Friday, May 9, 2014

Straddling the divides of culture, history, war and family: the poetry of Cathy Linh Che

“In 2012, I visited my grandmother’s burial place in Vietnam. While standing at her gravesite, it struck me how profoundly the Vietnam War had affected our lives (I essentially grew up without a grandmother, and she hadn’t met us until she was about to die). In this poem, I was trying to encompass the vastness of that loss, and also to honor her life..... I also recognize that her story/our story is not singular, but one shared with millions of Vietnamese folks in the diaspora, one shared by millions of folks who’ve been affected by and displaced by war, and really, one shared by everyone, as we all at some point see a loved one leave our lives"
Cathy Linh Che on the poem Burial

Cathy Linh Che

There is the rain, the odor of fresh earth, and you, 
 in a box. I bury the distance, 22 years of not meeting you 
  and your ruined hands. 

I bury your hair, parted to the side and pinned back, 
         your áo dài of crushed velvet, 
  the implements you used to farm, 

the stroke which claimed your right side,
 the land you gave up when you remarried, 
  your grief over my grandfather’s passing, 
the war that evaporated your father’s leg, 
 the war that crushed your bowls, 
  your childhood home razed 

by the rutted wheels 
 of an American tank—
  I bury it all.
You learned that nothing stays in this life,
by Cathy Linh Che

My mother lies belly down
against the bed,

her back is bare,
her arms thrown up

her head—

a body
in surrender.

I pour
eucalyptus oil

into the crease
of her spine.

With a quarter,
I scrape, press down,

bruise the skin,
pink, then red,

then purple. Good, she says.
That’s poison drawn out.

When I dig in,
the bloodlines emerge,

rib from spine,
each line a bone,

each bone
a story.

I excavate
the war, a seizure,

my older sister
buried somewhere

in the motherland,
where she lies,

a curled seed, still
waiting to grow

by Cathy Linh Che

While I slept, my cousin placed
his mother’s mask on me,
asked me if I loved him.

He wore wolf ears.
I willed him to hear the change
in atmosphere, the tilt of air

—no, no, no—

his finger slid
under the white

The air was cool,
my face on fire.

I wore my woman’s mask.
I was ten years old.

When he kissed me, the edges
of our magnetic fields touched.
Inside, my heart compressed

into a black hole.

I am profoundly moved by the poetry of Cathy Linh Che.

She writes powerful, poignant  and heartbreaking poems that straddle, not just the cross-cultural divide, but also the divide between the past (history) and the here and now (the present). 

As an American born Vietnamese woman, Linh Che's poems speak of the profound impact of the Vietnam War upon ordinary Vietnamese families. They tell of her own family's Vietnamese heritage and experience during the wars that consumed the Vietnamese people for over 40 years. 

As Linh Che notes here, the stories of Vietnamese-born Americans are not part of the dominant narrative, as indeed is also the case here in Australia. 

Part of Linh Che's intent in her poems is profoundly political- in her words "to write us in" and to describe the effects of war on families. She also writes about the silence surrounding the trauma and suffering of civilians caught up in war and sexual abuse and violence.

In this interview, she illustrates how the creative act of writing poems about one family's history and experience, provides insight into larger social, historical and political issues: 
My parents' stories of the Vietnam War are our connection to a country that is no longer our home. In telling the stories, my parents are passing on their culture and identities. It is very important to me to document these familial stories and present them, in order to tell what is our familial story. 
Also, my experiences of being sexually abused as a child are simultaneously singular and definitely not. The experiences of my parents, being displaced and damaged by the violence of the Vietnam War, are my own family's experiences but they are also the experiences of an entire nation (Vietnam) and its diaspora, as well as our nation (The United States) which is still at war.
Linh Che was born in 1980 in Los Angeles. Her Vietnamese parents arrived in America from a refugee camp in the Phillipines, where they spent a year after fleeing Vietnam in 1975, after the fall of the US backed South Vietnamese Government.

She is the author of the poetry collection, Split, published in 2014, which won the Kundiman Poetry Prize in 2012. She is co-editing an anthology of poetry and prose from the children of the Vietnam War called Inheriting the War. She is a poet, teacher, and arts administrator living in Brooklyn, NY.

Her website is here.

Her Twitter feed is here.

Interviews with Cathy Lin Che are here, here and here

An earlier post of mine featuring two of here poems is here.

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