Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Destroys the Worldbegins one month after the events of the first book. Tristan Strong and the mythical world of Alke are traumatized—but their battles are far from over. When folk hero John Henry is attacked by a mysterious enemy and Tristan’s grandmother is kidnapped, Tristan must journey to Alke once more to save what’s left of the realm before its stories are lost forever.
One of the things that immediately grabbed my attention about this novel is the fact that Tristan is traumatized by his previous adventures. He has nightmares and distracted thoughts even when he needs to go save the world of Alke again. This is compelling, because I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. In most sequels, the hero seems perfectly fine emotionally and is ready to tackle the next adventure. It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.
In addition, Tristan’s trauma allows him to better empathize with the residents of Alke, the world of beings from African and African American myths and folktales. Alke has literal scars and emotional ones, and things only get worse for it as the plot thickens. Yet there is also beauty, life, and history in Alke, and to see Tristan search for and attempt to protect those aspects of the world is poignant and emotional. By telling and collecting stories of Alke’s history, Tristan is able to put his skills as an “Ananseem” to good use in order to get to the heart of Alke’s current problems.
Part of Alke’s history lies within characters old and new. This second book in the Tristan Strong series sees the return of spunky doll Gum Baby and crafty trickster god Anansi (albeit in phone form), but it also introduces new characters like the mischievous and mouthy boy Junior. The introduction of new African and Black women characters in this book makes up for the lack of them in the first one. There is adventurous folk hero Keelboat Annie, resourceful juke joint owner Lady Night, and regal goddess Mami Wata. And I would be remiss to fail to note that Tristan’s grandmother, Nana, also has a larger role in this book as Tristan’s source of strength and inspiration.
Alke’s history consists of elements rooted in African American history and culture. These elements range from the painful and ugly to the lively and the resilient, embodied in everything from the new antagonist, DJ Culture Vulture, to the jollof rice served at Lady Night’s juke joint. A personal favorite of mine is the SPB, the portable smartphone version of Alke’s Story Box and the new home for trickster god Anansi. It was fun to see more of the phone in action after the events of the first book, especially through the new “Diaspor-app” that allows Tristan to see how Alke’s stories are connected to the Diapora.
Combining Alke’s history, Tristan’s trauma, and Alke’s current issues, Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. Whether it be through family, history, or a bit of both, many African Americans deal with intergenerational trauma in one way or other. Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.
Tristan Strong Destroys the World is a powerful sequel to its predecessor. There is more magic, action, and stories to learn from than ever before. If the ending is any indication, things are going to be even more epic in the next book of the trilogy. For now, though, readers who enjoyed Tristan Strong’s first adventure can join him once more and have their world rocked.
As a Black Asian nonbinary queer femme from the United States, I find it fascinating to learn about what life is like for queer trans people of color around the world. Some countries have more queer freedom than others, but somehow international QTPOC always find a way to create a space to be themselves. This is exemplified in Dean Atta’s verse novel The Black Flamingo, which is heavily inspired by UK LGBTQ+ culture. It tells the story of Michael “Michalis” Angeli, a gay British young man with Greek Jamaican heritage. Growing up, his multifaceted identity makes him feel out of place. After deciding to attend a university in Brighton, Michael joins a drag club and slowly discovers how to combine his identities and his lived experiences to make himself feel whole.
One of the most notable aspects of this book that immediately drew me in was how it flawlessly combines standard poetry with narrative storytelling. As in Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, this book’s protagonist becomes a poet and gradually uses his poetry to express his blossoming sexuality as well as his gender and his racial experiences. One of my personal favorite poems in this book is titled “I Come From,” which features Michael reveling in his heritage and the experiences that have shaped him to that point: “I come from DIY that never got done. / I come from waiting by the phone for him to call. / I come from waving the white flag to loneliness. / I come from the rainbow flag and the Union Jack.”
The narrative storytelling in verse is also remarkable because it shows Michael’s life from childhood to early adulthood. I haven’t read too many coming-of-age verse novels that present the character at different stages of their life. This choice allows the reader to see how both small and large experiences shape Michael as he grows up. For example, Michael recalls wanting to have a Barbie doll as a child and how his mom initially thought he was kidding, since boys are socially conditioned to like “boys’ toys” like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In a more affecting episode, preteen Michael takes an Easter trip to Cyprus and hears about a black flamingo on the news.
In fact, seeing how different experiences shaped the development of Michael’s drag character, “The Black Flamingo,” was thought-provoking and poignant. Inspired by events such as having his dreadlocks touched by white people and reciting his poetry at an open mic, Michael’s becoming The Black Flamingo allows him to transform into a more confident and fuller self. The character also serves as the result of Michael’s growth as a person and how he has learned about, and unlearned, things like internalized racism and Black queer lives of the past and the present.
Furthermore, some of the experiences that influenced “The Black Flamingo” also give the reader an interesting glimpse into LGBTQ culture in the United Kingdom. The contrast between a gay bar and a Black queer gay bar, and the homophobia casually tossed around by schoolchildren with terms like “bwatty bwoy,” show how complex the experiences of Black queer UK youth are, especially those of the children of immigrants. Michael has to unlearn a lot, especially regarding gender norms and heteronormativity. Neither completely fertile nor arid, UK LGBTQ culture is represented as something that Black queer people must navigate well in order to grow into the people they want to be.
Michael’s story also gives the reader a solid introduction to drag culture, with clear and creative explanations of what it is and what it isn’t. Since Michael is new to drag culture, the reader is able to learn about it alongside him. I love these lines that sum up what Michael wants from drag culture: “I’m just a man and I want to wear a dress and makeup onstage…. I’m a man and I want to be a free one.”
While The Black Flamingo is enjoyable as-is, it would have been interesting to see what the Jamaican side of Michael’s family thought of his queerness. Michael doesn’t mention his queerness to them at all, since he knows it’s illegal to be gay in Jamaica and that his family might have brought some of that prejudice with them to the UK. It is entirely possible that some of Michael’s family will not accept him. Yet given how completely Michael’s Greek mom accepts his queerness, it would have been nice to see at least one member of Michael’s Jamaican family do the same.
On the whole, The Black Flamingo is an electrifying, poetic declaration of identity. Through poetry, coming-of-age perspectives, and drag, the novel offers a triumphant tale of transformation and self-expression.
I am a multi-award-winning poet, artist, and performance artist working at the intersection of mixed- and digital-media. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, much of my work focuses on space, place, and identity in post-Colonial America and often addresses the vast disparities faced by indigenous people today. Many of my projects also directly address issues that have impacted me personally, such as mass incarceration, alcoholism and drug addiction, homelessness, eating disorders, and the opioid epidemic. One example of this hyper-personal implementation is my curation of an anthology of poetry by incarcerated indigenous women. I am the only person in my family to never be incarcerated, and offering workshops in correctional facilities while providing these women with a platform for their voices was a project stemming from my own experiences of having family members trapped in the nation’s “justice” system.
In the business facet of my life, I own a small writing services company (MehtaFor) which specializes in creating search engine optimization (SEO) rich content. The emphasis of technology in my business life organically spread to my creative and research life in the past decade. Increasingly, I have been utilizing technology in my creative work, such as the creation of a virtual reality (VR) poetry experience with proprietary software that allows users to immerse themselves in indigenous poetry in new, intimate ways.
My interest in VR partially stems from research from the University of Barcelona that suggests embodiment in VR has the capacity to permanently increase a person’s understanding, empathy, and compassion—my hope is that non-Native users who experience poetry in VR may undergo similar results. I also offer poetry in other non-traditional formats, such as in performance art with elements of shibari rope tying using customized measuring tapes to draw attention to eating disorders. Eating disorders are the deadliest, most under-insured, and most under-diagnosed of any mental disorder, and are especially under-treated in non-white communities.
Indigenous audiences are a natural fit for my work, but I know that those who might benefit the most are non-Native. I consider myself an artist and writer first, but hope to also serve as a source to help encourage knowledge-sharing, the opening of discourse, and information exchange beyond indigenous communities. I am constantly working towards making poetry, art, and technology as accessible and engaging as possible. Unfortunately, poetry is often seen as the literature genre which is the most elite, dry, and boring—even though this, of course, is not true. By introducing poetry to audiences in different formats, I aim to create a welcoming opportunity to experience the genre.
For more information on my art, background, and projects, please visit my site at www.jessicamehta.com.
Do You See the Stars?
This is waking up. Rememberwhen you pressed your thumbs, thick and unforgiving, into my eye sockets? Slow as deathuntil I caved to the dizzy and you whispered, accent sticky, dripping in rose syrup,
Do you see the stars?
And I did. They burst in the darkness like kisses. This city has a heart, flutteringcrazed and drunken as a beast, handsitchy and always wanting, wantingand a mouth with hunger so palpableI gave myself in an instant. I was new, damp when I came here, ridiculousas one of those puppy mill survivorstoo petrified to take a single step from the cageinto green grass and sunshine. I stumbled, blinded, but for the stars.
I risked it all for youbecause it was home, because it was you, the cage I left behind, dank and cloyingand so sadly, pathetically familiar. It was a husk, forgotten like nightmares and used to be’s,
but it was all I’d ever known.
Pulitzer Prize Pig
Pulitzer Prize Pig spoke of what it means to be ***** as a ***** man with a look the look that look women were born knowing how to read. I knew that look the look at fifteen when the AP teacher crouched beside my desk in the dark while flashes of syphilis and gonorrhea shuddered across the projector screen. (Still, even now, I hear the tired clicking of the tapes). I knew the look, saw a look, at eleven when grown men whistled at my unfolding hips and high school boys rolled Corollas along middle school parking lots with eyes that spider-scurried pressed breasts. And I knew, I saw that look, his look at four. In the bathtub, I learned shame— I shot my father in the eye with a plastic alligator squirt gun and never bathed with open doors again. Pulitzer Prize Pig sidled up close, nosed for nipple drinkers and sniffed out my slop. Trough walls are low, but sticky, slick beside stys, and boars are happy with scraps.
I Thought You Were Praying
Through the deserts outside Al Ain, the babysucking like a beast at your breast,mosques gave way to dunesand the oiled street workers to palms. Beyond the camels,past the tribesmen,we didn’t stop until we were away from it all—the malls with their ungodly air conditioning,the fat children making loud love to their sweets,the fat wives engorged in their abayas, rollinglike sun-swollen beetles through the shops.In ballet flats and the jeans that hugged my asslike a fetish, I climbed the dunes as if I belonged,while beautiful golden menh in glorious keffiyehshonked safely from the highway. And I,staggering like a drunk as the sand clung begging and desperate,my cuckolded lover to my perfect white feet, mounted the crest, dropped to my knees,ready and eager as a whore,to fil a mason jar with contraband. And you,nipples burnished as the sand, laughed, I thought you were praying.
About Jessica Mehta
Jessica (Tyner) Mehta is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, multi-award-winning poet, and author of over one dozen books. Place, space, and personal ancestry inform much of her work. She’s also the Editor-in-Chief of Crab Creek Review and owner of an award-winning small business. MehtaFor is a writing services company that offers pro bono services to Native Americans and indigenous-serving non-profits.
Jessica integrates technology, archival photos, and performance art into many of her creative projects. “Red/Act” is a pop-up virtual reality poetry experience made with proprietary software. It aims to introduce more people to poetry, and specifically indigenous poetry, through a uniquely immersive encounter. Her “emBODY poetry” performance series features experimental poetry on nude form while incorporating shibari rope work to address topics on body image and eating disorders.
Her novel The Wrong Kind of Indian won gold at the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) and at the American Book Fest Best Book. Jessica has also received numerous fellowships in recent years, including the Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington and the Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship at The British Library in London. Jessica is a popular speaker and panelist, featured recently at events such as the US State Department’s National Poetry Month event, “Poets as Cultural Emissaries: A Conversation with Women Writers,” as well as the “Women’s Transatlantic Prison Activism Since 1960” symposium at Oxford University.
She has undertaken poetry residencies around the globe including at Hosking Houses Trust with an appointment at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, Paris Lit Up in France, and at the Crazy Horse Memorial and museum in South Dakota. Her work has been featured at galleries and exhibitions around the world, including IA&A Hillyer in Washington DC, The Emergency Gallery in Sweden, and Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico.
Jessica is also an experienced registered yoga instructor (ERYT-500®), registered children’s yoga teacher (RCYT®), certified Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider (YACEP®), and NASM-certified personal trainer (CPT). She’s the founder of the Get it Ohm! karma yoga and strength movement, which offers free classes to groups that don’t have access to traditional yoga studios and/or don’t feel comfortable in such environments.
For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.
Ex-patriot Cheyenne writer Lance Henson’s new work in Dead Zone et autres textes has the same powerful slight lines, imagistic suggestiveness, and resistance vision of his earlier work.
The poem “secret” claims the kind of revelation I have always discovered in Henson’s work: “the half blindness that allowed you to see further / words forged in motions” (24). The back cover text “places” Henson and his stance with this description:
somewhere between rage and freedomI am sitting in the ashes of a dreamsinging. . .
Finally, one of unnamed poems in the collection offers the kind of straight-forward societal indictment that also characterizes his work:
americaamericano longer a theme parknow a killing fieldif you are the other. . . . (54)
A member of the Cheyenne Dog Soldier Warrior Society, veteran, Native American activist, AIM member, and member of the Native American Church, Henson also holds an MFA from University of Tulsa and has worked as poet-in-residence in over 800 schools in the United States and Europe. Since his first volume of poetry, Keeper of Arms, was released in 1971, he has published twenty-eight chapbooks or volumes of poetry which have been translated into twenty-five languages.
Throughout his oeuvre, Henson presents his sparse uninflected poems in lower case, without capitalization, and with ellipses as his main form of punctuation. His poems often weave together images of the external landscapes with spiritual terrain reflecting on their porous interconnections. They also offer commentary on historical and contemporary failings of the U.S. government and on the broader capitalistic colonizing forces at work in the world. Henson’s comments in “The Whirlwind is a Mirror” shed light on his aesthetic when he claims, “All poems are prayers when they work,” and “Poetry is revolutionary. It must be to survive.” About his preference for the short poem, he notes: “I think brevity is one way to acknowledge strength and one way to acknowledge and pay homage to the Great Silence we came out of.” Indeed, Henson’s poetry may be crafted to a large extent of prayer, revolution, and great silences.
A poem like “strong heart song” that gives title to his 1997 collection Strong Heart Song: Lines From a Revolutionary Text seems to contain all of these elements:
nadors do mi uts e mghon bach ni tseheskotseoehmin
i will walk on the ashes of the earthsinging (iii)
By opening the poem first in Cheyenne, the bilingual Henson enacts a revolutionary response to the colonization of language. Then, with the phrase “the ashes of earth” he implies something about the fleetingness of physical reality and perhaps offers a warning about the inevitable destructive effects of contemporary human actions. Still the poet will proceed “singing,” which in the larger context of Native ceremonial tradition is often the equivalent of prayer. Both verbally and visually the poem is small — much is left unspoken; much is contained in the implied silence.
Perhaps the finest gesture in Henson to silence comes in the poem “celebration” which opens with “cold light / at the edge / of words” and closes with this word picture:
in a portraita woman isholding herapron
catching thesnow (Selected Poems, 10).
The poem accumulates meaning from the idea of an artist’s creating a picture/portrait, the vision of the woman “catching” snow (or perhaps manna), and the idea of her making of herself a vessel — attempting to gather or hold that which will only melt as snow or dissipate as fleeting knowledge. Such, of course, is always the poets’ futile quest, particularly in the light of injustice.
It is as well Henson’s quest in Dead Zone. In the poem “Kofi,” he recognizes that Sisyphus-like task of poets to build with language even as we already acknowledge its inadequacy:
now your words have entereda frontier known only to poetsin our collectivebookof the wind. . . . (70)
In this new book, as in all that came before, the success of Henson’s poetry stems partly from its eloquent portrait of its own fleeting reality.
About the Author
Kimberly Blaeser, writer, photographer, and scholar, is the author of three poetry collections—most recently Apprenticed to Justice; and editor of Traces in Blood, Bone, and Stone: Contemporary Ojibwe Poetry. She served as Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2015-16. Blaeser is Anishinaabe and grew up on White Earth Reservation. A Professor of English and Indigenous Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, Blaeser is also on faculty for the Institute of American Indian Arts low residency MFA program in Santa Fe. Her photographs, picto-poems, and ekphrastic poetry have been featured in various venues including the exhibits “Ancient Light” and “Visualizing Sovereignty.” Her fourth collection of poetry, Copper Yearning, will be published by Holy Cow! Press in fall 2019.
For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.
It all began with an article I posted on my Filipino Student Association’s Facebook page.
Entitled “My ‘Get Out’ Moment as an Overseas Student,” my essay is about how my first landlady in New Zealand, a white woman, gradually unmasked her racism to me while I was living in her house, beginning slowly but surely with a series of microaggressions that turned into racial slurs and, eventually, into blatantly hostile behavior. A leading news network in Australia ran this short piece, giving me the chance to finally call my landlady out for the way she had treated me during my first month as a new PhD student in the country. By doing this, I sought to render her and other people who have behaved similarly toward new immigrants accountable for their actions. Finally, my voice had been recognized for its value, and though I expected backlash, I was sure that I was helping those who had once been in my position to feel seen and heard.
Having lived in America and New Zealand, I have grown used to being disbelieved and dismissed by white people whenever I speak openly about my experiences of racism. You are making a mountain out of a molehill, I’m often told in so many words. Maid, illegal immigrant, terrorist, mail-order bride. Why is your country so poor and your English so good? I am expected to invalidate my feelings of hurt and to remind myself, repeatedly, that I’m wrong to feel disrespected. I learn to tell myself that these people who offend me mean no harm. I am told that I must give the benefit of the doubt to those who flatten my humanity by reducing me to a stereotype. They are human, even when they casually disregard my humanity. Like many people of color, I learn to give all sorts of excuses to white people when their failure to acknowledge my feelings becomes too overwhelming, and too difficult to fight.
But while I have learned to expect my experiences of racism to be dismissed and belittled in white-dominated communities, I normally don’t expect the same from fellow people of color, who normally go through these same experiences—almost as though these are necessary rituals of initiation into a world where our existence is erased. This is why I was in shock when my article, which described instances of racism that I felt were pretty obvious to those who have unavoidably experienced it, was mocked and misunderstood in my university’s Filipino student association.
The first instance of microaggression that I cited in my essay was when my landlady, on my second day at her house, said to me, “I do not know how it is in your country, but here we open the windows to let in fresh air.” One doesn’t have to be a genius to sense the statement’s racist implications: that the Philippines is a dirty place, that our air is filthy, and that I have likely grown used to keeping my windows closed. A member of the group immediately replied to my post by saying that I had misinterpreted my landlady’s statement: that indeed, in New Zealand, people open the windows to let in fresh air. He also went on to say that if I hadn’t read malice into her statement, I would have avoided all the other “misunderstandings” that followed my misinterpretation. Never mind that I hadn’t complained, or called her “racist” to her face, when she told me this: all her other actions that followed, like checking on my cooking to make sure I wasn’t preparing something that “smelled,” locking my bathroom door so that I couldn’t use the toilet, hiding my food containers from me, blaming me for making her stove make “weird” noises, forcing me to hose down, squeegee, and towel dry my shower stall after every wash before scolding me for “spending too much time in the shower,” or telling me that I was “so domestic” before asking me if I could walk her dog, were the results of this initial misunderstanding on my part, which unleashed her abusive behavior. But I had been offended by what she said, and because of this, according to him, I had somehow brought on the abuse I received, even if I had kept my feelings to myself.
In response, I pointed out to him that I hadn’t misunderstood my landlady’s statement at all. I had clearly understood the message it was meant to convey: it was meant to remind me of my inferiority and to put me in my “proper” place in her household. I added that his remark indicating my hurt feelings had set the tone of her future behavior toward me was a clear case of victim blaming.
No one in the group came to my defense.
A few hours later, another member responded to my comment with a laughing emoji before proceeding to call my essay “a so-called article.” He said that none of the behaviors I had described in my essay were racist or demeaning: to him, my landlady was just enforcing house rules, and that if she hadn’t done and said these things I mentioned in my piece, I would have failed to keep her house tidy and bright. I don’t know how walking her dog, staying silent when my bathroom door was locked or when my food containers were hidden in a coat closet, or “smiling more” for her whenever I cleaned her kitchen had anything to do with keeping her house tidy and bright. His comment made absolutely no sense: it was clearly meant to belittle my hurt and to cast me as hysterical and unjust in my anger.
I am still trying to understand why these young people were so eager to justify my landlady’s behavior, even going as far as saying that she had behaved fairly toward me. It made me wonder about the kind of abuse they were willing to put up with as new immigrants to New Zealand (since many of the group’s members came to the country as teenagers or young adults), if indeed they found her behavior acceptable.
It didn’t help that a female member expressed sympathy at first in response to my essay, before going on to say, “I know Filipinos who experienced the same with fellow Filipinos too, which just goes to show that this kind of behavior isn’t isolated to any particular group. This doesn’t change that New Zealand is a very welcoming place.” She was condoning my landlady’s racism, implying that because I pointed out how racially charged my landlady’s bullying was, I was singling out white people as abusers while disregarding the nonracist abuse taking place within other ethnic groups. (In other words, if others are doing it toward their own kind, then why call it racist?)
This, of course, ignores the fact that racism isn’t merely a direct attack against another race but a set of institutionalized privileges that are given to one or several ethnic groups to dominate and oppress others. To understand how racism operates in white settler societies such as New Zealand, we must recognize the privileges that white people possess as a consequence of European colonialism and the subjugation of non-Europeans. Though many claim colonialism is a thing of the past, its legacy persists: my landlady possessed immense power in our relationship as a result of her white privilege, and because I was new in the country, and a person of color, she exploited her power over me to belittle me, often with racial slurs, and to bully me. This I tried to explain to the girl, who seemed to have no notion of what white privilege was, and whose understanding of racism was flimsy at best. She did not respond, leaving her boyfriend to defend her honor, and her ignorance, on her behalf.
When I reached out to the association’s president, bringing to his attention the abuse I was beginning to receive, he curtly told me that “he’d deal with it later” before falling silent. This baffled me, considering how he often positioned himself—quite aggressively, too—as an “activist” leader in his posts and in meetings. Due to his claims of being enlightened and woke, I assumed he would see the bullying and tone policing for what it was. But a few weeks later, I received an email from the group’s leadership ordering me to unblock the two young men (which I did to protect myself) so that they could comment on my piece again. If we were to take out the phrase “so-called” from one of their comments, the officers of the group said, the comments of these two men were “well thought-out, reasonable, and objective.” In the interest of allowing a free exchange of ideas, according to them, it was not right for me to block these members from airing contrary opinions to mine. Thus, in the interest of free speech, I had to permit those who had told me that my story was illegitimate, and who had resorted to illogicalities and victim-blaming to justify my landlady’s abuse, to exercise their free speech—even as it delegitimized, and therefore took away, my voice. They ended the email by saying, “None of you are completely at fault,” as though to absolve us of a crime we all shared.
I am still at a loss as to how our leaders came to the conclusion that these comments were “well thought-out, reasonable, and objective.” These two young men had obviously not given much thought to their comments, or to the prejudices inherent in them. Is it thoughtful, reasonable, or objective to call my landlady’s request for me to walk her dog “necessary to keep her house clean and bright”? Is one being objective when one consents to or defends what is clearly abuse? Or does “objectivity” mean a refusal to see the power structures inherent in racial abuse in order to humanize the abuser and “balance out one’s judgment” of the situation?
Perhaps these Filipino student leaders truly believe that allowing racism to persist, even when it is leveled against us, is to take an objective view of the situation by ignoring our feelings of hurt—by becoming “unfeeling,” in other words—even when we experience it first-hand. Perhaps these young Filipino leaders see nothing inherently wrong in these unequal relationships, having accepted them as the natural order of things. The comments our leaders called “well-thought out, reasonable, and objective” were accepting, and even protective, of our inferior place in New Zealand society. If I understood them right, what these commenters hoped to say was that we deserve to be treated poorly by white people. If the leaders of our group had no strong objections to what these two young men told me, it appears to me that they, too, have internalized the kind of racism leveled at me by my landlady, to the point that they have accepted her abuse as a fair and reasonable occurrence, enabling it by consenting to the silencing of my voice.
Denying one’s experiences of racism, and tone policing one’s compatriots who choose to speak against it, is a habit Filipinos have developed from over three hundred years of colonization. To survive, we have learned to disregard our anger, to accept our lower place in colonial society, and to make ourselves small and unthreatening to our white masters. It’s a habit that we carry with us when we move to Western countries. We deny our own experiences of discrimination and gaslight ourselves into disbelieving the facts of our oppression in our efforts to be respectable, uncomplaining, and grateful in the eyes of white people. We think that this will help us survive, when it only results in our erasure, in our disempowerment.
But I will not allow myself to be silenced by my own countrymen. I choose to give voice to my anger, to resist erasure.
My grandmother grabs my wrist and draws me closer.
Over seventy years of lived experience separate us, but when she calls me a child I know she is conjuring a memory, not a body. The child she recalls hasn’t reached puberty; this child is chatty, she doesn’t move as much as she glides. She has brown skin, black hair. It is jarring to hear the biography of a self you only belatedly recognize to be yourself. So I listen to the girlhood image my grandmother paints with my aunt chiming in.
I allow myself to be appraised. Moments earlier, when she opened the front door, she had been stunned to find a tall stranger with blond hair standing before her. Nonetheless, the tactility of my wrist comforts her as she remembers the child she has not seen in years.
“It is her,” she murmurs to my aunt and, with a slight triumph, adds: “My granddaughter is very pretty. Pale. Skinny. Just like her mother.”
In the late 1940s, in the wake of the Chinese Civil War and World War II, my grandmother fled mainland China with her two-year-old daughter and newborn infant. The journey displaced them from Shandong, a northern Chinese province, to Taiwan.
Some fled because they were landowners, some because they were political refugees.
My grandmother was running because her husband had been educated in Japan, a social marker akin to having money or acting bourgeois that would render life difficult under incoming Communist leadership. He was already in Taipei making arrangements for his family’s uncertain future, and it was time for them to join him.
I don’t know how long their crossing took. I know the stress inhibited my grandmother’s ability to produce breast milk for her baby daughter and that another mother in the party generously fed my grandmother’s baby along with her own.
I also know that the refugees understood that if a baby cried and jeopardized the party’s location, its mother would suffocate it. I know my grandmother was spared that task. Others were less fortunate.
These are sound bites of a traumatic experience I can never fully know. In my family, we have little to say about our relationship dynamics, let alone our relation to history. We share mostly silence, a glance, then turn away.
My mother narrated my grandmother’s flight just once. I was in third grade, assigned to present an oral family history. When it was clear that my presentation was longer than any of my classmates’, I felt embarrassed by the anecdotes she had implored me to include, the ugly details that induced shock but not empathy. I was ashamed of sharing a history we wouldn’t learn in social studies class, and I was ashamed of doing so for a room full of white kids.
Now I willfully place my family in history’s purview because it is impossible to extricate our experience from our complicity with histories of politics and violence. For years, we have been curators of silence, perhaps because it was easier to mythologize familial love than to acknowledge the pain we suppressed in its pursuit.
Although we no longer live in those early days of Taiwanese resettlement and assimilation, my grandmother’s consciousness never relinquished the paranoia, fear, and struggle she associates with the period. The war—the consequent exile—never ended; it simply reconfigured the borders of memory.
An invisible war, a domestic war. The family was her ideal battlefield.
In Taiwan, my grandmother eventually raised seven children, who in turn developed their own coalitions and grudges. They lay siege to the skin of trauma so the bruises were raw and splayed across the oceans and languages they traversed to maintain distance. Whether they called home occasionally or frequently, their voices embodied their absence.
They stopped talking to each other, and then they didn’t tell their children about their own family. Family reunions took place, my mother wryly remarked, either at a wedding or a funeral. In fact, the most recent reunion happened at her wedding over twenty years ago, before I was born.
This winter, I flew to Taipei to visit my grandmother.
Over the phone, my mother instructed me to spend an hour a day with her. “She lives in the past. She will want to tell you stories.” At the time, the request sounded reasonable. I was eager to listen, and maybe even to photograph her for a project on diaspora I’d long desired to pursue.
Later, I came to see my mother’s instruction as a coded warning.
My nonagenarian grandmother lives alone because she is incredibly stubborn. Even obstacles to accessibility make no difference. Seventeen steps, for instance, separate the first and second levels of her house. Undaunted, she undertakes them every day.
Because my aunt no longer lives with her, she arranges for a caretaker to assist with household tasks like cleaning, cooking, and shopping. My aunt is my grandmother’s sole child who has neither moved abroad nor left Taipei. Though she is my grandmother’s primary victim, she continues to provide for her mother’s livelihood.
One afternoon, on our way home, my aunt and I intercepted the caretaker, Mei, who was leaving with her bags. She had been fired for purchasing a second package of string beans. Mei had begun working for my grandmother just two weeks earlier, and according to my aunt she had already made the house a cleaner place where the chores were completed and the produce was fresh. As Mei related what happened, my aunt grew agitated.
“It’s an excuse,” she said. “My mother’s old. She wants a reason to fire you.” Mei was the latest of many caretakers to be fired in the past two months. One stole, another roughly handled my grandmother. The reality is, my aunt explained, she refuses to trust anyone.
At the house, my aunt confronted my grandmother, who calmly sipped her tea and introduced me to her friend. “This is my youngest granddaughter.” She beamed, reaching for my wrist. “Look how skinny and pretty she is. Pale. Just like her mother.” The friend agreed.
Meanwhile, my aunt, who wanted my grandmother to rehire Mei, was pleading to an unsympathetic jury.
Quiet, my grandmother let go of me. Then she snapped. Like a downpour, accusations fell on my aunt. My grandmother tightened as she delivered insults in a deliberate, calm voice. Her temper justified her abusive language. “If I had not left China… If I hadn’t ended up with your useless…” My aunt broke down and left the room. I immediately followed.
Even now I shudder. I don’t know how to translate this vulnerability, the devastation of a cycle that is privately witnessed and publicly withheld. What is there to say about family violence, the violence of the family, that has not already been said or retracted?
My aunt did not blame my grandmother. She insisted her behavior was the result of the things she had to do to stay alive, and couldn’t I understand.
If there is a correlation between my grandmother’s cruelty and our fragmented family, I have to wonder to what extent estrangement was the byproduct of the violence intimate among my mother, her siblings, and their mother. I wonder what the lacunae say.
In the war my grandmother has waged in her mind for all these years, what is the current damage count? Who are its foot soldiers? What is expendable?
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel delves into the archives to recuperate events that cannot be recuperated. For Bechdel, coming to terms with her lesbian identity occurs in tandem with learning about her father’s sexual history with men, a fact she learns after his death, an apparent suicide.
Due to Bechdel’s strained relationship with her father, this revelation twists her grieving process. Upon arriving home for the funeral, Bechdel greets her brothers not with the typical signifiers of mourning but with a shared grimace of pleasure. Under trauma, grief becomes a series of distorted gestures. When she returns to school, she cannot convince a classmate of her father’s passing because she bursts into uncontrollable laughter.
The more Bechdel pieces together a narrative, the less its truth can be verified. She knows this neurotic digging will not produce a satisfying answer. It cannot revive the dead.
She digs anyway.
My aunt does not grieve and advises I do the same. I wipe her tears. A devout Buddhist, my aunt has long since forgiven my grandmother for her toxicity. Individuals shouldn’t be accountable to their unconsensual history, she assures me.
In the next room, my grandmother and her friend have resumed their conversation. The confrontation has had minimal effect on either party. We all have a pleasant dinner.
For the remainder of my visit, I minimize the time I spend with my grandmother. Instead of photographing her, I take pictures of the backyard, the staircase she labors up and down, the hallway cabinet adorned in doilies.
When I do listen to her stories, an unbearable wave of nausea overcomes me, for they reveal her resentment toward the fate she was dealt, the life she has survived. The past is, as my mother had hinted, hers, but, in the present, the heaviness is mine, and I excuse myself from her company.