“Re-Imagining (the) Work in/of Literature”

By Paul Bonnell

Where to begin? This essay, this panel, attending this conference, being here in San Francisco—all this feels like re-imagining (the) work in/of literature at personal levels, so distant from my everyday existence as a middle school language arts teacher and coach in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. (dis) + embodying. (de)/(re) + constructing.

Start here: what do I forget? Start there: what do I obscure? What do I risk? What silences remain?

Writing, singing, speaking, working, I find that cohesive literary and historical contexts elude me. How right Matthew Salesses is on ”The Adoptee” card in the AALR Mental Health Tarot Card Project: “The Adoptee is a long, hard look at the myths that make up who we are, and a reminder that if we don’t unmake our identities from the outside in, we won’t be able to remake ourselves from the inside out.”

The Project and the Practice: unmaking and remaking. The tarot card project’s subtitle fits me well: “Open in Emergency.” Open in Emergency.

Geography One: Current Habitations, Boundary County, Idaho, 1998-The Present

I live in the Kootenai Valley, which originates in British Columbia, curves into Montana and Idaho, and returns north. It’s a geography of glacial carve—the ancient Cordilleran Ice Sheet thousands of feet thick—lobes grinding away at the mountains and valleys of these modern border regions, ice unbound by such vagaries. Ice now in retreat, surviving in a handful of regional glaciers, a few remnant icefields.

Here: a place of forests, farms, and lakes. Luminous summers and deep alpine snows. A place of geological intrigue. Accretions. Tectonics. Distinct mountain ranges—Selkirk, Purcell, and Cabinet. Ancient gravel beds hidden below the surface, hidden from view. The Kootenai River’s headwaters lie near Vermilion Pass and Banff National Park in Canada. Dammed to form a reservoir named Lake Koocanusa, the Kootenai lies within the expansive Columbia watershed, itself a transnational entity, a complex of relationships and interconnected dominances, developments, and dependencies.

How do physical geographies shape the cultural and personal? How do geologies alter interiorities—philosophies, religions, politics, and (de) + colonizations?

Roughly 10,000 people inhabit Boundary County. One sees the forces of North American history here on a local scale. Trade routes. David Thompson. Jesuit missions. Mining. Timber. Erasures. Extractions. Extinctions. Indigenous tenacities. Indigenous survivals. The Kootenai War/Forgotten War of 1974. The Kootenai. Kootenay. Kutenai. Ktunaxa. Here: recent historical forces: Redoubters and retirees. Political and cultural complexities. In the 2016 Democratic Caucus, Boundary County voted 84% for Bernie Sanders, the highest of any county in Idaho. In the regular election, 73.6% for Donald Trump. Boundary County: also habitat for huckleberries, deer, elk, bears, moose, osprey, burbot, sturgeon, mountain lions, wolves, and migrating tundra swans.






It can feel quiet here, as well as tensioned and taut, and like anywhere, characterized by contradictions and interlacings. Sometimes I am aware of them—as if I am walking through one of Linh Dinh’s Postcards from the End of America, or noticing currents and counter-currents like Thien in Dao Strom’s Grass Roof, Tin Roof. Teaching, coaching, working construction, playing music in bars and at open mics, I’ll get an inkling of the stories. I’ll feel a connection—with a U.S.-Vietnam War veteran, or a former student back from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or just out of jail, or struggling with addiction, or finishing up college, or working fire crew in Montana, or coming from Standing Rock, North Dakota—but it’s fleeting and juxtaposed with anonymity and disjuncture. Disparate geographies and oppositional or tangential histories.

Call this otherness, exoticism, foreignness, or whatever. Name it a thing self-or-otherwise-inflicted. I don’t know. I could say more here, about mistaken-ness and being mistaken, about refugees and human rights groups, about dogs on leashes, about signs and guns, and the 11th-Hour Remnant or the New Aryan Nation. About navigating Asian American identity here in Idaho as a public school teacher, coach, parent, and neighbor. About complex relationships. Perhaps these are just beginnings.

I have lived here for over twenty years. What memories have accompanied me? What voices—stirred—have also been silent? What have I learned in the mountains? From the rivers? What linguistics? What myths? How have these contexts shaped me? Shaped the work? I think of René Daumal and Mount Analogue. The (un) + finished.

Last month I presented a hybridity project at The Pearl Theater of Bonners Ferry, a local non-profit arts center. “Between Tower and Sea” draws on photographs taken by my adoptive mother, an American missionary nurse who lived in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975. It incorporates live music, spoken word poetry, readings, and visual images of documents and photographs, through which I have been sifting since her death in 2013. It has been a product and process of contemplation and reflection, of dismantling and being dismantled.

“Between Tower and Sea” developed out of readings and conversations—formal and personal study, (re) + shapings and (re) + imaginings. The project explores themes of (un) + knowing and wandering. It alights on ironies of image rendering and image making. (dis) + memory. (un) + documentary. It questions asymmetrical power, even as it exemplifies and embodies Imbalance and Privilege. It connects geographies of Vietnam, Champa, and British Columbia, albeit only obliquely. Like this essay, it is simply a personal project, a single story, produced from the tension between displacement and discovery.

Although “Between Tower and Sea” has been a lifetime in the making, it has only occupied a central energy for the past year or so. And this has been piecemeal. Maneuvering its creation around family, community, and work demands has both maddened and rewarded. Partly, this is logistics—finding the time. Partly, this is bifurcation: de world I was adopted into and a world I imagine. “Between Tower and Sea” has brought both relief and unease. I feel and appreciate local community and local conversations, but I also feel the immensity of dislocation—the gaps and betweenness—things difficult to communicate, things almost, perhaps necessarily, uncommunicable. An unsettling.

This is familiar diasporic space, as Dao Strom discusses in her recent “Editor’s Note: 2018 ///\/\/// Beyond” in diaCRITICS. She writes, “But diaspora adheres to no geography, diaspora carries its place-ness, as well as its across-ness, its possible seed-ness, within the word itself. It is a mutable embrace of identity that doesn’t posit an outcome. To me it is the perfect word for knowing where you came from but not needing—at least yet—to adhere to a physical or single geography to belong where you presently belong.” I do not know where the Project is taking me, or where I am taking it.

This malleability: part of what I’m after. To believe that the Project can become something else. That it can be dynamic, a living thing. Like my life. I think here of something Andrew Lam said in Perfume Dreams. Something about having control over the past, about owning it. I want to flex, subvert, question, undo, shatter, and heal. This, despite/because of legacies of war, culture, religion, transracial/transnational adoption, poverty, and disease. Plasmodium falciparum. Tuberous Sclerosis Complex. Preeclampsia. Even as I relinquish.

Even as I perpetuate. Are these impossibilities?

Geography Two: The Ghost Kingdom. Entre Deux Eaux. Between Two Waters.


In her hybrid essay “I Am Not a War,” Sophia Terazawa writes: “With these tools of another name, I look at you, Brother. You are brave. You are strong. Stand with us, as we stand against the crimes of an empire that singlehandedly displaced our parents with their bombs and with the other hand cradled orphans of the genocides.” She asks, and the question haunts and upends me: “Asia America, what do you intend?”

What do I intend? I do not know. What do I make of a birth in Vietnam and a Vietnamese-American adoptee childhood in Malaysia, the Philippines, and North Carolina? Distances measured in thousands of miles and thousands of days.

I feel estranged from Asian America, writing this in Idaho. This is “home,” but the concept seems strained, shadowed by flux. I embrace the rootlessness, the lifetime of wandering, although I know these are clastic forces too.

Physical distance: 100 miles to Spokane, Washington, just for a bowl of phở; 90 miles to Post Falls for a tin of Café du Monde, available from a lonely Asian goods and grocery store surviving in an abandoned outlet mall beside Interstate 90, its proprietor a person of powerful history, powerful magic.

Metaphorical distance. I sense its symbolic power. When people assume I am Native/Indian. When I read/hear of people returning to Vietnam. When a Vietnamese man says, “Paul, you don’t even look Vietnamese to me. You look Cham.” I am left wondering, and I start to search, to begin learning about Champa and the Cham.

Metaphorical distance: when I read/hear of the complications of DNA tests, matches, family searches. Dreams. Realities. When I see photographs of adoptee-birth family reunions. When I read/hear of transracial/transnational adoptees being deported from the U.S. When I read/hear of transracial/transnational adoptees committing suicide. Or living in resignation. Living in any number of silences.

Metaphorical distance: when I recall fragments of recognition (Quynh, when you told me about how we held hands in the kampong in Sabah, two little kids with shared Vietnamese adoptee pasts. Susan, dancing at the Seven Corners Pub in Falls Church, Virginia, when Thilys’s band covered Brandi Carlile’s song “The Story”).

Metaphorical distance: when I attempt to explain these issues and stories.

A couple of years ago, on a climbing trip to Mt. Gimli in British Columbia, I met a man from Norway who works for an organization that studies the ramifications of genocide—child displacement, orphaning, pseudo-orphaning, etc. We exchanged some conversation, some mutual recognition, and silence. Then, the routes beckoned. We moved on. And that’s how it is. A climb resumes. Life resumes. Work resumes. More elision, more erasure.

A “definitive documentary” comes out on television. I watch some or all of its 10 episodes, its 18 hours. I move on, or seem to. Another Star Wars, D.C., Marvel, or Disney blockbuster hits the big screen. Another story of abandonment. Another orphan or paper orphan, pseudo-orphan. Another search for origins. I feel my story writ large. I watch. I blog. I wonder about other adoptees. I wonder if they feel it too, the Mythic Journey.

How could we do more than linger in these spaces? How could we find momentum to tell our stories? To listen to others? To dis-array? To de-canon? I feel it right now, brushing up against these questions, something I still cannot name. Where do I go next? Is this what Betty Jean Lifton describes in Journey of the Adopted Self?

Lifton writes, “I call the spectral place in which these ghosts reside as the Ghost Kingdom. It is an awesome sphere, located only in the adoptee’s psychic reality. . . . If we can grasp the unreality of the realm wherein adoptees perceive their most real selves to reside, we will understand the adopted person’s own sense of unreality and how, at any age, conscious thoughts of reunion with the birth mother back in the womb, which the Ghost Kingdom represents, can bring with them terrifying images of disintegration into nothingness.”

I think of resonances, times when this Ghost Kingdom has been tangible as a riddle asked, yet cryptic as the word “home.”

Reading stories from Viet Nguyen’s The Refugees on a bench in Sandpoint, Idaho, I sit and think beside Lake Pend Oreille. Snow. Ice. Brisk wind. Down jacket. The stories span broader, warmer waters—Pacific Ocean, South China Sea. I feel adrift and transplanted. Ban Me Thuot so far away.

Reading Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet, I consider traumas of abandonment, attachment, and return. I consider, and re-consider, and re-consider reunion. I imagine my birth mother’s story. My birth father’s. My brother’s. Two of these lives, at least, extinguished. I see Operation Babylift, its history, and I feel my friend Susan’s (dis) + connection to it. Stories within and beyond. I feel liberation and stifling. In Vietnamese.Adopted, Indigo Willing writes, “It is important to acknowledge that no one life is the same as another, and so we have many stories to tell.”

Reading Quan Barry’s She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, I wonder about ghosts calling from the earth, all the silenced voices, all the war, all the forgotten-ness. I think of minority peoples—Bru, Stiêng, Chơ Ro, Tai, Nùng, Cham, and more—peoples whom my adoptive mother encountered. Persons with whom she lived and worked. Now, images—objectifications. I have them on thin membranes of celluloid and diapositive Kodachrome and Agfa print.

I think of all of this while playing the roles of teacher, coach, writer, musician, community member. Roles tinged by Model Minority expectations, the inverted “Brown Saviorism” of the grateful adoptee. In church, which I intermittently attend and where I play music—a spiritual upheaval, a life’s habit disrupted, a continuing realignment. In work, in the public schools—a divergence, a questioning of purpose. Misunderstanding. Misdirection. And connection—with students. With colleagues.

I find it difficult to ascertain a path, but reading Dragonfish late into the night on a 15th of December, everything also makes sense—the separation. The loss. The leaving behind. The holding on. The holding in. Necessary regret. (Un) + controlling flight.

I remember talking with Vu Tran in the National Portrait Gallery last summer at the Asian American Literature Festival. I recall his astounded look as I described to him how I found my birth mother’s name three years ago. It was not long after my adoptive mother’s death and my return to Vietnam. I had never known it, spending my whole life with my American name and falsified documents from an orphanage in Saigon. These “legalized” my adoption but pointed me nowhere in terms of birth family names.

These: things my mom and I did not talk about often or clearly when she was alive. I’m not sure why. Then: finding the slip of paper in an envelope between notes about auto parts and errands. My birth mother’s name, identification number, birth date, city, and province. Her parents’ names. Her father deceased.

Moments such as these: fragments I carry. (Dis) + similar to those of other transracial/transnational adoptees, as I am discovering in conversation after conversation. InterCountryAdopteeVoices. Adopted Vietnamese International. Vietnamese Adoptee Network. Social media a conduit. Social media a destabilization. Moments such as these: what writing from diasporic artists evokes. Moments such as these: what compels me to keep reading, listening, speaking, running, writing, climbing, asking, singing, burying, exhuming, searching.

In 2014, I drove over 320 miles one evening to listen to Beth Nguyen give a presentation at the University of Idaho, where her book Stealing Buddha’s Dinner was the Common Read. I would have driven farther. How do I put this to words? What is it to hear a voice speak what has been deeply held, deeply felt, deeply imagined, deeply (un) + realized, suppressed, and sequestered for forty years? What does it mean to read of other mothers and other children separated, lost, and forgotten? To stand at this remove and still feel the effects of War?

I can hardly believe the luck, the gift, the narrow chance, of how I came to hear about Stealing Buddha’s Dinner from a couple of my high school students the year before.

Driving from Bonners Ferry to Moscow, one gradually transitions from a long, u-shaped glacial valley, to a region of lakes, the Rathdrum Prairie, the city of Coeur d’Alene, the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, and then the swoop and sweep of the Palouse. I remember the darkness and emptiness of U.S. Highway 95–time to think about Beth’s words about silences and separations; about realities and doubts; about myths and fantasies and complications of “reuniting.”

Former students saved me a seat in the Student Union Building. I arrived just in time to hear Beth speak. I recall her sense of humor. I recall her seriousness. A knot of freshmen students chattered inanely behind me, but I mostly ignored them, and later I had a vibrant and real conversation with Beth. She encouraged me to connect to writers and works of the Vietnamese Diaspora, something I had only vaguely done since graduate school at Appalachian State University, where I used to talk with Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh.

I started searching, finding DVAN and diaCRITICS, finding Andrew Lam’s Perfume Dreams, the Two Rivers anthology, Dao Strom’s We Were Meant to Be a Gentle People, Beth Nguyen’s Pioneer Girl, Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, Quan Barry’s Loose Strife, Viet Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies, Linh Dinh’s blog. I found other writers, other works. Judy Tzu-Chun Wu’s Radicals on the Road. Marcelino Truong’s Such a Lovely Little War. The AAWW live readings and presentations. One night, Thuy-Dzuong Nguyen’s The Truth Lenders found me in Auntie’s Bookstore in Spokane as I wandered through the stacks.

I realize now that distance—the straining and disruption of it, the potential breakage—distance has led me to literature and to people, to overlapping communities having conversations about Asia, America, Asia-America, transracial/transnational adoption, and more. By increments, the tensions of distance have led me back to Vietnam, to Đắk Lắk Province, to online adoptee networks, to blogs, to Jane Jeong Trenka’s work, to the Asian American Literature Festival in Washington, D.C. last summer, to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop space in New York, to the AALR, to CAALS; and here, this morning, to San Francisco.

How many times have I been asked where I am from? Or what my ethnicity is? Hundreds? Thousands? Recent stories in the New York Times (“Adoption Across Racial and Ethnic Lines: ‘These Relationships Are Always Going to Be in Flux’”) and on Public Radio International (“Growing Up With Someone Else’s Name”) illustrate the timeliness of these discussions. We are having them—Lynelle Long, Indigo Willing, Sunny J. Reed, Sabine-Hoa Nguyen, Ethan Brady, and others—writing perspective papers, attending conferences, addressing governments, creating art, and making tenuous digital, transcontinental connections. Every Facebook comment, every post, is a growth, cell to cell, of our voices. Who are we? Where are we from? How did we get here? What are our voices? What are our stories? What are our songs?

This is the work of (re)imagining. The following is an excerpt from a letter my adoptive mother wrote in January, 1973, when she lived among the Bru in Buôn Jat.

“The next day, Christmas evening, while we were visiting A-Ring, the grandmother came to me and said we want to give our baby to you to raise, for we cannot take care of it. A-Ring said go and see it, it only weighed 4 lbs. and was born at only 71/2 months. As I went, the grandmother said, the mother has been sick for two weeks with malaria and has no breast milk, and the father was killed in the war three months ago, and we have no money to buy milk.

The baby was stiff and cold from not having its position changed for hours, so I gave them a lecture about putting bottles of warm water around it, and turning it from side to side every hour or two. I told them I was afraid it wouldn’t live, but that I would bring some milk and a dropper the next day so they could feed it. This little premature baby was born the same day as A-Ring’s baby, but two hours earlier, and hadn’t had any nourishment other than a teaspoon of water.

The next morning I took the milk and showed them how to feed it with the dropper, but when I went again in the evening, all the milk was still there, and A-Ring said they didn’t feed it. A-Ring’s breast milk was abundant, so she put some in a glass and I fed it to the premature each time I went to the hospital. The baby didn’t die and the grandmother and mother kept asking me to take it home to my house. The mother was pale and swollen in most of her body and looked like she had something more than malaria.”

How did I come to leave my birth family and join my adoptive mother, a single woman, an American? Why does this feel like just the edge of it all? What do I do with an origin story like this?

In Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption (Jane Jeong Trenka, et al) and Vietnamese.Adopted (Indigo Willing, et al), I find conceptual frameworks for my own narrative arc. I have known other transnational/transracial adoptees, some for my whole life, but these are personal contexts, not necessarily socio-historical-literary ones. Developing a theory, a criticism, has been crucial, as has been discovering myriad texts–essays, fiction, poetry, hybrid works, comix, AAWW podcasts, blogs, etc. Discovering events such as Regie Cabico’s spoken word session at the Asian American Literature Festival. Discovering conversations—with Shamala Gallagher, Tammy Nguyen, Matty Huynh, Thi Bui, Andrew Lam, Linh Dinh, Julie Thi Underhill, Dao Strom, Nicole Chung, Vu Tran, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Louie Tan Vital, Sean Labrador Manzano, JoAnne Balingit, Mimi Khúc, Mai-Linh Hong, Lynelle Long, Jim Joligeon, Sabine Hoa-Nguyen, Sophia Terazawa, and others. Discovering conferences such as this. Moments such as this.

In This Is All I Choose To Tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud writes, “As cultural productions, Vietnamese American stories, whether they abide by, resist, or sidestep the pressures to conform to predetermined images and preferred topics, have the power to affect the ways we think of ourselves and our citizenship in America and how we view and function in the world.”

I encounter these currents in my mom’s slides and photographs, like the one taken in the 1960s at a leprosarium. Or the one with the Caltex sign on the highway near Qui Nhơn. Or the one of the Stiêng woman. Or a mother and children, walking on the road. Or the Bru village in Quảng Trị Province. Or the photograph of a young mother and an infant. Who are they/we? What am I to make of their stories/my story?

What do I (re) + imagine in the literatures and histories, the memories and origin myths? What Project is this? What Journey? Which way do I go?


[A note of thanks: I would like to thank the Circle for Asian American Literary Studies for the opportunity to present in the “Re-imagining (the) Work in/of Literature” panel discussion at the 2018 Association for Asian American Studies Conference. In particular, I wish to thank Mark Chiang (Panel 2 Chair) for his encouraging comments, direction, and discussion. And I wish to thank Na-Rae Kim for co-sharing the panel with her engaging and informative presentation on Suki Kim’s Without You, There is No Us. I also would like to thank the presenters in Panel One: Amy Lee, Leah Milne, Susan Thananopavarn, Patty Chu, and Mai-Linh Hong (Chair), as well as all the CAALS organizational staff.

A word on layout: the original document that I read at CAALS did not include images, although I did plan to present an abbreviated slide show. Most of the images in this document are part of the “Between Tower and Sea” multimedia project, although they appear differently there than here. (The project presently is comprised of 77 slides with over 100 images). Hopefully they do give the reader a sense of what that project incorporates. I have chosen to include them here to give a sense of the visual nature/scope of this project.]


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