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Yeah, I take Vietnamese classes on Wednesday nights.
But . . . aren’t you Vietnamese?
At first, I thought learning Vietnamese in a class setting would only further embarrass me. It’s gonna be full of non-Vietnamese people and they’re going to look down on me. They’ll think, “Why is she in this class?” I always felt self-conscious speaking in my mother tongue. Even worse: I couldn’t read it! Me, a reader and writer who couldn’t read or write in Vietnamese?! The shame!!! Just as shameful as using three exclamation points in one sentence.
I was glad to discover that my classmates were like me: Vietnamese-American adults who spoke the language as children, then lost it along the way. After taking level one and level two, which will, sadly, conclude in two weeks, I’ve steadily grown confident. And that’s something I want to celebrate.
I appreciate the camaraderie inside the classroom—we easily trade American jokes mixed with some typical Vietnamese craziness—but most of all, I love the cultural aspects that inevitably come from our lessons. Our teacher is young and more modern, and I’m learning how some commonly used words may seem outdated to younger Vietnamese people. One example is the word for hospital, which is bệnh viện. When I told my teacher that I’ve only used nhà thương, he kind of chuckled, saying that gave away my parents’ ages (mine are older than most of my peers’ parents). Other times, the vocabulary varies based on region, and your word choice will out you immediately.
The class remains especially enlightening because it’s giving me a taste of what my parents had learned as children. In Vietnamese schools and homes, children are taught ca dao, or folk poems. These pieces teach life lessons, and some sound as rigid as one would expect, while others are quite lovely. A common subject centers on the child’s duty to his or her parents, a notion that’s entirely absent in the American school system, where students are mostly taught to obey teachers.
But for Vietnamese people, the real teaching starts at home. I want to share one ca dao just to give you a taste of my language!
Cá không ăn muối cá ươn
Con cãi cha mẹ trăm đường con hư
English (translated roughly word-for-word and disregarding syntax)
Fish that don’t eat salt goes rotten,
You (child) argue with us (parents) in a hundred ways you are bad.
Essentially, the poem says children who don’t listen to their parents or take their lessons to heart will turn out unruly. As someone who’s still navigating the language, I can’t quite confirm whether the author was trying to be playful . . . BUT I noticed the use of đường, which means sugar: muối and đường, salt and sugar. At the same time, đường also means road or path.
Next up: I’m attempting to translate a song I’ve been listening to non-stop: “Thành Phố Buồn.” Even my mom says this might be hard to translate correctly! Challenge accepted.
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In one of my groups, a nonfiction writer who was testing out a chapter of a novella lamented that fiction was more difficult to write than nonfiction*. His admission stunned me because I thought the exact opposite. He argued fiction writers had more groundwork ahead of them; he struggled the most with creating situations and characters. True, I said. But the act of purposefully summoning a memory that you’ve spent your whole life running away from or writing about people close to you terrifies me. Nonfiction writers possess the fortitude to admit their flaws, excavate truths hidden in their bodies. This isn’t easy, especially for an introvert like me.
I’m not new to nonfiction writing, but I’m still an acquaintance. I guess this website, where I publish most of my stupid thoughts, counts as nonfiction. In college, I took a creative nonfiction class—the class that launched my serious commitment to writing. We had to write a political essay and a personal essay. It was such a wonderful experience seeing my inner thoughts—mine, not another character’s—crowd the pages. One of my pieces eventually won an English Department award; I felt honored and my parents were there to hear a reading. Since the piece was about my mother’s late younger sister, I was moved when she cried and told me she was proud of me.
But as rewarding as the piece made me feel, I think revealing myself in this medium led to an invisible wound. I wanted to collect my words and thoughts before they could be put under further scrutiny. I shied away from nonfiction until a few months ago honestly. I tackled a nonfiction piece about fan fiction writing that’s been sitting in my files for ages, and I’m pleased to say that it’ll be up on Submittable in September. As the subject might suggest, it’s not exactly a “serious” creative nonfiction piece, but it’s a piece where my voice dominates the pages. And it’s honest. I’ve been lying way too much with fiction!
My next piece-in-progress deals with a childhood incident that’s bled into my writing and into my life as a young woman. The latter was a recent revelation. The writing process for this piece is similar to being in a car that’s alternatively stalling and jerking. I’m resisting my instinct to “pull away” in my writing—like if I touch it, I’ll get burned. Knowing this, I’m still clawing my way to the finish line, not for the purpose of publication or likes or follows, but for myself.
I’m writing this post at the point where I’m starting to think I should just store this piece. Then again, there’s a fifty percent chance of me abandoning it . . .
I’m quite jealous and awed by a nonfiction author my imprint had just published. Michael Arceneaux, now the New York Times bestselling author of I Can’t Date Jesus, makes a living writing things that are true, but this book of essays is all about him, his sexuality, his family. I saw him at a Strand event, where, despite being nervous before speaking to an audience (about 100 people!), he seemed incredibly at ease with the fact that his life is laid bare in this book. The aftermath of catharsis, I suppose.
What nonfiction reading material would you recommend to a short story writer experimenting with the genre?
*my initial thought: well, yeah, you’re writing a novella.
My short story, “Gaw Gaw, ” was recently published by Mud Season Review, a magazine run by the people behind the Burlington Writers Workshop in Vermont. I can’t thank them enough for accepting my piece and revising it with such care. Also, I love the artwork they decided to use for my story. Please read and enjoy.
A short manifesto I wrote for Causeway Lit, a literary magazine run by Fairfield University’s MFA Program.
Written by: Loan Le – Fiction Section Editor
So, here you are. You have turned down invitations to parties and happy hours, because you cannot socialize when you have a character in your mind, her voice echoing like a message over a PA system in an empty hallway. You have endured strangers’ tilted heads, the sardonic curl of their lips, the upspeak “Oh, really?” when you explain that you are a writer. Your worth has been challenged and measured against already established writers. Your work is “not the right fit” for this journal or that magazine. All of this has left you despairing, wondering why you have chosen this particular way of being, which lately brings much more pain than reward.
Credit: John Liu
Step back. Somewhere, find a pocket of peace where your thoughts are your own, where you hear only yourself. Recognize, first, that by writing, you have…
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I didn’t know how much I needed my MFA retreat until I arrived on Ender’s Island on July 15, sat down under the gazebo facing the Long Island Sound, and heard only this:
Last winter was cold on the island. We had spent most nights lounging in the common rooms, dressed in layers of sweatpants and hooded sweatshirts. Outside, the water encasing this little island crashed against the boulders and stone walls, threatening to pull down anyone who came close. I remember reading one of my stories out loud by the Seaside Chapel, letting the water’s assault drown out any quiver in my voice.
The months in-between the winter retreat and the summer retreat were challenging. I made a lateral move within my workplace, threw myself into my writing, and helped form a new writing group. So much to do, all the time. I began to feel burnt out. My vision became a little more cloudy, it was harder to get up in the morning, it was difficult to read anything for fun because I had work to do. And this all happened because of . . .
Because of what?
I’m not going to say depression because I think that word sounds far too serious for what I feel sometimes (which I think most creatives also experience). I also don’t believe there’s any need for alarm. And maybe I was feeling down because it seems like the world is crashing, burning, coming to an end—and at our own hands . . .
So I’ll settle for melancholy, because that word has always been beautiful to me, and something beautiful always pulls me out of this state.
This time, that “something beautiful” was surely the summer retreat. God, there was so much light. Birds (including an elusive red cardinal). Lapping water. Somewhere, a wind chime. Beauty is hidden in the city, but at Ender’s Island, the restorative spirit manifested everywhere.
I was glad to be around people sharing the same goal, which is to write, to externalize what’s been inside them for the longest time. We writers come from all different walks of life. I met a new student, a recently retired Wall Street guy who had always loved writing. I’m always fascinated by these people who had walked different paths, knew so much of a certain life, then turned around to make a new path. While I consider my journey as a writer a nearly straight one, others’ journeys are looped and scattered, but hey, we ended up at Ender’s Island. Imagine that.
Of course, the retreat was not completely a vacation, even though my social media posts certainly suggested it. We had workshops and seminars every day—taught by
amazing, brilliant professors/writers/spirit animals—where we closely analyzed different writers’ works. We learned to shift and reconsider some of our writing habits. Now, I love workshops. I no longer feel self-conscious about my mistakes; instead I anticipate for them to be spotted. I have blind spots and count on my fellow writers to recognize them. And they do, believe me.
I especially love when I, as the writer, cease to exist, and the writers discuss my characters like they’re real. Would she do this? No, she doesn’t seem like the type. During one of my workshops, for a flash moment, I imagined myself cloaked and invisible to my writers. I thought my character was simple, but my classmates had so many interpretations of her. At the end of a workshop, the professor asked, “What do you want from us as readers?” To which, as usual, I shrugged. It seemed less about my wants, and more about my characters’ needs. Since enrolling into this program, I’ve become more aware of that.
One of the most common things I’d heard from the newest cohort was that the environment here was not as cutthroat as expected. Once I thought about it, I had to agree. I don’t think we’re encouraged to compete against one another. I actually thought about what happened when one of our own had passed away in-between retreats. We had a formal ceremony for him during the retreat—it was a Catholic ceremony attended by not just us but his family and other friends, but some MFAers thought there was so much more to be said, more of his story to share. Later that night, the stories and tributes about him were sad, funny, beautiful, and I just thought, “I hope he knew how much people had cared for him.” So no, we’re not pitted against each other, and I like that. This particular program emphasizes the journey of learning about yourself first, which inevitably allows you to share your strength with others.
I could go on about how much this summer retreat has helped me, but I don’t want anyone to think that I’m getting paid to write this 😉
To conclude, I’ll leave this with you.
More from Me:
The simultaneous turn of heads compels you to pause your music. You were lost in your own world before, hypnotized by chaotic rhythms that get you through the morning commute. You look left when you see synchronized movement and notice, a couple of seats away, a man on the ground. He is still. You look twice, thinking he’s homeless or mentally ill; you’ve trained yourself to spare a glance—and only that—to people like them: those whose homes are in public spaces, bodies splayed across park benches, subway seats, or outside suit-and-tie offices. But this man is slumped against the door. He wears khaki pants, a red-and-white argyle sweater, and Sperrys. A briefcase lies beside him.
Headphones are removed, murmurs bubble from the mouths of those too far away to see, and when the door finally opens at the platform, you hear one person scream for help.
The MTA employees who are under-qualified to handle medical crisis arrive surprisingly quick. One man rushes forward. You’re surprised to see that he cares—in fact you’re thrilled to hear the panic in his voice; normally these employees wear their apathy like a uniform accessory. One passenger in the car comes to help when someone shouts Is anyone here a doctor? You had sat next to this doctor, remembered how at first glance she appeared meek and compliant, hands folded on her lap. You didn’t think much of her, but now she has transformed. Still, you wonder if she is truly the only doctor or if she is the only doctor to volunteer.
They don’t know his name, so they say, Hey.
Hey, can you hear me?
Hey, can you hear me?
Hey, can you hear me?
You wait to see what happens next. A newly arrived passenger thinking he’d caught the train in time comes in unbothered by this sight. He glances down as if to check for gum under his shoes, and makes his way to the other side. You want to ask if he’s blind. This train will not be moving.
The man is still still, save for the slow rise of his chest. A squad of MTA employees tells everyone to GET OUT, so you are pushed outwards by a flood of people as if they’re running from an infectious disease. Rather than moving down the platform, as requested, this crowd stays affixed to the car.
Attention: we are being held at this station due to a sick passenger. All Manhattan-bound A and C trains are out of service . . .
A singular complaint arises from the crowd: how am I going to get to work? This is ridiculous. An employee standing guard for the EMT fixes the complainer with a look, then points to the G train across the platform.
You stand so that you’re looking at the crowd that’s peering into the car. Mouths open. Hands to their hearts. Front row seats to a spectacle of suspense. Someone in the front starts yelling Jesus. Jesus. JESUS. Standing up to see better, you spot a woman, dressed business-like regardless of her religious zeal. She throws invisible prayers with her open hands and you can’t help but think that at least she, among the rubberneckers, is trying in her own way.
You peer behind to see if the EMTs have arrived. No such luck. Next to you, in a close-knit circle, camaraderie has formed among a group of ladies. You know they had been strangers before, since they sat far away from each other, in the same car as you. Scraps of The Accident, as it’s becoming known, fall from their lips. They can’t stop talking, but you’re not sure if you want them to.
He must have been sick and didn’t stay home.
The heat on the train was too much.
And where are the damn EMTs?
You feel like you want to chime in, be a part of something for once, but their circle is too tightly closed.
You are disconcerted by some spectators joking at the unconscious man’s expense. They find something, unbelievably, funny about their current circumstances. You look away.
You then feel a tap on your shoulder—a newcomer. He takes out one of his earphones, and asks, Did someone die? in the same manner one would ask, Is this the A Train? You answer what you know and he turns, plugging his ear back up. He seems to be looking for death, and not finding it, walks away.
There they are. The EMTs have finally arrived after you-don’t-know-how-long, but they walk with a slow swagger, even as the MTA employees gesture for them to quicken their pace.
You wonder how affected can one be by a stranger’s plight and will that define one’s morality? There are some who cry at another’s misfortune. Take this woman, for example, who is led away from the crowd by someone who might be her daughter, and you strain to hear words of consolation. Why, exactly, when everyone else is captivated by near death, is this woman the only person crying?
Get this man off the damn train so we can move on, one woman behind you grumbles.
The G Train has come, and you know you must get to work. You know that this will not fly as a good excuse for your lateness. Rush hour is not the time to show compassion.
The crowd sweeps to the opening doors, and you move with them, but also dig your heels against the ground to rile the impatient.
Wow, you guys are animals. It’s the same woman complaining before. You think she’s just bitter that she must wait for the next train. No matter. You are led from one state of misery to the next. In the car is a vagrant and she has skipped the perfunctory introduction, and screams, I’m hungry, over and over again. You don’t look at her.
As the train pulls away from the platform, you wonder if that still man will die.
I honestly didn’t expect the response to my previous post about my high school reunion. People I haven’t talked to in ages had sent me messages saying they enjoyed my post and appreciated my manic candor. I’m guessing a lot of things I had said resonated with those who dreaded the idea of their past and present colliding at Aunt Chilada’s. I felt obligated to satisfy my readers (count: 2) with a follow-up post.
Before heading to the high school reunion, I had a smaller one with old friends, and we all crammed into the back of my Highlander, legs bent, knees to our chests as we faced each other (quite uncomfortable for KP who’s like 6’2″), and just talked about our lives—random things about significant others, roommate horror stories, pelvic organ prolapse, etc. People driving by, their headlights illuminating our silhouettes, might have wondered about what was going on inside the Highlander. I remember thinking that even if everything sucked that night, at least I’d remember this moment when us gals (minus one) were together again.
But it came to that time, yes that time, to make moves toward our reunion. We all knew it. Adele sang Hello on the drive there, which was so appropriate of course, but despite Adele’s well-timed accompaniment, I still felt excited after spending time with the vag squad.
So, I walked into Aunt Chilada’s feeling like this:
Only a few more steps into the restaurant moved to commence my discomfort. I had an odd flashback to one of my high school homecomings, where our adolescent, hormone-infested hormonal bodies were hypnotized by Miley Cyrus’ masterful lyrics in a song called, “Party in the USA.” Somehow kids managed to grind to it. I just remembered thinking, The fuck? Out of all my thoughts, this phrase perhaps occupied 95 percent of my thoughts throughout my high school career.
Then the flashback went away, because no one was grinding yet!
A note to readers (count: 5, now?): I was stone-cold sober the whole night because I don’t drink. If anyone ever harbored ill will towards me and wanted to render me comatose, pour me the tiniest bit of alcohol and I’d be out. (Please, don’t.)
I found myself fading out, forgetting about the music, and focusing all on sight. This tends to happen when I’m overwhelmed (and I’ve been told that my face goes slack and I go into a trance). This has also led to many awkward encounters when someone thinks I’m staring at them, when it’s most likely that I’m just thinking about what to eat next.
I spied two high school classmates dancing rather closely. I saw the same pair later on in the night, when they shared a kiss and went their separate ways. The girl was staring brokenheartedly after his retreating back. Perhaps she had fulfilled a long-time wish to make a move on the boy she liked. Good for her. But if she expected anything more from this encounter, I’d say the joke was on her.
Oh, the heartbreak in high school, those that you had witnessed—and experienced. I promised that I wouldn’t let my eyes drift too much, but they did and landed on a few boys whom I wish I had been brave enough to get to know. I was disappointed that they were for the most part still handsome and mostly definitely unaware of my existence, and will never be.
Other classmates had ballooned. Some lost weight, was going bald, or dyed their hair. Names and question marks appeared in my mind’s eye as I tried to remember who was who, ineluctably mistaking one person for another person, who was most likely their best friend. Before and after pictures floated in my mind as well, snapshots of the past overlaying what was right in front of me.
There were many who seemed to use alcohol to mask their discomfort in this situation, not totally bad . . . . well, until the alcohol led to ridiculousness, and it became obvious people were laughing at them, not with them.
I was watching all this, because I couldn’t bring myself to hold any legitimate conversation, despite what I had said in my previous post. See, I’ve always been wary of social gatherings, noisy and quiet, but I despise raucous ones even more. Usually, the music serves to mask the tremble of your voice, which reveals your nervousness, yet also drowns out the ability to hear fucking anything. I found myself shouting—more like spitting–in people’s ears most of the time, then nodding, dumbly, whenever I saw their lips moving in return.
What are you doing?
Not cool, to be honest. I genuinely did want to have longer conversations with really cool people who were slaying bitches in life, but I couldn’t muster the effort because of this noise. Again, missed opportunity.
I felt inexplicably angry at some points. Surges, I call them, in which a laugh, a glimpse of a classmate, or a small gesture brought back an unpleasant memory, and I couldn’t quite decipher it because it’d disappear too quickly.
I had hoped to see some faces and prayed to Satan that I wouldn’t see others. Not to say that I disliked the list of 28 people that I mentioned to Satan . . . it was more of me thinking and worrying about what I could possibly say to them. However, I caught eyes with these people. Quick glances: they are fucking painful. I mean the ones where you accidentally meet eyes with someone else, then you look away, knowing that this person saw you glancing away, and all you’re thinking is Shit. Shit. Shit. Your pain is only relieved when that person doesn’t approach you. But then there are certain people who think Ah, fuck, we saw each other, might as well torture her with forced conversation, and they stalk toward you, and you’re just scrambling for interesting things to say when you know you don’t have anything to say.
At one point I had retreated to a table with my friends. I put my back against the crowd, thinking, Fuck this sucks. I focused on my girlfriends sitting across from me, and I could see them staring out into the crowd, almost looking like they regretted coming here. As if, their faces were saying, why did I ever think that things would be different? It made me sad to watch, because I knew I was feeling the same thing. Then, someone made a bet, someone said, I kind of want to dance. EChow, I think it was, her shaved side hair emblematic of her rebellion, whether she intended it to be just that or not, led the line to the crowded dance floor. We danced stiffly side to side. I was thinking, Oh boy. And then, eventually, the night went away as our movements became more bold and crazy, and we focused solely on the fact that all of us were here together, again. When dancing with friends, I inexplicably end up in the circle. Perhaps because I’m shorter, perhaps because I gravitate to this area not out of ego, but out of comfort, knowing that I’d be surrounding myself with the people I love.I kind of hoped we would look like this as we were dancing:
…though, that wasn’t the case. Anyways, who cares? Let’s say it again, WHO CARES?!?
A beautiful thing happened. I’m gonna quote the greatest wordsmith of the quintessential teenage experience: Stephen Chbosky. In that moment, I swear we were infinite. I felt infinite. I felt infinite in the sense that I was there, in that moment, with the people who were and will always be dear to me. And that, I suppose, is the takeaway of a reunion:
Remember the good. Fuck the bad.
(Some might say I’m trying to make something more than it is–it’s a reunion nothing more. But I’ve always been sentimental and shit.)
Taking pleasure in just existing, I felt more and more thankful of my experiences as the night progressed. And it seemed, by the noise and the number of bodies flooding the dance floor, that this was the case for my classmates. The music, however corny, served to unite us. People belted out “Forever Young” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” An alligator hat was passed around, for some strange reason. Someone placed a wooden chair in the middle of the floor—not sure it’d survived the night.
One moment stuck out to me: I had a friend in high school and we drifted apart for no big reason. Our eyes met from across the room, my friend pointed a finger—a yes, you gesture—and then suddenly we were embracing each other. With this brief touch, I tried my best to convey how happy I hoped this person was, how awesome they were and will continue to be. After that, we parted, never exchanging a word, and I was left feeling content.
The reunion ended at around 1 a.m., and the crowd definitely shrunk seventy-five percent. The lights became brighter, and I was able to see who exactly was there—and I looked away. I didn’t want to stare any longer, so with my girls, we headed out to paint the town fucking red.
Just kidding. Nothing’s open in Cheshire after 10 p.m. NOT EVEN MCDONALD’S!
We will all move on from this high school reunion—we have already. We will continue to take on the world, continue to find ourselves, continue to forge confidence in whatever we may do. My promise is to hold on tight to what matters and let the insignificant go.
For those of you from my past who are reading this post, I wish you well, and I hope you’ve gained only positive feelings from our high school reunion! Good luck to you, Class of 2010. T-What? Okay, I’ll stop now.