Friday, March 24, 2017

Dear Mother

This is Essay #12 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished) essay each week during 2017.

[Ocean Vuong gave a reading at Rutgers-New Brunswick on Wednesday, March 22, 2017. The following is fan mail I sent to him.]

Dear Ocean,

Thank you for coming to Rutgers last night and offering your work to us. What a gift! It's one thing to read your poems on the page -- it's quite another experience to hear them read aloud by you, live & in person. For context, I was the first one in line for the signing after the reading -- I'm one of the creative writing faculty at Rutgers. And I know I said this last night, but I'll say it again: the precision of your articulations is astounding to me. And I don't know if you remember, but I went so far as to say that I should just stop writing! Of course, I won't. But this is the kind of impact you have made. Everything you've written in your poems, everything you said during the Q&A -- hit the mark every fucking time. (Pardon my language, but I'm a Jersey girl through and through! Sarcasm and foul language is in our DNA - haha!) In all seriousness, I cried during the entire reading. The tears came more quickly during the Q&A. You named a pain I had within me that I didn't even know was there -- it was buried that deep. And to name it with such accuracy -- holy shit. I left campus completely wrecked. Your reading destroyed me. On my way home, I had to pull over into a parking lot, for safety’s sake, to get the sobs out –that whole-body-heaving kind of sobs. This morning, more tears. You and your work, your words have broken something open (full disclosure: things have been cracking within me the past several months -- this, I think, was the big sledgehammer I needed. Also, I had just drafted a personal essay about my relationship with my immigrant mother -- which she had read, unbeknownst to me. This prompted her to have a sit-down with me about it... the conversation of which was very much what you talked about: how our parents ask why we, as poets & writers, interrogate their pain -- how could we do such a thing after all the hard work they have done to create happiness for us.).

All this to illustrate the extent of the impact of your work and your words on one person. There are not enough words, but thank you. I am ever grateful.

all my best,


Through the large window, morning light slants across the wood table worn with age. Deep, rich Turkish coffee steams from the white ceramic mug, placed on a saucer, accompanied by a spoon. A small stainless pitcher of cream, a tiny demitasse full of sugar packets. A short glass of ice water nearby. This is how you’re supposed to drink coffee.

A bench, cushioned, embroidered pillows on either side. Here is where I write, where I recall the depths of pain and memory.

I invent the details of your experience –no, the story itself, the whole of it—because you are silent. There is no memory for me to recover. It must be fashioned from nothing.

It is in the past, you think. What does it matter now? Why interrogate my pain? We worked so hard to make you happy. Why can’t you just be happy?

Because I need to know how I came to be who I am.

What is it to leave your country, thinking you’ll return? But then thirty years unfurl in the wind.

What is it to leave your home—for a new one, for a foreign one, a strange one, unfamiliar in its snow and ice, bundled in coats filled with the polyester language of English?

What is it to leave your country as its gates begin to close like the jaws of a shark?

What is it to leave your own mother behind?

You say my father planned to return after completing his medical residency and internships. Why does that sound like a lie? What are you denying? What are you hiding? Who are you trying to protect? Yourself? Or are you trying to hide from your own pain, your own guilt from leaving?

What is it to leave?
What does it mean to leave?

You left because you had to. At least that’s how I imagined it. What choice was left in the falling curtain of martial law? If you stayed, what then?

No one will talk to me about this. And so I must invent. Forgive me for the sin of inaccuracy. For the myths I create.


There’s this love on both sides, but neither side understands it as such. We try to communicate but we speak different languages. One does not comprehend the other. We cannot reach across the gap.

How to bridge the ravine that grows with each passing day? With the growth of language, of vocabulary, of, even, self-awareness, the distance widens.

What do you do when someone names your pain? A pain so deep that you never knew was there. And in that naming, the pain is made real. It is unburied, resurrected to the light.

You suddenly recognize yourself. What do you do?

Me? I weep.

And despite my mother (and father) telling me not to write about her--
then I write.

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