Listening hard through the night, hearing gravel crunch under tyres, tiny rubbing footsteps, the fluttering of sleeping hens, and the hum of suburbia. Tonight I am listless and searching. I am unsettled and grasping for fulfilment; spectacle, the abject, voyeurism, titillation, the empty space of sky.
If I strain, I might hear the whisper from my mum 3000 miles away, reassuring and omniscient. I might reach into the aether and bring back my grandmother who I snatched moments with mere months before her leaving, months after I finally arrived. Perhaps I could wrench into this dimension the time lost whilst waiting for a piece of paper to tell me where I could finally rest. Twenty-something years of distance, of normalizing disconnection, of building detachment for survival, of flitting from one coordinate to another to distract from this process of limbo, of expectation. Perhaps I could twist this vision of myself into a familiar, comforting and attached version capable of satisfaction, relishing in joy. I could smash the fucking limbo instead of swimming in it like oxygen, like the heavy cloak that forces my head and gaze to stare out the window looking for what is missing. I could move around the little paper pieces into an diagram that makes sense, a family of togetherness, touching, picturesque and at ease. Maybe I would understand the difference.
Unsettled, because settling was never a choice, after the first and third displacement. One foot ready to run, feelings wrapped in a box, packaged and shipped onward. I am wrestling with peace and tension, grabbing at altercations and violence, waiting for something to be ripped away again.
Written on Black April:
Today is the day my family lost their country, 41 years ago.
+++When I say I’m a product of US Imperialism,
Conceived next to water, on a beach, in a refugee camp, in between borders, in between definite states,
With no nationality, papers, future:
I am asked “Why move here then?”
“My entire family lives in the States, I waited my whole life for a Green Card”
“Then why complain?”
I exercise my right to be a critical dissident resident of the USA.
+++When I say I’m a product of US Imperialism,
I am accused: “Our troops fought and lost their lives for a war that wasn’t even theirs.”
It wasn’t mine either, but no doubt I will never finish repaying that debt.
I remind myself I don’t owe anyone anything.
+++Moving to North America:
Means catching the bus and seeing middle-aged men
Middle-aged men in wheelchairs or on crutches
Watching men recognize me –
Not me, but something in me, the shape of my eyes, cheekbone, skintone, black horsehair.
Projecting onto me their historic desires, exotic liaisons, or familiar victims.
Their trauma, their unanswered questions, their imminent reward,
Their expectation of gratefulness or familiarity from me.
Of pandering, of servitude, of interest.
But I am not the innocent farm-girl from the Delta, of 45 years ago.
We exchange a moment tenderness and violence
I hold a moment of carrying their burden, accepting their pain,
Then I cast it off.
+++If I let all the weights fill me, then my shape would become what they see me as,
But I am not the innocent farm-girl from the Delta.
Today I cradled my mother in my arms
Blubbering like a baby
She told me how much she loves her momma
And I thought of how it had been the other way around
Today I carefully spoonfed my gran, tucked her in and changed her diaper. Stroked her hair and tenderly wiped her tears away.
And she thought of how it had been the other way around
Strength shows in different ways – through restraint, submission, acceptance, silence. But also in unadulterated, openfaced emoting. Floodgates opened for a second, with abandon, moment of safety, before scuttling away into a swallowed, dry place.
I saw her truest self, most naked, when not occupied hiding in an automaton wife shell, conflated love and duty, flummoxed by stimulus and new rules constructed overnight when her guard was down.
In the still of dawn, on the precipice of two goodbyes, time closes like an accordion. Distance then opens, like an accordion, between her, and I, and gran. Time, distance, nature, decay, separates us eternally.
On the eve of her funeral we realize there are so many soons and one days, but only one definitive too late. I would have liked to make her laugh again, to feed her my cooking, for her to taste mint jelly again.
After midnight we flew over a lit city, looked down through a clear night sky and marvelled at its cold crisp lines, of the impeccable order of one light next to another and then another. I thought of their obliviousness, of their all-in-row-ness, as they struggle with each internal turmoil, of the utter chaos and storming that occurred in each neat little lit-up box, night after night. Of every tense silence, swirling emotion, oscillating dread and relief, read gesture, unspoken discord. Of intergenerational obfuscation and murky, muck-filled embrace, mired and obscured love, choked with guilt and questions. In moments snatched back, out of reach, and some certainly inaccessible, frozen with their undeniable passing. There we sit, brimming with anxiety, spilling with judgement, obsessed with aesthetic, neatly and quietly in adjacent lines, blinking on and off.
Artwork by Anna Vo; used with permission by the artist.
ANNA VO is a radical educator for 8 years in over 20 countries in Inclusion, Refugee Support, Trauma-Informed Care, and Racial Justice. Editor of an internationally renowned publication for People of Color that has been going for 6 years, and a speaker, artist and musician who has exhibited and toured in Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, Croatia, Finland, Denmark, Sweden and the States. Anarchist and local festival organizer.