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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.

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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.

http://cancerfuckingsucks.blogspot.ca/2015/06/dem-bones.html

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What’s that, you say? Amazing beers? Fun performances? Book signings? Physically challenged Brandy? OH YEAH! Good times. Don’t miss out on this. You’ll be burdened with regret for eternity if you do. Sorry. That’s just how it is.

Brews+BookTour

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In my other life as an editor and publisher, I’ve been working nonstop on an anthology of mixed race/mixed heritage Asian North American writing and art. 72 contributors. Over 150 pieces. 15 years since this project began. So thrilled to announce the birth of my new book baby.

  

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Je m’appelle Brandy, et je suis la mère de Chloë. La grand-mère de Chloë est Vietnamienne, et pour la première fois dans ma vie, j’ai l’occasion de voyager au Viêt Nam, un pays qui France avait colonisé pendant 1887-1954. Maman et moi, nous resterons au Viêt Nam jusqu’à Mars 1, 2015. Aujourd’hui au Viêt Nam, il est Nouvel An Vietnamien, ou Tết. Je voudrais partager avec vous des événements de notre voyage.


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C’est moi et Maman le premier jour dans Long An, la province où ma famille habite.


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C’est la ville, Bà Ria, où ma mère a voulu de visiter un temple Bouddhiste (particulièrement Cao Đài) à donner des offrandes pour Tết.


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Ces moines ont reçu des offrandes de ma mère.


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Après les rituels, les moines nous ont donné un petit déjeuner végétarien.


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C’est une photo d’un arrangement floral pour Tết. Chúc Mừng Năm Mới traduit par Bonne Année. Ils y ont beaucoup de ces arrangements et des autres décorations partout Viêt Nam.

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Des petit plaisirs pour Tết.


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Pendant Tết, des maisons, des enterprises, et même notre hôtel ont les petits autels pour honorer les dieux et les esprits de famille et des amis qui étaient morts.


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Ma mère et mes tantes au petit temple à Long An, à la veille de Tết.


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Mes tantes et ma mère ont donné ces cadeaux, qui ont situé sur l’autel au temple.


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Voici une motocyclette avec beaucoup de poulets!


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Maintenant, voici des photos des fêtes de Tết en Saigon (ou Ho Chi Minh Ville). Ville est thành phố en vietnamien.


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Ma tante et ma mère étaient devant l’exposition pour L’An du Bélier (ou le Chèvre ou le Mouton) de Bois. En Vietnamien, nous parlons Ất Mũi.


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Il y a une rue des fleurs pour Tết (Đường Hoa), avec des milles des fleurs.

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Nous avons mangé au restaurant sur Đường Hoa. Il y avait des choix intéressants sur le menu…Regardez!


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Mais la vue de Đường Hoa du restaurant était très belle!

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Quand nous avons retourné à l’hôtel pour se reposer, j’avais une surprise! Mon amie Kieu Linh, un professor en Californie, était la vedette d’une émission au sujet des gens Vietnamiens qui avaient immigré aux États-Unis et des autres pays (Việt Kiều, en Vietnamien). L’émission est une spéciale pour Tết.

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J’ai porté áo dài, une robe Vietnamienne traditionnel, et je m’ai amusé avec mon ami Roland, qui avait éte mon ami pour vingt ans. Maintenant, Roland fait des films au Viêt Nam.


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Ma tante, ma mère, et moi–nous avons regardé des masses dans les rue.


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Beaucoup des gens, motocyclettes, voitures!


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Un feu d’artifice à minuit!



La circulation était très folle. Il était très difficile à conduire!


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Chúc Mừng Năm Mới, Các Bạn! (Bonne Année de la Chèvre de Bois Vert (précisément), Mes Amis!)

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After a quick hop in the air from Harrisburg to DC, the woman pushing my mom IMG_2090in a wheelchair and I ran like hell, going up and down 7 elevators and in one train to get to our gate in time. The woman, herself an American immigrant, understood how important it was for us to make our flight, and that is why she worked beyond her shift without pay to get us to the gate on time for our flight to Tokyo. Once in Tokyo, the next wheelchair woman and I had to run, go through security, and run to the gate to make our flight to Saigon. One 30-minute flight, one 15-hour flight, and one 6-hour flight later (with lots of running and sweating), we landed in Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Yeah, it was fucking insane. But there we were—my mother and I in the motherland.

IMG_2262As I watched the sunset tonight from my hotel room window in Tan An, I reflected on the last 5 days. It feels like I’ve been here much longer. It feels like last month, or maybe six months ago, that I was watching This is Where I Leave You and If I Stay on my marathon flights. Both movies have a common theme of what is left behind when someone dies, and what the people who are left behind do with their lives—how they deal with the sudden change. Change in a breath. Change you don’t see coming. Change that so cruelly stays forever, way beyond the fractioned-second moment it’d happened.

One of the main reasons I agreed to come to Vietnam with my mother was to find myIMG_2287 brother Hieu’s ashes. My older sister had come to Vietnam twice 20 years ago for that very reason as well, but she was unable to or forbidden to see his remains. Hieu and my sister were very close, not unlike my older two children who are joined at the hip. When my sister came to the U.S. with my mother and my father in 1971, and Hieu was left behind, a huge hole ripped open in her soul. I’m quite certain it has never been repaired. That moment changed her forever, and in time, it would change me too.

For two decades, I’ve been living with my brother Hieu’s ghost, especially in the way my sister would come apart with such deep sorrow over the years. When she first told me about him, I couldn’t believe that I had a brother, and that my mother had left him behind. For years I struggled with anger and confusion, wondering how any mother could leave her son behind and go to a different country. But as I got older, some of my questions were answered with Mom’s brief signs of remorse and regret. When my father died last year, the story of Hieu opened up, got bigger.

We all thought that Dad never knew about Hieu and how he was abandoned. But a few days before my father passed away, I asked him if he knew about Hieu. He simply nodded yes. He did know. But he didn’t want to cause Mom any pain, so he let her keep her secret, and he took his secret of knowing to the grave with him.

This is where Dad left us—not only with an unending bottomless pain, but also a liberation for my mother to tell her stories that she thought she couldn’t tell before.

Today, when I woke up, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I knew we were going to My Tho, but I didn’t know why. Before we headed off to My Tho, we went to Uncle’s house and picked him up. I was even more confused. I didn’t know that Uncle would be coming with us. I was sleepy and nodded off. When I woke up, we were parked along the side of the street, across from an alley. “Why are we here, Mom? Where’s Uncle going?” I asked, as my uncle disappeared into the alley. “He going look for your sister family.” I sat there, stunned. I didn’t know we were on this search today. He came back and told us that we had to go further down the road. We stopped again, he got out again, and came back. Further.

Finally, we stopped near the end of the street, and he told us to get out of the car. We IMG_2229walked down the narrow alley until we reached my sister’s aunt’s house. The woman was old, like 90-something Mom said. She was so happy to see us. And she chatted with mom. Her daughters came by as well. I got the Vietnamese affectionate touchy feely pat-down, my mother gave them some money, and then we left.

“Wait, Mom, aren’t we going to see Hieu’s ashes?” I asked as we walked down the alley to the car. “You want see that?” she asked quietly. “Uh, yeah, that’s why I’m here.” She told Uncle what I said, and we turned around and walked back to my sister’s aunt’s house. When she and Uncle tried to explain my wish, they started to discourage a visit. But I remained firm. “If Hieu’s ashes are at a temple around here, I want to see it, Mom. Tell them.” Mom got the courage to insist on us seeing Hieu’s ashes, and finally, they gave in. In some ways I didn’t expect them to agree so easily, after hearing my sister’s stories of how they aggressively denied her access. But this is something I need to process over some time.

Here is the emotional video I captured when I finally got to see Hieu’s ashes. I feel so so so much in terms of closure and in terms of opening up really ancient wounds. 

This is where Hieu was left. Would he still be alive today if Mom and Hanh had stayed? Life is so random, yet we are all fooled into an idea of permanence. This is what I’m left with now. This is where I stay.

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