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What We Need To Remember

Six months before I was born, my mother, father, and sister huddled around the television and watched the Fall of Saigon. Even though they knew it would inevitably happen, they were not prepared for the reality of what was to come. My mom told me once, “I saw on tv, America, they leave Vietnam behind. My family, who live, who die? I no know.” To this day, there are still things my family doesn’t know about in terms of the aftermath of the war, like how my Vietnamese brother died or even when. And when my mother had a major psychotic breakdown last month, we couldn’t answer questions about why an MRI on her brain showed old head trauma scarred over–just that it probably happened sometime during her childhood or young adult years by a family member abusing her.

I’ve hesitated to talk about my last few weeks because even though I’m a memoirist and the reason behind my writing is to talk about things people are afraid to talk about, but to talk about them so that those who are afraid or feel isolated can at least read some stories about how they are not alone—I’ve hesitated because even though my first memoir, published 2 years ago on this day, contains stories about my family’s trauma, mental illness, and survival—I feel some very innate sense that I shouldn’t talk about my mom’s breakdown. I know she doesn’t want me to talk about it. I’m not sure I want to talk about it. But if I don’t, then, well, that’s not helping anyone, is it? It’s certainly not helping the millions of people and families who have experienced trauma from war, or who have experienced mental illness. Why are we so quick to ask for prayers and thoughts for loved ones who have just been diagnosed with cancer, but not for those who have been trapped in their suffering and delusions for decades and are unable to process it?

That brings me to today. This week. This year. As I’ve watched and try to help my mom heal from her trauma and mental illness, I’ve watched my birth country go through its own psychotic breakdown. Today, we are supposed to remember our veterans. I don’t think I need to say this but I will; I remember our veterans every day. My father did not die in Vietnam, but as survivors of PTSD know, you can come home from a war, but in reality you’ve never left. My father officially died of lung cancer caused by Agent Orange exposure. That’s on the books. He also died from a broken heart, a tortured soul, a relentless nightmare that played on in his head every night, and when he wasn’t trying to zone out by watching CSI or Law & Order, in his head every day as well. I often say that my father was a hippie who enlisted in the war. Even though his military training tried to brainwash him into thinking that the enemy he was killing were not humans, he knew otherwise. And when he killed people who looked like his wife’s family, it was another notch on his noose.

Grown-ups like to tell children and people who seem unpatriotic that we should be grateful for the freedom we have today because men and women have died for it. What men and women have died for were ideals that we are far from attaining at the moment. They died and sacrificed so that Americans–and hopefully, so that every human–could experience a life free of fear, oppression, exclusion, pain, assault, and the feeling of being valued at less-than-human. Am I incorrect in this assumption? Is this not what the United States was founded upon? At the core, the U.S. is seen as a country, worldwide, that takes in people looking for a better life for their families, their communities, their people who have experienced so much hardship in the war-torn, politically divided countries from which they came.

So we just elected a person who has been vocal about putting severe restrictions on the freedoms for which our veterans fought and died. Lots of well-meaning people, tired from the election, sick of politics, say “Move on. It happened. Suck it up.” Trust me, we are ALL sick of the election, of the politics. But for a lot of my friends, we do not have the privilege and luxury of moving on. My friends are sickened by the idea that they have to have discussions with their 5-year-old children about how to stay safe at school, or how to seek help and not be quiet when a White kid goes up to them and spews some hateful words at them because their lives aren’t viewed as a way to make America great again, but rather are viewed as a hindrance, or as a way to pull America further down. This is not right. This is not okay. And because of this, we do cannot, AT ALL, move on.

Society, politics–it’s not a football game. Trump supporters and apologists–your candidate won. Your candidate, who wanted to make America great again. Yet the day after this victory–and how many days to follow?–children were being bullied, assaulted, traumatized. No matter what religion you devote yourself to, I cannot imagine that your teachings are okay with children being brutalized in the name of nationalism or patriotism or whatever stake people feel they are protecting by oppressing groups of people. Okay, so you have a hard time humanizing these “others” that you want to deport or send back or incarcerate or beat up or kill? Can you then, please, picture these others are children? Because they are. And that’s what is happening. Please tell me you can’t be okay with knowing that your kid or a friend’s kid is going to someone else’s kid and saying stuff like “Shouldn’t you be sitting in the back of the bus?” or “Make America White Again.” When you are telling me and others who are starting to revolutionize to “get over it,” and “move on,” this is how I interpret your words—they are insensitive, inhumane, and lacking compassion. That’s the person I see you as.

I am never happy that my father is dead. My heart aches for him every day, and I have many regrets about how I didn’t listen to my father enough when he tried to speak about his pain. But today, on this Veteran’s/Remembrance Day, I am happy he is not alive to see what is going on. It would cause him even more heartbreak, and he certainly did not need anymore of that.

At the risk of turning people off or making people angry, I am going to post this poem. It’s called “Flag,” and I wrote it a year ago. Before you dismiss my words as unpatriotic and ungrateful to our military personnel, read it carefully, maybe twice, and between the lines. I love my country. I love my people. I love humanity. If I move on or get over it, then my love for everything would be dead. I don’t ever want that moment to come. So I am moving FORWARD, and I am getting ON it. What we have now, we cannot settle for. We can do better.


There it stands,


though he no longer does,

this flagpole Dad erected in our front yard, when the PTSD devil got big, and maybe he thought it could be a cure
or an offering—
to have the American flag always waving back at him even when he could not.

I hated that flag.

Mockery branded with the stars and stripes cliché, powered by the force of wind.

This flag. This fucking flag.

I watched it decay one summer when the storms were frequent and mighty. I watched from the porch swing as lightning struck
across the valley, and I knew
God hated that flag too. It makes sense.

God hates flags.

It unravelled into brutish piratedom,
its tatters reaching down like bony deathful fingers.
Its holes imploring mercy upon its fading glory. Delusional glory.
Glory holes. Fuck that flag.

Mom the Interloper bought a new one.

It was time.

Dad had let this go on too long–
luxuriating in shreds and frayed threads, an eyesore for all the neighbours to see.

Replace, renew, resign,
for the flag still stands.

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Long before I published my first memoir, I started telling funny stories about my family, especially about my mother. To be sure, there are countless things that figuratively and literally get lost in translation between me and my mother. She comes from a rural part of Vietnam and stopped going to school at age 8 in order to go work to contribute to the family income. She comes from a family that has traditions and rituals that seem strange (and sometimes abusive) to me. It’s taken me 40 years to process this beast I call my family, and I’ve found that I process it best through humour, through considering the amazing and random absurdities of life. One of the most common reactions I get from storytelling about my mother is “She’s quite the character.” Indeed.

I do acknowledge that when I tell a story, I am telling only my side of the story, my perception. It’s all I can do, really. But in writing I do have to flesh out the things that I normally take for granted, like someone’s body language, catch phrases, habits, speech patterns—even my own. These are characteristics that we don’t normally think about or observe in everyday life. As a writer it is precisely these “mundane” things that we have to notice, write about, and create a picture for our readers.

Do you have any stories of your family that get told over and over again, by various people, in different versions? Think of all the times when you’ve noticed an epic, legendary story that gets told during special family occasions, the kind of stories that get people laughing and crying at the same time.

It is sometimes helpful to start thinking in simple terms: the meanings of names (or the story of how someone got their name), sentimental trinkets, trademark gestures. The little things that people do and say.

When I start writing about real people in my life, I switch my lens to “movie mode.” I pretend that my mother is a character that I’m just getting to know on the big screen, and she’s fascinating. She’s complex, she’s had a rough history, she’s a survivor. I don’t know where her story (or mine) is going, but it’s going to take me on quite a ride.

Some exercises that I like to do when I’m stuck writing about people in my life are:

  1. “I come from…” (or he/she/they come from): This is a well known, solid writing prompt that really gets the juices flowing. Taking a quiet moment to consider where one comes from, not just in the geographical sense but in the senses of tradition, ritual, language, religion, and so on, can really bring up a lot of surprising observations about oneself and those in one’s life. It is also an interesting exercise that can combine the past, present, and future to display a complex picture of oneself.
  2. Holding a small object of great significance, such as a stone or seashell, a doll, a picture, a necklace, a sock. I like using stones and rocks because they are the simplest object that kids first play with. They are also great metaphors for the passing of time and changes. There is something deeply meditative about holding a stone in the palm of your hand, looking at the cracks and veins, feeling how smooth or rough it is, and contemplating the stone’s journey in the context of your own life, no matter how long or short.
  3. Creating a playlist or soundtrack for the stories I write. Sometimes it helps to bring another medium into the game, and music that strikes a chord is something to pay attention to when creating the characters from the people in your life. What song makes you cry when it comes on the radio, and why? What song makes your parents dance all of a sudden? These are the songs that help narrate your story.
  4. Thinking of the meaning and stories behind names. Naming is a very sacred act that can shape a person’s life from the beginning. Consider the song by Johnny Cash, “A Boy Named Sue.”

These are a few of my favourite ways to get the people in my life into character for my stories. It’s a tricky process, but well worth it, even if the creations stay in your brain for a while before they make it on paper.

A couple books worth checking out in terms of this topic are Ralph Fletcher’s How To Write Your Life Story and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

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I’ve been hibernating. (Always found it interesting that “hibernation” is related to the French word for winter, “l’hiver”—for me, winter always seems to be coming). I guess that’s a trait that writers have in common with bears. My 2014-2015 book tour took the life out of me, not to mention other deep family issues I’ve been dealing with after the death of my father two years ago. My personal life is messy and complicated and hard—and so is writing about it. That’s the curse and blessing of the memoirist.

Writing as healing—I’ve always thought of writing in this way, even when I was a little girl. Or perhaps I didn’t think of it as healing, but more like comforting, filling up the space around me when I was in isolation. Oftentimes, people are reluctant to start the healing process because it can be daunting and unknown, what the results will be. I’ve been quiet both on the talking and the writing fronts because there’s a lot of thinking going on, and it exhausts me. I tried to rev up and get stuff in motion to try to get back the old me, the pre-cancer me who did a bunch of stuff like a boss (9 YEARS ago). I have to put that old me to rest. That’s not me anymore. I can’t possibly be that person. That person had Red Bull, adrenaline, and youthful ambition running through her veins. This person falls asleep in waiting rooms and snores and doesn’t care.

But this person does need to get back to writing. Writing does heal me, and also others. I’ve done a good job when I can write something, read it, and say, “Huh, I actually didn’t know that about myself before. Now I can move on.” I’ve done an excellent job when my readers can connect to my words and get the feels.

My children are at the age where they are blossoming as writers and artists. So we hung up whimsical education posters we bought at the dollar store about grammar, proofreading, punctuation, the writing process, literary devices, and styles of writing. I’m looking at the poster for styles of writing. Under “Narrative” the rules are simple: 1. Think About It! (did a lot of that, for sure) 2. Just Start Writing! (as if it were that easy) 3. Get Organized! (where’s my pen again?) 4. Rewrite and edit (uh…) Okay, so I’m thinking and writing, and rambling and wandering. Even this blog post is overwhelming me. My inner editor is berating me right now: Are you really going to publish this drivel on your website? People are going to think you’ve lost your mind and your touch.

To my inner editor: yes, I’m going to publish this drivel. It’s the first thing I’ve posted in 9 months. It took me 9 months to cook up this baby, so yeah, I’m pushing it out, okay?  Because it’s stuck. And I need to get it unstuck. It’s so stuck, it hurts. So there. You. Go.

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Almost one year ago my first memoir was released out into the big scary world. It was a pleasant coincidence that the publication date was November 11, 2014–Veteran’s Day in America and Remembrance Day in Canada. Most people think of this as the same holiday. I suppose it is–one holiday with two names. But since publishing What Doesn’t Kill Us and touring North America this year, I’ve come to look at November 11th as two holidays. We recognize our veterans in America–in a country that should recognize them and compensate them more than what is happening. In Canada, we remember the veterans who have served and continue to serve with poppy pins and school assemblies. I can’t remember Veteran’s Day being very ceremonial when I grew up in Pennsylvania. My memory of the day was this day every year when my father was very silent, tense, and angry. That was as ceremonial as we got in our house.

November 11th has always been a odd sort of day for me. Eleven-Eleven. If you’re remotely interested in numerology as I am, you know that the number 11 is a special number: “The 11 symbolizes the potential to push the limitations of the human experience into the stratosphere of the highest spiritual perception; the link between the mortal and the immortal; between man and spirit; between darkness and light; ignorance and enlightenment. This is the ultimate symbolic power of the 11” (from http://www.numerology.com/numerology-numbers/11-master-number). With my book I’ve been shown these connections time and time again as I meet new people and share my stories, and readers feel comfortable enough to share theirs. So maybe I think of it as more than just a funny coincidence that my book was published on 11/11–despite my relationship to the date, I did not publish this book on purpose on that date. What can I say? It’s destiny.

This year, two weeks from 11/11, I turn 40 years old. This year was the 40th year since the end of the Vietnam/American War. Again, things come full circle as they are meant to, and I just stand in awe.

To recognize and celebrate this synchronicity, Rabbit Fool Press is offering a free download of What Doesn’t Kill Us, starting on November 11, for a limited time. This is your opportunity to read it if you haven’t but wanted to, spread the word, see if it resonates with you, see if you’d like to teach this book in your class (I’ve had amazing responses from students who’ve read this book in their classes). Having you read my book is the best gift for my 40th birthday–and if you do read it, you could give me another present in the form of a review on Goodreads or Amazon!

We will announce this once again on November 11th, but check this link on this day for your free download and spread the word: What Doesn’t Kill Us.

In love and light…xo

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I am deeply honoured that Professor Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu of Stanford has published a wonderful review of my book in Amerasia Journal. When I first read it, I was thinking, “Whoa, is he talking about me? About my book?” Yes, he is! You can find the pdf and information on how to order this particular issue of Amerasia Journal here:


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Layers of Clouds

I woke up and took my Synthroid as I do every morning. My morning pills, when I was 10, were two chalky Flintstones vitamins. I didn’t care so much for which characters I ate as much as I cared about colour. Red and purple were the ones that were gone first from the bottle. My youngest child is the same way. I watched her pick out two red Frozen characters gummy vitamins after she ate cereal today.

After the two older children left for school, I went to lie down with the youngest. She was waking up, and I was noticing the condensation on the bedroom window. I remembered when I was a girl, I used to write on the condensation every autumn morning, while brushing my teeth. I would write some boy’s name + mine enclosed in a heart. Then I would make a wish that this romance would happen soon as I used my sleeve to wipe away the declaration of love. Then I’d look out the window to see if I could spot any deer in the field behind the garage.

When Moxie was settled down with her favourite morning show, I went out to the back porch and counted the layers of grey and white clouds creeping over downtown. The recycling truck roared a few blocks away. Two planes flew toward the mountains, one at a much higher altitude than the other. Where I come from, it’s so quiet that city folk have trouble sleeping at night. And in the mornings, as I waited for the #1 or #3 school bus at the bottom of our driveway, I’d try to pick out bird songs and chatter. I’d do my best not to slip on the frost as I stood there shivering, watching the top of the hill where my cousin lived, to see when the bus would round the corner and pick me up for another day of school. I wanted to be so smart that I could move to New York City someday.

Reflection is a good way to ground you in the present. Sounds like a contradiction, to look at the past to be in the present. But when I do these types of reflections–of watching the film in my head of what life was like back then, and how I got to where I am now–I always without fail end up marvelling at the paths taken to bring me to the present moment. I love it when the small quiet memories deliver me a breathtaking moment in the present.

If you write in a journal, try tapping into one of these memories and connecting it to the present. You might give yourself a nice introspective surprise that will carry you throughout the day.

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Quite simply, a redirection to my cancer blog: http://cancerfuckingsucks.blogspot.ca/2015/10/what-being-cancer-survivor-means-to-me.html

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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.

* * *

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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