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.

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.”

No Bones About It

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.


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.


Completely Mixed Up

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.


17 Days: Day 4

There was a lot of driving for me to do,
with Mom in the car, between Arch Rock and Lebanon,
and of course we got lost the first time,
Mom’s directional accuracy not even close to being a broken compass,
just off off off, in the spaces where I’d have to
interrupt her Buddha sermon and ask her,
foolishly, LEFT?, RIGHT?, STRAIGHT? MOM?
ending up having to go backward to the first point
where we got lost—and let me tell you,
all red and brown barns look the same, so
thank goodness I remembered the one that had
“Jesus Saves” painted on the roof,
near the McDonald’s with free wifi so I could
Google-maps-screen-cap the rest of our way to where Dad was.

There seems to be no end in sight when you’re driving
through trees like that, and your mother is barrelling at you
with her reasons as to why your father has cancer,
like how he was shovelling snow a couple months ago
and hurt his shoulder, which was the same time he had
a big fight with your sister and her husband about what
was supposed to have happened at Christmas
or around it but did not—
all that combined was why your Dad has cancer.

It was then when I said, “That’s not how cancer works, Mom,”
that I missed the left Google Maps told me to make in 0.2 miles.
As if I knew better how cancer works.

The last five miles of the drive are the longest
because you are almost there, and the road is so wide
but the speed limit is a snaily 15 miles per hour
for no other reason than to honour the sacred drive
through the sacrifice of many young people
who probably barely understood how they were being used
before they couldn’t be used anymore.
As if you know better how war works.

Finally, we pulled into the handicapped parking space
I eventually stopped feeling guilty about parking in
because Mom said we were just as injured as anyone else anyway,
and we got there first, or at the right time,
so park there, take the spot, hang up the tag,
we won’t be here for long
before we have to drive back again.

17 Days: Day 3

This might be the day he comes home.
We don’t know yet, but we wait.
Coming home again.
First time, from the war.
Second time, from the country where the war was,
with a new wife and someone else’s kid.
Third, fourth, twelfth, thirteenth times from rehab
of different kinds,
when I pictured it like my dad going to summer camp,
making crafts and participating in trust falls
to get rid of everything that threatened to tear us apart.

This time coming home, not to live again but to die,
to live a very dying life
with all the gear that goes with that.

Dr. Rachael fixing for him to come home meant
getting him out of bed to shuffle down the hall,
but first get him out of bed.
On his own two feet and everything else he had previously taken for granted—
we have to get him to stand on that, one oedematous leg at a time.

Getting permission to go home is the golden ticket, we think.
At the first hint of its possible issuance,
I make phone calls to men who drive trucks made for moving
cross-country, but instead carry oxygen tanks,
modified toilet seats, and anything else with wheels and brakes.

Where we live, you can’t keep an illness like that a secret.
It’s everybody’s business, and everyone has an opinion.
They’ll see the trucks and the nameless men
in uniforms delivering all the things needed
to make dying less horrible.
They’ll part their flimsy floral curtains
and look out their windows and mutter prayers
under their breath, spittle hitting their chins,
but they won’t notice cuz they’ll be too busy praising Jesus
that it wasn’t their driveway those trucks were pulling up in.

I think these thoughts as I’m on hold with
the medical equipment company receptionist,
as the nurse helps Dad bring one leg out,
as Mom hovers over the nurse because she knows her husband
better than this American woman does.
Dad’s done all this before.
All of this, to come home.

17 Days: Day 2

My whole body hurt. The pain thundered in my head.
Writhing, pulling pillows over my eyes, trying to lay
softness over the inner beating I was taking
like a mother trying to soothe a child with hushes
and hugs when the child’s knee is torn open,
bloody and full of pebbles,
my head—my bloody fucking head crowded with
so much pain, I had to give it an 8.

Back to the Pain Scale. How familiar I am
with this “universal” scale of measurement, yet
how perplexing it is, still. The Pain Scale.

“How much pain are you in, on a scale of 1-10?”
I’m in pain, and I’m supposed to give you a computation/
quantification of this pain. “I feel a 7.”
What’s a 7 anyway?

Three babies, one cancer diagnosis, ten surgeries,
and I’m-not-going-to-count-how-many friends I’ve watched dying—
none of that made me understand The Pain Scale until Day 2.

Were we truly on the cusp of spring, or still courting it to fight
past the stubborn frigidity of mid-March? I know it was that
fickle overcast in-between weather that Mom and I walked out of
and into the hallway of the first floor,
a first floor unlike normal hospitals that are new, sterile,
adorned with plaques announcing the names of the big donors
who made possible their disaster-ready modernization.
This hallway: a grey cement vein through a building
that hadn’t been touched since the 70s.
After all, it was, it is, one of those hospitals of the forgotten
in a country that always claims to never forget.

Around the dimly lit corner, Mom and I took the elevator up
to Camp Courage, to Dad’s room where he lay against all wishes,
shackled by tubes and tanks.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your pain?” Dr. Rachael asked.
And there it was, the gesture I myself have made so many times:
the shoulder-shrugging, wrinkled-nose expression made during
an exercise of best-guess approximation, like we’re suppose to
rate Miss America on her talent portion, that is to say,
beauty (and how she walks) is in the eye of the beholder.
Isn’t pain as well?

Then she showed us a picture.
Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 8.59.35 AM

“Forget numbers,” she said. “Which face is you?”

Dad reached out his shaky finger to the sad face next to the teary one.

“So about an 8,” she said, ordering meds accordingly.

I scribbled on the back of Dad’s breakfast menu:
FullSizeRender (1)

Dad nodded and smiled. “Nice try, Dad,” I said.
Dr. Rachael said Dad could go home when his pain was a 6. Just 2 points less.

But 2 points. This wasn’t basketball. This was cancer. And there was the faulty nature
of numbers and pain.

Still, Dad was shooting for a 6. Or the less orangey-yellowy, less frowning face.

We’d start to understand The Pain Scale between us, when I would ask
and he would answer, until he couldn’t say numbers anymore,
when for all of us, it became a pain without faces, without numbers.

17 Days: Day 1

I assume we all have our own rituals
beginning today, even though today is March 9, and back then it was March 10—
it was a Monday, and that matters more.

I picture Mother kneeling, kowtowing to his picture and all the Buddhas,
goddesses, and all-seeing eyes at her altar, wooden prayer beads
around her neck falling forward as she does, supplicating
my father’s still nascent soul into someplace good,
so her soul will go someplace good someday too.

I picture Sister going about her day as usual,
nothing remarkable or special to note
except for the sadness that’s always there is deeper today,
and she tries to not know why.

I woke up today almost not knowing how today already has changed me
from yesterday, when I lay in convalescence from a malaise I’ll always have.

One year ago, I was on my way to where Father lay—
or I had pictured him lying, scared and confused,
or more likely resigned. On a plane, in the clouds,
I wondered why teleportation had not yet been invented,
why five hours is sometimes too long, sometimes not long enough.

Today I bring the heavy blue ceramic urn from the altar in my bedroom
to the kitchen table. I select small smooth pebbles and tiny seashells
to fill the candle holder. I can’t find my candles in the dark
where my husband sleeps.

I turn on the burner on the electric stove to 8 and wait
for the tip of my lavender incense to glow red.
Incense in the urn. Ashes to ashes.
(Oh god, Daddy, my heart!)

I make a pot of chamomile tea, three pinches of dried flowers
from the container to the pot, hot water hitting the flowers,
steam rising to meet my muffled sobs. I want to WAIL WAIL
CRY SHAKE at this utter bullshit,
but I know better than to wake my family like that.

So it will be. For the next 17 days, I will remember
each of those last 17 Days, now knowing how they were numbered
on Fate’s calendar,
each morning lighting incense on the stove,
my tears sizzling when they hit the burner,
upon contact, water and fire, brief pop,
just like his last breath,
the final laboured one after 17 days-worth.

WARNING: The story I’m about to tell you is about my transformation from a tragic mulatta into a punk-ass half-breed bitch. I’ve probably already offended you with my appropriation and use of historical derogatory terms for mixed race/heritage people. You might think I’m being disrespectful by telling the story below. But people like me in Vietnam have not been respected. Their mothers were called whores for having relationships with American soldiers. My mother was called a traitor and a whore by her family when she married my father and got pregnant by him several times. My father was shunned for bringing home one of them, and it wasn’t until I was born in America that his family accepted my mother. I took a lot of crap for being an “Oriental” in school. My mother and sister didn’t get any respect when they visited their Vietnamese family 20 years later. My experience has been different from my sister’s, especially with our family here in Vietnam. But for three weeks, I’d avert my eyes when I felt people’s stares smacking my not-quite-Vietnamese face, and I’ve held my tongue. So it’s taken three weeks for this story to have taken place, or perhaps even longer, for what I experienced today, I’d never before experienced in my whole life.

We woke up at an ungodly hour to go to some mountain somewhere far away. I knew it involved a gondola. That’s it. That’s all I knew. We drove and drove and drove, and by mid-morning, we reached our destination. I was trying to figure out what this place, as my uncle, auntie, mom, and I were walking. This place seemed to be part (crappy) amusement park, part souvenir-hawking, part going up this mountain for the view. We went up the mountain on the gondola, the experience being very much like the other gondola experiences I’ve had. And yes, the view was nice.

(Hold on a sec. I gotta back up so you can check out this woman’s gnarly foot.)

When we got to the top, we exited and walked up a bunch of rocky stairs….to go to yet another temple. I know lots of people, whether or not Buddhism is their religion, are fascinated by temples, or I guess by big fancy religious places of interests in general, but I’m not. Chalk it up to me being non-religious, or me wanting the money and efforts spent on those fancy buildings actually being used to help people in need, but those places don’t interest me, and in fact, I’m sometimes repulsed by the grandiosity. So while my uncle, auntie, and mom went into the temple at the top of the mountain to give their offerings of incense, flowers, and money, I told them I would wait for them and sit down in one spot and write and drink beer.

In the 20 days that I’ve been in Vietnam, this was the very first opportunity that I was given to be by myself in public. My mom has been scared to leave me to myself outside, afraid someone will kidnap me or worse. I’m sure you can imagine. And really, I followed her fears. But I figured, hey, there are lots of people here on top of the mountain, they were going to be in the temple for a few minutes, and I’m just going to sit here and write. What could possibly happen? Here’s what happened.

Within seconds of placing myself on a step of a building where other people were sitting, this woman started sweeping all the garbage on the ground in a big pile right in front of me. Yea, she could have picked a different spot to pile her garbage, but eh, so what? Then this dude came around to sell me lottery tickets. These lottery ticket people are everywhere. Mom always buy five or ten tickets from these people, and they cost 50 cents each. I keep asking my mom, “What do you win? How do you know if you’ve won anything? How do you check?” She’s tells me she doesn’t know. She just gives them to Auntie. And there’s a ritual when choosing the tickets. Auntie goes through the booklet and tears out the ones she wants. I have no idea what the difference is. Lucky numbers, I’m guessing.

Anyway, this dude sees me writing and comes by with his lottery tickets. I say, “Không,” which means no. He still stands right in front of me, trying to make me feel uncomfortable. I wave him away. No dice. So I write in big letters in my journal, “Tôi là con lai Mỹ,” which means “I’m an American mixed kid.” I look at him and say, “Được rồi? Đi đi! Hết rồi.” This means “Okay already? Go away! Enough.” I go back to writing in my journal, and write this in HUGE letters, “Đụ má mày!” Or “motherfucker,” for those of you wishing to learn Vietnamese. He went away, but more lottery ticket hawkers swarmed me, and the people on the balcony above me were watching and talking about me. So I kept my journal open to the pages boldly declaring and owning what I am and that those who don’t like me can go fuck themselves (or their mothers, really, as the translation goes), and though I didn’t know how to write in Vietnamese that I didn’t want to buy any goddamn lottery tickets, I think they got the idea.  At that moment, my family came out from the temple, and I started off with them while maddogging every person who was staring at me. I told my family what happened (leaving out the swearing part because my mother would have slapped me across the head), and they laughed.  But when we got back down to the bottom of the mountain, she told me to just say I’m American, or Vietnamese American, and leave out the half-breed word. I said, “Why, Mom? After all, that’s why they’re staring at me, so I might as well just say it out loud for everyone to hear.  Tôi là con lai Mỹ.”  She shook her head.  We know the negative connotations, but fuck it, I’m gonna say it. Why should I be the only one made to feel uncomfortable?

We got back to the car, and I thought we were going back to the hotel. Little did I know that we were going to Tây Ninh, home of the original Cao Đài temple. Yes, another temple. But this one caught  my interest because this is mothership. Here’s a short summary of Cao Đài: it’s Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Vietnamese folklore all mixed together into an all-seeing eye. Wikipedia that shit. It’s wild. But that’s what my mom goes for, so it is. She usually just tells people she’s Buddhist because it’s too difficult for her to explain Cao Đàism, and to Americans, it all looks the same anyway.


However, I didn’t know that this is one of the stops on the South-to-North bus tour for foreigners. The first white guy I saw wore a tee that said, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.” I said, “I am too.” He gave me a confused look, partly because he was surprised to hear English coming out of my mouth. “Your shirt,” I said. He laughed. I said, “We word nerds have to stick together.” I saw him later after we made the rounds, and we chatted a little. He was with the other white people….lots of them! I wanted to take a picture with some. I mean, here they were, snapping photos of the masses of Cao Đaists in their white áo dài.

So I went up to this older white couple and asked them if they spoke English. With a surprising tone (I’m sure they never thought anyone in Vietnam would be asking them that question), they said “Yes?” And then I asked to take a pic with them. I said I wanted to take a picture with white people because I’m half white and happy to see them. They gave me a hesitant (and kinda offended) “Okay,” and I asked them where they were from. They said Holland. I told them, “Trust me, it’s okay because this is so postcolonial,” as I took the selfie. My mom gave me a look that said, “What you do?!” I grabbed her arm and told the couple, “This is my mom. Isn’t she cute?” They chuckled and quickly boarded their tour bus.


Oh shit, before I forget….here’s a monkey eating a watermelon! He even spat out the seeds.

So that was my day. Take that, multiracial identity politics! I’m an equal opportunity offender of both sides of me.

Ending on a positive note, here’s a cute pic of me, Mom, and Auntie, whom I told to SMILE!!!

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