We are pleased to announce Multitudes, a new column at The Rumpus, which will feature the work of writers of color, actively seeking underrepresented voices and perspectives. We hope that the writers who appear in this column can count this among their earliest publications, and that they will find an engaged and thoughtful readership here.
Multitudes was created through a partnership with VONA/Voices of Our Nations Arts, the only multi-genre summer workshop for writers of color in the US. Founded by Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, Victor Díaz, and Diem Jones in 1999, VONA/Voices brings writers of color from the margins to a community where their work is centralized and honored. We are grateful to Faith Adiele, who first proposed this collaboration, and to the VONA/Voices Board of Directors for offering a model for future partnerships with organizations who serve people of color and other underrepresented artists and writers. Elmaz Abinader will serve as the editor for VONA.
–Mary-Kim Arnold, Series Editor
My mother is a shape shifter.
She changes each time I write her, to the degree at which I hold my anger to flame, to the distance between myself and my anger, from the angle at which I view my long-broken heart.
How do I come full circle when the beginning is buried under her, when she comes to me in parts? I’d like to spin around and rewind to the start, untangle the hair and twine and broken string and make her better, only good this time. I would give her the full 360 degrees—the benefit of my doubt.
I’ve been given half: forward-facing field of vision, and some periphery. Yet she refuses to live anywhere except at the opposite ends of the spectrum; left and right—appearing and disappearing from my line of sight.
The butterfly of the needle is dazzling: back and forth, back and forth; and my mother is a solid wave if I close one eye, a flitting particle when I open both. I have tried to pin her to the middle, but my vision is imprecise, my hand trembles, I cannot pierce the heart so quickly: lest I hurt her, lest I hurt myself, lest I bleed.
At my mother’s house, during an extended stay, I work into the night: opening drawers, rifling through old photos, report cards she saved; timelines and charts, yellowed carbon-copy receipts that paint the faint line of her past.
I’ve taken my mother to workshop; sat her upon a table to be examined. They shined light down her throat; asked her questions and waited, arms crossed. These strangers, inspecting my mother:
A frustrated rustling of paper, the clatter of a pencil case dropping to the floor; thump, roll and again:
My mother and I are back in our old house. A defeated sigh follows. I make my way into the kitchen where she stands over the sink, reciting; rolling her tongue into the back of her throat, contorted mouth moving unnaturally as she tries to form the words, make them sound the way they’re meant to—
Over the sink she looks as though she’s slicing fruit. I peer over her shoulder:
She guts a trout, swift and intentional, string of rubies flecked with silver scales
Bled She says. Bled.
And she digs the knife’s edge into her palm—once for each mispronunciation; for each time her tongue will not comply.
The overwhelming response to my research has been:
We want to hear from your mother. Tell us how your mother feels, what she thinks: about this, about you, about all of it.
Tell us how your mother feels.
I see the spectrum of our combined past: the long smear of grayscale down the middle, each shade leading further into the thick, into the dim corridors of memory and pause.
Her mouth moves. I am trying.
She mouths sorry, but the faint sound funnels around her like gust of wind looking for a way out—
—or a whisper caught in a throat.
She’s doing her best to cooperate.
What I present to you are field notes I have collected, the aggregated1 data: skin and hair, old patterns and failings, words neither of us understand.
So, I lay my research, our collective past here, bare, before you—
Maybe you can help me.
Exhibit 1. [Catalyst]
You are at your mother’s house, at her kitchen table. Your mother hands you a newspaper clipping folded neatly in half. It is a column in the Korea Times. She tells you he’s been writing these articles for a few years now. She pushes the folded newsprint across the table, at you. You stare at the offer, knowing to touch it means certain death. You look up at her and you can’t quite make out what she’s thinking. Her eyes always sparkle. You can do it too. She’s tricking you.
She says: I want you to do whatever you want with this.2
Article A. [Generational & Behavioral Observations]
Your shoulder is killing you. Your stress shoulder. The left one. The shoulder that acts up when you are upset, tense, carrying too many bags of groceries at once, sitting at your desk, trying to formulate conclusions, finish this essay—
You’ve begun to notice how often you walk around with your right arm crossed diagonally over your chest, your hand working away at the knot in your left shoulder. Your right arm a beauty queen banner and your left hand unable to lift itself up to wave.
You’ve also noticed that your boyfriend has stopped noticing. And how this has caused your stress shoulder to act up more frequently.
Exhibit 1a. [Physical Symptoms, Medical History]
Your stomach lurches, your heart has clawed its way up to your throat and ventricles wide, all valves open. It is threatening to stop your breathing. You stare at the clipping, dumb. Your hands are cold and you just really need to get stoned right now. It would take only a second; you’ve been doing it all week, blowing out through a toilet paper roll jammed with dryer sheets3—
Better yet, you’d like to get high; find another baggie and insufflate the whole thing, stick a straw straight in like you’ve seen that white girl, what’s her name, do. You used to party with her—hard and fast, not looking back—until you crashed into the wall you were meant to face. You heard her train kept going, that she kept outrunning her demons. You wonder where she is, now.4 5
—You stare at the clipping, dumb
You unfold it, turn it over, peer at the tiny author photo: there he is; pock-marked toad face6 staring back at you.
You can’t make out what he’s thinking, eyes wide and blank. He’s all gray scale.
Your mother, eyes sparkling, repeats:
I want you to do whatever you want with this.
It sounds so deliciously sinister. You are perplexed.
You break down her statement in your head, two parts:
- Do whatever you want stands out in particular.
- What you want? Or what you know she wants?
- What does she want?
- Don’t tell her what you want.
- Second part: With this
- The information, you presume. Quick glance:
- Page contents:
- What you want? Or what you know she wants?
- His face—twisted halfway between criminal and sage, never the full prowess of either. His face, his breath still haunts you in your dreams.
- His place of worship—Nalanda, Naropa
- Nalanda after the ancient Buddhist monastery
- Naropa after the Buddhist mystic credited for a set of tantric practices intended to help one attain Buddahood in an accelerated7 manner
Wednesday night open house and cocktail mixer. He is the host.
You stare at the clipping, dumb.
Inside your skull, you are burning down a house.
You are crashing the cocktail mixer.
You are crashing your car into the cocktail mixer.
Your right hand is now rubbing your left shoulder furiously.
It isn’t working.
It’s starting to hurt.
You look at your mother.
You consider her beef with him.
And you hate her.
Article C. [Medical History]
Your grandmother’s fix for everything. For a cold: an Asian pear boiled in honey water, frozen then thawed. A burn, apply honey water. Sleep? Honey water—the sweet, thick salve; the color of a setting sun. Honey water shines and glistens in your cup. It is a beautiful salve.
The last time you were at your mother’s place, you spent hours each night sitting outside your grandmother’s bedroom door, listening to her speak to the dead. Or maybe to those who only exist in her head now.
When she was able to walk, when she was taller than you, your grandmother used to tell you that the old men at the community center were flirty. You asked her if she thought they were cute and she lifted her chin and said: No, only man I look at is God and my husband, your grandpa.
By then Grandpa had been gone nearly thirty years and when you reminded her, she smiled and said Well then, now my only husband is God until he calls me to heaven, where I’ll see Grandpa again.
That’s two husbands, Grandma!
And she laughed.
You are old enough now to recognize what a young widow she had been.
Your grandmother turns her head and looks at a blank wall, eyes foggy.
You never thought, then, about dying. You never thought about being the one left behind.
You think about how death is a luxury for the long-time heartbroken.
Grandma told you once that she crawled under the hospital bed and begged God for five more years. You would have done the same. Women in your family are known for their theatrics, their blind passions.
On your way to the airport you poked your head into her room to say goodbye. She brightened up at the sight of you and marveled that you had come.
My Final Masterpiece—she calls you.
You had been there all week, in and out of her room: tea parties, cookies, half-lucid conversations about the young men—hair oiled and combed, slicked back and dapper, all fine suitors for you, in the church of her dreams.
It plays in slow motion, from your point of view. Her small face full of joy, her arms come up like a child asking to be carried—
This kills you, nightly.
She shook her head over and over I don’t remember, I don’t know I don’t know.
Your shoulder is killing you.
Exhibit 2. [Physical & Temporal Recall]
You recall the hours before, during and after. You recall the color of your mother’s Chanel suit (yellow, woven wool dress suit with the black hem and wide black buttons), her lipstick (bright red, black tube). You sat on the sink and watched her put her makeup on.
In the background your stepfather bellowed a pop song, spit, then upturned the dinner table.
You flinched. The grunt and thump and clatter.
You told her she was pretty. You asked her where she was going.
Through the haze of static and your want to forget, you can still hear his low, growl-drone that grows louder with each recall—
Your dinner untouched, strewn about the floor; kimchi and red hot soup Jackson Pollacked on the wall. Days later, no one else home, you would clean it up yourself: picking through the glass shards and dried food, scrubbing the wall until your arms hurt and your small hands became raw; the cleaning solution under your nails burned and peeled pink.
Hot red pepper paste, kimchi, and soy sauce do not come off porous surfaces. They sink heavy and dark into the nooks.
Like Picasso’s Guernica, like a murder scene: red and black like drying blood caked on the wall, the remnants of a man’s anger. You cleaned and cleaned—
Bleed red of flavor and paste.
Blood of our mothers and grandmothers who taught us
to cook: this is how we silent; how we stay useful
This is how we safe.
She slammed the door on her way out.
Exhibit 2a. [Sequential Recall]
It plays like a movie, or a sequence of images moving and not8. It plays as trauma and memory do—wave and flood and trickle.
You recall the details after:
- Image of his belly rising and falling bloated; the way a vessel expands as decay swells within9.
- Close-up on his erect penis, sticking straight up like a skinny finger.
- Wide shot of the darkened room, bellied, gluttonous creature in silhouette, snoring.
You recall the details during:
- His voice—pitched low, his country accent erased as he did on formal occasion.
- His breath—Crown Royale
- His grasp—his large thumb piercing your bicep, squeezing.
- His insistence: Call me daddy.
- + A kiss each time he put down a crisp one-hundred dollar bill; halfway between you and him, on the bedspread.
- His weight.
What are we doing, here?
Are you going to be another girl writing about rape?
You don’t want to be another girl writing about rape. Another trigger warning, real-life story car crash, trauma porn11. That sounds harsh. It is harsh. But you don’t want to be another girl writing about rape. You don’t want to be the Asian girl writing about rape—
You don’t want—
You don’t want to be—
Was it rape?
Don’t you know?
You google it. While it isn’t surprising, it is still jarring. Countless porn sites featuring girls like you nodding yesyes while grimacing and crying harder each time a man thrusts into them—thrusts something, anything into them. Some girls look like they can’t believe it’s happening: their young faces round and stunned. Other girls look offended and dealing. And what about the empty-eyed girls who don’t look like anything at all?
There is always a disclaimer after the video (never before, lest we sacrifice fantasy) assuring you this is not real rape; only playacting rape. It’s not real rape. It’s not rape if its acting and/or acting consensual; and this is consensual as far as you can tell, thanks to the disclaimer—
They are not acting out consent, per se. Then again, they’re acting—
The explanation becomes fuzzy.
The girl cries and nods on loop.
What are we doing, here?
- Demystifying Asian sexuality.
- Liberating Asian women from the burden of their sexuality.
- Empowering Asian Women!
- We fuck how we want! We can!
- Writing about a harrowing personal experience.
- Giving away our secrets.
- “Every woman fantasizes about rape.”
- This is ridiculous.
What does this have to do with your mother?
Pick a canned answer.
Article D. [Genealogy & Hereditary Recall]
My grandmother promised me sons, promises me.
When I was a child, she pointed to the upward curve of my pubic bone, tapped it twice, said: “see?”
But what are sons good for? Sons grow up to be boys who grow into men, sometimes monsters; sons raised by mothers, orphan sons—but, what makes a father?
Mother, would things have been different had I been a son?
Tap the pubic bone, twice.
Exhibit 1b. [Catalyst Revisited] Do whatever you want with this.
It is her voice, her tone that perplexes you.
She can’t remember after she shuts the door, but you do.
What is that look on her face? The sharp, cold stare that slices through noise, through silence, cutting and slicing straight through the kill point.
She stared at you this way when she hissed at you in the courtyard: Watch your mouth. It was after 2 a.m. You had been sitting in the bushes, outside, waiting.
She stared at you this way when you told her she was pretty. She looked at both of your reflections in her mirror. A quick flash of disdain, then she smiled: But you look just like your father.
What are her calculations? How did you get here?
You take the clipping and crumple it in your pocket.
Does any of this matter?
You still hate her.12
My mother divides her life into thirds. The first third was taken from her, the second third she says she squandered, and I’m still trying to find the right words to say: No, you were learning what they never taught you. You were learning as you groped along; this is how it goes. I’ve done it, too.
What are the right words to make her understand: survival is not failure.
How to tell her: Failure is all the rage. People write books about how great it is.
But she knows, as do I, that other people lead longer lives; in a smooth line. Their ups and downs rising and falling like even measured breathing. Their bodies peak and bloom on their own, unforced. Where they bleed, change blossoms. Where we bleed, we pave jagged paths for others to bleed the same until one of us finally rises from the rest of our dead. We are not like them.
Article E. [Personal Recall]
Whenever you called your mother pretty, she would give you a long, hard look and remind you—But you look like your father.
You can’t remember what he looks like. Was he handsome?
The nights your father came home, he let you sit on his belly while he rolled joints. His nickname for you was flower piglet.
Eventually, he stopped coming home. Your mother told you about his new wife and two children, boys—what he’d always wanted.
Mother, we are not like them, are we?
Bleed red of tongue and taste, on bedsheets
Blood of our mothers and grandmothers who taught us:
this is how we survive.
Bleed red a son: this is how
we stake claim.
Tap the pubic bone, twice.
Exhibit 4. [Journal Entry, 2010]
When you were fifteen you cut into your left side and found your insides. You said this was the only way to justify the crying, to explain it. That this was a cleansing pain.
At twenty-six you started a list of words you liked and found a man for each. You said that you’d accepted your difference; that you might have been built for destruction. You were never very big but you were a destroyer of worlds.
At thirty you will find your place. You will look up and accept. You’ll find science and love it for its words and its Latin. You’ll find the Holocene and think: really, what more magnificence can any single one of us achieve?
…You are thirty-two now. The first third of your life is behind you.
Exhibit 5. [Medical History]
It is 1997, maybe 1998.
Your grandmother is lucid and strong.
She gives you honey water.
Earlier you stormed in and threw yourself onto your grandmother’s floor screaming I want to die I want to die while she sat there, hands in her lap wringing, helpless. This is the first time you’ve seen an adult helpless.
What will I do if you die? She cries with you. Like a child.
But you are not big enough to trade places, yet.
This memory is by rote, but the pause and the feeling, is what remains. Her helplessness empties you of hope.
There is no salve. Honey water is not enough—
If tears were the color of pain, mine would bleed red from the eyes.
My final masterpiece.
Exhibit 6. [Behavioral Observations]
The final third of my mother’s life, her every movement around me, is an apology. The way she runs to the kitchen and turns on the burners whenever I walk in the door. The way she leaves the porch light on and stays up reading the paper every time I stroll home past midnight. The way she piles food on my plate: the small hill of rice, the pyramid of fruit, the eat more eat more. The way she brings me food when I’ve locked myself in my room for too long and she misses me. The way she misses me.
Then, there’s the actual apology; the repeated I’m sorry I’m bad. I’m so bad. I’m a bad mother.13
Article F. [Untested Hypothesis]
As I grow older, memory and truth become less important or interesting to me. Memory is what remains in spite of truth, replace the failings of truth. I have faint memories of my father. He didn’t leave many; he left behind a sloppy void, filled quickly by other monsters.
Is memory a kingdom? If so, my father is a minuscule capsule in the sky, distant, fading into the fog of California, soaked under monsoon after monsoon churning since I last saw his face—blurry through my hot tears—morphing from father to stepfather, ghost to goblin.
Was I princess or handmaiden? I was always daughter. Never enough; only daughter.
Where is my father now? Where is his secret castle of sons in the sky? How tall does it rise? Where is my stepfather, shaved head bowed in prayer? Is it penitent? Is he asleep? Does he remember?
Exhibit 7. [Conclusive Evidence ]
Maybe this is just my mother’s English. English is a language known for its misuse, its tricks and shifting rules, its damage and misunderstanding.14
I’ve broken up with my boyfriend. My shoulder doesn’t hurt anymore.
This is the world around town she says, not making sense, but I don’t want to correct her. Instead, I sit in the dimming light of the kitchen, after dinner, and contemplate her adaptation of the phrase while she talks; new, as if to say that this has created an all-consuming bubble in our small town. Considering our community—Koreatown—filled with our family and generations old neighbors, her phrase seems more accurate than the original.
This new phrase, more poetically, to say: Everyone knows what you are doing, and they’ve created a fishbowl, a new world with all their talking.
At night, I hear my grandmother call for me in her dreams; wake from nightmares with my name on her lips: My Final Masterpiece.
Every morning my mother stands outside my bedroom door, wondering if I’m awake. I hear the creak of the floorboard, the turn of the knob. I hear the click-click-woosh of the heater starting, the ping-ping of the old metal expanding. I stagger out and she is waiting for me with a fresh cup of coffee, nonchalant, the way she stays up late into the night when I am not home.
She tells me that my grandmother refuses to die until she sees me married.
Yes, I know: her Final Masterpiece.
She’s concerned that I’ve left another man, so concerned.15
:It is uncomfortable without a husband. Life.
:I don’t know, I’m pretty comfortable. Like, money?
:No, different. Yes, sometimes money. But help, friendship, lonely times—
: I’m fine, mom. See? My shoulder is better.
The women in my family are stubborn and not easily swayed by even the most practical of suggestions.
Grandma might live forever—we share a heavy chuckle.
Mornings having coffee with my mother have come to feel like home.
My mother is a masterpiece.
Every year she opens up a little more: the first third of her life, secrets I’ve not known, more evidence against memory and truth; for their failings, the way my mother feels about politics and gentrification without saying “politics” or “gentrification.”
Every year we look more and more like one another, like Grandma. I like to listen to my mother’s voice, watch her features crinkle and smooth as she talks, as we both age. I have their high cheekbones, their broad noses, their heart shaped lips with their crested peaks, their gaze: sharp, soft, two eyes a switch.
I like to listen to my mother’s voice; the sounds she makes in an English-Korean mashup; we are each the other’s dictionary.
Every year her guard lowers. Every year she has more to tell me; she goes further back. She fills in the gaps. And even in her silence and pause, I can hear—
My mother is always speaking.
I think back to the newspaper clipping16: the closest thing she’s found to rectifying a past—her mea culpa plea. I’ve asked her to ignore those columns. No more clippings, no more apology.
I wonder how this makes her feel. If the weight lifts, or if it insists on clinging to her small shoulders.
While my mother worries I’ll live an uncomfortable life, while she worries for the second third of my life, I am daydreaming.
I am in my head.
I am starting middle school.
I have braces and pimples, but nothing bad has happened yet.
I have my first computer, that behemoth. I use the Internet long into the night, clogging the phone line. I chat with strangers and have no need to “know better.” It is still a new realm, an innocent space for the casual user.
I need a printer for homework. My mother calls the Circuit City sales flier that flutters out of the newspaper, the appetizer. While she insists I get the printer being advertised for one hundred and fifty dollars, while she wants to know why I keep breaking up with boyfriends, why I keep moving in with them, why the daisy chain of monogamous relationships for three, four, five years that end up at her kitchen table older and more lonely? Don’t I want to be comfortable life?
While my mother speaks her English, spins the room and wraps me in the words she’s held in her jaw for so long—angry words, happy words, sad words17—I picture fancy plates and inkjet printers doling out newsprint—the electric buzz buzz hum of the machine and the appetizingly bright reds and greens of a newspaper salad, the words streaming out rapid-fire, colorful characters and letters that I can’t make out.
Is this language at all—these lines and swirls, red and blue and yellow and cyan and magenta and turquois? This newspaper appetizer? This mountain of colorful transcription? This hill of rice, of fruit; these noodles?
Yes, this is the language that my mother and I speak: the language of feeling. This is how my mother and I speak truth to power; how we speak power to memory—how we speak healing to the past.
We open our wounds and stitch them clean, the suture hurts like hell, but our notions of truth and memory fade to a grey past that matters less and less.
1. My mother would say: Aggravated.↩
2. I have agonized a long time over revealing my stepfather’s name and including a link to his column, here. This information remained in many drafts until I realized that my singular motive was revenge—and what does that ease for anybody? What does it change?↩
3. A trick you learned in college. You’ve been doing this all week in your mother’s bathroom. No one has mentioned anything but your paranoia is driving you bonkers.↩
4. You wonder why millennial white women get to be crazy, get to act out with such little repercussion. This bitch could burn down a house and still be showered with hashtag self-care hashtag survivor hashtag blessed.↩
5. You’re dissociating. (We’re talking about your mother, and here you are colonizing your own brain.)↩
6. [The Honorable Teacher/Priest] You once asked him if his face was cratered because he had bad skin; because you were twelve and had bad skin; because you wanted it to be okay. He pulled the car over and left you on the sidewalk.↩
7. Better, faster, stronger—an accelerated path toward Nirvana seems like a very Western ideal. That this man thinks he can guide others to eternal Zen is both horrifying and hilarious.↩
8. Have you seen the film La Jetee?↩
9. Like the photo you once saw of a decomposing whale, in Tokyo; the one that later exploded.↩
11. Made popular by social media confessionalism and white boys from the suburbs with savior complexes. And Facebook. Hashtag ally.↩
12. In your dreams you have played different revenge scenarios. Innocuous enough. Spray paint his car, tack up fliers listing his crimes. What’s worse: a monster exposed or a monster slain? You have already cycled through the rage dreams in which you tear him apart, limb by limb. Yet, he still sings: his inebriated gurgling, spiteful and obscene.
The boyfriend whom you are about to disregard reminds you of the statute of limitations. You slam the car door.
My shoulder, Mother,↩
13. My mother launches into apology at the most inconvenient times: in line at the store, after her shower, picking me up at the airport. It is as though when the thought comes to her, she has no control over its projection into the world; as though she is overflowing with apology, projectile vomiting apology.↩
14. Like in the third grade when we fought at Barnes & Noble over the cost of “War and Peace by William Sex Spear”.↩
15. My mother worries that I will not marry wealthy. This is not so much materialistic than it is a concern that comes out of the immigrant experience. My mother has lived through war, Manhattan in the eighties, a world where her tongue is constantly tied and her allies are few. “Uncomfortable” would be an understatement, here. Thus, a comfortable life is not so much wealth, but it is what that wealth can give a person—freedom to live without constant struggle. And isn’t that a dream shared by all of us?↩
16. I tucked it in my wallet. Just in case. It’s still there. (I know.)↩
17. and hilarious words—my mother is a storyteller. She gets it from my grandmother. Her voice, her cadence, her timing and punchlines; she orates like no one else, while I fumble pen to paper. Still, apple-from-tree, as they say. ↩
Rumpus original art by Aubrey Nolan.