Vietnamese people have always been spoken word poets.
How you say it
is as important to the life of the word
as the word itself.
These are the opening lines of Thousand Star Hotel (Coffee House Press, 2017), Vietnamese-American poet Bao Phi’s second poetry collection. The lines bring to mind Junot Díaz’s prologue to Drown (1997): “the fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you” (a quote attributed to another bilingual Cuban-American, Gustavo Perez Firmat). In Thousand Star Hotel, the bilingual writer’s struggle with expressing himself in English becomes a metaphor for the immigrant’s struggle with navigating the host nation’s hostile-yet-lucrative social terrain. While writing about his experience with racism on the streets of the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, and his encounters with a cultural mainstream in which he barely sees his people represented, Phi paints a sensitive portrait of his life as both an outsider to, and a participant in, mainstream American culture.
A spoken word poet who has won the Minnesota Grand Slam, performed at the Def Jam sessions, and been a finalist at the National Poetry Slam, Phi is tastefully unorthodox in the way he uses poetic form. From the beginning, the poems in Thousand Star Hotel alternate between being heard almost as a musical track—rhythmic and disciplined—, and breaking free from that track. We see how simultaneous respect for and irreverence toward poetic form demonstrates his ability to use form as a tool to guide the reader’s attention in these lines from “Vocabulary”:
One winter, a fellow cart pusher confided in me during a lull
as we stood near the weak warmth of the rattling heat vent in the cart corral.
Like me, he was a nonwhite boy from a poor family.
Like me, his face was limestone and granite pressed tight together.
After rich, rhythmic lines we can hear as spoken word, and after end-rhyming “lull” and “corral,” Phi goes on to shift his rhythms and abandon the anticipated rhyme scheme. This has the effect of sharpening the reader’s attention for a moment before the rest of the poem proceeds.
While the speaker recounts childhood in Phillips, narrates tales of the war told by his Vietnamese immigrant father, and details his encounters with racism, Phi’s spitfire lines and superior command of rhythm are reminiscent of another Asian-American poet who once dominated the slam poetry scene, Justin Chin. Until his untimely death in 2015, Chin was known for being as compelling on paper as he was on stage, and for being darkly humorous while denouncing the American dream, as in his poem, “A History of Geography”:
I let them take me,
do what they want with me
even if it hurts me bad/ makes me bleed/ makes me bruise/ sore/ &
sad/ satisfied/ & happy/ mad/ desolate,
let them do what they want with a slab of meat
because they’re giving me a place I cannot get to.
Phi pays homage to Chin in lines such as “Did we douse you in chemicals / that twisted your future generations / to flesh pretzels, / strip-mine your resources, / then fusion-fuck your family dinner?” Sporting forearm tattoos, close-cropped hair, and black-rimmed glasses, not only does Phi physically resemble Chin, but like the late Malaysian-American poet, Phi also writes of the stereotyped Asian body and de-weaponizes slurs such as “chink” and “gook” by using them himself (Chin called himself “ethnic fag”).
While Chin’s work commented on the stupefying quality of popular culture in the 1990s, Phi brings the conversation into the present day by engaging with issues of diversity (or lack thereof) and representation. “In all the books I love,” Phi writes in the prose poem “Document,” “none of the heroes look like me.” In several poems, such as “Lead,” “Night of the Living,” and “Our Minnesota,” Phi deploys a recurring image of his speaker as a little boy wielding a flashlight, pretending to be a Jedi. The boy’s inability to defend himself becomes a metaphor for the immigrant’s futile efforts to “fit in” in the white world. This outsider status persists into adulthood: “I walk where I don’t exist,” Phi’s speaker notes in a poem about taking his young daughter to the blonde world of Barbie and Ken at the Mall of America, an enormous destination shopping mall in the Minneapolis suburbs.
By repeating the many forms of “go back where you came from” he has heard in his lifetime, and by foregrounding his ex-soldier father’s PTSD against daily life (“Why does my dad / see the enemy hiding / everywhere?”), Phi skillfully evokes the migrant’s complicated relationship with “home.” The poet’s work is most compelling when he shares his fears as a father who knows that his daughter will likely also grow up feeling uncomfortable in her own skin, hating her own face, and staring “across a sea of bright things, a thousand blinking promises / never asked for, a thousand flashing neon signs telling her what she / doesn’t have.”
In a poem that begins with author David Mura’s quote, “I know there is a greater chance that someone will call my daughter a chink than she has a chance of finding true love,” Phi’s speaker heartbreakingly wonders:
will she be hated as
a gook first or
a woman first
or a dyke or
will there be new words
for her balled all into one
Phi ties together three of the book’s important threads—being a son, being a father, and being a Vietnamese-American in present-day America—in a poem called “Broken Things”: “I’ve realized that I yell the same things to my daughter / in the same way that my dad would yell at me /,” adding, “except I do it in English / … the official language of bad Asians.” While calling out the whitewashing of American culture, Phi also reprimands himself for giving in to it.
Thousand Star Hotel is a collection that offers a balanced critique of contemporary American society through Phi’s personal run-ins with the crises of poverty, racism, and identity. The book is a bittersweet ode to being a badass refugee who has slept without a roof overhead many nights. It is a semi-optimistic take on immigrant life in America—every bit as charming, and as hopeless, as a night of stargazing. And it is a compendium of the hopes and fears of a protective father, who has a star he must shield from a society that’s keen to dim her shine.
Author photograph © Anna Min.