Chapbooks hold a special place in the poetry community. Though traditionally used for all types of literature, it’s especially suitable for poetry. Within the forty or so pages, a small collection of poems can produce a sort of mini-journey similar to the project of full-length collection. They are also a space for emerging voices to give readers a taste of what’s to come.
Two recent chapbooks by Vietnamese writers in the diaspora center the experiences of Vietnamese diasporic women, though in different ways. Writing from the United States, Jessica Nguyen narrates a Vietnamese American experience (though her poems go beyond the US), while also highlighting her experiences as a queer, woman with a disability. Informed by spoken word poetry, her work has an ease of reading that makes her poetics and politics accessible and powerful. On the other side of the Atlantic, Natalie Linh Bolderston’s work has touchstones of British, Vietnamese, and Chinese cultures. Her poems are haunted in the way the lives of any diasporic community is haunted: the past is always calling back, regardless of physical distance.
These chapbooks center the histories women carry with them as well as how they’re making space in the world, in the present as well as the future.
softly, I speak by Jessica Nguyen
The act of speaking is an act of power. To say something is to conjure it into existence. To be silenced is to be denied the power to not only speak for oneself but to create an entire world on one’s own terms. As a result, the stereotype of a quiet Asian is always one of violence that seeks to not take away agency but claim its nonexistence.
Jessica Nguyen knows this, not only as an Asian American woman but as one with a “naturally soft voice,” as she proclaims in the introduction to her chapbook softly, I speak. “[T]hey make up stories about me,” she reiterates later in a poem, “not based on their goddamn grammar rules./but based on the fact that I am Asian.” Her chapbook is a project in reclaiming that voice.
The fact that the chapbook starts with a poem titled “tôi là người việt” is important. Right away, we are given a strong claim of identity: I am Vietnamese, Nguyen proclaims, in the language of her ancestors even. Though, as we see, it is often not enough. Nguyen goes on to list everything she could do to prove her Vietnameseness: from bathing in nước mắm to singing “the old tunes of cải lương,” yet “my Americanness” is “a taboo.”
Nguyen’s struggle is the struggle of any American-born Vietnamese. Already subject to being different in America (i.e. not white), being a Vietnamese born in the United States makes one an outsider in one’s birth community of refugees. Nguyen speaks for a generation as she recounts a ride on a subway and hearing Vietnamese being spoken by two old ladies and becoming “the eavesdropper, the actor/pretending to stare off into space out of disinterest,/ using my ears to quickly search/for more familiar words.” In short: “I was starving for words.” Or as she contemplates the way Vietnamese parents show their love in the poems “con ăn cơm chưa?” and “I buy for you means I’m sorry.” For American-born Vietnamese, these poems hit home intensely and directly.
In her outsider status, however, Nguyen finds a voice. As the chapbook captures her journey, we see her accepting herself and being comfortable with the multitudes of her identities as a queer, Vietnamese American person with a disability. “I felt ashamed/of my voice because I didn’t know that/since birth/how strong it could be used against you,” Nguyen confesses in “quiet,” the first poem in the second half of the chapbook aptly titled “Healing” as in healing from racist, sexist, ablest trauma.
Many of Nguyen’s poems read like slam poetry in its straight-forward language, its use of casual dialogue, its rhythms, and use of humor (indeed, “quiet” was “written for a performance arts event at Smith College”). To some, it might be ironic that Nguyen—an Asian American poet who has been called quiet her entire life—would find slam poetry and performance as a way to express herself. But, of course, reading through her journey, it makes perfect sense. Still, her journey isn’t over and by the end of this debut chapbook, Nguyen acknowledges confidently that: “no/two readings/will be the same:/how I read it, where/I’m coming from when/you read it/…all of that makes a difference,” as if she is charting a path all her own, and the next day—the next poem—is full of possibilities.
The Protection of Ghosts by Natalie Linh Bolderston
If Jessica Nguyen’s poems look towards the future, British Vietnamese poet Natalie Linh Bolderston’s poems have an eye on the past. History echoes in her chapbook The Protection of Ghosts. Even the title evokes the past: for what are ghosts but the past made present?
The first poem in the chapbook, “I watch my mother peel longan fruits,” shows how easily history is conjured up. Even as she watches her mother prepare the fruit, the speaker knows “she is thinking/of a long-ago rooftop.” Later in the poem, we are shown the memory of going “to the black market” where the mother slips a longan seed from her pocket, wondering “if one day the soldiers will see a green shoot/and suspect she put it there.” But this thought is only brief as the memory of leaving Vietnam slips to the forefront (“The night she leaves smell like sweet rot.”) The way Bolderston moves through time so smoothly is a kind of magic. She starts at the present with her mother peeling longans to move back when her mother is in Vietnam, only to push forward to an imagined future (what if those soldiers did find her growing longan tree?) and eventually to the moment where everything changes before fast-forwarding to the present where the speaker lays her head in her mother’s lap as if listening to a story.
Time doesn’t work linearly in these poems; the past has never left. It’s in the small details. The image of “hair like silver blades of grass” in the poem “Bà Ngoại” manages to quietly juxtapose life and death, aging and fecundity while this same gesture can be seen in “Operation Ranch Hand” where a dead fetus is a “scar/that is forming inside” a body. Bolderston says it succinctly in “My mother’s nightmare”: “it is always 1978.”
A poet of the Vietnamese diaspora, Bolderston is very much concerned with the memory and aftermath of the War, how those who experienced it must live after it and how their descendants must learn to heal their ancestors’ trauma. But her project has much to say about the way people and places are affected by history.
As a storm rages in “Typhoon in Xiamen,” Bolderston overlays a scene “decades earlier” with her “grandfather, fifteen” studying “under some streetlight not far from here.” In “Hạ Long Bay” as she views the valley, mangroves, and sea, the speaker is reminded that such picturesque idyll is only temporary: “when storms come/all will be evacuated./It is hard to live in battle/with typhoons, monsoons.” There are times of peace and there are times of danger, these poems seem to say, and they are always there, they have never left. In a way, then, we are always on the cusp of disaster.
How, then, does one live? The chapbook’s last poem “Aubade” hints at some answers. Traditionally aubades are morning love poems, sung by lovers as they depart. Contemporary aubades are often more about the morning and the transition between night and day. In her aubade, Bolderston gives us a prayer to prepare for the day. “Let,” begins each thought: “Let the first joss sticks of the day burn slowly/between your palms,” the poem begins. It continues: “Let your daughters cook sticky rice, egg rolls, soup,/thirteen cups of jasmine.” Then: “Let the children call you Bà Ngoại, absorb your giggle, toothy smile,/your Chanel No.5. Let them ask, who is Ông Ngoại,/and why don’t we remember him?” The poem is Zen-like in its acceptance of what has been and what may come, less of a resignation and more of a way to prepare for the day ahead so that we can move forward in the world with whatever baggage we might carry, ghosts and all.
softly, I speak
Louisiana Literature Press, $8.95
The Protection of Ghosts
Natalie Linh Bolderston
V Press, £6.50
Eric Nguyen is the Reviews Editor for diaCRITICS.