I was eight, maybe nine, every couple of months
my parents made me sit at the big table
—the living-room one, where only guests sat—
to write a letter on air-mail paper as thin
as rice paper to a grandmother I had not
seen since we left for France five years earlier.
I liked the writing, but not the lying, it drove me mad
to fabricate a life. My parents went over
my wording: erase this phrase, change that one,
replace it with, don’t sound accusative, don’t ask
if she’s happy, or sick, or in need, don’t talk
about money problems, stick to school, good grades,
describe the weather, the sky, don’t be so abstract,
don’t delve into details either, it’ll sound like
you’re hiding something, your sentences are too long.
I was unaware that I was becoming a writer.
It’s fascinating how bashing made me creative.
Once, I dabbed a cotton swab into lemon juice
and invisibly wrote at the back of a letter:
Censors you are pigs, I hate you, ugly idiots.
Baffled, the paper crinkled. On the other side
the ink blotched, I had to start all over again.
So I filled up my lungs with courage and just put
down in black and white—neat and angry cursive—
I hate these bloody communists for not letting
you leave Vietnam, and for making your life
miserable. I hate your poverty and our own
even more. How are we supposed to support you
when we can’t even feed ourselves and the dog?
My father smacked me in the back of the head,
asked if I was insane, if I wanted her death. I think
she died five years later, but my parents never told me.
I have no memories of her, or of anything
really. I just know… She raised me until we fled.
I fantasize over the sole picture—a head portrait—
I have of her: her ivory skin, almond eyes,
pearl stud earrings. I believed she was my mother.
I didn’t walk until I was two and a half,
all I wanted was to curl up in her arms.
Had I known that a year later we would be
separated forever, I would have done anything
to remain on the checkered floor of her house,
like those cockroaches my mother used to thwack
with the thick heels of her wooden clog sandals
when she visited me—rarely. Did I recognize her?
I was eight, maybe nine, and regularly writing
to her mother—my mother—she accused of
being unforgiving. I wrote her fairy-tale
post-war letters in which the only unyielding
words were: Dear grandma, and: I miss you terribly.
(Sabine Huynh, published in the poetry magazine The Ilanot Review)