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  • Keana A. Labra

Vietnamese American Poets: Identity as the Core of Their Poetry

The success of blockbuster movies, such as “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” with its accurate and holistic representation of people of color, is inspiring a movement among youths, many of whom are actively voicing their support for representation in all media on all kinds of social media platforms.

Poetry, as a medium, may not be at the forefront of this movement; however, readers of poetry also vie for representation, as literature in academia is often curated with writers and poets who are either white, male, and whose background is primarily Western and Eurocentric. The Poetry Foundation is a publisher of the Poetry Magazine, whose mission is to highlight and elevate the poetry of the present, and it offers many awards to poets of all stages in their careers. Notably, the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Roseburg Poetry Fellowship is awarded to five young U.S. poets, between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one with monetary funds to allow the recipients the option of writing and studying poetry.

This year, the award was presented to five poets, two of them being Vietnamese American: Hieu Minh Nguyen and Paul Tran.

Both are active in the LGBTQIA+ community and foster inclusivity within the writing community. One can often find either Tran on Nguyen’s social media or vice versa. Though the two individuals have differing backgrounds, both often refer to their experience as a Vietnamese American as the core of their poetry.

Hieu Minh Nguyen is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota and is the poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine and currently at the Warren Wilson College as an MFA candidate. He writes about events that feel so personal; this is an accomplishment in itself as poets are often attempting to convey shared experiences. One poem that stood out in particular is framed around a question universally endured by immigrants. It is stretched, imitating the inflection in which this is often asked, in his poem, “White Boy Time Machine Software”, which is featured in the magazine, Guernica. The question being: ‘b u t w h e r e a r e y o u r e a l l y f r o m ?’

There is also an accompanied voice recording of Nguyen reading the poem himself with a careful cadence, as though he were a storyteller among an intimate audience, reciting the tale of the speaker sitting with the family of a white lover. Sitting with this family, foreign to the speaker, they position him as the “other.” As they interrogate him with “tick-ticked boring questions,” he reflects on his grandmother’s journey “when [her] heart fell out of place / & did not / return to its country whole / but who ever does / after leaving.” This family does not realize the effect their microaggressions have on the speaker, and he “count[s] the hornets that escape their mouths.” There is a realization; the speaker has endured this “for years i laid there & pressed / a ear against the humming / the humming i once mistook for static.” The conversation transitions to an internal conflict: the “machine” assures him that he has “nothing to prove” yet he remains haunted by his origins, as he is constantly reminded of his difference.

Poets are no stranger to the label “different”; poetry can be used as an outlet to vent the stresses and hardships of being different. Another Vietnamese American recipient is Paul Tran, and they are based in St. Louis, Minnesota. They are the poetry editor at the Offing Magazine and is currently a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow in the Writing Program at Washington University. They identify as non-binary and prefer "they/them" pronouns. Their writing is just as personal and haunting, with an exact ability to trigger the reader’s empathy. Featured in the online publication, Nat. Brut, one of their poems, “Taint”, is part of the Queer/Trans/Asian Folio. The imagery of their family is so vivid; with brevity, they declare the contrasting nature their family created within them. Their anger stews; they liken it to “a glass saucer of apple cider vinegar / on the table overnight.” With a melancholic grace, they provide us a snippet of family life: their father gone and only they and their mother remain, feigning closeness despite the “dead space between us, nerve pinching silence within / which we attend to our lives, reorganizing this / museum of decadent suffering, this performance / of union.” They try to hide the ugliness of their family life; the speaker describes this with scorn. These attempts are in vain, “as though our immaculate illusion redeems the filth / of being human.” To live and survive is their version of revenge.

The speaker then focuses on their mother again and their own wishes: she betrayed by a country that was supposed to welcome her with open arms and a child who wished to be someone else with different skin. And, a similar sentiment to those who also have immigrant parents is mentioned; the speaker’s mother also “denies everything afflicting her its brutal power / by exterminating her attachments like roaches.” But, as she erases herself, the speaker is erased too. Their “body splayed like a headless / Barbie on the bathroom floor.” The imperfections of children born of immigrants are under constant scrutiny; these imperfections are brought under rigid criticism. The intention of this act is to strengthen the child, to prepare it for an unforgiving world. To a parent, “that’s love: / possession, my mother preparing / me for victory the way our ancestors drilled iron-/ tipped spikes into the ancient Bạch Đằng River.” The poem ends forlornly, with a wartorn image, proof that scars never leave no matter how far one may be from the country of their birth.

Hieu Minh Nguyen and Paul Tran provide the representation greatly needed by young, Vietnamese American and LGBTQIA+ youths. Both provide a voice outside of the typical white male cisgender narrative. It is their support of each other that provides a sense of familial and mutual support. The need for stories from people of color has always been present; however, the outspoken desire is greater than ever. I may not be Vietnamese American, but I still feel a closeness and pride reading work from Nguyen and Tran.

It is only through the support of each other that we can all truly thrive.

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Keana A. Labra - Milpitas, CA Contributor

Keana is a student at San Jose State University majoring in English Literature and Animation Illustration. She would like to one day integrate her two loves in the form of visual storytelling. She is an avid reader and enjoys studying poetry, mythologies, and philosophical treatises. In her free time, she can be found reading comics, taking pictures, or watching movies. As an Asian American, she would like to shed light on feminist works in the Asian community.

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