Archive for June, 2015

In April I had the privilege of returning to one of my alma maters, UCLA, to do a talk about my memoir. It was so touching and humbling to hear one of my mentors and friends make this intro to my talk. I’d like to share it here with you.

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It is with tremendous joy, pride, and warm affection that I want to welcome, on behalf of the Department of Asian American Studies, Brandy Liên Worrall, our alumnus and the author of a newly published memoir What Doesn’t Kill Us.

Brandy’s memoir is a truly impressive milestone in her writing career: it tells—with passion, candor, and insights—of the interwoven stories of the personal, the historical, and the political, from the intersections between war and culture, race and selfhood, artistry and structures of feeling, and memory and imagination.

What Doesn’t Kill Us is also a book of courage, resilience, trauma, and, to use a title from David Wong Louie’s stories, “pangs of love.” Brandy’s memoir has been published by the Rabbit Fool Press, a family owned and operated publishing company based in Vancouver, of which she is the editor.

Prior to Brandy’s publication of this memoir, she had already put out eight collections of poetry, and served as editor of numerous magazines, journals, and anthologies, most notably as the associate editor of Amerasia Journal, the leading journal on Asian American Studies in the country from 2002 to 2005. Brandy received an MFA degree in creative writing from the University of British Columbia in 2012.

I came to know Brandy in 1999, when she entered UCLA’s Asian American Studies graduate program as a first-year student. I was given the assignment of serving as her interim advisor. It was a temporary faculty role designed to assist new graduate students in familiarizing themselves with UCLA’s campus culture and the rhythms of UCLA academic life. And I was immediately struck by Brandy’s exceptional excellence as a young scholar, especially her intellectual energy and curiosity, her ability to engage in critical thinking and analysis, and, above all, her evident creative promise and artistic bent. To my great delight, Brandy eventually found her way to working with Professor Thu-Huong Nguyen-Vo, and, under the guidance of her, Professor Valerie Matsumoto, Professor Shu-mei Shih, and Professor Russell Leong, completed an impressive Master’s thesis titled “Feeling Implied: the Uncanny World of Hapa Writers and Their Families.”

In 2003, Brandy published an important piece in Amerasia Journal, in which she gave a fascinating account of her own family—her white Vietnam vet father, her Vietnamese immigrant mother, and her biracial self growing up in a rural Pennsylvania Dutch community. As Professor Nguyen-Vo observes in her introduction to that piece, Brandy does not use the occasion just to talk about her own ethnic identity, or to explore a vague sense of exilic displacement, or to reflect on the ambiguities of her cross-cultural heritages. Rather, she unveils in in that piece of writing the distance traversed by many Vietnamese immigrants, one that stretches itself between Vietnam and the US, between Long An and Mifflintown, between outsider and insider in American society, and between enemy and family in people’s imagination.

I consider Professor Nguyen-Vo’s comment on Brandy’s 2003 piece a useful background for our appreciation for Brandy’s memoirs, which is for me also fundamentally concerned with an odyssey that the she continues to embark on, to make sense of, and to triumph over—socially, historically, and emotionally.

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Later and Always

Pappy, Dad & Mammy, Mifflintown, PA, 1969.

Pappy, Dad & Mammy, Mifflintown, PA, 1969.

My life is writing my books for me. When I began thinking about my family stories when I was around 20 years old, and my sister started divulging traumatic family secrets, I felt an urgency to give voices to those who have been silenced, not just the dead but also the living. It has been apparent since What Doesn’t Kill Us has been published that indeed, the voices in the book have prompted readers to speak up, to make connections, to no longer feel silenced or alone. That’s the healing power of writing. I should know. Healing has been a life-long process for me.

Today I’m preparing for another reading, where people will come and listen to the stories that I’ve composed out of my life, the stories that tell people that they have mattered. Even short stories of people who have mattered so much–like my grandfather, or Pappy as we all called him, who died last Saturday. Pappy appears only once in my book, as the loving grandfather who liked to joke and tease and make his wife, granddaughter, and anyone else around him laugh. That small presence between the pages of my book looms large in the wake of Pappy’s death. Pappy was only 17 years old when my father was born, so they were also the best of friends in addition to being father and son. And when my father passed away 17 days after the diagnosis of metastatic lung cancer due to Agent Orange exposure, Pappy’s spirit began to fade. It was so very clear; we all witnessed it. Pappy couldn’t exist in this world without Lee. One of my cousins who was with Pappy during his last days said that a few days before Pappy died, he reached up his arms and said, “Come closer. I can’t reach you, Lee.” My heart broke and was comforted all at once when I heard this. In a few days, he would reach my dad–his son and best friend.

Sometimes we have time to say goodbye, and sometimes we do not. Pappy said goodbye to my grandmother, Mammy, when he asked that she come in to see him at the nursing home, and he landed a big kiss on her lips, and said, “I love you, Sweetheart. I’ll see you later.” I’ll see you later. I think of how my youngest child Moxie doesn’t like to say goodbye. So people say to her, “I’ll see you later,” to which she always shouts, “I don’t like see you later too!” Separation is one of the hardest things, I think, but we have to believe that there is a later, in some sort of way, even if it’s not concrete or something we can touch and hold.

I didn’t have time to say goodbye to my dad on March 27th, 2014. We thought we would. When he was given his diagnosis on March 10th, the doctors told us without hesitation that he would have 4-6 months, and we thought that even that was a rip-off. Suddenly, you have an expiration date. The word “deadline” becomes literal. And the day that my uncle Pen and I struggled to put my dad into the car to take him to the VA hospital, we didn’t know that that was supposed to be goodbye or see you later. No, I didn’t get to say “see you later, Dad.” And with the geographical distance between me and Pappy, I didn’t get to say “see you later” to him either.

So this is the best that I can do: accept my audience as a blessing. Keep my loved ones’ memories alive. Honour them. Each and every one of them. Even the ones that do not make it into the picture frames into the altars. Go through the hope chests of memories, dig through the trunks in the attics that are riddled with wasp nests for remnants of what used to be important to them. Examine those relics. Hold them in my hands. Cherish them. Feel the energy that used to make them so significant, important enough to be saved and cried over. Make “see you later” into “I’ll see you always.”

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It’s been a long time since I’ve updated my cancer blog, but after what I’ve gone through over the last week and a bit, I feel compelled to share my story in case it can help other patients and survivors.


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