expression. It wasn’t something I could explain. As she waited for my reply, her hand extended and caught a falling blossom, which she closely analyzed. “Have you read Slaughterhouse-Five?” I asked. She nodded. “I guess that might have crossed my mind when I wrote that. The way that those aliens could see every point in time was really something to think about. But they were too stoic, too apathetic to everything. I mean you should be able to do things with such an ability to see time, or at least feel happy.”
“You read literature very well,” she said. I blushed. “You remind me of my younger sister, Sakura.” I couldn’t imagine Ms Kawazoe with a sister. She fit the image of an old, single Japanese woman so well it was hard to think of her as being part of a family. “My sister was always impatient, but she was very ambitious and very successful in school. She was convinced she was meant to travel the world, and she was never very comfortable just staying in one place. She was an excellent writer of poetry, winning awards in school every so often. She was the kind of person who believed the world offered everything to her, and that she had the power to take as she pleased. A fervent dreamer, really.” “One day, though, she’d mysteriously fallen into a coma. Nobody could figure out why, though I believed it was because she was in a deep dream. We didn’t have life support back then, so after three years she passed away without having woken once.” “I ended up traveling the world after her death. After a few years abroad, I settled here in America, went to college and got a teaching degree. In a way, I sort of inherited her dream.” “I remember one Tanabata festival when we were kids, Sakura had expressed her dream to travel the world. I asked our parents why we burned the papers after hanging them for a day, and Sakura quickly explained it was because wishes were things beyond ourselves, that they could move and change and that letting them burn up was a way of releasing them into the world to grow.” Ms. Kawazoe looked up into the sky, lifted her hand and blew, letting the blossom ride away on the wind. “I hope you one day realize your wishes. They can be connected to things outside of yourself and still live on even if you forget.” “That’s all very romanticist, isn’t it?”
“I guess it is. It’s like believing this sakura tree is magic. I’ve never seen one blossom this fully in the middle of summer.” “You don’t really believe this tree is magic, do you?” Ms. Kawazoe simply smiled, touching the sakura tree’s trunk and admiring the blossoms. “Sakura blossoms bloom quickly, then die as they fall. But they grow back into life before long. Even if the tree should disappear or wither away as quickly as it appeared, its life would reappear in another form.” Ms. Kawazoe then summoned the students to return to class, thanking them for sharing in this celebration with her. By the time fall rolled around, the sakura tree had withered away, its blossoms completely fallen out and its life slipping away slowly until the tree collapsed when some students accidentally knocked it over playing Frisbee. The scientists leapt at the tree’s remains, quickly carting it away to try to dissect its secrets. We haven’t heard anything from those scientists since. The town quickly forgot the tree, though some remembered it fondly as a small, but beautiful phenomenon. I started my first year of community college, taking huge general education courses in auditoriums fitted for hundreds. Everyone looked the same in these classes, but then again you remembered that everyone was different in their own way. Though I didn’t get to go away to college like I hoped, starting school was a new change that I eventually warmed up to. Waiting didn’t seem so bad, and I liked passing time on the college campus lawn cloud watching. I liked to nap and dream my afternoons away, thinking about time passing me by and the sakura tree that no one knew I had really discovered.
Victor Luo is currently an undergraduate at USC studying Creative Writing. He was born in Monterey Park, California, a heavily concentrated Chinese community, and is a first-generation college student. He aspires to attend an MFA program in Creative Writing and 39
to eventually acquire a PhD in English. Find him online at http://puzzlingcreativity.blogspot.com/. This is his first official publication.
CHA TÔI NGủ: MY FATHER SLEEPS VUONG QUOC VU My father sleeps early now. By the first hours of evening, when twilight is ash settling into the garden, he is already sweetly in slumber. He sleep-talks in whispers. The year my father turned seventy-five, he began to cry in his sleep, murmuring— Đừng đùa tôi về! Đừng đùa tôi về! My mother shook him awake. He lay rolled up like a child, flushed and warm, sweat on his skin like dew. He kept having the same dream: a young boy leads him by the hand down the dirt path towards his village. He begs the child to not take him home— Đừng đùa tôi về! Yet the child drags him through rice fields overgrown like giant reeds. The child drags him into the village, its thatch houses as he remembers them, simple as woven baskets, as nests. As my father comes closer to his childhood home, on the banks of a river, he wrestles his hand from the child’s grip— Đừng đùa tôi về! The child looks up at him 41
and the face my father sees is his very own, haggard and gray, so knowing and sad he wakes up in tears. Cha tôi ngủ. My father sleeps peacefully now. He knows every furrow of his face, but for me, it is in the gray of twilight that I see how old my father is— the droop of his eyes, shadows deepening every wrinkle, and I worry, but my father has begun to smile in his sleep. His breathing rumbles like distant thunder.
Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Vuong Quoc Vu grew up in San Jose, CA. He is glad his parents made him speak Vietnamese at home. In his thirties now, he is still fluent in Vietnamese enough to know that when spelled with incorrect diacritic marks, Cha Tôi Ngủ, can mean "my father is stupid." This is his second poem in Kartika Review.
BETWEEN HEAVEN AND THE BEDROOM EUGENIA LEIGH Somewhere in the city with her slip-proof shoes and apron, our mom locates an angel tall as miles. Mom pushes up her sleeves and—at the angel’s nod—sprints to the back of the angel, grabs a fat sheaf of wing—its feathers thick as ropes— and climbs and climbs. Every night she climbs. And every night, she returns, flakes of holy in her hair. She returns—work shirt wet with angel drench—to a bedroom of crumbs, half-eaten margarine and jam sandwiches my small sisters and I assembled on the carpet. She is grateful we ate something. Then, her ear to our mouths, Mom listens for sleep before launching her secret lullaby—her sturdy hands on our foreheads— her prayers pouring over us like torrents of wild comets. And we are so entirely awake—three little girls—good at pretending, toughened from having to have been small adults before Mom came home. Years later, the day my sister’s car spins across six freeway lanes then stands, upright, unbent—my sister shaken and unbruised—I discover a fleet of little angels on their knees, cultivating a humble garden in my bedroom. I realize then that our mom must have come home with armloads of them. She must have begged
for these little angels—collected them from God like tip dollars. Or maybe they tumbled out on their own—out of her infinite tongues— as we found sleep beneath her desperate whispers.
Eugenia Leigh is a Korean American poet who lives and writes in Brooklyn. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and has taught poetry to high school students and incarcerated youths. Her poetry is forthcoming in Relief Journal and Sow's Ear Poetry Review.
ONE QUESTION, SEVERAL ANSWERS BARBARA JANE REYES After Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan Where did your father live? House of Bamboo, Isle of Gold. Where did your father live? Tall reeds at the riverbanks. Where did your father live? Near the estuary, in a man-made refuse heap. Where did your father live? By a deserted mango tree. With mangoes, oversweet mangoes dropping from that tree. Where did your father live? Battlefield trenches. Where did your father live? With binds of hemp rope. Dirt floor and no bed. Where did your father live? Waiting in hulls to see the sun. Waiting in cages like an animal. Waiting for a state of grace. Where did your father live? In the forest cathedral. Where did your father live? With his sisters, Ancients -- Diwata, Diosa. Where did your father live? In Mama Mary's heart. Where did your father live? 45
Exodus, Revelation. Where did your father live? With 5 iron brands. With typhoons and swamp grass. With years as a guerrilla, warfare erasure.
Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, Philippines, and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), and Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010). Her chapbooks, Easter Sunday (2008), Cherry (2008), and West Oakland Sutra for the AK-47 Shooter at 3:00 AM and other Oakland poems (2008) are published by Ypolita Press, Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, and Deep Oakland Editions, respectively. Her poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Latino Poetry Review, New American Writing, North American Review, Notre Dame Review, XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics, among others. She is an adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco. She lives with her husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, in Oakland.
WE, TOO, MADE AMERICA AIMEE SUZARA After Langston Hughes’ “I, too, sing America” We are the little brown brothers and the mail-order brides. I’ve been told we make good wives. When company comes, someone always tries to guess where we’re from. But we chuckle, with a sparkle in our eyes. We crossed the sea and danced with time. Tomorrow, we’ll be at the party when company comes. Nobody will dare ask which place we clean, which garment we sew, which man we married, as if they know. We’ll ask the host, please bring me a drink. Besides, they’ll see how tall we stand. We may be small, but we stand grand. We sowed the seeds and soil we tilled. Tended your wounds and paid the bill. Gave you our ports and cleaned up after. Dusted our hands with song and laughter. Jumped in the pot and turned it over. We, too, made America.
Aimee Suzara completed her M.FA. at Mills College in 2005 and has been sharing poetic and multidisciplinary work since 1999. Her play, Pagbabalik (Return) in 2007 was selected for several festivals and granted the Zellerbach Community Arts Fund in 2006-7. Her poetry 47
collection, the space between. was published by Finishing Line Press (2008) and her writing appears in several journals and anthologies, including Check the Rhyme, An Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees (Lit Noire Press), 580 Split (forthcoming issue) and Walang Hiya/No Shame (forthcoming anthology). Currently, she is collaborating on text-dance works with two companies: Amara Tabor-Smith’s Deep Waters Dance Theater for “Our Daily Bread”; and choreographer Frances Sedayao, Aimee Espiritu and Michael Torres for “A History of the Body,” to be hosted by the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. A passionate advocate for arts and literacy, she teaches English at community colleges and leads workshops on poetry and performance. www.aimeesuzara.net.
MUC AMANDA GRIFFITH & THAI LE NGUYEN A Bravo 173rd soldier adopted a white puppy and named him Sarge. “This is one dog they (the Vietnamese) won’t eat.” The soldiers in his unit fed the dog so much whiskey, he walked backward all day. Then, the next week, the dog was left behind and lost as they raced into battle. See: www.eagerarms.com.
At age seven or eight, I loved my first dog like my mother loved me, without thought of the future. Việtnam presented danger by its very nature without even having a war. Each time I returned from anywhere in the countryside, my mom would hold me close and whisper thanks to God I had returned unharmed by snakebites, scorpion stings, or sudden flood. She loved me enough to let me go. She loved me enough to let me experience my childhood while she waited unnerved at home for her child’s return from ventures into the perils. One day I noticed the family dog had swelled and become lethargic. As days went by, she stumbled around and slept 49
more than usual, and the luster disappeared from her usually sparkling eyes. “Mẹ, the dog seems sick.” My face crunched up in anxiety. I feared the dog would die. “Hồng Thái, she is not sick. She will have puppies. You must treat her gently and not expect too much of her. You can be her nurse and assist her with the puppies.” “How can I help?” “You can warm water over the stove, bring clean towels to wipe the puppies clean, and give water to the mama, so her milk will flow.” “How did the dog get babies, Mẹ?” “She must have been lonely and wanted something to love.” Mẹ smiled and hugged me. “Like I wanted six babies to love.” Mẹ’s eyes had a faraway look in them. She had this same look always as she watched my father leave for the day. “Why was she lonely when she had all of us children?” “She doesn’t have any ong (dog) friends.” “Oh.” I nodded with understanding. “Will we keep all the puppies?” “No, we already have a dog. We will have to find homes for them.” I held the mama dog’s head on my lap for an hour or more each day to let her know I was there to care for her. Her soulful eyes locked on mine as if she knew I was carrying the medicine bag. The day arrived. She did not eat, and her body sweated. She circled around the towel we had put down for her to sleep on and fussed and whined all morning. I had to leave for school, but instead of playing with my friends after school, I hurried home to care for mama dog.
She had become quiet and lay still. Her breath grew heavy. I watched and waited, ready with clean towels. Water warmed in a pot on the stove the Tuy ết had lugged in from the well before entering the house. I was glad I had not missed the big event. Mẹ had moved the mama dog to the bathtub in the kitchen. I cradled her head in my lap as usual, but she pulled away, weaving her head back and forth, her eyes rolling up. She heaved. Mẹ crouched by the side of the tub, and shushed my exclamations. “Be very quiet, Thái. We must not upset the mama,” she whispered. She stroked the dog’s head and buttocks. Mama dog looked at us with love in her eyes, letting us know she trusted us to help her give birth. With fascination, I watched the puppies emerge in the next six hours, slick and slippery, with eyes stuck closed, gooey and crusty, and observed while my mother stroked the warm towel across the shiny membrane, and then I dabbed it on the next one. Everything chugged along without a snag until the last pup. It was stuck. Mama dog began whimpering, her mournful eyes transformed with sharp pain. Mẹ reached her fingers inside the mama dog and poked around, careful not to hurt the mother any more than the searing pains running through her already. Suddenly, a light sparked in Mẹ’s eyes. She had found the pup. With the gentlest touch possible, she tugged at the last pup, keeping her fingers soft and making sure not to touch its head. If a dog could scream, the mama dog did then. The birth had turned sour and frightening for her. I looked at Mẹ to get an idea if she agreed with this. Her face held no clue of distress, only a focus like her own child’s life was at stake. One more tug and the last pup slid out without a sound. No one had such a mama as I did. There was nothing she could not handle. The new pups were covered with sticky goo. Mẹ dabbed them with the wet towel and then the dry one, paying particular attention to their eyes, which were stuck shut. I didn’t want to hold one.
“Why are they so dirty, Mẹ?” “The membrane protects the babies inside the mother. She will spend the next few days licking them clean.” As Mẹ spoke, mama dog began licking behind the ear of the littlest one. I noticed his legs were different than his body, like he wore ginger socks. The puppies lay still for a few weeks and then pranced around the house in lively spirits. Bao, the little boy from down the street, stopped by before school to take one home. A truck had hit their dog, and they had found it dead in the road. The one with the orange legs was the one I secretly wanted. Cha took the puppies to Bồng Sơn for a friend who worked in his office to take his pick. He came home with one, mine. I prayed Mẹ would change her mind and let me keep it. “Mẹ, can I have the last puppy? Please?” My eyes swam with tears I was afraid to let fall. They pressured my lids, but I held onto them for dear life. What if she said no? “I told you, we already have a dog, Thái.” Mẹ’s voice sounded caring, but her words were firm. “Mẹ, I promise to take care of it.” I choked back the lump and swallowed hard. Mẹ did not like tears. Whenever I had cried before, she had given me a lecture about remaining calm at all times. I wanted her to talk about keeping the dog. “No, Thái. We do not need another dog.” “I want it to be my baby. I want to be a good mommy like you are.” Mẹ’s eyes flickered with emotion, and she stared at me for a minute. I stood waiting. “Thái, a dog is a big responsibility. If you do not feed it or give it water, I will have Cha bring it to Bồng Sơn to get rid of.” “Yes, Mẹ.” My breath came in puffs. “I will always take care of my little one.” I did not know how hard that job would become.
I named my puppy Mực, meaning ink. His body, black and sleek, was supported by ginger and gold legs as fancy as a tiger’s fur. Nga wanted to claim the puppy for her own, and so did Thạch, but he followed only me everywhere I went. If I went with the neighbors to play, he would sit and watch. While I picked fruit in a tree, he would police the bottom. If we canoed, we had to lug him along, or he would yowl to shake the neighbors. True to my word, I fed the dog table scraps from lunch or dinner, and convinced one of my sisters or brothers to draw fresh water from the well for him every day. The more I did for him, the more loyal he became. One Saturday as we ate breakfast, all of us girls including Lan and Ái, two spy girls Cha brought home to brainwash the Communism out of them, told Mẹ we planned to trek up the Thác Đá Mountain on a mulberry picking expedition. “Girls, if you see a helicopter, you must not hide in the brush.” “Wouldn’t it be safer to hide?” Thạch asked. “No, they think only a communist would run and hide in Bồng Sơn. If you wave, whoever it is will not know whose side you are on and will not shoot at you.” Mẹ packed sticky rice patties and cooked chicken in a canvas bag. We would also eat mulberries as we picked. The mountain swept up before us, a momentary escape from the strain of assault from the Việt Cộng, but an adversary in its own right. Sharp rocks pierced the soft canvas of my shoes on the trail and jabbed my feet. I made no noise, knowing my sisters would mock me, and Lan and Ái would join in. They did everything my sisters did now. With brief longing, I looked back at the pink and white painted balcony still visible on the second story of our house, but my child’s heart overcame me, and I craved the adventure. Mực followed me up the mountain and panted with thirst and fatigue. I thought he would collapse, but we came upon a gurgling stream. I knew if the water flowed over rocks, it was clean enough for a dog, but not necessarily for a human. Mực slurped it up, stopped to rest, drank some more, stopped, 53
swigged again, slobbering dribbles of saliva and licking his chops. He lay down, and so we rested, something we did not usually do on the mountain. “Let’s eat our lunch,” Dung said. “We might as well since we have to stop,” Nga replied, glaring at me. Dung opened our sack and split up the food. I noticed she did not give a portion to Mực. “Thạch we must divide it up again. Mực has none.” “Ông không thể có bất cứ. We don’t have enough.” “He’ll be hungry,” I wailed. I thought of Mẹ out in the field plucking green beans off the vines and digging potatoes out of the hot, dry dirt. She worked for our food; I would fight for Mực’s right to eat. He was mine to defend. “No one asked him to come, you know,” Nga said. “I can not go anywhere without Mực, not even to school.” “Then give him your lunch.” All my sisters laughed as if they knew what I would decide. “Look,” Lan said. “She’s feeding the dog her lunch. She won’t have any food.” “That’s her own fault,” Thạch said. Because he was hungry from the exercise, he snapped and gobbled the food I gave him. But I knew if I did not look after him, no one else would. When he lapped his last sip from the brook, I pulled with my fingers on his silky ears and raced to catch up with my impatient sisters. After a year, Mực had worked his way into our home and was quite a busy, active animal. He loved to roll in the grass by the river. A snake could have darted out and bitten him each time, 54
but his luck held out. If it rained, he would go out and roll in the puddles, and it always hardened to a stinky crust. One day, I invented a method for bathing him and set out to the well to try it. The well’s cement exterior rose from the ground about three and a half feet. Those neighbors who lived on our property and assisted Mẹ with the farming (sharecroppers) also accessed the water there. With Mực in tow, I approached the well, glad to see no women from the neighborhood washing clothes to stand in my way. I had stolen a towel and a bar of soap from the kitchen. Mẹ would scold me later. My strategy: do not ask. Take the fuss later after the job was finished. The bucket caused my tiny arm to sag. I lifted it and plopped it into the water below. I whirled the rope around, until I jerked, and the metal pail felt loaded and heavy. I yank and yank and feel myself creeping toward the edge. Panic sucks at my lungs. I know there is no one around to hear me if I fall. My head and neck crane over with the weight of the bucket. I do not think to let go. The cement scrapes my chest and stomach, and I slip into the tank a little. Hardly aware of the sea like smell of the algae clinging to the sides of the tank, I claw with my hands and flail my legs against the side. I skid down the side more, and I can feel my stomach is scraped raw. I fall head first downward. Miraculously, my toes connect with the rim and hook with a firm grip. Screams rattle me and almost separate me from my tentative hold. With shock, I identify the earsplitting sound I hear as my own. My toes hang on with the strength of stress, but I know I ca not sustain it long. Will someone happen by? If I plunge down in the water, I can tread for awhile but will likely be bitten by rats or a snake and drown. Then, Mực barks and yips as if someone has ripped his heart out of his chest. That’s my boy. He will save me. A minute later, as my toes are about to give, two women clutch my ankles, wrench me up, and place me on the ground. They must have shouted for my mother because she scampers up out of breath. The usual hugs keep her busy for a minute, and then she babbles non-stop.
“Thái, don’t worry. It was just an accident.” I cried and cried, still trembling. My mother raked her fingers through her hair and pulled several strands out of her tight bun and then ran her hands as if they were sweaty, up and down her white blouse and pants. “What will your father say tomorrow?” Her hands encircled my face. “What were you thinking?” She held me close and gripped my head so hard it pulled my hair. My temples beat from the pressure. “Do not take such chances!” Mẹ beat my bottom hard with the palm of her hand. “Do not ever do that again!” Another slap sent me reeling. “Do not play at the well. Let your sisters get the water or just get a half bucket.” Tears streamed down her face now, and she threw her arms around me and sobbed into my hair for a minute or two. Then she trudged off to the house, shaking her head and mumbling. I was lucky I could not hear. “Mực, thank you,” I said, crouching down and pulling him onto my lap. He rewarded me with a wet lick across my nose. My heart was filled with dread for what just happened and also full of love for my dog. If it had not been for him, I wouldn’t have been around for the scolding. A gloomy sky, threatening rain, pushed me into the house. “Thái, wash and prepare those vegetables in the basket for dinner.” To make her forget how naughty I’d been, I slaved in the kitchen. I set the table and placed the rice in a pot with a small amount of water to heat. Then, I washed spinach and turnips and arranged them in another pot. Tuy ết came to the stove and took over, and I swung a tin pail over my arm with extreme caution to scoop a half bucket of fresh water to drink with our meal from the well. Rain fell on me until I was soaked. “Mực, why can’t you carry in this heavy bucket of water?” I laughed, forgetting my worries, but the sky darkened and lightning flashed in bright contrast. Mực sprinted ahead of me to get inside where it was dry. We ate, missing our Cha, passing food for the first few minutes, and talking with everyone interrupting. Finally, like always, Mẹ 56
hushed us for her dinnertime speech about safety. “Children, you must listen to me when I tell you things. Everything I tell you is for your own good.” “Yes, Mẹ,” said Thac, nodding her head in submission. “Bân and Hồng Thái must not use the large bucket in the well. They must remove that one and place the smaller tin pail from the kitchen on the chain to be lowered.” I did not argue that I could just fill the large bucket half full like she had suggested earlier. One did not argue with a parent at a meal or in fact anytime. Not listening was one thing, disagreeing was quite another. “All of you older children, I expect when you are not at school, you should keep an eye on Hồng Thái and Bân.” It hurt me that she put my name first. Bân was the youngest. “Also, Hồng Thái, the teacher told me you missed school again last week. You must never go far nor stay long in the morning. “Children, you must always be careful, no matter what you are doing. I do not make you stay in the house, but train you to stay out of danger. I expect you to hear my words and follow what I have told you. If you do not, you could end up with serious consequences.” Glass eyes glinted at me from her usually kind face. “If I was never hard on you, Hồng Thái, your whole life, you’d be dead already. You’re the most stubborn child of all six.” No one argued with that either. I hung my head in shame. The rain poured down on the roof all night and still fell in the morning when I woke. No staccato of gunfire or pounding grenades had pierced the night, and I almost had not slept, I’d become so used to the war sounds. The marble floor by my picture window was slick with wet as I slid my feet over the edge of my full size bed. Nga now shared it with me since the Lan and Ái had come to stay with us. She moaned and turned over from her back to face away toward the window. She would have to get up soon. School for her and all my brothers and sisters except Bân was in the morning.
It rained too hard for outdoor play. Even if we enjoyed sloshing around in the wet clay, if the rain turned into a worse weather pattern, which happened two to three times per year, we would not want to be on the river for sure. On the mountain, we would be separated from family and could be washed down in a torrent. I did listen to Mẹ sometimes, and this was one of them. Mực remained indoors, too. He did not like rain, just puddles and mud. At lunchtime, we discussed mainly whether school would take place in the afternoon or not. The teacher had not said whether afternoon school was on or off when Thạch and the others had left. Mother pushed out the front door and left us and Tuy ết, to clear the meal. She would take a poll around the neighborhood of how many were sending little ones to the schoolhouse. She would be back in half an hour. I was to wait for her return. After I had collided with Khoa for the second time, he said, “You’re just getting in the way and the dog is even worse.” His voice rung harsh, a disciplinary voice he only used when Mẹ was not around, as if he was taking over for her. I resented it. I had a mother and father already. “Leave the kitchen, Hồng Thái,” he said. Mực and I left, our tails between our legs. I chased him around the living room couch two or three times. Lightning flashed, and thunder boomed. He cried out and hid behind the armchair Cha loved to sit in when he finished a meal. As I gazed transfixed out the window, a bamboo tree bent halfway down to the ground in the strong wind. Mẹ faltered on her way back to the house, clutching her hat, even though it was tied under her chin, and grabbing onto her clothes, so they would not be ripped off her body. She stumbled onto the front porch, and the sheets of water washed at us diagonally like waves hitting a ship. “Children, Tuy ết, shut all the windows and doors, hurry,” she shouted as she slammed the front door and snapped the window next to it closed. We all sped around the bottom floor, following orders. The first of the neighbors started to arrive, carrying their most important possessions on their backs in rice sacks or in 58
baskets used for gardening. We had the only house in our village with two stories, so everyone, about forty people, would come and crowd into our top floor. Mẹ had all us children and Tuy ết each make three trips to get personal possessions and prepared food. The furniture would have to be replaced if it was ruined. “Hồng Thái, hurry, go upstairs. Wait, grab this basket.” She handed me a basket almost too heavy to carry, and I staggered up the stairs. I looked around for Mực and did not see him. I thought he must have gone up already with neighbors. He liked meeting new people. Outside, the rain had risen to about two feet, and the current was swooshing by our house toward the river. “Bân, go on now. Go,” I heard Mẹ call, but she remained downstairs until the last person arrived. When she finally came up, I approached her with tears in my eyes. Water surged against the door and sloshed up against the windows. “Mẹ, is Mực downstairs? I can’t find him.” “No, Thái. I did not see him.” She shook her head distracted. I didn’t really think she would have noticed if he was there. Too many things were on her mind. I headed down the stairs. “No, Thái, come back here.” “But Mẹ, he is down there alone. I must make him come upstairs.” I was halfway down the stairs, and I could see though the doors and windows were shut, water had broken the panes and burst the door off its frame and was pouring into the first floor of our home. “I forbid you, Hồng Thái.” Her eyes were filled with fear. I knew she was scared for my life like I was scared for Mực’s. With each step I took back up the stairs, I felt years of growing older settle on my shoulders. I elbowed my way through the crowd to position myself by the back window in my parents’ room. I leaned out and scanned the yard. Some of our things were floating out to the main current and would be carried away. Yelp. Yelp. Yip. The writhing body of my poor dog pushed through the kitchen window and floated out toward 59
the river. He dog paddled and made it a few feet but then was swept out double the amount he’d gained. I gasped and hung out the window sobbing. As he floated closer to the shore, or what I assumed was the shore because it was covered in gushing water, he passed a small cluster of lemon trees. His paws clawed and batted at branches to no use. The current churned with more might than he possessed. I stretched my hands out toward him as if I could stop the current from bearing him away and wailed out into the walloping wind. He kicked and fought, leaping up above the water and then getting dunked beneath it, but it was no good. As I watched, he twisted his head back to look at me, I thought, as if he expected me to come save him. Soon, he disappeared into the distance, out of my eyesight, and my tears fell and splashed into the water below, unnoticed by anyone, except my mother, who came to stand beside me. She put her arm around my shoulders and whispered in my ear. “It is not your fault, Thái. I heard you call him upstairs. He would not listen.” Giving my shoulder a squeeze, she pulled my body to her and tried to stop my weeping. “Mẹ, I’m sorry I do not always mind you.” I buried my face against her, my shoulders shivering with grief, my crying drowned by the rush of waves below. “I am only glad you followed my instructions today. You know, there is only so much you can do to take care of a child or even a pet. They have to be free. Keeping an animal or pet completely safe would make them unhappy.” She smiled down at me. My dishonor disappeared in the clouds like a scarlet helium balloon. Today had sucked the life out of me. I swallowed hard. Mẹ wrapped my heartache in her comforting arms and held me while the water surged on. My sisters and neighbors wandered around, pushing each other out of the way, grumbling about their lost belongings and ruined homes. I held Mẹ.
Amanda Griffith is co-writing a memoir of Thai Le Nguyen, a South Vietnamese woman who, as a child, survived the war in her hometown of Bong Son but fled in 1975 with her family to avoid repercussions stemming from her fatherâ€™s status in the South Vietnamese government. Ms. Griffith is a YA novelist and a secondary English teacher of twenty-five years. Ms. Nguyen holds a BA in Business Administration and owns and runs her own beauty salon.
EXPORT QUALITY MICHAEL S. JANAIRO One of my earliest memories: My mother slick-combs my red hair and her dress rustles as she bends down to clasp my long black stockings to my gray flannel knickers. She smells of White Linen and tells my older brothers, sister and me to remember to say "thank you," "your welcome" and "please" because Uncle Ed had been kind enough to invite us to brunch at the Philippine Embassy. The starched clothes make me stiff. The rules make me uncomfortable. Not knowing what "Philippine" or "Embassy" means makes me nervous. But our parents pile us in the car and we go. Inside the building in Washington, D.C., there's a long, curved stairwell with plush red carpeting and heavy wooden doors. One leads to a chandeliered dining room with high-backed chairs; another to a chilly basement with a pool table, a wet bar and all the Coke we can drink. Other kids are down there. They wear creased chinos, white shirts and silk ties. Rich kids. They run around and shout, free and loose. I stay close to my brothers, especially Max, who is a year older and also dressed like me. These kids, I've been told, are cousins. They all have black hair and tan skin. My brothers, sister and my mother all have auburn hair and pale skin. Except for my brother Ed. He has black hair. Like Uncle Ed. Maybe that's why he has the same name? But Uncle Ed isn’t really an uncle. He isn't my mother's or father's brother. He's the ambassador. But I don't know if “ambassador” is a type of relation or not. So who are all these people? I don't know. And they speak in a language that makes no sense. I'm confused. Perhaps that’s why I let my older brothers shove me into the dumb waiter to send me upstairs to the kitchen, where my pale, freckled face surprises the kitchen staff. I hop onto the floor, hurry out a door and dash between the adult legs in the dining room to the entranceway, where I find the door that takes me back to the basement, where my brothers and cousins are laughing. 62
Sunday brunches at the Philippine Embassy in the early 1970s -- when my Lola's older brother was the ambassador to the U.S. -- were a long table laden with soft beds of scrambled eggs, fluffy pancakes, seasoned potatoes, stir-fried vegetables and rice, steamed white rice, juicy sausage patties and crispy strips of bacon. My brother Ed, three years older than me, always piled his plate with a mountain of bacon. I never ate as much. I always felt nervous. One day, though, I sipped Coke, chewed a dry, crusty piece of toast and felt safe enough to whisper to my three older brothers, “What is the Philippines?” In the embassy’s basement, perhaps my oldest brother Anthony, four years older, said: “It’s a totally different country. Like the United States is a country, but it’s far away.” Maybe I nodded. I knew I understood “far.” I had seen Grover on "Sesame Street" running back and forth shouting, “Near!” and “Far!” Ed nodded as if he had something to add, but all he did was open his mouth wide to show saliva-slick bits of chewed bacon to try to make me sick. So I didn’t ask another question, though I had more. Anthony’s reply was a code that turned “the Philippines” into a another mystery, a “country,” and that didn't even get close to answering why we were there. I thought it was my own tough luck if I couldn’t understand it. If I wanted to know more, I'd have to find out for myself.
When I think of my trip to the Philippines in 1994, I think of a photograph taken on a bright, early April afternoon from a sizzling blacktop road in the district of Binakayan, the village of Kawit, the province of Cavite: a large nipa hut stands in the dust, its leafy walls browned and sturdy; chickens peck the dirt in the shade of drooping palm trees; a stone wall retains an algae-filled lagoon 63
The hut was the birthplace of Maximiano Saqui Janairo, my Lolo. He was the first immigrant of the family, the first American and, eventually, the silent patriarch. When he was born in 1905, the hut was on the waterfront with a view that stretched beyond Manila Bay out to the South China Sea. No stonewall. No lagoon No paved road. But that's where I stood when I took the photo. I knew my Lolo had seen his hut from the water. During World War Two, he had survived the Bataan Death March and escaped from Camp O'Donnell, so when Japanese patrols neared Binakayan, he'd float in the waves in a small banca, or dugout canoe, and wait for the signal -- a white sheet hanging to dry -- so that he could return. I thought he'd get a kick out my photo. My Lolo, though, was 90 by then. He usually spent all his hours in bed. His sharp face had become soft and round. But now he was sitting at the kitchen table, his head shaking and his clear eyes scanning every bit of the photograph I had taken. Then he shook his head and handed it to my Lola. She was 83 and thin from recent hip surgery and taking care of Lolo. She spoke loudly. She said, “It’s Binakayan. It was photographed by Michael.” My name, in her Filipina accent, rang throughout the kitchen like a bell, a slight trill in the final “l,” My-kell. Lolo looked up at me, shrugged his shoulders and smiled. Then he looked back at his wife, pursing his lips, the fleshed pinched around his nose. He looked away. His head continued to shake. Lola handed the photograph back to me and shrugged her shoulders. “He doesn’t recognize it,” she said. “But it’s a good picture. An important picture.”
When the Philippines were America’s colony, my Lolo was a student called Mianong. The son of a manager of 200 hectares of rice paddies and 12 fishing boats with a crew of 30 in a province outside Manila, he knew that to get ahead he had to 64
succeed in the new system of public education introduced by the American colonial masters. He was a good student, at least good enough to be accepted into the University High School in Manila, where he graduated seventh in his class. After his acceptance into the University of the Philippines, an institution that was founded three years after he was born, he enrolled in the pre-med course. He wanted to be a doctor. He once said, “My older sister, the eldest, was studying to be a pharmaceutical chemist. I was the second child. I wanted to become a doctor. I would write the prescriptions, and she would fill them.” Pride made him attempt the annual West Point entrance examination. A friend had teased, “The only reason you don’t want to take the test is because you’re afraid to fail.” He didn’t fail. He placed third, and the first two candidates failed the physical. Mianong understood that he had earned a free education and the guarantee of a job upon completion, but Governor General Leonard Wood, the ruler of the Philippines, told him that West Point would change his life. Two months later, after sailing from Manila to Nagasaki to Honolulu to San Francisco, then through the Panama Canal and, finally, landing in Brooklyn, he made his way by train north along the Hudson to the ferry that would cross the river to the Military Academy at West Point. He expected to find a university like the University of the Philippines -- serious students, wise professors, books and libraries. America in 1926 was a booming country full of promise and economic progress. It was the success of the Western world. What better place to study than West Point? But even before he stepped off the ferry, upperclassmen rushed on to meet the plebes. They ordered them to stretch their hats down over their eyes -- and every man in those days wore a hat. They shouted: “March! Double time!” Blind, he ran onto America, up from the river to the main campus. As he ran -- a suitcase in one hand, the brim of his hat covering his eyes, his nostrils filling with the musk of sweat -65
he thought he had made the biggest mistake of his life. This wasn’t like the University of the Philippines. He wanted to go home, to go to a college where he wouldn't be forced to march blind on unknown territory by men who were taller and stronger and who spoke with such a rough command of the language, as if they owned that, too.
I flew into Manila on the night of March 23, 1994, on an Egypt Air flight from Tokyo that was filled with students returning home for Easter. They were not shy about gasping and shouting in terror when the plane hit turbulence and the electronic consoles above our heads flopped open to expose tangled, colored wires. Beside me sat a young man with a thick mop of black hair. He wasn’t very talkative, but he did tell me that he was studying mechanical engineering at Tokyo University. When we hit turbulence, he white-knuckled the armrests. I poured water from liter bottles into plastic cups for the passengers around me. Earlier, I had, politely I thought, asked for some water, and had been given a couple bottles and a stack of plastic cups from a haggard, unshaven attendant who said, “Others may want to drink!” The student next to me didn’t want any water. His eyes looked sad and bewildered. He asked, “Aren’t you afraid?”
I carried four letters. One was from my Uncle Toto, telling me he’d meet me at the airport. One was from Uncle Ed, who looked forward to seeing me. One was from Ted Nierras, Uncle Ed’s grandson, whom I would meet later on the southern island of Mindanao. One was from "pretend" Uncle Ed, a man who survived the Bataan Death march with my Lolo and had attained honorary family status. I had met all of them at least once before in the blur of my early childhood. Despite these connections, I still felt a vague sense of Filipinoness, and that vagueness felt foolish and self-centered. But that
feeling was (and is) always there whenever I meet someone new who has a reaction to my name. These are the three reactions: 1. 2. 3.
“That’s such a beautiful name!” “You don’t look Filipino?” Uncomfortable silence.
These reactions send me back to some primary point of who I am. But that point has never felt solid. After all, “points” are imaginary. Sometimes, when I say the name is Filipino, I feel it’s a lie. What are the Philippines, anyway?
On the verge of 13, near the end of junior high, I spent a month scribbling on note cards for a 20-page joint History-English paper. My topic: the Spanish-American War and the Conquest of the Philippines. I set aside a Saturday, skipped the morning cartoons and sat down in the basement at the Apple II Plus. As I wrote, my mind filled with imagined jungles, a decrepit Spanish fleet, sweatstained US Army uniforms and loin-clothed, bolo wielding natives. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Occasionally the dehumidifier would hum. But I was lost in the heroic story of Colonel Funston, an American who was so courageous and clever that he let a group of tribesmen, who didn’t like having anti-colonial rebels hiding in their mountains, take the weapons from him and his troops and march them four days to the rebels’ jungle headquarters as if they were prisoners of war. Once the fake prisoners reached the rebels, the tribesmen tossed them their weapons and, without a shot fired, the Americans captured the rebel leaders and secured the Philippines as their own. When I finished, I walked upstairs to the light of the kitchen as my older brothers set the dinner table and my sister, the eldest, made the salad. An entire day had passed. I felt as if I hadn’t been doing work, but had been deep within something my own and not my own.
I often think about that moment as a primary incident in my writing life. On the turbulent plane to Manila, when my fellow passenger asked if I was afraid, I remembered that essay and realized my sympathies weren’t with the Filipino rebels -- a group that included my Lolo's lolo -- but with the Americans. Sure, that was also the point of view of the books I had used for my research, but didn't it just show how far away I was from Filipino-ness?
“The only reason why people go abroad is so they have stories to tell,” my brother Max told me after his return from a summer in Europe, first working at a youth hostel in England and then busking across Germany, singing Bruce Springsteen and playing guitar. By "stories," I think he meant the kind of tales that share a sense of awe at being alive in this world. My favorite Maxabroad story is a song he learned from German punks: The little frogs, they are so happy The little frogs, they are so happy The little frogs, they are so happy In the night Qua-qua-qua-quoc-a-doolie Qua-qua-qua-quoc-a-doolie Qua-qua-qua-quoc-a-doolie In the night That was all the English they knew.
Any guidebook could tell you about the 7,000 islands, but only 1,000 inhabitable; about the 60 different languages and four major language groups; about the ruined economy that is the legacy of the Marcos dictatorship; about the destruction of Mt. Pinatubo; about the American military bases and prostitutes with AIDS; about fanatics who nail themsevles to crosses during Holy Week; about communist guerrillas and Islamic fundamentalists on Mindanao; about the terrible beauty of the impoverished archipelago.
I wanted to know something else. If we are creatures of this earth, if our identities derive from the places where we originate, then what does it mean to have an ancestry from these islands? What is an island? A metaphor for isolation, solitude, distance and peace? And what of its boundaries? The space where the wash of the sea greets the hard reality of solid earth; each taking and giving in an infinite struggle of definition. Where does one end and the other begin? Chaos theory and the mathematics of complexity answer this question with infinite space, following the fractal realities of jutting rocks and the shifts in grains of sand. There is no definition, only movement. No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is apiece of the Continent, a part of the main, wrote John Donne from the British Isles in the 17th century. Is that what I wanted: to feel myself a part of the main? if that main can be said to be my family, my history, my self.
“Fucking,” ironically, isn’t a topic the often comes up with family. At least, in my Roman Catholic family. Though it was my brother Anthony who once said, “I’ve never had an ancestor who didn’t have sex at least once.” There is a family story, one that I had always thought of as being from the age of conquistadors, but it was from the 19th century. Perhaps my confusion stems from the fact that we don’t have words for ancestors who pre-date our grandparents. Specificity becomes cumbersome. We’re limited to three generations before, three generations after. But ancient stories linger. I’ve always known that my Lola’s side of the family descended from a Franciscan missionary. Perhaps the word “descended” made him sound feudal. He is my great-great-great grandfather. Father Francisco Lopez came from Granada, Spain. I can’t help but think that his arrival to the Philippines wasn’t only about preserving immortal souls for heaven and managing church-owned land -- it was also about making new souls. It was about fucking. 69
One saying about the Philippines’ colonial past, first with Spain, then America, is, “Four hundred years in the convent; fifty in the whorehouse.” After World War II, with US servicemen and “sex tours” from places like Japan, the Philippines was -- and perhaps still is -- a place where men go to fuck. Father Lopez, like many other ordained rulers, were forebears to the sex trade. He fucked, and he fucked a lot. At least enough to have eight children. Nonetheless, my Lola often joked, “We are blessed. We come from holy stock!”
Days before I left for the Philippines, I dreamed the Philippines. I was hiking through a lush jungle, where the only path was a relatively steep, shin-deep stream of cool, quick flowing water. A woman, whose face I never saw, led me by the hand. She kept looking ahead. Her calves were taut and tan. I could sense the heat of her body. My nostrils filled with the richness of the earth, and with the salt of her sweat mixed with other richer scents from her body. The climb was difficult with rocks and roots in the stream, and a wealth of overhanging leaves. But the landscape was bursting with life. Every rock, leaf and drop of water was infused with the unreal clarity of color that the golden light of summer’s late-afternoon sun can create after a heavy downpour. In a clearing, far from any stream, my attention was caught by a large flower with its vibrant red petals stretching open. The petals quivered as I approached. This place was a forbidden place. The fleshy petals were slick with a film of dew. My heart beat faster. I was drawn closer and closer, beyond my own control. I wanted to reach out for the flower, to rest inside the petals. I felt a heat burn inside me. Was my guide approaching? Everything went bright, vivid and real. I woke and my first thought was that I was no different from those conquistadors who feminized and exoticized foreign lands. 70
My younger brother, Matt, has, or is, Down syndrome. I never know which verb to use. Is Down syndrome a possession, a thing one can have among many things? Or is it an inescapable condition -- a primary mark of his identity like race, class and gender? One day, Matt responded to one of the many times my mother joked that she wished to marry someone else by saying, “Sorry, Mom, you’re stuck with Brown Guy.” Brown Guy, of course, was my father. When I heard that story, I asked, “Matt, but if he’s your father, that also means you’re a brown guy. You’re not white.” Legally, this is true. None of my parents’ pale, freckled children are legally white. Matt raised his white arm and studied it for a second before looking up at me like I was crazy.
Perhaps the most important aspect of my Filipino-ness is that my family left. One warm summer afternoon, my father and I were sitting on the back patio of my Lolo and Lola’s house. The patio is made of dark, gray slate stone and is surrounded by a rock garden in which cacti grow. In one corner stands a limestone statue of St. Francis that’s also a bird feeder. My father rarely talks about his past, but as a warm breeze pushed against us, he told me, “The way it is there, to get ahead, someone will do a favor for you, like get you a job. And then one day, they’ll ask you to do a favor for them. Maybe they will ask you to do something that you don’t think is right. But you’ll have to do it. We can be more ethical in America.” My father’s voice, as always, was earnest and direct, but in my mocking adolescent imagination, I couldn’t help but hear Don Corleone’s theme.
Still, I knew what he meant by "ethical." In the mid-1970s, we moved from Alexandria to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where my father was made the District Chief of the Corps of Engineers. One of my father’s tasks was to construct a new Brady Street Bridge. The old one had been blown up. It was a media event. I even had classmates who watched the destruction live, sitting with their families on picnic blankets in the hills. For months, commuters had faced horrendous detours and traffic jams because of the bridge. But on the day it was supposed to open, the media hounded my father: “Why isn’t it ready?” He said, “I made a mistake,” and the local media praised him for being a rare, honest public servant. I often wonder if he could have been as ethical if he had stayed in the Philippines.
Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport is unfortunately named after a man who was assassinated as he walked off a plane on his return to his homeland with hopes of defeating the dictator Marcos. He was also, by the way, a schoolmate of my father's. All the signs in the airport told me to meet my party outside. It was night, but a humid 90 degrees. Human arms, glistening with sweat in the orange glow of incandescent lights, stuck out from metal bars and waved. Lips hissed. No one called my name. The only place for me to go was down a ramp in front of me. Painted on the ramp was a thick yellow line dividing it down the middle. The left side said, “A - M” and had an arrow pointing to the left; on the right, “N - Z,” with an arrow to the right. I followed the left-pointing side of the ramp, in order to take me to my Uncle Toto Janairo. Down the ramp, then up and around and I saw all the backs of the hissing arm wavers. They continued to hiss, hiss, hiss. Sometimes, voices would explode with someone’s name and a crowd of hugging relatives would converge, ecstatic that their long-distant relative had survived Egyptian Air. No one called my name and my body felt itchy. 72
I looked at bodies and faces. I had met my Uncle Toto three years before at my Lolo’s and Lola’s house. How much could he have changed in three years? Was that him? grayer? fatter? thinner? taller? I no longer trusted my memory. Worse yet, everyone around me looked the same. No one called my name. I decided that maybe a Romualdez (my Lola’s maiden name) had come. Down the ramp again and up to the later half of the alphabet put me in a place where the crowd was thinner. But what if the plans had been wrong. We thought you meant next month. Other passengers left in large groups. I found a phone and called Norma “Baby” Romualdez, whom I would be staying with for my first few days in the country. She was my Lola’s niece, the daughter of Uncle Ed, the former ambassador. On the phone she was all smiles and bubbles: “Your Uncle Toto is there. Yes. He’s there. You don’t need to take a cab. Not at all. We’re all here. Waiting for you. But we already ate. If you need a cab, don’t pay more than three hundred. When you tell them where you are going, they will want more. But be firm. Three hundred is the limit!” I liked her, I liked her dramatics. I paced. The outskirts of Manila was a dusty dim glow of small orange points of light, a scattered constellation. A man approached me. “Uncle Toto!” I thought. “Do you need a taxi, sir?” the man said. He was round, with a round belly and a rounded nose and a head that was small and round on top. Uncle Toto was square. “Where you go?” “I’m going to Bel-Aire Village, but I’m waiting for my uncle.” “Bel-Aire! I’m going that way. Only five hundred.” “I’m waiting for my uncle.”
“I wait with you.” We stood together looking at the slowly diminishing crowd. Again, I paced. The cabbie followed me, back and forth along the curb. When I would stop and look at him, he’d flash me a weak half-smile. Eventually, I heard, “My-kell! My-kell! I was waiting for you inside!” Uncle Toto, his hair shorter and grayer, hurried up to me with short, boxy steps beaming a wide smile on his square face. We held each other’s hands. He said, “You’ve been waiting outside? I had a pass from my bank and so I was waiting inside. I thought, you’d be coming from Tokyo, so you’d be wearing a suit. I had my men looking out for an American man in a suit. You’re not wearing a suit!” My men? I thought. I was wearing a short sleeve shirt, jeans and hiking boots. As Uncle Toto led me away, the cabbie followed. “Who’s this man?” my uncle said. I said, “He’s a cabbie who waited with me.” My Uncle Toto said, “What is your name, good sir?” The cabbie said, “Bobbie.” Uncle Toto shook his hand, saying, “Thank you so much for waiting with my nephew.” He slipped him some bills. Then, “Come, My-kell, your Auntie Norma is waiting.” He led me to a small four-door sedan. A pudgy man with a mustache quickly opened the doors. “This is Jun,” Toto said to me. “He is your cousin. He is also a Janairo.” Jun nodded as we shook hands. Then he got into the car and drove. On the way to Baby’s house, I stared at streets that could’ve been any town South East Asia -- illuminated open-air cafeterias, closed stores, paint peeling off signs, rumbling 74
motorbikes, dust rising and clinging to buildings that looked like they’d soon crumble. From the front seat, my Uncle Toto turned to me, his face spectral in the dashboard’s light. He handed me a brochure of a villa on the island of Boracay. He said, “My daughter has arranged a trip for you if you want. Maybe read this brochure and you let me know.” He looked at me looking at the dark, strange city. Thin figures in frayed clothes hurried down dark streets. I had never seen so many people who looked so impoverished. Perhaps Uncle Toto understood what I was thinking. He spoke about the politics of the country, reminding me about the People Power Revolution that put Corazon Aquino, the wife of the man assassinated at the airport, into the presidency. Then he spoke of the newest president, Fidel Ramos, who had been in power since 1992. Uncle Toto’s voice was like a slow, gentle sigh: “Not much has changed. There have been no major changes. Ramos was secretary of the Interior. He is a decisive man. If he wanted to do something, he would have done it already.” Soon after, we pulled up to the check-point entrance of BelAire Village, a barbed-wire compound of wide, clean parallel and perpendicular streets named after stars and constellations. The large homes could’ve been anywhere upper-class U.S.A. But it wasn’t and it didn’t fill me with a sense of home. Instead, the armed guard and the rows of quiet mansions reminded me of Embassy Row in Washington, D.C. I swallowed hard and braced myself. We pulled up to Baby’s house. I was in the Philippines, I told myself. I had arrived.
Michael Janairo was born in Iowa, grew up in Pittsburgh, and studied journalism at Northwestern University and creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. He lives with his wife, stepson and dog in upstate New York, where he works as the arts and entertainment editor for the Times Union, a daily newspaper in Albany.
OBACHAN TASHA MATSUMOTO I. The smell of mothballs always makes me think of her.
She claims that she can tell my fortune based on the shape of my face. She massages the apples of my cheeks as if she is molding clay. She promises me that my cheekbones will bring me fame. She tugs at my cartiledge. ‘Your earlobes are like bags,’ she says. ‘They are fat and thick, like Buddha’s. They hold much wealth.’ She does not believe that the shape of one’s face is merely the upshot of genetics. That genes that reveal less about one’s future and more about one’s past. My fat earlobes and round cheeks come from my father, whose ears and cheeks come from her. Like a facsimile of a facsimile, our faces are not identical, but whisperingly reminiscent. If our faces portend our fates, all my face suggests is that my destiny might have a common thread with hers.
To stave off starvation during World War II, she claws at the soil of the Chiba peninsula, uprooting grass to eat because she hasn’t any food. Even then, she never whispers a prayer in desperation. It is only after she moves six thousand miles away from Japan to Chicago that she converts to Buddhism, a religion that teaches her how to alleviate worldly suffering. She closes her eyes, murmurs chants in Japanese. Her liverspotted hands warm jasper prayer beads. Incense smolders, smelling of sandalwood and pine resin. For her, Buddhism is not about detaching from the world, but revisiting a world fast receding.
Though one is reincarnated, the soul does not migrate. There is no continuity from one life to the next.
Several lives elapse in her one body, from the daughter of a politician, to a starving farmer, to a lounge singer. In Japan, she discovers that she is pregnant, and marries an American soldier who dies in the Korean War shortly thereafter. In Japan, she marries yet another American soldier who abandons her soon after bringing her and the children to Chicago. Her third husband, the only one whom she meets in America, is the only one of Japanese ancestry. She meets him while waitressing at a Japanese restaurant. There is a shotgun wedding, and my father is born.
Her life is as American as Fitzgeraldâ€™s boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past; as American as salmon in the Pacific Northwest, swimming upstream; as American as Dorothy clicking her ruby red slippers. Regressive.
She tries to assimilate to American culture. Before she joins the Buddhist temple, she takes English courses. My father is born on Election Day in 1956, and she wants to name him Dwight. Instead, she names my father and his sister Alan and Alice. She cannot pronounce the names that she, herself, has given them. Ar-ran, Ar-riss, she slurs. She has three children, one from each of her marriages. Jim shoplifts records using a pizza box, Alice shoplifts clothing from Woolworthâ€™s, and my father steals candy and baseball equipment. The family dry cleaning business fails. All three of her children are stealing from the cash register.
My grandfather returns from the graveyard shift at a factory only to discover that my father had eaten a piece of meat that had been saved for him. Obachan watches her husband beat her son, calling him a fat, disgusting pig.
Her husband begins to shrivel, until he can only fit into boys’ clothing. His hearing deteriorates, until he can no longer sustain dialogue. He has rotted beyond recognition. She retreats from the family. She misses my aunt’s wedding to attend a Buddhist conference. Her English regresses. With each passing year, as Japan becomes increasingly more Westernized, she retreats deeper and deeper into Japan’s receding culture.
II. Obachan’s words are mangled by her accent. She serves me salty Japanese food which I do not find palatable. I wear her prayer beads as necklaces, bang on the altar’s gongs, and eat the mochi that is meant as a sacrifice of Buddha. She chooses my middle name, Keiko. There is a killer whale with the same name, and other children make fun of me. She tells me that I should enter beauty contests. ‘They’re not just for pretty girls anymore,’ she says. By the time I am thirteen, I tell her, 肉を食べない, I don’t eat meat, yet she stills serves me stews with balls of fish. She wants nothing more than for me to visit Japan. During my first year of college, she begs some acquaintances to offer me a scholarship to study at a Buddhist theological seminary in Japan, neglecting to consult me. I am not Buddhist, I tell her, and moreover, I have little interest in Japan. I envision it as a futuristic theme park with chrome buildings, with crowds of people too germophobic to touch one another. I want bucolic Irish pastures, or Andean valleys carved from prehistoric glaciers, or rippling sand dunes in Tunisia. I decline the 78
scholarship for which she has worked so hard, and it devastates her.
My parents were unmarried when I was born—a common occurrence in our family. The name on my birth certificate is Tasha Jackson, but my parents switch my last name to Matsumoto when I am young. Anglo surnames preserve their forefathers’ name, meaning that, as Tasha Jackson, the progenitor my lineage had been named Jack. Japanese surnames are vestiges of where one’s ancestors lived, forever entrenched in a home we no longer remember. Our surname, Matsumoto, translates as “at the base of a pine tree,” meaning that my ancestors had taken shelter beneath pine branches, on blankets of brown needles. In Japan, pine trees, green even in winter, paradoxically symbolize both youth and longevity. In Japanese, the home of one’s ancestors is integral to one’s identity.
When I am twenty, I plan to spend four months in India. I agree to visit my grandmother’s nephew and his family in Japan. Obachan is the happiest she has ever been.
III. I fly from Detroit to Tokyo. Due to the curvature of the earth’s surface, we fly over the frost-molded moonscapes of Alaska. The sun shines through my window during my entire flight, like an endless day. Flying westward through time zones, I travel backwards in time, until I cross the International Date Line that partitions Wednesday afternoon from Thursday afternoon, and I jump into the future.
My middle-aged cousin Keiko and her son Atsuko pick me up from the Tokyo airport. We drive to their home in Mito, the city 79
of apricot blossoms. In the car, they ask if Hurricane Katrina has caused damage in Chicago. I have studied Japanese for six years, and formal verb conjugations are my default mode of communication, not casual conjugations. My words are stilted and distanced.
Outside their home, a sign welcoming me to Japan sprouts from the soil of a potted plant. Inside, I meet Keiko’s husband, Muneo, his elderly mother whom I called Obasan, and their younger son, Tetsuro, a twenty-nine year old auto mechanic. Tetsuro and Muneo wear Hideki Matsui New York Yankees jerseys sent from my father. Tetsuro is in a post-hardcore band, and loves the Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., and Hüsker Dü. Though he speaks no English, his knowledge of American music exceeds mine. Muneo wears oversized glasses and is excitable, as if he is a child. ‘Call your father and your grandmother,’ he insists. We talk on speakerphone, and everyone laughs as I tangle my Japanese and English. This is the last time my grandmother and I ever speak. Muneo shows me a picture of myself. ‘Red face, red face!’ he yells in Japanese. ‘Were you drinking liquor? Do you drink liquor?’ He returns with a tray of white ceramic cups that look like the bottom half of eggshells. He pours sake for everyone.
I have searched and searched, but I have never found sake like that again. I learn that the flavor of sake changes depending on the type of the cup; different types of pottery retain heat differently, and the temperature alters the taste.
Muneo shows me grainy Xeroxed pictures of my towering Uncle Jim, uncomfortably bound in a kimono. Uncle Jim first introduced Muneo to Simon and Garfunkel. Muneo speaks no English, but knows the words to every song their albums. He sings “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in an off-key falsetto.
Muneo operates his acupuncture practice from the first floor of their three-story house. I discover that here, acupuncture is neither mystical nor New Age-y. Muneo differs little from a Western doctor. He whacks golf balls at an outdoor driving range every night, and owns an imported Mercedes, an indulgence in America, an extravagant luxury in Japan, amid Hondas and Toyotas. Muneo invites me to watch him work, breaching all doctorpatient confidentiality laws. I wince as he sticks needles into an old woman’s convex, liver-spotted back. He notices my discomfort, and sticks a needle into my arm. I lie down on a plastic bed that undulates beneath my back. He applies ointment to my skin, and presses a smoldering rod, about the size of a crayon, onto my arm, as if branding a bull into a herd.
Muneo and I ride a bus through fields of flooded rice paddies to go to Tokyo. There, we visit a Buddhist temple, where I buy Obachan incense. The nearby Tokyo Tower, reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower, but taller, painted red and white, and utterly graceless, casts a net of shadows like spider webs upon the temple. In a more modern temple next door, a funeral is taking place. I fee selfconscious. I walk away from the somber procession, towards the gardens surrounding the temple. I investigate trees that have been planted by Ulysses S. Grant and George H. W. Bush. Amidst the skyscrapers of Tokyo, occupying acres of the world’s most expensive property, are the Imperial Palace’s expansive gardens. Though rumored to be worth more than all the real estate in California combined, the gardens have been preserved for nearly four centuries, and were rebuilt after being bombed in World War II.
There are multiple calendars here. There is the Gregorian calendar. There is a calendar in which time is measured by the phases of the moon, with each month subdivided into six-day weeks. There is a calendar in which each year is measured 81
according to the number of years the current emperor has reigned.
Muneo and I visit the Kairaku-en, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, which translates as, ‘to share pleasure with people.’ We visit the estate of a samurai. Before entering the house, we slip our shoes into plastic bags, and walk past handpainted paper doors in our socks. The grounds are filled with plum trees, azaleas, and cedars, including one that is 700 years old. We watch artists in the gardens, immortalizing the park in oil paints. Near a frothing natural spring, Muneo and I see a motherless black kitten, its eyes crusted shut with discharge.
Each day, I go jogging in a nearby park, circumambulating a lake. I time my laps with an inexpensive digital watch, bright orange. Muneo and I ride bicycles in the park. In the woods, we watch as a Noh drama is performed on a vaulted wooden pavilion. The actors wear billowing silk brocades, and move rigidly, like stylized robots. They mouth their words as different actors backstage recite their lines into microphones, in exaggerated, yet stilted, cadences, reminiscent of exaggerated Al Gore impressions. ‘I am unable to understand the dialogue,’ I tell Muneo. He tells me that he, too, is unable to understand it. The language is too archaic.
In the middle of the night, Keiko, Muneo, and I board an allnight bus en route to Expo 2005, a world’s fair in Nagoya. To enter the Expo, we wait for two hours. ‘This is Japan’s hottest climate,’ Muneo says cheerfully. Sweat distorts his face like a melting wax candle. Inside the Expo, a quarter of a million Japanese people visit a microcosm of the globe, with cultural pavilions representing 82
Indonesia, France, or Peru. Muneo carries both a digital camera and a camcorder, and a tripod that, when fully extended, is taller than he. In the Toyota pavilion, we watch dancing robots gesture as fluidly as humans. Muneo sulks because flash photography is prohibited. Fun is fun only when fun is documented. The American pavilion honors the discovery of electricity. The walls are paneled with white television screens depicting summer thunderstorms. A copper statue of Benjamin Franklin clutches a neon string, which pirouettes from his hand to the fluorescent clouds on the ceiling. There are displays of the Wright brothers’ plane and General Motors vehicles. There are exhibits featuring the hydrogen fuel cell, but Enrico Fermi’s nuclear reactor is absent.
I photograph commodes with control panels that activate builtin blow-dryers and bidets, and Keiko laughs at me. Each bathroom in their home has a urinal in addition to a toilet bowl. The Japanese waste disposal system is an art form. The pristine sewer covers are engraved and painted with the pink blossoms for which Mito is famous. I encounter my first non-Western toilets at the Pacific Ocean, about twenty kilometers away from Keiko and Muneo’s home, which are nothing but terracotta holes in the ground.
There are two worlds here, the Japan that she remembers, and the hyper-contemporary world, unrecognizable to her, but familiar to me.
Obasan, Muneo’s mother, resembles a shriveled ear of corn. She grasps my hand and pulls me to her bedroom. Unlike the other rooms, there are no flat screen televisions or computers. In the altar, behind a glass display case, are silvery daguerreotypes of my great-grandparents and a yellowed parchment with the names of our ancestors, written in skeletal 83
brushstrokes. We sit on the tatami mat floor in front of her Buddhist altar, and offer bowls of rice and sticky candy to our ancestors. Obasan takes me to see the graves of her parents. She takes pictures of me next to their tombstones, and I unintentionally smile. We replace a dead bouquet with a fresh one. She points to the weeds that have sprouted between the white gravel of their graves, and together, we hold them, and tear.
Muneo and Keiko look as if they are going to cry when they drop me off at the airport. As soon as Muneo returns home, he types an e-mail to my father and me with the subject line, ‘I feel sad Tasha leaved Japan.’ With the help of an online translator, he writes, ‘This is Muneo. Tasha gone forth on time. She was very vigor. Would you please don’t worry. My family had nice seven days. We made wonderful memory.’ The day I leave, I promise Obasan that I will give my grandmother a jade green silk kimono on her behalf. I break this promise. She dies later that day. As Obachan is about to die, it is I who is saying goodbye to her family, not she.
IV. I am overly conscious of the prospect of death. My own, not hers. I have a connecting flights in Sri Lanka, where the U.S. Department of State has issued a travel advisory. The safety video on Sri Lankan Airlines features a demonstration of the duck and cover technique, a method as effective on an airplane as it would be during nuclear fallout.
I wait in three different airports. I feel as if I am occupying a liminal space, a threshold between realities, not reality itself.
Airport “terminals” are anything but. They are at once the ending, and the beginning, of a journey. An ending is a beginning. As Lao-Tzu says, to be born is to exit, to die is to enter. The arcs of our lives, intersecting.
Mahayana Buddhists estimate that it takes the spirit forty-nine days to become reborn. The forty-ninth day after she has died, her temple in Chicago celebrates her successful transmigration. I do not understand what happens during those forty-nine days, when she is suspended between two places. She is nowhere, beyond time.
I arrive in Mumbai at two o’clock in the morning. The weather is transitioning from the rainy season to the dry, and the air is thick and humid. Moisture seeps beneath the plastic face of my orange watch, and like an overdrawn metaphor, my watch stops.
The following day, I ride in a van to Pune, a city about four hours away from Mumbai. Rain cascades down the Western Ghats like waterfalls. In Pune, I check my e-mail in an Internet café. I have received an e-mail from my father. It begins with platitudes: I hope you are safe, I hope you enjoyed Japan, We should send the Hirasawa family more gifts, What would they like? He punctuates the email with, ‘My Mother died today. She fell asleep and never woke up.’ I do not know how to find a telephone. I wander around the city until I see a sign for I.S.D./S.T.D. international services at the entrance of a narrow passageway that is flanked by stores selling acid washed jeans and imitation Nike duffel bags. I walk up a soiled cement staircase. There is a woman behind a glass window, with a telephone on a pedestal outside of her office. 85
I have difficulties operating the phone, and the strange dial tone confuses me. I wake my father in the middle of the night. We are separated by eleven and a half hours.
Time is a messy form of math. I try to calculate the time when she died. I try to factor in time differences from the U.S. to Japan, from Japan to Sri Lanka to Maldives to Mumbai. Perhaps she dies when I am airborne over the Bay of Bengal, or perhaps she dies in the middle of the night as I am riding my first rickshaw. Though I donâ€™t know the exact hour she passed away, I like to think that Obachan died the moment I left her homeland. Whenever I imagine her death, I imbue it with elegiac beauty: I see myself kissing Muneo and Keiko goodbye as she is kissing my grandfather goodnight, and as I ascend the ramp to the plane, she ascends the stairs in her home, and as I walk onto the plane, she walks into her bedroom, and as I press my head against the cold window of the plane, she lays her head upon her soft pillow, and as the plane accelerates faster and faster, her heartbeat throbs slower and slower, and just before the wheels of my plane lift from the land of her birth, she exhales her final breath.
Tasha Matsumoto received her MFA from Notre Dame. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ninth Letter, Quarterly West, Marginalia, and Pank.
JOSH STENBERG I wish I could claim to be from a mountain village in Southern Hubei, but given my name and the language I’m writing in, that would take some fairly brazen imposture. I would have to move now or a dozen years ago to Chenzhou, study a no-doubtincomprehensible dialect and settle in as a crazy old white man, one would get older earlier there, and all without a lick of farming skills. All I could hope for would be that with time the people there would take pity on me, feed me, talk to me, accept me, if only as an oddity. Though even under ideal circumstances the authorities would never give me a proper visa for such dubious, unprofitable pursuits, would eventually properly deport me, a kook, likely just as I was beginning to master colorful idioms. And so, exceptionally, I won’t lie, I’ll assume no one’s identity, I’ll tell the truth, or something close to it (I already changed his name, just out of respect, not that I think it likely the story will get back to him or that you couldn’t render the Romanization into dozens of different character combinations, or that by simply suppressing the surname I couldn’t be referring to literally thousands of people from Southern Hubei), because I am not from near Chenzhou and never have been. But Qihua told me things worth retelling, and I swear solemnly—I have nothing more solemn than my word, devout little agnostic that I am—that if I ever receive a few pennies for these lines, which I won’t, but if I did, then I would try to go find Qihua in his cousin’s tea shop and give him half of what he deserves for the story, if it’s a story. After all, I did the typing. It came to pass as follows: I was walking down a street in central Shanghai when it occurred to me that I would soon fly home and should probably piece together some all-sorts Christmas Chinesery for the folks back home. Being Shanghai, there were (even at ten o’clock in the evening) various places where some convincingly gift-like articles could be procured. One shop had a few teapots in the display window, among which a fascinatingly ugly pink thing with a spout so large it looked like it might have been crossed with a bong. This was more than enough to pique my interest and when on top of it I 87
saw Qihua behind the desk, sipping tea and reading a magazine and looking bored out of his skull and friendly, I decided to go in. The ceramic toad on the shelf proved an excellent icebreaker. The meaning of this article had previously been explained to me by other teashop owners and attendants, but my memory is weak and there is no end to the questions one can ask about a toad, explanations may vary on account of region or level of expertise, which is nice because erroneous or mutated information is often more fruitful. Qihua rose at my toadquestion and began to answer it, hasty and eager and faltering and revolving the clay amphibian in his hands. He was smiling, indeed he was one of those young men who never leave off smiling, whenever I meet such a person I wonder if this is some kind of defense mechanism or if it is genuine bliss, a permanent high for the winners of some neurochemical lottery. Can there really be people whose happiness is without derivation or deviation? Can it last? Old men who smile all the time would perforce seem more calculating. But youth can convincingly be, or at least appear, gormless, artless and carefree. Qihua explained, dialectally lisping all the way, that this was a “golden toad,” which eats but doesn’t excrete (he glanced down in embarrassment here; excretion is presumably the furthest degree of his indiscretion), Converting the food instead into money. It was made of Yixing clay, but he thought these dots on the back might be copper, and I saw no reason to disagree with his diagnosis. And, ooh, did I see the Big Dipper in the pattern of toad spots? I didn’t but said I did, it seemed tactful, the idea had just occurred to him and it was obvious that it struck him as delightful. And why not agree? What dots can you fail to imagine a Big Dipper out of? Some of the spots were raised more highly than others, and we ran our fingers over its back, taking turns, in joint awe at small things, at textures and toads and tea and random encounters. Qihua’s smile broadened again, like the toad was a precious pet he had personally trained. Just how had Qihua ended up in Shanghai? Or, more to the point, how had he remained as nice, as patient, quiet and forthcoming as he was, in Shanghai? He 88
said he had been there only a month, and that was half an explanation. His cousin had summoned him to come from Chenzhou. So he was from Chenzhou? Yes, he was from Chenzhou. Well, from a county belonging to Chenzhou. No, not the county seat. From a town. A mountain village, really. Yes, the dialect was quite different. Oh, no—not interesting at all— embarrassingly vulgar. He clearly did not think that each dialect had its special charm, but also considered it rude to contradict me point-blank. He had never been to Shanghai before his cousin had sent for him. Nor to any other big city. He had been to Chenzhou, but what was there in Chenzhou? I mentioned a theatre I knew of there, but this he didn’t know, though he smiled and nodded as if he thought it very likely there was one. Some mountains there were very famous, and these I didn’t know. Surely I had heard of Suxian Mountain? No? Well, I should go. It had been designated a scenic spot, by the government. But the fifteen hours on the train had not been pleasant. Yes, even a little bit hard; he was willing to go that far, though even the word “hard” was delivered with real cheer. How did he find Shanghai? He found Shanghai big. He cooked at home and lived around the corner. I asked about a restaurant I had heard of, very nearby, but he couldn’t give me directions to the street; he looked slightly abashed, and I realized he might not have got around much in the city. Without spending money, Shanghai or anywhere else must easily shrink to a few stores, to a block or two, to the people from Chenzhou your cousin knows. I suppose New York had been like that once for my ancestors when they got off Ellis Island speaking only Swedish or Yiddish or whatnot and settled in hardscrabble language islands of a few blocks squared. Perhaps I was smack in the middle of the Shanghai Chenzhou enclave and didn’t even know it. Was I thinking of the toad for a Christmas present? Well, maybe for my sister. She might like it. A knickknack to place on her college dorm desk in Sackville, New Brunswick. Would it become the first, the only golden toad of Sackville? I wondered, but then decided I was overcrediting uniqueness. After all, many Sackvillers have been to China, and in China many of 89
them must have entered teashops. Qihua quite agreed with me. He seemed pleased with himself for making the connection between December, a foreigner, a purchase and Christmas. For piecing it all together. Did people give Christmas presents in China nowadays? Oh, yes. Not just in Shanghai? Oh no, at his boarding school in Chenzhou City—there had been no high school in the village— the boys hung their smelly socks on the bedposts for each other to put presents in. What kind of things? Little diaries, stationery, comic books, that kind of thing. Oh, yes, Qihua had both received and given such gifts. Winter was cold and often they had to sleep together to keep warm. It was too far south for heating in the dorms. There was no weirdness. He laughed at the mere idea of weirdness. But they loved snow there, because there was never snow; people love the rare, also the missing altogether. He told me, correctly, that I did not love snow. Meanwhile, I couldn’t get over the smelly socks, and went into little conniptions of laughter at the idea of the ersatz Santa Clauses and the fetid stockings. Qihua was astonished to learn that in my home we didn’t have stockings at all. It was nothing deliberate, I assured him, it is always unpleasant to disillusion, but we didn’t have a fireplace and it had never occurred to anyone to fake it. That’s what I told him; actually, it was a fib. We have always had stockings with our names threaded in or written in gilt pen, hung in front of the fireplace which my parents use every winter. I don’t quite know why I lied—perhaps that small shameless need to spur conversation or take on preeminence by surprising and countering and arrogating. And of course it’s true that many people don’t have stockings; at least I claimed something credible. Though untrue. It did look for a second like Qihua thought I was trying to pull his leg, but then his natural trust and goodness won out, and he smiled, I suppose he rearranged his thinking very slightly on the matter. If I insisted, he was perfectly happy to believe in stockingless Christmases. Who knew what other wonders nature concealed? I felt a disproportionate shame. In any case, his socks persisted. Nothing I could say could negate the existence or recollection of his Christmas socks. 90
Did he work the day also? No, his cousin’s wife and his cousin worked until nine, and then he came in and stayed as long as he liked. It was not hard work. Not many people buy teapots at midnight, even in Shanghai, and that’s why he liked my company. No, no, certainly not, I wasn’t deterring business by sitting there and chatting with him. His cousin said it was good for business just to stay open. Good for the business to get some air. Good for him to get some experience. He poured more tea into our tiny cups. He repositioned the toad on the tea tray. Was he a second son? No, no, the only. Then wasn’t he needed at home? Well, his father was healthy, and wanted his son to see the city, and give it a try. His family had land? Yes, of course, what had I thought? The question authentically astonished him. Maybe where he was from it was unclear what a landless person would do, what a landless person might be. No doubt some kind of sorry non-entity. I suppose land is still a pretty basic prerequisite in some places. Was planting and reaping mechanized? Oh no, they had oxen. Did their oxen have names? No. No? Then how could they be told apart? Well, there’s the yellow male, and the spotted female, and the little one that they think is their offspring. Don’t they know? Of course they knew about the mother, ha ha; the father was more of a surmise. The oxen roam. It could in principle be some other male. Isn’t there a danger of roaming oxen being stolen? Well, there aren’t that many people on the mountain. And it didn’t happen, ox-theft? Never? Well, not usually. So it had happened once! It had happened, once. They hadn’t figured out who had done it? No, no. It wasn’t reported. Why not? Qihua quoted a proverb I didn’t know. He had to write it down before I understood. Losing property allows you to avoid disaster. At least there’s a superstition to that effect, he explained apologetically. You say that whenever you lose something; that way you don’t feel bad about it. That’s why they never reported the loss of the ox. It would have been bad luck. That was all? That was all. Surely they guessed who had done it? Well, haha, in any case they hadn’t reported it. I waited for elucidation, but that was the end of the story. 91
And I felt frustrated and gratified that I would never come closer to a story of ox-theft than what he had just told me. I would never climb into the mind of a person who thought it would be bad luck to report the theft of an ox. I could spend a year in his mountain village and never find out more about it and be foolish for wanting to know. I could write a dissertation about oxen-theft in Chenzhou, or a novel about a family feud, played out in cattle-rustling and slaughter, and I was grateful that I was old enough now that I wouldn’t have to, that I could let it go at that, to leave Chenzhou to the secrets it didn’t think were secrets. Chenzhou seemed a thousand miles away. I wonder what they sang there? And what stories did they tell? If I went there, it would be cold in winter without heating, and the comparatively wealthy people would have televisions and watch them and the less affluent people would gossip about people I wouldn’t know, in dialect, and the old folks would say—my father could have told you a story to blow your mind; my aunt was a singer they came from four counties to hear. People all over the world now have become the children and nieces of old traditions, we only have the listeners left, old children who might still recognize and appreciate things, but can no longer perform them or speak them. Soon our generation will accede, to become these wistful old people, our minds full of things that were around when we were young. So he would need to go home someday? To take over the land? Well, maybe. He wouldn’t have to go home if he made a great great deal of money. He smiled, and for some reason that made the blow harder to take. A great great deal of money. Oh Qihua, Qihua! I wish I had some real power, that anyone did, that you could remain as you are, that your vague illusions wouldn’t need to be broken down by the elements and the harshness of human nature and the cutthroat geography of Shanghai and the experience of your cousin and the modest value of Yixing clay. I would hate to see bitter lines form around your mouth or cynicism to creep into your eyes. I know you are likely not innocent in the old boring ways—I think the girls will have fallen all over you already— spiky hair, melting eyes, shy manner, generous nature—but 92
inside, that is the real and valuable innocence, the total lack of coarseness or malice, the unwillingness to be disobliging, the belief in a world where there is no contradiction in wishing everyone well. There ought to be some place where you might be protected and maintained and not forced to age. And it’s an old and impossible desire, I know, but it broke my sentimental muscle to hear of the great, great money you will one day earn, even though you need neither my pity nor my affection nor my ridiculous dreamy arrogance and it perhaps is enough that you were once the way you are now, for another young man will come to Shanghai when we are both old men and he will come just as you are, touched only by an ambition too hopefully vague to be culpable of anything. For now you are whole and you bid me goodbye and to come back often and in my heart of hearts I know there are only so many stories about dorm socks and oxen that I will care to hear and really neither of us knows much about tea. But you’ve got to think these are the high points, at least for me they are, Qihua probably goes right back to work, doing nothing in particular, reading a magazine and pouring himself more Pu’er tea, forgetting about me right away, and perhaps I am the innocent, innocence backwards, so jaded I am naïve again, blind to the fact signs he may indeed one day be a great businessman. After all, I bought the toad, didn’t I? Yes, I bought a coin-clamping little toad, which promised to turn dung to gold. Take that, philosopher’s stone. And a couple days later it occurred to me that the word probably means, in Hubei province, not oxen but buffalo. Maybe. Water buffalo, and not oxen at all.
Josh Stenberg has lived in Hong Kong, Beijing, Nanjing and now Shanghai. His fiction has appeared in Asia Literary Review and his translations in Kyoto Journal and Renditions. Two book-length translations of Su Tong's fiction appeared in 2008 (Madwoman on the Bridge and Other Stories) and 2010 (Tattoo: Three Novellas).
Author Photo Credit: Gregory Costanzo
Interview by Sunny Woan
We have wanted to interview Ed Lin since Kartika started back in 2007. Finally, we got him, and right around the time his third novel Snakes Can’t Run (Minotaur Books, 2010) is due out in stores. Snakes is a novel that tackles the complicated trinity of the Vietnam War era, the Chinese (and the various disputing factions of “Chinese”) living in New York City, and human trafficking. Lin first caught our attention with his debut novel Waylaid (Kaya Press, 2002), which may best be described as provocative. Waylaid brought readers into a seedy Jersey motel world of sex and more sex, witnessed by a 12-year-old narrator working the motel’s front desk. If that package isn’t enough to spark controversy, the heart of the book is about that 12-yearold’s personal mission to lose his virginity. Not exactly the archetypal child-of-immigrant-parents Great-American-Novel material the mainstream literati dare to publish, which is why the novel initially received many “thanks-but-no-thanks” responses from publishers who were looking for Asian American fiction that better conformed to, well, “Asian American fiction.” Perhaps something about grandmothers with tragic pasts, abusive Asian father figures, or women in kitchens cooking Old World food. Fortunately, Kaya Press knew better, picked up Lin’s first novel and did the literary world a huge favor, did us APA readers a huge favor. Waylaid went on to win the Asian American Literary Awards in the Members’ Choice category. And then Lin won the award again for his second novel, This Is a Bust (Kaya Press, 2007). 94
Bust introduced us to Robert Chow, a deeply-flawed but relatable Chinese-American police officer who goes on to become a detective in the sequel, Snakes Can’t Run. The later novels shed light on the hard issues facing New York’s Chinatown through the perspective of a Chinatown native, albeit a displaced one. Yet it is this aspect of Lin’s novels that unequivocally distinguish it from previous fiction set in this community. Previous novels focused on outsiders, white knights rushing in to save the day; Lin gives us, perhaps for the first time in American fiction, a character raised by the community who stays around to make a difference. That, in spite of Detective Chow’s many flaws, is what makes him our hero. He is the activist who does not know that he is an activist. Snakes Can’t Run follows Chow’s hunt to track down the snakeheads that have been terrorizing Chinese immigrants. Along the way, he is forced to confront his father’s past, and how personal history intertwines with Chinatown legacy, with American legacy. Ed Lin, after all, writes about Americans in America.1
What provoked you to write about snakeheads? E.L.: I want to address real issues in my fiction and find emotional truths. It's the norm that undocumented immigrants are exploited in Chinatown, but it is tolerated because the system in place can't work without them. Snakeheads, the people responsible for smuggling people in, are as devious as the serpent who ruined the lives of Eve and Adam. Yet snakeheads aren't the worst; the restaurant and sweatshop owners who exploit the shit out of undocumented immigrants are.
A throwback to a quote from “Good Cop, Bad Cop: Maverick writer Ed Lin invades Chinatown” by Neelanjana Banerjee, Hyphen, Books Section, Winter 2007, http://www.edlinforpresident.com/about/Ed.pdf (last visited April 12, 2010). See last sentence of article. 1
The packaging and even marketing of This Is a Bust and Snakes Can’t Run have been more mystery-thriller, whereas Waylaid was pitched to us readers as straight-up literary. We understand that the writer usually has little control over such matters, but does Mr. Writer have any comments on this anyway? While you’re at it, go ahead and tackle the literary versus commercial fiction issue. What’s literary fiction to you? What’s commercial? E.L.: It's not like I want to have complete marketing control -- I wouldn't really know what to do. All I can do, really, is write the best book I can and be open to all kinds of promotional tieins such as readings and, er, doing interviews. (Hell, I'm psyched to do one with Kartika, though!) Now, in the opposite direction, I hate it when writers complain that they have to do this stupid thing or that stupid thing for a book because, "I'm an artist. I don't want to be involved in the commercial aspects." Well, tough shit. A publisher has taken a chance on you for a commercially viable product. If you think "selling" is "selling out," then write shit on your fucking blog and you won't have to deal with sales at all. What is "literary," anyway? I've had talks with editors about "literary" manuscript submissions and they all look for "story arcs" and "transformations" -- yet they accuse "commercial" fiction of being chock full of conventions! The "literary" or "commercial" labeling doesn't really apply to me, though, and many other writers of color. Like Junot Diaz says, writers of color are already labeled in their own genre. By the convention of marketing, "Asian American literature" exists and I'm in it. Waylaid, This Is a Bust and Snakes Can't Run are all in it. But the reality is that when you walk into the Asian American Writers Workshop to presumably see "Asian American literature," what you actually see explodes all possible boundaries and labels and you see the individuality of writers. No matter how you slice it, though, book sales are important. I just had this conversation with a writer friend who told me he wished I had a bestseller on my hands. I was like, "Aw, I just 96
want to be best loved." He said, "If you have a bestseller, you will be loved by everyone -- most importantly, by your publisher!" The cover art on Snakes depicts a woman with a tattoo on her back of a famous Chinese saying, “bi shang liang shan,” a literary reference to one of the four great classical Chinese novels, Water Margin2, which happens to be about gangsters, like Snakes. The saying, loosely (and imperfectly) translated, means “forced to ascend Mount Liang,” or “I don’t want to rebel, but I am forced to.” What significance does this reference hold for you? For the novel Snakes Can’t Run? Why did you include it? Were you trying to draw any connections between Mount Liang 3 and Chinatown? E.L.: I love Water Margin, aka Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men Are Brothers. I read the entire four-volume unabridged edition (in English) and I would miss subway stops because I was so into it! Yes, the book is about criminals, but they are like Robin Hood's gang; the country is corrupt, so the only way to be righteous is to rebel against the government and join the outlaws on Mount Liang. In particular, the phrase relates to Lin Chong (a Lin!), a government official who becomes disgusted by the actions of his colleagues and joins the rebels. Yes, it is one of the celebrated books of China, but the Chinese underworld in particular interprets the work as justifying their criminal operations. For me it represents a part of a cycle. The government becomes corrupt or ineffective, it gets replaced by a just government, and then sooner or later the new government also takes a turn for the worse and gets replaced. As far as it concerns Snakes Can't Run, you have to realize that while you Wikipedia.org, “Water Margin,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_Margin (last visited April 13, 2010). 3 Mount Liang was an isolated stronghold of the outlaws, or gangsters in the classical Chinese novel Water Margin. Wikipedia.org, “Mount Liang,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liangshan_Marsh (last visited April 13, 2010). 2
can round up the snakeheads, the demand to be smuggled into the U.S. will still be there and it will be met one way or another. I wanted it on the cover because there is so much meaning in those four simple characters. I don't think there is a single Mount Liang in Chinatown -- there are several of them, all filled with people who justify what they do because they're doing what's "right." You got your KMT guys over here, you got your commies over here, you got your native Taiwanese here, you got your Southeast Asian ethnic Chinese over here. . . After Waylaid, book reviewers described your writing as minimalist, and then came This Is a Bust, which (in contrast to Waylaid) you have described as a “pretty nice paperweight.”4 One rationale for this is Waylaid focused directly on the narrative of the boy, while This Is a Bust took numerous historical detours, as did Snakes Can’t Run; hence the meatier books. Why did or how did that particular aspect of your writing style change between the debut and sophomore books? E.L.: I don't think my writing style has changed. I write in the first person, so the narrative has to change according to the thought process of the speaker. A 12-year-old kid isn't going to have terribly deep thoughts (until near the end) or have much of a historical context as to who he is. He doesn't even know the difference between China and Taiwan. This Is a Bust and Snakes Can't Run are both narrated by a guy who is sort of in the thick of it. All these old rivalries brought over from the old country and being fought out on U.S. soil, as if the Chinese civil war was still on. Robert Chow has to give a context for what is going on, not so much for the reader, but for himself. I don't know about the "minimalist" label, but I like to think of myself as a concise writer. I recently wrote a short fiction piece and an essay for the first 4
Tripmaster Monkey, http://www.tripmastermonkey.com/archives/entertainment_arts/january_11_2008_t rip_lit_novelist_ed_lin.php. 98
issue of the Asian American Literary Review, published by the University of Maryland. Those were both written in my most neutral voice, and the fiction piece is my first in the second person. Check it out! In an interview conducted by Bryan Thao Worra in 20085 you mentioned that the conception of This Is a Bust came mid-stream through writing Waylaid. This often happens to writers, where weâ€™re working on one novel and halfway in, we get involved with a different idea for another novel. How did you handle the schizophrenia? E.L.: I think one can't help but work on more than one thing at a time. If you try to ignore a voice in your head, it just gets louder and louder until you can't focus on the work at hand. Waylaid was such an "external" sort of book, This Is a Bust grew out of a natural reaction to turning back inwards and selfreflecting. The first draft of Bust didn't even have any dialog in it. It was all thoughts. You also mentioned to Worra that you are a coffee addict. Tell us, in as much detail as possible, about the perfect cup of joe. Any bean preference, brewing methodology, cream and sugar ratios, flavored creams, any particular mug or carafe that it should be poured into? E.L.: I am not very particular at all, but I would of course prefer Fair Trade or otherwise ethical beans. I drink it black because I admire strength. I prefer it cold and my favorite kind is probably day-old cold coffee in a French press that's been sitting in the fridge.
Tripmaster Monkey, Ed Lin Interview by Bryan Thao Worra, January 11, 2008, http://www.tripmastermonkey.com/archives/entertainment_arts/january_11_2008_t rip_lit_novelist_ed_lin.php (last visited April 12, 2010). 99
This Is a Bust and Snakes Can’t Run are being said to have reclaimed Chinatown from the clutches of writers who have been exotifying the enclave for decades. 6 What is one of your personal favorite (tongue-in-cheek “favorite”) portrayals of Chinatown? E.L.: Probably the Chinatown in Gremlins. Good ol' mogwai! How much of the character Lonnie is inspired by your wife, Cindy Cheung? E.L.: Little to none. Lonnie's much too docile and naive at this point to be anywhere near Cindy. In your blog post “My Life in ‘Community’ Service, part 3”7 you discuss your parents’ initial reluctance to giving their blessing for your pursuit of a journalism degree. “You want to write books? Become a doctor first and then you can write books at night!” Let us indulge in a hypothetical. Imagine that a 17-year-old has just told her parents that she wants to become a writer, that she wants to write literary fiction for a living, get her MFA instead of her MD (or even MRS degree), and her parents have issued an ultimatum: if she majors in something artsy-fartsy, they will cut off all funding and the girl will become the black sheep of her family, or she can do her parents right and become a doctor. Now you, Ed Lin, get to appear magically before parents and child. You get the opportunity to say something to the parents on behalf of the child and something to the child on behalf of the parents. What would you say? E.L.: I would say to the parents that China's cultural strength is the arts. Every Chinese home has paintings hanging in it, accompanied with a poem. Even that nutbag conservative 6
Hyphen, Books Section, Winter 2007, http://www.edlinforpresident.com/about/Ed.pdf. 7 Ed Lin, “My Life in “Community” Service, part 3, January 20, 2010, http://www.edlinforpresident.com/blog/2010/01/20/my-life-in%e2%80%9ccommunity%e2%80%9d-service-part-3/ (last visited April 12, 2010). 100
Confucius (author of the Classic of Poetry and the now-lost Classic of Music) recognized the value of music, poetry and the arts in a just society. I would also note to the parents that it's only in the last century or so that Chinese culture has been perverted by war, genocide and migration that the arts have been devalued in the Chinese Diaspora (including Chinese America) in favor of "professional education" that comes in handy when you are on the run from Japanese/Communists/KMT/angry ghosts of ancestors. But there's nobody chasing anymore and we have to adjust our behavior away from "flight and migration" and reclaim our remarkable literary heritage. To the 17-year-old, I would say, write as much as you can and live your life as widely as possible. Do crazy things, scare yourself and tell the tales. Don't ever be discouraged. There is a lot of disappointment involved with every step of writing (and publishing!). Believe fully in yourself -- that's the most important thing. While nobody else can give that to you, nobody can ever take it away. Youâ€™ve mentioned before that you do not like to talk about your works-in-progress while they are in progress, but we must ask anyway. Is there any tidbits youâ€™re willing to disclose to Kartika readers about future publications? E.L.: Shucks, I'm not ready to talk about it, but swing by www.edlinforpresident.com to stay informed about my latest doings.
“Blue Orange Meltdown” Suejin Jo, 2009 Oil dry pigment on canvas, 60" x 36"
meditations on home
A PREFACE BY CHRISTINE LEE ZILKA & JENNIFER DERILO Dear Readers, Welcome to the Spring issue, the first of the new year! In honor of this, our seventh labor of love, we pulled together a Kartika Review like no other, asking emerging and established Asian American writers to contribute to what has simply, but affectionately, been referred to over the past few months as “The Home Issue.” A kernel of the idea first presented itself to fiction editor Christine Lee Zilka who, while teaching a composition class focused on Asian Pacific American literature to mostly Asian Pacific American students, noticed a recurring theme of "Home" and its ambiguity to a community comprised of dissidents, immigrants, and bi-cultural people. Students and the writers whose work they read may have shared the common thread of being of Asian Pacific Islander descent. However, these students were leading complicated lives: they lived in America, they were minorities, they had immigrated or been exiled, and even if they had been born in the United States, they were straddling two cultures. Asian America and its literature, fortunately, has diversified and become richer over the years. For instance, our literature is no longer centered on immigration but now spans so many themes including themes that have nothing to do with race. Alongside that growth, the complexity of identity and where/what to call "home" has not lessened. The idea of “home” began to take shape when Christine discussed it casually via twitter with a friend and writer you have seen in the pages of Kartika, Alexander Chee, not long after his "Portrait of My Father”8 had appeared in the pages of Granta's "Father issue." Suddenly, Christine wished that she could ask other writers the same question about home.
Alexander Chee. “Portrait of My Father,” Granta, March 2009 (http://www.granta.com/Online-Only/Portrait-of-my-father-Alex-Chee). 8
And voila--the idea for this issue was born: What is Home? So, weâ€”fiction editor Christine + nonfiction editor Jennifer Deriloâ€”partnered up with the entire editorial staff of Kartika, the four of us (including Sunny Woan and Kenji Liu) asking at first, friends and then friends of friends who all happened to be emerging and established Asian American writers. We asked our teachers and mentors, our friends, we asked the friends of our friends, and we mustered up the courage and chutzpah to ask writers we didn't know. We were thrilled when they agreed to contribute to our pages. For weeks, as their pieces rolled in, we opened them like gifts, ecstatic. These pieces were magical, nostalgic, historical, even political. Their pieces touched us, their pieces thrilled us, their pieces made us squeal, made us cry, made us think more deeply about what it is we considered home. Home, as you, dear readers, will discover with our Famous Writers, is everywhere, sometimes nowhere, is a place or not a place, is constant or always changing, is carried in the body via food, love, grief, imaginary worlds, or secrets. Home is ever expanding or locatable on a map in one or more grids or completely disappeared. Home is sometimes abandoned, other times re-inhabited, many times forgotten, but somehow it is always occupied or it occupies you. Home doesn't exist anymore or has yet to exist. It can be found in pages, in myths, in objects, in a word. Home is a struggle between dealing with what you cannot change and finally making it your own. Home is the accumulation of stuff, brand new, secondhand, tucked away, inherited, misplaced. Home can never be revisited--or so most people advise--yet you may be obligated to return when time wears out bodies, when something feels like missing, when life moves without you. But whatever its incarnation, its face, its story, a home lives. What is home to you? Christine Lee Zilka, Fiction Editor Jennifer Derilo, Creative Non-Fiction Editor
ELMAZ ABINADER Men carried tables, women covered them. From the basement, from the shed, a folding table from the closet, pushed together where their heights didn’t match and tablecloths had to be laid end to end, patchwork quilt of Lebanese brocade and mother’s handmade lace. We sisters were still in our church dresses but the brothers were allowed to take off their ties as they set up tea trays and card tables in the living room and dining room, going in and out of the house carrying extra chairs. Our people were coming. A small chill of excitement ran up my legs. I loved the smothering fog of the crowd who would soon arrive and fill our house. The collection of our cousins and aunts and uncles were nothing like the people who lived in this small Pennsylvania town. They were not the ladies from church in stiff hats or the families who circled the card tables when my mother hosted a Bid Five Hundred card party. Our people arrived with kisses, boomeranging the walls with Arabic choruses, grabbing us in large hugs, throwing our faces one side, then another, and back–three huge kisses, Lebanese style. Our people–relatives from around Pennsylvania and Ohio, from other small towns with factories and mills where the fathers worked and where trains ran right behind their houses across to Bethlehem Steel. Cars filled the street from our house all the way to my father’s store in town, up Cannon Hill, down Deep Crease. No one from Masontown except for my Aunt and her family was invited to these feasts. The neighbors who stood on 108
their porches, hands on their hips, witnessed the gathering of priests and uncles and aunts; children and babies. These visitors looked like us, dark and shady, dressed in Jackie Kennedy suits and dangerous high heels, cheeks blushed red, and chins powdered light. They came smoking cigarettes, carrying cookies and letters from the old country. On the other side of our door was Main Street with the slow Sunday traffic, the roads leading to my school, to the store, to my piano lessons above the McKayâ€™s Furniture, to the coalmines and Girl Scout meetings, but no one from town approached the screen door with the metal S in the grate on the screen. On our side of the door, we circled the table laid with roast lamb and yogurt, humus and tabouleh; filled our plates and bellies. Tiny cups of muddy coffee, diamonds of baklava passed around chairs in a circle. We yelled in a language no one knew but us. Read letters from far away drawing tears and memories. Music played and we danced in lines along the few open spaces of the living room and dining room. Time passed into night. Others in town basked in the rays of the Ed Sullivan Show. We leaned on each other full and complete. We inhabited this place and nowhere else on earth existed.
Elmaz Abinaderâ€™s books, Children of the Roojme, a Family's Journey from Lebanon and In The Country of My Dreams... , as well as her play, Country of Origin, illustrate personal lives of Arabs and Arab Americans negotiating hostile terrain, cultural polarities, and geographic and social displacement. Her other works, 32 Mohammed, Ramadan Moon, The Torture Quartet and Messages from the Siege provide an articulation of the effect of political ctions on personal lives both here and in the Middle East. The Oregon Drama Critics cited Country of Origin for its excellence by awarding two Drammies to the play and to the composer of the music, Tony Khalife. Other awards include a PEN Award for In the Country of My Dreams... and a Goldies Award for Literature.
For me, California was always a place to visit – and that’s what I did from 1989 to 1996. I was a sojourner in California, first in San Francisco, where the congestion, the high costs of living and the city’s intolerable smugness pushed me west, to Sacramento, where the angry sounds on hot summer nights – shotgun blasts and sometimes fully automatic bursts – sealed my decision. Toss in a failing marriage and… …in 1996, I went home, to Seattle, where my father and uncles are buried and my mother still lived. She was frail and aged and, I was convinced, thinking of joining them soon. Fourteen years later, Mom is still here. I’d like to think it’s because all of her kids are nearby. But maybe there’s more. Lake Washington and Puget Sound to the east and west of the city and beyond, snow capped peaks to the west and east. Such stunning vistas, especially on cold and clear December mornings. When I was young, our family was poor. But no matter. My parents and I would savor those sights that money couldn’t buy.
Peter Bacho is the author of five books: Cebu, Dark Blue Suit, Boxing in Black and White, Nelson's Run, and his latest, Entrys. His books have received several awards, including the 1992 American Book Award. 110
He is a writing professor at Evergreen State College. Bacho was born in Seattle, Washington in 1950 and grew up in Seattle’s Central District.
When I was five years old and we lived in Guam, I had a fantasy that my real family were dolphins, and that I had been left behind with humanity to teach them something about the dolphin’s world. I had been watching a great deal of Man From Atlantis, and even taught myself to swim like he did, with my arms at my sides, doing a dolphin kick. I wanted to live underwater. I would stand at the edge of the ocean and command my imaginary dolphin family mentally, glaring at the ocean surface. Please come back for me! I want to go home! Nothing came of it. Except that I developed a great deal of lung power, able to hold my breath underwater in high school for 75 yards. Everything in the air always seemed a little less beautiful, a little worse. Everything underwater felt beautiful, right, lovely. And to this day, I still feel happier when I sink below the surface of the water and the sounds in the air can't get at me so quickly. Each movement to the surface to breathe feels like a relief and a betrayal. It's always amused me—the feeling of being alien, the delusions of grandeur, the personal mythology of that childhood fantasy. Years later, I understood it a little better— the year before my father had been living on the Tektite II Underwater living experiment. He was an oceanographer, and 112
the project wanted to see if humanity could live below the sea. He sent us postcards while down there—my brother, who was just 1 year old at the time and couldn’t read, received one that said “Dear Christopher” and then was covered with handdrawn fish, signed “Love, Dad”. I think my desire to see my father and his living under the ocean without me, it turned into this. But now I can never think of a place as really my home without thinking of the sea. And it doesn't explain how I felt when I first saw the bones inside a dolphin fin, the way it looks like a hand. I felt the nick of a recognition. I wanted to reach out and take it, clasp it. Swim away with it. I thought of the myth of the sailors Dionysus turned into dolphins, Etruscan pirates he surrendered to the water forever after they tried to trick him, turned into messengers for the god of the sea. But we've speculated as well that dolphins are more intelligent than us--we know they have a larger brain to mass ratio than humans and that they have their own language and communities. What if they're the next step? What if we're the aberration, the ones who should have gotten in the water and we didn't? And what if they're what we're meant to be, once we finish melting all of the polar ice caps and the surface is too warm for us to live on? Will they welcome us, or will they meet us with anger, for the long years we've polluted their ocean? We think we're the smartest of the earth's species, but is it smart to poison the planet? Is it smart to render the place you're born unlivable? Perhaps the dolphins know this, and are just biding their time, waiting for us to make the earth uninhabitable for ourselves. And when we pack ourselves off in the ship we'll have to build to reach the next planet we'll poison, will they rise to the surface to celebrate?
Alexander Chee was born in Rhode Island, and raised in South Korea, Guam and Maine. He is a recipient of the 2003 Whiting Writers’ Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in Fiction and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the VCCA. His first novel, Edinburgh (Picador, 2002), is a winner of the Michener Copernicus Prize, the AAWW Lit Award and the Lambda Editor’s Choice Prize, and was a Publisher’s Weekly Best 113
Book of the Year and a Booksense 76 selection. In 2003, Out Magazine honored him as one of their 100 Most Influential People of the Year. His essays and stories have appeared in Granta.com, Out, The Man I Might Become, Loss Within Loss, Men On Men 2000, His 3 and Boys Like Us. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Iowa Writersâ€™ Workshop, and has taught fiction writing at the New School University and Wesleyan. He is currently the Visiting Writer at Amherst College and lives in Western Massachusetts. His second novel, The Queen of the Night, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
JUSTIN CHIN I have lived in nine residences, across four cities and three countries. However, only two of those places ever appear in any of my dreams. Used to be, the defining test was where one wanted to die or to be buried. Then they said that home is where the heart is. Then, where the hurt is. Then, charity began there. Then, chickens, carrying packets of bacon under their wings apparently, came to roost. Then, a house was not a home without kittens or puppies or snuggies or rugrats or love or pie or whatever. When I told my house-sitter to make himself at home, I should have been more specific. I should have added, But don’t redecorate or reorganize the spices in the kitchen cabinets and for fuck’s sake, don’t sell my stuff. When it comes to home, details do matter. Home. Homeland. Hometown. Home-O. Auden said that home was the place where “the two or three things that happen to a man, happen.” There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, Dorothy chanted as she clicked the heels of her ruby pumps together. Poor dear, gets ripped out by a tornado and then forced to go on a road trip with a bunch of feckless and pathetic idiots. No wonder in an early draft, she skipped and clapped her hands and sang happily when the Flying Monkeys tore her gormless 115
traveling buddies apart from limb to unbloody limb and dumped their carcasses in a pit by the road. But the bitch was right. There is no place like home. No Place like home. There is no home, you understand. Everyone lives in a different home. Sure, the members of a family or a commune might live in the same place, the same house, or even the same yurt (Ah, Yurt Sweet Yurt!), but they all live in a different home. You and your sibling or your identical twin will all live in a different home. Beware of anyone who lives in your home. Itâ€™s the beginning of a horror movie. There is no home, there are only places like home. And thatâ€™s good enough. So then, where can one find home? In the dictionary, between holy and homicide, between heart and hostage.
Justin Chin was born in Malaysia, raised & educated in Singapore, shipped to the U.S. by way of Hawaii, and now lives in San Francisco. Author of 3 books of poetry, all published by Manic D Press: Bite Hard (1997); Harmless Medicine (2001), a finalist in the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Awards; and, Gutted (2006), which received the 2007 Thom Gunn Award for Poetry by the Publishing Triangle. Squeezed in between these were 2 non-fictions: Mongrel: Essays, Diatribes & Pranks (St. Martins, 1999), and the ur-memoir, Burden of Ashes (Alyson Publications, 2002). In the nineties, also led a double life as performance artist: created and presented seven full-length solo works here, there and where ever. Packed up those cookies in 2002, (with occasional relapses) and the documents, scripts, and what-heck from that period was published in Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms (Suspect Thoughts Press, 2005).
TESS GERRITSEN I am an alien in my own town. This frigid corner of America is as far from China as one can travel, yet this is where I choose to live â€“ an odd decision, you might think, because here I can never truly be comfortable in my own skin. With my black hair and Asian eyes, I am as conspicuous as a Martian when I walk down Main Street. I worry that my transgressions will be noticed. Was I curt with that store clerk? Was my tip too paltry at the local diner? I imagine them whispering: "That's how all Chinese must be, penny-pinching and rude." Willingly or not, I am the ambassador for my race, one and a half billion Chinese strong, and I take my responsibility seriously. I am always on my best behavior. I smile too much. I tip extravagantly. I am the model American citizen. The effort leaves me exhausted. Yet here I persist, living among people with Western eyes who look nothing like me, people whom (to be perfectly honest) I have trouble telling apart. But this is where I have landed, for better or worse, bringing with me the DNA of ancestors who could never have imagined how far a future daughter would travel -- to the state of Maine.
Internationally bestselling author Tess Gerritsen is a graduate of Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco 117
School of Medicine. Gerritsen started writing fiction while on maternity leave from her work as a physician and published her first novel, Call After Midnight in 1987. Since then she has written Life Support (1997), Bloodstream (1998), Gravity (1999), The Surgeon (2001), The Apprentice (2002), The Sinner (2003), Body Double (2004), Vanish (2005), The Mephisto Club (2006), The Bone Garden (2007), The Keepsake (2008; UK title: Keeping the Dead), and Ice Cold (2010; UK title: The Killing Place), among others, and her name became a constant fixture on the New York Times bestseller list. Gerritsenâ€™s books have been translated into 37 languages, and more than 20 million copies have been sold around the world. Now retired from medicine, she writes full time. She lives in Maine.
POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR I have moved 19 times in the last 14 years of adulthood alone. Before that I couldn’t tell you how many times my family moved from country to country and city to city. But I imagine, all in all, I have moved as many times as my years on this earth. I am clearly the wrong person to ask about “home.” I remember some homes more than others. I don’t know how I remember my first home, but I do. A big condo on Gandhi Street in Tehran that I recall only for its window behind my crib, revealing men on rooftops crying Allah Akhbar, a very sudden anomaly, my parents later told me, a product of the Revolution. I was not yet three. I remember the first American home: the apartment complex that sadly came with a name, “Tropical Gardens,” where I grew up, a home that was supposed to be temporary but that my parents still live in. I remember sharing a room with my brother, five years younger than me, until I was 17. (Then we moved across the complex to a new apartment with an extra bedroom). I remember feeling simultaneously irked and comforted by the sound of his kiddie snores. I remember listening to late night radio under the covers, my only solace for persistent adolescent insomnia. I remember the home abroad: 69 Vicarage Road in OX1, UK. I remember my room with its fake fireplace and a certain tattered nightgown I always wore and smoking Benson & 119
Hedges and listening to the Muddy Waters and endless Sainsbury beans-on-toast meals and constant self-loathing. I remember my anxiety about taking my first bath in that showerless bathroom that we six American had to share—how to wash all my all-my-hair?—and surviving. I remember that apartment in Baltimore, which I shared with my sick elderly greyhound, where I wrote my novel. I remember all our long walks through august Roland Park and how I became a glutton for solitude there, never feeling alone except for that one Christmas dinner of instant rice with canned tomatoes—a loneliness tempered by some relief, as it was in the aftermath of quitting the awful hostessing gig at the French bistro, the final shit job I remember the Chicago apartment in the Ukrainian Village that I moved to next, the one where all the junkies had died in before I got there, where my dog began to disintegrate slowly. I remember too-well the crazy old Polish landlady who claimed she put a curse on me, and the prostitute and the ex-con who became my only friends, who taught me how to run. In my spare time, I hair-modeled and blogged under a fake identity, finally flunking out of the last of my last fake selves. And the final Brooklyn apartment, farther out that any of our friends would go, the only place we could afford, me and the ex-monk boyfriend. And the mouse infestation and all weeks of having $10 between the two of us for dinner and the monthlong fever that didn’t kill me and my yelling matches with the landlord. And the two ugly ancient chandeliers that I adored and my dream writing room that I had to give up. Right now I am writing from another home, one in Central Pennsylvania, in a tiny village of 4000 with Rockwellian threeglobe-lamppost-lined streets. It’s a temporary one again, one where I teach more than I live. I am about to need a new home. Where, I don’t know. I go where jobs, or their absence, takes me. I have been in exile in my exile, to put it mildly. Exile in my exile in my exile in my exile. . .
Here is where things might get predictable, considering what I do, which has never been in question, it being what I wanted to be when I grew up since I was 4 (the beginning of homelessness, come to think of it!) . . . so, today I ran to my friend’s house, the one other fiction writer I know well in town, and I, long story short, ended up in tears. It’s not important why. But I told him at some point, “Thank goodness I have my second novel. It’s a place I can go when life is like this. I have another universe.” And he nodded and added, “A home.” And I thought, yes, as odd—even to me—as my second novel is, it is in some ways the only real home I have right now, just as my first novel was home to me for years. Maybe I have only had two homes after all. I am an Iranian-American—read: there was never a bubble to fill in, Caucasian and Asian and Other all equally in and out. Lately I have taken to that hyphenate tag, sometimes on forms even putting “born in Iran, US citizen.” Then I could also add “raised in Los Angeles” (or if talking to an Angeleno, really pin it down: Pasadena; or to a Pasadenan: South Pasadena). Formative years in New York? Raised in LA, grew up in NY? Now lives in PA? Will some day be somewhere, for a while, presumably, when those invisible silhouettes I call my new family get filled in? Will one day be earth, dirt, and, who knows, if anything, energy? For now, there is just the home I built for myself, the home I invite others into that I will never know. This—literally this—is the only place that I have to live, thank heavens.
Porochista Khakpour is an Iranian American novelist and author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove/Atlantic 2007). Born in Tehran, Iran, Khakpour was raised in South Pasadena, California, later attending Sarah Lawrence College in New York for her BA. She received her MA from Johns Hopkins University. Her writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Times, The Chicago Reader, The Village Voice, Paper, Nylon, Flaunt, URB, Bidoun and nerve.com. Sons and Other Flammable Objects was a New York Times Editor's Choice and was included on the Chicago Tribune's 2007 Fall's Best list. It won the 77th annual California Book Award prize in First Fiction and was longlisted for the 2008 Dylan Thomas Prize. Khakpour currently lives in New York City.
DON LEE TRANSIT Eighteen years ago, my father retired from the State Department. Pretty much his entire career, he had been posted overseas, more often than not dragging his family—my mother, older sister, and me—along with him to live in and on embassy compounds, Army bases, rental apartments, military transit billets, and hotels. At intermittent times we had a house in the States, but the only one in which I lived with any sense of ownership was in Falls Church, Virginia, when I was thirteen years old. It was a three-bedroom brick ranch house on a half-acre lot, and we moved into it in the thick of an unbearably humid summer. We had virtually no furniture. Heretofore, everywhere we’d resided came pre-furnished with government-issue appurtenances. So we went to stores and bought sofas, beds, tables, and dressers. We thought this would be our home for at least five years, when my sister would graduate from high school. Almost immediately, though, my father was assigned TDY—temporary duty—to various places overseas. He was away for a total of nine months that year, and then one night he told us we had been given ninety days’ notice to move to Tokyo, back to an embassy compound, back to government furniture. To be honest, I was happy, and relieved. I had hated the banality of going to the middle school in Falls Church, the 122
ordinariness of bourgeois life in America, and I looked forward to the adventure and distinction of being a diplomat’s kid again. We were supposed to be in Tokyo for only a year, then go to Paris—our dream posting. That never happened, and I ended up attending the American School in Japan until I went to UCLA. Fourteen years later, my father, upon his retirement, stood in a warehouse in California, opening up crates that had been hermetically sealed and kept in climate-controlled storage on the East Coast for almost two decades. Inside the wooden crates was the furniture we’d bought for the Falls Church house, used for less than a year and then never put into service again. Chief among the accouterments were a couch and a matching love seat—conspicuous because of their lime-green color. They were acutely of a piece with the era in which they had been purchased, the seventies. Curved, upholstered with some sort of luminous faux suede, the couch and love seat were hopelessly, laughably outdated, unimaginable in a modern house, useless. My father decided to donate the sofas, along with most of the other furniture, to Goodwill (although it was questionable whether they would be willing to take them), and to start over. I was living in Cambridge at the time, my sister in Seattle, and my father would soon move to Honolulu, into his new wife’s house. My mother was dead. For some reason, I wish I had been at the warehouse to see the lime-green sofas as they were being tugged out of the crates, freed from the plastic that had encased them for so long, finally seeing the light of day—if only for a few minutes, before they were abandoned for good.
Don Lee is the author of Wrack and Ruin, Country of Origin, and Yellow. He teaches at Temple University.
MIN JIN LEE For Bob When I was five, there was no Pottery Barn for Kids. I was living in Seoul with a busy mom who taught piano 6 days a week, a father who worked as a marketing executive, a popular older sister and a baby sister just out of diapers. Family legend states that I was unbearably shy yet had taught myself to read somehow. My first desk where I drew princesses and practiced my letters was an overturned crate covered with some sort of bright, silky cloth. In 1976, when we moved to the United States, I was 7 and change, and in our one-bedroom furnished apartment, I did my homework on the floor. A few years later, we moved to a two-bedroom apartment upstairs and changed dining tables. The old one that could seat four was propped up against the living room wall, and it became my desk. My sisters did not seem to mind that I got this bonanza while they used two kid’s desks from Seaman’s furniture store resting side by side in the tiny bedroom that we three girls shared. V. Woolf says rightly that a woman must have her own income and a room to write. As for income, I learned how to earn money as a kid working behind a counter at my dad’s wholesale jewelry shop. Maybe I’ll never make millions, but if push came to shove, I think I could probably earn enough to subsist on what dad called, “tea and bread.” As for a room, I didn’t have my own till my older sister went to college. This came later when our family got a three-bedroom house. Naturally, I continued to use that dining room table in my first 124
private room. Huzzah. The room was not large; it had just enough floor space for two twin beds (one formerly used by my younger sister who now also got her own room) and my giant desk. The desk surface was covered with neat stacks of work, schoolbooks, an AM/FM clock radio and a café au lait colored IBM Selectric typewriter that Uncle John who worked at IBM got for us with his employee discount. I don’t think I loved a desk as much until my younger sister bought me a desk from the catalog company Levenger when I quit lawyering to write fiction. When its legs fell off during a move, I paid over a hundred dollars to have it repaired when the desk itself had cost about two hundred. Two years ago, at the age of 39, I moved to Tokyo with my husband and son from New York City. The Levenger desk was in no condition to make the long journey so a month before the moving trucks showed up, I went to a modern furniture store and found an inexpensive, painted metal dining table. Under the fluorescent lights, the paint color looked candy apple red, and it seemed like an auspicious, happy color for a move to Asia. I plonked down my money and had it sent to my apartment where it remained boxed up until it was put on a freight container and sent by boat to Japan. When it arrived in our new apartment in Tokyo, I finally opened the box to set up my new home office. The color was hot pink. Not quite Mary Kay, more like Barbie. Hmm. I read the invoice from the store and under color, it read: watermelon. Right. Unpacked boxes towered over me; I was living in a new country where I didn’t know how to ask for water or how to read the subway map. No matter. I pushed the pink dining table cum desk against the wall of my office to moor me. I had a desk. I was home.
Min Jin Lee, the award-winning author of Free Food for Millionaires, attended Yale College and then law school at Georgetown University before working full-time as a lawyer in New York. At Yale, she was awarded both the Henry Wright Prize for Nonfiction and the James Ashmun Veech Prize for Fiction. Ms. Lee has also been the recipient of the NYFA Fellowship for Fiction, the Peden Prize from The Missouri Review for Best Story, and the Narrative Prize for New and Emerging Writer. She currently lives in Tokyo with her husband and son where she is working on her second novel Pachinko. 125
YIYUN LI Every spring Dad and I planted vegetables in our small garden. Every autumn a fourth-floor granny came before our first harvest, picking up the green beans and the tomatoes while humming to herself. The first time I caught her, I was playing on our balcony. I hid behind a trunk and watched her, not knowing if I should yell out to stop her. When I told my parents the incident, they said, “That’s all right. She doesn’t have a garden.” “But she is stealing from us,” I said. “You can’t be so rude,” they said. “She once sewed a coat for you when you were a baby.” The next year, the granny came and gathered our vegetables to her basket. I hid behind the window curtain and watched her. My parents had told me not to go out onto the balcony when she was around. “Don’t embarrass her,” they said. “Think about the coat she sewed for you when you were a baby.” She came back yet another year. “She cannot come every year to pick up our vegetable,” I said to Sister Jin. “She cannot do this forever even though she had sewed a coat for me when I was a baby.” She did not have the chance to do it to us forever. That fall she 126
died of a heart attack, a few days before I turned ten.
Yiyun Li grew up in Beijing and came to the United States in 1996. Her stories and essays have been published in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and awards from Lannan Foundation and Whiting Foundation. Her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction; it was also shortlisted for Kiriyama Prize and Orange Prize for New Writers. She was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35. She is a contributing editor to the Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space. She lives in Oakland, California with her husband and their two sons, and teaches at University of California, Davis.
ED LIN I moved around so much as a kid, I never felt secure in whatever house, apartment or hotel room we were living in at the time. I always knew we'd have to pick up and leave sometime soon. One of the reasons why I'm so into music is that it was essentially my safe space growing up. Husker Du's "Zen Arcade" was my life. After I was done with college and living in New York City, my housing situations were transient again and for the most part worse than ever. One year I lived in a puny studio that got more light at night than during the day. It was at the bottom of an air shaft and at 6 PM a floodlight would go on in the shaft. Later, when I lived in Brooklyn, my kitchen ceiling sagged with collected water from pipe leaks, and then collapsed entirely. But no matter where I lived, I always had the same six milk crates of records. Now, I still have nearly all those records and I probably listen to music more than ever, but my home is with my wife.
Ed Lin is the author of Waylaid (Kaya Press, 2002), This Is a Bust (Kaya Press, 2007), and Snakes Canâ€™t Run (Minotaur Books, 2010). Both books were published by Kaya Press, in 2002 and 2007, Linâ€™s works have been widely praised by critics, and he is the first author to win two Members' Choice Awards in the Asian American Literary Awards. Lin lives in New York with his wife, actress Cindy Cheung.
DAVID MURA TALES OF HYBRIDITY A man who lived in the hotel run by my fatherâ€™s family had a child with a Native woman. Up in Alaska, canning salmon. the women kept moving to seasonal labor. (The men saw no reason to fish for someone else.) Iron Chink they branded the canning machinery and who cares Nips manned its welding as the Native women scooped innards and bones from souls close to their own. How does the living man speak to the living woman fleeing the Christian missionaries for potlatch and native belief? 129
Why didnâ€™t she choose her own? Why did he leave? The heart conceals nothing but the heart, which is invisible to history but never the body. Issei. Tinglit. Hiding in plain sight. A baby called China Jim.
Recall May as an avenue into summer. A tryst in the fields. Jesus and a Jap girl. Sighs in the gathering heat and the first weeds. Tell me a story in seventeen syllables. Write me a window where his face appears and she turns around like a promise that can only be whispered and never kept. Which of them can believe in God? The gods tell us tales for which we pray but our skin simmers
as the summer enters and the strawberries ripen and motherâ€™s characters look away a moment as father mutters hayaku, hayaku and the earth proves us mortal providing fruit and sorrow in equal proportions. Half and half. An impossible notion.
Once there was a house. In the suburbs. My father recalled nothing, though there were legal documents he signed. No love affairs, no violence. Just a blank memory as if he ran away and never returned. I wished only for a cruel instinct. Instead I weep. I pull on a coat and itâ€™s cold. 131
I lie down and Iâ€™m clay. I shake my hands. Fists wonâ€™t appear. Only forbidden pleasures. Kisses from white girls and the separation that exists in a room where two lovers have given up their ghostly embrace.
We were a colonized people. We were a colonizing people. We were never a people. A nation. A tribe. In the story that brought me to the frozen heart of the continent dawn breaches the river beneath the bridge and a poet leaps into immortality or away from the personal life. There is no 132
personal life. My father learns English before I can be born. I learn Japanese to forget who I am. And our faces turn to history strangers to the happa children who slam doors in anger or exhuberance running through my home.
From Turning Japanese: My Grandparentâ€™s Kuni --David Mura Going to Japan brought me right up against the idea of home. Home, in one sense, is a limit. It restricts by categorizing: he was born in the country of____, the city of ______, in the home of ____. The Japanese, those insular, rooted, island people, are highly conscious of where they come from, their kuni . In contrast, I was pleased when my Japanese teacher told me that Abe Kobo, the Japanese novelist once remarked, "I have no kuni ." A compatriot, I thought, another of the homeless. Long ago, for my ancestors, the village of my name was the center of the world, and the mountains or the seashore, the edge of that world. Sure of their kuni , their gods, their values, those ancestors knew what lay beyond was the realm of unreality, the country of the dead, the dwelling of phantoms and nothingness. Generations removed from those ancestors, I suffered from a lack of a center, a fixed point from which to chart the stream. Instead, I was constantly sinking into the foam of formlessness, a dissolving identity--What God do I 133
believe in? Who are my people? What language do I speak? What are my customs? How shall I raise my children? Where will I be a year from now, ten years, at my deathbed? What is my history, the stories of my family, the myths of my people? The man who emigrated--my grandfather-- carried within him the memory of home, the former world, the place where he was once "real." It tore at him, that memory, and yet it kept him anchored: He knew where his home was, knew that he had lost it. The son of that man--my father--believed he could make the new place his home. The task was probably impossible, but it kept him occupied. The son of that man-myself--realizes what? That the new home--in my case, a Jewish suburb--is no home, is, in fact, for me an absurdity, a sham, and that the old home is lost in unreality. At the time I went to Japan, I saw my sense of homelessness and my defiance of limits as intimately related to my reaction to stereotypes. If American culture wanted to see me solely as Mr. Moto or the buck-toothed gardener, I wanted to outplay, to leap beyond the bounds of, other people's conceptions of me. I would not choose, would not settle; I would keep my options open. I countered with the illusion I could be anything. One day, Yeats said, the poet will wear all masks. Perhaps that was the reason it took me so long to return to the lost center, my grandparents' kuni.
David Mura is a poet, creative nonfiction writer, critic, playwright and performance artist. A Sansei or third generation Japanese American, Mura has written two memoirs: Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei (Anchor-Random), which won a 1991 Josephine Miles Book Award from the Oakland PEN and was listed in the New York Times Notable Books of Year, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity (1996, Anchor).
SHAWNA YANG RYAN DRIVING HOME For a good part of 2007, whenever I drove I-80 East from Berkeley to Sacramento, I would begin to weep just past Vallejo. Here, the road suddenly sweeps from the low land of the Bay Area up into the desolate yellow hills that signal the approach to the Central Valley. At night, the road is pitch black, sometimes dense with fog. In this liminal space, like Orpheus shedding flesh to become spirit and retrieve the dead, I revert from my Berkeley life as writer and teacher back to a girl, vulnerable to the mysteries of family and loss. In late 2006, my grandfather had died, and on those drives, at first glimpse of the valley, I was reminded of the void I was returning to. For two days in September, my family had lived in the waiting room of Mercy San Juan Hospital. There were twenty of us: my grandparentsâ€™ six children and their spouses, and nine grandchildren. The nurses gave us blankets and pillows, which we spread out on the waiting room floor among runaway crayons and loose coloring pages and bags of junk food. We cycled between the crackling chaos of this base and my grandfatherâ€™s somber white room. My grandfather was deep in a morphine-induced sleep. A clouded respirator obscured his face and his arms were splotched with deep purple bruises from the IV lines. We could not help but stare at the monitor, mesmerized by the plodding beep and jerking green line that mirrored his heart. Though we 135
hoped that he would clamber through the layers of drugs to wakefulness, propelled by a hunger to live, we were all aware that we were waiting for him to die. It was his fourth stay that year, and this most recent visit, instigated by his weak lungs, revealed an undiagnosed heart problem. The doctor said that the visits would increase in frequency, and that it was likely that a massive heart attack would ultimately kill him. Then the doctor gently suggested that my grandmother give permission to slowly increase the morphine, to “make him comfortable.” For the next two days, the nurses came in every few hours to adjust the dosage. In the time between these visits, we took turns whispering confessions and good-byes in my grandfather’s ear. I wondered if he dreamed us, if he desired to speak back but could not find a path out of his opiated slumber. By the second day of our vigil, we were exhausted. The nurses urged us to sleep. They would wake us if anything changed. My grandmother stayed with my grandfather while the rest of us crowded into the waiting room: slumped on the institutional chairs upholstered in rugged fabric and curled up in hospital blankets on the gray carpet. The room grew quiet and thick with sleep. It was in this peace, deep night, when only my grandmother remained to hold his hand, that my grandfather finally let go. The nurses pulled off his oxygen mask, took out his catheter and IV drips, unplugged the machines. They straightened his arms and smoothed the blanket. They turned on the fans and deodorized the room against the remaining cast of his final breath, and we came to say goodbye. When I kissed him for the last time, his forehead was cool and dry. This memory unfolds in the time it takes me to speed from the amber glow of the bay that recedes in my rearview mirror to the glitter of suburban lights in the valley that sprawls out below me. By the time my radio catches the signal of a Sacramento station, my tears have dried, and I am singing along. I realize that a final good-bye does not exist: it comes in pieces, again and again, unexpected. Just when I think I’ve 136
buried my grief, it springs up anew, another glimpse of Eurydice fading once more into mist.
Born in Sacramento, California, the child of parents who met during the Vietnam War when her father was stationed in Taiwan, Shawna Yang Ryan graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and received an M.A. from the University of California, Davis. In 2002, she was a Fulbright scholar in Taiwan. Water Ghosts (originally published in 2007 as Locke 1928) was a finalist for the 2008 Northern California Book Award. She currently lives in Berkeley, California.
LAC SU CÁ KHO Tộ When I was four in Vietnam, my father was wanted by the Communists. My family was forced to flee the country in a hail of gunfire, leaving a life of comfort and prosperity behind. I remember the escape from our beloved Vietnam in episodic flashes that still rattle me with post-traumatic stress to this day. I reconcile these anxious feelings by thinking about the last meal Grandma Ne fed me before we left. It was porridge with braised sardine in caramel sauce, or cá kho tộ. The fish sauce, sugar, shallots, chili, and ginger Grandma Ne used to cook the sardine caramelized over time at low heat on her coal briquette stove. It was a great last meal before our family—and three hundred other refugees—escaped Vietnam. While we ran towards a rickety fishing boat, the Communist soldiers blasted bullets and grenades at us. The next thing I knew, we were stranded at sea in the midst of a typhoon with two other fishing boats that eventually disappeared. Miraculously, our family eventually immigrated to Los Angeles where—despite high hopes for a paradise as beautiful as our lost homeland—we found out that the American Dream was not all it was cracked up to be. Living in squalid conditions and barely making ends meet, my family struggled to create a new home in America. But we were alive and together. We couldn’t ask for more. American food didn’t entice me; the taste was 138
unfamiliar, and it didn’t remind me of a place I once knew. Ma continued to cook Vietnamese food, and my favorite—just like Grandma Ne made it—was cá kho tộ. I grew up in America eating cá kho tộ at least once a week until I left home for college. Now in my thirties, I have a family of my own. We live a good hour-and-a-half away from my children’s Grandpa and Grandma and don’t see them quite as often as we would like. When I married my Mexican-American wife, the repast I was accustomed to at the dinner table was replaced with Americanstyle meatloaf and pasta, and a variety of Mexican dishes. These are my wife’s home-cooked favorites that her mother taught her. I rectify my craving for Ma’s home-cooked meals by eating out at local Vietnamese restaurants. Most of the restaurants have all the Vietnamese dishes that Ma would cook for me–but they aren’t Ma’s cooking. I feel something is missing. Every so often, Ma calls me out of the blue. When I hear that it’s my mother on the line, my first question to her is always . . . “Can I come home for some of your cá kho tộ, Ma?”
Lac Su received a master’s degree and Ph.D. A.B.D., in industrial organizational psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology. He is a senior executive for TalentSmart – a global think tank and management consulting firm, and he lives in San Diego. His professional work has been featured in BusinessWeek, Fortune, The Tribune, Globe and Mail, and various online and academic journals. I Love Yous Are for White People is his first book.
KELLY ZEN-YIE TSAI digging a hole to china 1. we are at war with ourselves 700 missiles point sharp noses across the taiwan strait my mother runs delicate fingers over plum candy, sesame bars, dates mashed with walnuts at the sweet shop in shanghai for the first time in 60 years these her 140
child tongue remembers before revolution before exile as she stuffs a plastic bag to its brim for the 17 hour flight back home to chicago 2. the engraver at the great wall didn't even turn all the way around before he muttered, "oh, hua qiao." and continued to hammer my father's name my mother's name my name the day's date into the piece of granite before him what kind of people are we to think that we can build anything big enough to keep 141
our culture intact that we can be impervious to change that we can shut the world out? 3. carol and i are useless american-born hackney-tongued we listen to my father explain why each of these places are so important so many poets so many temples so many gods i can read only the waving of the lotus fields the old women dressed in black reaching their arms towards the sun the children walking two by two gripped in each other's hands with superhero backpacks on
4. tiananmen square is empty of ghosts empty of blood just stretches of gray stone buildings and packs of postcards sold for a dollar soldiers tread lightly past me in green polyester pants striped with yellow their shoulders marked in red their faces younger than mine we are not so different i realize i press a kiss to my crossed fingers untwist them and let the kiss ride on air we survive every history in prayer in prayer
The Ballad Of The Maybe Gentrifier I’m not white, but I love me a white person’s wireless internet café. I don’t wear a thrift store grandpa sweater, scraggly beard, and oversized plastic glasses with my skinny jeans. I don’t expect the neighborhood to change around me. I don’t want it to, but I am clearly the face of this change. You could hardly gather from my eyes, my skin, my hair, and say this girl is reppin’ Bed-Stuy…hard. (Usually people guess Korean from Flushing. Wrong on both counts). This is the Bed-Stuy of Biggie’s ghost, boarded up brownstones with “For Sale” signs, plucked one by one, puckering into a revivified concrete bloom. Handwritten notes that read: “Will buy your house for cash. Call this number.” rolled up and shoved into rusty wrought iron fences. Rented dumpsters out front, hammers and nails and saws, brown bodies hang out third story windows for 50 dollars cash per day, painting the worn exteriors of brownstones brown. Is this life after death? Or a parasite? Or the green shoots of new growth? I walk by brick and steel and concrete boxes towering over the old hardware store, 144
even I can see the neighborhood is changing, and this change is also a part of me. Chinese Taiwanese from Chicago, Black from Seattle, Jamaican from Columbus, Pakistani from Austin, Mexican from San Francisco, We are the slightly less visible marauders ruffling the edges of rents upwards hanging out at Habana Outpost, kicking back mojitos in the summertime, designer sneakers, designer jeans, designer sunglasses, (Or at least, the knock-offs.) Will the real Bed-Stuy please stand up? The lifetime residents clinging to legacy in rent-controlled apartments, the old folks hanging in clusters on the stoop, the families at Marcy projects, the bodega owners stocking more and more organic produce, the children who went abroad and return to family buildings with European accents and college degrees, the Bloods and the Crips, the storefront imams and pastors, the hasty landlords with rings of keys and credit check forms ready on clipboards in the driverâ€™s seats of parked cars. Will the real Bed-Stuy please stand up? The Bed-Stuy of Timothy Stansbury and Rashawn Brazell. The Bed-Stuy renamed Clinton Hill and Stuyvesant Heights by real estate agents. The Bed-Stuy before and after white flight. The Bed-Stuy that survived the looting and the burning of Broadway in â€™77. The Weeksville Bed-Stuy. The Do or Die Bed-Stuy. The Bed-Stuy and Proud of It.
The neighborhood is changing. It is plain to see. I am a part of it. It is a part of me.
Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai is a Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based, Chinese Taiwanese American spoken word artist who has performed her poetry at over 400 venues worldwide including three seasons on "Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry." Winner of a 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts Urban Artist Initiative Award, she was listed as one of Idealist in NYC's Top 40 New Yorkers Who Make Positive Social Change in 2008 and AngryAsianMan.com’s “30 Most Influential Asian Americans Under 30” in 2009. She has shared stages with Mos Def, KRS-One, Sonia Sanchez, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, Amiri Baraka, and many more. (www.yellowgurl.com, FB: Kelly ZenYie Tsai, Twitter: @yellowgurlpoet).
THRITY UMRIGAR I have two contrary impulses that I have tried to reconcile most of my life. Mostly unsuccessfully. On the one hand, I am one of those silly people who wants to live permanently in almost any place that I visit. Even before I’ve spent a full day in a new town or country, I see myself living there, writing my books, making new friends, building a new life. It is alarming how easily I can imagine myself in new situations and places, how effortlessly the nesting instinct takes over, the alacrity with which I can make myself at home in the world. On the other hand, home is wherever I’m not. I am a mongrel, a malcontent, forever seeing over the horizon to a distant shore. In that sense, I am a true immigrant. Unease and restlessness are built into my bones and I find myself longing for the places I have left behind. When I am in the United States, I find myself missing and defending the warmth and bustle of life in India. I speak longingly of the crowded streets, the lack of alienation, the involvement in each other’s lives, the friends who visit without calling first, the neighbors who keep an eye out for each other. But when I am in India, those same customs and people, the gossip and the inquisitiveness, the constant scrutiny and gaze, the busybodyness, drive me crazy. I find myself longing for the coolness of America—the wide open spaces, the privacy, the stillness and quiet, the freedom to be solitary. The absence of 147
people who heap quantities of food into your plate without asking, who tell you to eat, eat, eat, who ask the most personal questions without batting an eye, who give you unsolicited advice on matters medical, legal, political and intimate. But then I’m back in America and the evening streets seem too empty and lifeless and the malls and shopping arcades seem shallow and soulless and America itself feels too clean and sanitized and unnatural. And the conviction builds that this is not real life, that life is meant to be soulful and dirty and messy and crazy-making. And so the cycle begins anew. My ideal ‘home,’ I suppose, would be some combination of involvement and privacy, closeness and distance, love, but not the smothering kind. That is the ideal I carry in my head and have, with some success, managed to bring into my life. It is a good life that I have built, I know this, but somehow it pales in comparison to the power of my dreams. In my dreams, I gather all the people that I love under one roof and we live happily together without quarrel or misunderstanding. There are communal meals, big, boisterous affairs, with much drinking and talking and joking. But when someone goes to place more food on my plate and I shake my head no, they listen.
Thrity Umrigar is an Indian-American writer, who was born in Mumbai and immigrated to the United States when she was 21. She is a journalist and the author of the novels Bombay Time, The Space Between Us, First Darling of the Morning, If Today Be Sweet, and The Weight of Heaven. She has written for the Washington Post, Cleveland Plain Dealer, among other newspapers, and regularly writes for The Boston Globe's book pages. She is currently assistant professor of English at Case Western Reserve University where she teaches creative writing and literature. She was a winner of the Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University. She has a Ph.D. in English and presently lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
SUNG J. WOO Growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, what I wanted more than anything was for my home to be a house. Frankly, I didn’t know what was taking so long. Why couldn’t my parents save up some cash and move us out of our ratty apartment and into a little Cape Cod? I never thought it was much to ask. It wasn’t like I was expecting a ten-bedroom mansion, just a little bungalow that we could call our own. A house was permanent while an apartment was in-between, ephemeral. I always felt like we were on the verge of escaping to a better place. Except we stayed put. Money, I was told, didn’t grow on trees, and I should appreciate whatever roof I did have over my head. We lived between those anonymous white walls for my entire adolescence, and even after I left for college, my parents remained, finally relocating when the rent got too high and they found more affordable senior housing elsewhere. During my freshman year, I lived in the dorms, which felt no different than the apartment of my youth. You weren’t allowed to nail anything into the walls, so I bought sticky blue clay-goo to put up my poster of Salvador Dali’s melting clocks. The welcome letter that came with the room made it very clear: at the end of the year, I was supposed to leave the room exactly as I found it today. I was a transient, living on borrowed time, in a borrowed space. I was miserable, and when a friend suggested that I join a fraternity, I looked at him like he was crazy. Couldn’t he see 149
how much I hated my life already? Why in the world would I want to join a bunch of beer-swilling meatheads? Well, my friend suggested, because maybe they’re not a bunch of beer-swilling meatheads? My friend, who was a sophomore, pledged that fall with three of his buddies, and when the spring semester began and I seriously considered transferring to a different school, he invited me over to the house. It was painted white with green trim, three stories high on a gentle hill, and unlike most of the frats I’d been to, the place actually looked like it was kept in decent shape: no empty beer cans strewn on the front lawn, no holes in the wall where a drunk person slammed his or her head through. It wasn’t immaculate, of course; after all, a bunch of college kids lived there. But it was no worse than the dorms where I was living, either. And like my friend, who was most definitely not a beer-swilling meathead, who was in fact one of the nicest people I’d met in my entire life, the rest of the members of the fraternity were just the same. A lot of them were geeky, awkward engineering majors, my kind of people, and I would soon learn all of their names and call them my brothers, because I ended up pledging. One of the requirements of becoming a part of the brotherhood was to upgrade the house in some way, to change its physical structure. My fellow initiates and I chose to repaint the dining room, and even though I agreed with them that we were being used for slave labor, I was actually ecstatic. Here I was, dipping my brush into the paint and making my mark: I was here. It turned out that what people hated, I loved. Once a week, everyone was given a common room to clean, such as scrubbing one of the bathrooms or vacuuming the carpeted stairs, and I couldn’t have been happier performing my chores. I was taking care of this house that had stood since 1910, my first house. I never much cared for open parties, but even those I learned to adore because there were domestic duties to be performed: manning the bar, refilling bowls of potato chips
and pretzels for the guests, DJing the music so my brothers and friends could dance the night away. What I treasured most of all was coming home after a long day of classes. Walking over the suspension bridge, making a left at Fall Creek Drive, trying to forget about the test I’d flunked or the paper I’d turned in late, wondering if I had the gumption to ask out the girl in the Faulkner class – and then there it was, my safe haven, and whatever problems I had accrued seemed a little less daunting. One of my fondest memories is this: it’s practically arctic out there, the snow coming down hard, the winter wind sneaky and painful, and as I wend my way through the blinding flurries, I run into one of my brothers, and we struggle up the driveway together, our boots crunching through the cake of snow and ice, and we’re running and laughing and bursting through the doors, and we throw our Michelin-man coats down on the floor and scurry to the two radiators in the Red Rug Room, our backs to the warm metal, alternately blowing into our hands, thawing. They say you can’t go home again, but that didn’t stop me from trying. After I graduated, I returned to the house twice, glad to see the innocent pledges turn into know-it-all upperclassmen, glad to see the dining room still in that awful yellow paint of my doing, but there was a bittersweet sadness, too, telling me this was no longer my home. This past June, I drove back to campus for my fifteenth reunion, and when I visited the house, walking through the halls I knew so well, I felt like I was being pulled apart in two. How could a place that felt so familiar also feel so distant? There were a few people staying there over summer break, and I kept thinking that they didn’t belong there, that this was my house with my brothers. But of course, it was me who didn’t belong.
Sung J. Woo’s s short stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, McSweeney’s, and KoreAm Journal. His debut novel, Everything Asian (2009), has received praises from The Christian Science Monitor, Kirkus Reviews (starred review), the Chicago SunTimes, and won the 2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature (Youth category). His short story “Limits” was an Editor’s Choice 151
winner in Carve Magazineâ€™s 2008 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. A graduate of Cornell University with an MFA from New York University, Woo lives in Washington, New Jersey.
BRYAN THAO WORRA Home Is To Box As To Leave Is To Free The old Russian tells me: “I don’t express my freedom By hanging things on walls. I travel.” In one country, no one stops me trying to leave. In another, they only stop me if I don’t recognize Words I was born among, such as “Sabaidee.” In yet another, I can avoid incessant hawkers by going A day without shaving and forgetting to watch My floating world around me with any curiosity. Returning, they doubt by skin and prior destination. A familiarity with Elvis and John Wayne opens surprising doors For now. My love asks me: Pick a shade of paint for our home. What a tether. Imagining chubby Buddha laughing if I keep attached To the picket fence jaws of American dreams, For a moment, I envy Baba Yaga and her wandering hut, The rivers she’s seen, the old mountains she’s eaten.
Projections Through A Glass Eye On the edge of Tu Fuâ€™s immense roads of magic My toes soak up ink like a paper towel I cannot help but desire to see that incredible day When my account of mundane moments in the Midwest Will appear as an exotic phoenix feather penning A fantastic epic on an extinct dragon skin For a beautiful young girl whose essential atoms Havenâ€™t even begun To gather together yet On the border of an as-yet unfounded nation So far from my own house of humbled dreams.
Bryan Thao Worra is a Laotian American writer. His books include On The Other Side Of The Eye, Touching Detonations, Winter Ink, Barrow and The Tuk Tuk Diaries: My Dinner With Cluster Bombs. He is the first Laotian American to receive a Fellowship in Literature from the United States government's National Endowment for the Arts. He has also received the Asian Pacific Leadership Award from the State Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans for Leadership in the Arts. Thao Worra currently resides in the Hawthorne neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Meditations on Home / Author Photo Credits
Peter Bacho: by Evergreen State College Alexander Chee: by Eric McNatt Justin Chin: by R.E. Morrison Tess Gerritsen: by Official Site of Tess Gerritsen Porochista Khakpour: by George Stilabower Don Lee: by Nance Wiatt Min Jin Lee: by Richard Corman Yiyun Li: by Jynelle A. Gracia David Mura: by davidmura.com Shawna Yang Ryan: by shawnayangryan.com Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai: by Berman Fenelus Thrity Umrigar: by Robert Muller Sung J. Woo: by Sandra Nissen Bryan Thao Worra: by Boon Vong
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http://kartikareview.submishmash.com/Submit Fiction | Attn: Christine Lee Zilka Short stories, experimental or interpretive works of fiction, flash fiction and micro-fiction pieces fall under our category of fiction. We give due consideration to all submissions, but we strongly prefer works under 7,500 words. Poetry | Attn: Kenji Liu Narrative, prose, or lyrical poetry, free verse, eastern or western poetic forms, or works meant as spoken word are all welcome as poetry. We give due consideration to all submissions, but we strongly prefer works under 2,500 words. Creative Nonfiction | Attn: Jennifer Derilo For creative nonfiction, we are particularly interested in works (memoir, reportage, letters, essay, etc.) that touch on themes including--but not limited to--identity, memory, family, culture, history, trauma, dislocation. Alternative formats and subject matter are nonetheless welcome. We give due consideration to all submissions, but we strongly prefer works under 7,500 words.
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BOARD OF EDITORS Fiction Editor | Christine Lee Zilka Christine Lee Zilka's stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, Verbsap, Yomimono, and elsewhere. She was awarded a Hedgebrook writing residency and her work was selected as a finalist in Poets and Writers Magazine’s WEX contest for the state of California in 2007. Christine earned her undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley and her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College where she was awarded an Ardella Mills prize. She is currently at work on a novel Poetry Editor | Kenji Liu Kenji Liu is a 1.5 generation Japanese-born Taiwanese American expatriate of New Jersey suburbia. His writing arises from his work as an activist, educator and cultural worker. Kenji’s poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoes was published by Finishing Line Press (2009), available on Amazon.com. His writing has appeared in Tea Party Magazine and the 2009 Intergenerational Writer’s Workshop online anthology Flick of My Tongue. Kenji was awarded a writing residency at Blue Mountain Center and was a presenting literary artist at APAture 2009, a multidisciplinary Asian Pacific American art festival. He is currently working on a multi-genre full-length collection of poetry, prose and visual art. He is a freelance graphic designer and also holds an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Social Transformation from California Institute of Integral Studies. When not writing, Kenji paints, boulders, chases sunshine and hangs out with puppies. His biggest writing pet peeve is when people don't know the difference between its and it's. Non-Fiction Editor | Jennifer Derilo Jennifer Derilo received her MFA (creative nonfiction emphasis) from Mills College, where she was its first Jacob K. Javits scholar. She enjoys reading (and writing) about people and things unseen. She often has nightmares about zombies. And abandoned predicate parts. Managing Editor | Sunny Woan Sunny Woan likes to dote on cats. She has a difficult time maintaining thermal homeostasis. Her creative works have appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Blue Earth Review, and SoMa Literary Review, among others. Sunny is a corporate attorney who works in-house for a global investments firm and the founder of a designer handbags and accessories company, Taryn Zhang International.
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Published on Mar 14, 2012
© April 15, 2010 by Kartika Review Cover Art & Design by Kenji Liu San Francisco, California S PRING 2010 1 K ARTIKA R EVIEW “Picnic at...