For most of his life, the boy feared his father. It wasn’t so much the whippings, a frequent sting of leather, bamboo switches against skin; rather, the boy had come to dread a careful stillness in the man, of air closing the gap between what struck and sung.
In this way, I, too, once feared my father. But I don’t want this story to be about pain.
The violence of a man, we both reasoned as children of angry fathers, carried in their palms, a sense of musicality, rhythm, and inheritance; the pattern would be that of convincing ourselves we needed this sensibility to grow up in a language of home never quite belonging, fully, to us, like our bodies: first, in Japan after the war, and later in America. My father had it much worse, he used tell me, later, his daughter.
I have a nice memory of him, plucking at the strings of his Martin acoustic guitar. I can hear him singing with me now, in my mind, the melodies of Seeger, Dylan, and Guthrie. He’d carry a gentle lilt in his voice, whispering the years away through song until, with the music, we’d both become teenagers again. In my memory of his singing, he’d become fourteen years old, again, in Japan, dreaming of a better life, free of his father, in America.
“Where have all the flowers gone?” He sings, and I answer, “Long time passing.”
I like to think of myself as a poet because of my mother. She was beaten, too, by her father in Saigon, except, she says, she’d wail out pitifully like a half-feathered macaw before he ever laid a hand on her, so that, even after each strike, she knew the sting would be much less painful than that of her siblings; so that, even her older sister, a stubbornly quiet girl, and later, a vocal revolutionary during the war, chose to resist it; so that, every time my own Japanese father hit me, my Vietnamese mother tended to remind me that someone else had it much, much worse—and I believed her.
In therapy I’ve been working on healthier ways to be angry, but I don’t know how to be angry, in part, because of the soft nature of my mother and father, today. They’ve reunited in California after living ten years, dramatically, apart. In the morning, they like to take long walks before work, near the beach, around parks and sleepy neighborhoods, commenting on trees and the landscaping, using whatever words they share in English.
My father will act as the lookout whenever my mother snatches up rocks and fallen roses from yards that clearly don’t belong to her; he’ll laugh, grabbing at my mother’s wrist as they scamper away from a barking dog, the flashing of a front door light, sprinkler heads swiftly popping up, in the grass; my father, in the present moment, turning into the doting, tender husband again; and with this, I like to imagine them, innocently giggling, walking together to the beach, in their matching white sneakers, stones and crushed up roses in their pockets.
Today, I sit, by myself, with my anger shut away like a bulb in my mind. I’m afraid to light it, with the petals and sand of a present moment, my parents, back together, in love. I wish to protect them, first and foremost. Yet, within my silence, in therapy, I begin to carve out questions needing to be asked of the past: How could you do this? Why would you do this?
When I first started showing signs of a mental illness, I tried to kill my mother in front of my father; with this, the turning point began. My father would stop hitting me. He’d lose his job, later that year. I dropped out of high school. He moved away.
In the hospitals, I’d be diagnosed with depression and a variance of psychotic disorders, though that’s been changing as of late, in my adulthood. I like to think of my poetry as reshaping this, peeling away a time unspoken beneath the hands of my father, his palms, the shattering of home with glass.
Again, I don’t want this story to be about pain or its consequences.
In her book Humanimal, Bhanu Kapil assembles notes around two feral girls found in the jungle of Bengal in 1921. She writes, “The humanimal mode is one of pure anxiety attached to the presence of the body.”
As a child, I’ve been told, I used to take on distinct animal personalities, among others: a wolf crawling under its bed; the kitchen sink becoming a drum for the head of a lizard; the fireplace, a boat, me, its fish, stranded on the deck.
Flat against the floor of my bathtub, underwater, I used to dream of birds splitting into grass, the presence of a body beside another body, my own. In therapy, after a recent hospitalization earlier this year, I’ve been working to learn the difference between dissociation and psychosis. The body becomes a refracted self, mirroring what cannot logically integrate into the human consciousness. I see the birds. I feel my body, splitting from its spirit, lying in the grass. My father finds me hiding here. He lifts my body, and he shakes my body from itself until I start to fly.
As an adult, I like to go on long drives by myself, accompanied by a brave tiny panda I’ve named Panda. He likes to sit quietly in the front seat next to me, looking over the top of his seatbelt, commenting on the lights outside, but mostly when we’re stopped at one. When my friends later take me in their cars, on drives, I try not to speak, once again staring at the lights.
As an adult, I’ve been also known to take on additional feral modes, sometimes barking at a poetry reading, my own, whimpering like a colt outside the venue before jolting to a run, in the open air of night, in the streets. My voice becomes that of a child. I’m aware of this.
With my therapist, we’ve been working through these outbursts. She notes that they take place in the presence of men, mostly white men, who are somewhat familiar to me but not necessarily close enough to know my past. These men usually smile at me, we assume out of amusement or a shifting sense of discomfort, or maybe a little bit of both.
I throw my head back into a howl.
Sometimes I feel ashamed because I can’t stop myself from violence bursting through my hands, torso, and legs; a violence to lash out with the wings of my back or the hooves in my mind, contorting like that of something fallen from the sky, crying out, mammalian, clawing off the clothing suddenly foreign to the texture of my skin, everywhere, tearing up the ground, concrete, dirt, until my fingernails run with blood, fragments of earth, together with fur, scales, or feathers. My body becomes that of a wolf, a poet in the hound of a girl, shaped by Saturn, half-open, running down the roads of America. Imagine this: the girl, being what crawls out of my throat, becoming bodied with my many bodies, as I run, screaming, before men who do nothing.
At the family altar, in Japan, I watch as my father kneels before the photographs of his dead parents. After his father died, he confessed that he finally understood the true meaning of the Japanese word gaman, to endure what feels unbearable, what eventually becomes my inheritance, too.
My body lacks an anger I fail to locate, the counterweight to this gaman. I don’t want to endure my dislocation anymore, to push my body, Vietnamese-Japanese, forever, in motion to America, waiting for the violence to pass across another war, a hundred lives on earth desiccated by its bombs.
In his diary entry dated July 25, 1945, the US President Harry S. Truman reasoned with himself, “Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.”
He was referring to the cities of Kyoto and Tokyo, the latter being the birthplace of my father, respectively, in which over one hundred thousand civilians were, at once, slaughtered that spring by US B-29 bombers.
Within a week after obliterating, instead, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with “that terrible bomb,” President Truman would send a letter to the Reverend Dr. Samuel McCrea Cavert, addressing, perhaps, some better reasoning against a terrible knowing that hit the spiritual bedrock of America.
“The only language they seem to understand,” he wrote, in rationale, “is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.”
As a poet who now works within the historicized scope of language and its violence, the tools of my craft—being, hands, throat, and lungs—fling into the ground, streaked with limestone, gasping for air. I see rivers of marsh and bone, gods belonging to salt, gold, and once again, trees. I see the merciless, the fanatic, taking place inside my body, thereby kneeling at the altar of my father, and before that, his father.
I’ve seen my father cry only twice: first, at my grandfather’s funeral, and before that, after I tried to kill my mother, in front of him, during my first psychotic episode. I don’t remember much of that day, but I was yelling in Japanese.
Meanwhile, the boy, who one day becomes my father, fears the brutality of his own father as he prays, making space for other beasts, bearing gods between the palms of his hands; within my own hands, as we gallop, together, through time.
Japan officially surrendered on September 2, 1945, aboard USS Missouri. On that exact date, Vietnam formally declared its independence, thereby kicking out the colonizers, namely, the French and Japanese occupiers.
The fact of my birth is a mix of this: surrender, smoke, and even more questions with ambiguous answers. The light hits the wall of an altar. I endure, riding out the fury of a million suns over water, twisting my histories into ink, allegiance with verse. Already, I’m a traitor for writing this; I am prone to the violence of myself, against myself.
On April 28, 1952, Operation Blacklist, the Allied occupation of Japan, officially ended. After this, my grandfather returned from Siberia as a prisoner of war, his country now stripped of muscle, pride, and steel. Here, in Japan, he’d turn his back on the gods, in the likeness of mortal men taking back their power, upon the weak; in other words, imperialism, in its language, a proud Japan reborn.
My father didn’t want this, and, in some way, I think that’s why he married my mother, a refugee from Vietnam. He’d never hit her, or my younger sister—only me. In therapy, I’ve been trying to work through this, to understand the gaps, the violent mechanics of my lineage of war overlapping with another war. Why did you hit me, papa, and why only me?
“I don’t know,” my father responds many years later. We’re sitting on a bench by the ocean in California, for the first time together as a family again.
My mother interrupts, “Someone else hit much worse.”
“I know this, ma. But why did you let Otousan hurt me in that way?”
My parents are suddenly quiet, staring at each other, and then at the ocean; in that moment, I don’t want to ask any more questions. I forgive them, for I’ve always forgiven them. Perhaps my mother has an answer locked away inside her heart. Perhaps the answer surfaced when I split myself in half—the daughter and the beast.
“It was accident,” my mother would inform the officers and ambulance technicians when they arrived to take the both of us for treatment to the hospital. “My daughter is too sick.” And then, right there, my father wept.
There’s a small bird that cuts across the water, dipping its tiny beak into the whites and blues of a tide near sunset. I don’t know the name of it and neither does my mother, but she says, laughing, “It’s like my daughter. Fight in the sky.” And I believe her, the poet. She’s always been a poet.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.