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  • Keana A. Labra

Chrysanthemum Tran, Vietnamese American poet. The First Trans Woman Finalist of the Women of the 20

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

When writers of color share their work, their ethnic background is often taken into consideration; however, individuals are complex and contain a myriad of experiences and identities outside of their ethnicity.

Chrysanthemum Tran is a Vietnamese American poet and the first trans woman finalist of the Women of the 2016 World Poetry Slam. Tran is a voice for both the trans and Vietnamese American community, and she is a vital representative for Vietnamese American transgender folks who do not usually see themselves in the spotlight when it comes to Vietnamese American media.

Tran writes about her experience and perspective as both transgender and Vietnamese American. In her poem published in the Blueshift Journal, Ode to Enclaves, she shares a narrative describing the shift of neighborhoods being a place of safety and gathering to catering to “white faces.” She introduces her home, Little Saigon, and her family’s favorite restaurant, Kim Phuong, where families meet in these “neighborhoods of necessity,” where “[if] we’re gonna suffer, / we gotta do it over good food.” Then, we are shown the beginning of gentrification with white faces “descend[ing] upon Little Saigon, / their crooked beaks eager to pick / meat off these streets.” This same phenomenon was reported in Seattle’s Little Saigon (though, there is no explicit mention of which Little Saigon Tran is referring) by Saveur Magazine, which shares the story of Yenvy Pham and her siblings’ attempt to “fend off the loss of their cultural enclave to newer, shinier restaurants.”

Restaurants that were the beacon of familial solidarity, triumph, and leisure were morphed into cultural “gems” for white visitors whose perception of authenticity is purely based on their experience and interaction with the staff. While an interest in other cultures is acceptable, entering and commenting on a historically ethnic neighborhood without seeking an understanding of the people who practice this culture and their history is an exercise of white privilege. Now, Kim Phuong

“plays Radiohead instead of Vietnamese ballads.

Waitresses speak enough English

to accommodate vegan diets.

Food bloggers all praise the tabernacle

of my childhood, beg to know

the magic of my people.”

This space, this enclave, rich with history and familial connections is reduced to a “field trip” in the eyes of the white visitor. Where once this neighborhood was abandoned and dismissed by the white population, left for Asian Americans, now “white people flock back to [...] rediscover everything we rebuilt.”

Tran answers the rebuttals of, “why accommodate white consumers in the first place,” with “the owners [...] can pay off debt, send their daughter to college.” The community is always in a state of bracing itself for the worst, “it’s my people’s / expectation that everything ours can burn / at any second.” She highlights the resilience of fellow immigrant communities and the importance of being connected to the people of one’s culture in these neighborhoods of necessity that are “always having to cook up / the most authentic kind / of survival.”

Survival is the state in which a majority of marginalized communities inhabit. Tran also explores the LGBTQIA+ community’s history in her two micros published by The Offing. In Behold! A Spectacle, she cites the Stonewall Riots, which is referred to as the catalyst for the gay rights movement. However, Tran shares the current atmosphere surrounding gay rights: while rainbows and parties (e.g. Pride weekend, festivals, and or parades) are easily marketable and consumed, the LGBTQIA+ community still lives in fear of violence incited by hate, “remember this / when you walk home alone / afraid of men who name you / pretty thing / praying they don’t come closer.”

This violence is more graphically depicted in On Using the Trans Panic Defense with the male companion of the narrator “[leaving] her unconscious / in the toilet alive.” According to the HRC, 26 transgender people were “fatally shot or killed” in 2018. Unfortunately, with the extremely partisan political climate, fatalities continue to occur against the transgender community, resulting in twelve deaths so far this year. Even more concerning, the violence against the transgender community disproportionately affects women of color, with Time Magazine addressing this crisis with the back-to-back murders of two black trans women in the same community. Too often, cisgender and heterosexual individuals engage in the palatable consumption and marketability of “love is love,” but fail to advocate for the transgender community in a way to foster an environment for safety and acceptance.

Tran’s presence as a poet is hope in itself: it proves that these narratives are important and communities that may not necessarily identify as transgender or Vietnamese American are still interested in learning about these experiences. There is much more work to do continue cultivating a diverse, welcoming community to encourage more people of color and LGBTQIA+ identifying folx to engage in conversations within the mainstream media. It is our responsibility to encourage marginalized groups that their voice does matter and deserve to be heard.

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Keana A. Labra - Milpitas, CA Contributor

Utilizing her background in English Literature, Keana would like to learn more about Filipino literature and history to bring an understanding and awareness to the culture. As a Filipino American, she is interested in further researching the impact of the feminist movement and how it affects Filipino tradition. She would also like to uplift the Filipino Americans who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. She hopes to encourage fellow Filipino Americans to participate and immerse themselves in the Filipino culture. Her hobbies include watching anime and reading manga. Follow Keana @KeanaLabra


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