As a Vietnamese American woman of color uprooted and planted in a country severely lacking in accurate representations of my people—on the widescreen, in the canon of celebrated literature, and in the colonial history books force-fed into our consciousness throughout school about “America,” but never about the America with Asian Americans the way we have existed—picking up Bao Phi’s “Sông I Sing” was, in three words: a catharsis experience. Known as a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and National Poetry slam finalist, Bao Phi’s collection of poems rings with a hunger for the recognition of all that has been done against people of color, especially Asian Americans, in the histories unwritten. He is writing them now. In the poem “8 (9),” Phi writes, like a prayer:
“Michael Cho. Cau Thi Bich Tran.
John T. Williams.
Tycel Nelson. Oscar Grant. Fong Lee.
May your names be the hymn
wind that sways
police bullets to miss (95).”
In calling the names of these fallen brothers-of-struggle murdered at police gun-point, he is honoring their lives while screaming against the unjust police brutality, backed up by the system, on our communities of color and particularly against our young men, as if their lives had no value and were disposable. They are valuable—to us. Phi mourns for these unrecognized deaths while celebrating the survival and resistance of our people. In “For Us,” Phi sings: “My people, we are a song that we can never stop singing against the silence. My people, we are a song that we can never stop singing against the silence.”
He asks us, along with the rest of America, to celebrate our own beauties, our own strengths, our wide array of experiences and struggles, our triumphs, and our own imprints in our histories. Phi reclaims the past, from war-torn Viet Nam, to our multifaceted immigrant experiences here in the present, to the future of our later generations having to confront the concept of assimilation while still exiled as a marginalized people, seen only when exoticized or employed as “model-minority,” invisible when convenient. His words demand our recognition and representation. Phi is a true artist who paints a beautifully colorful and wide-ranging canvas of what it could mean to be Vietnamese American in the America we experienced. And no, you cannot tell us how we experienced it, because he makes clear, our voice is ours. We reclaim ourselves for ourselves. Phi also has a sarcastic sense of humor that injects life and funk into the flows of his eloquently woven words, making you quietly chuckle to yourself one moment as something resonates too true to not be funny, and the next moment, your heart is on the verge of weeping. These tears and laughter are intricately linked, just like our joys and sorrows are, representing much of how life cha-chas back and forth for many of us.
Bao Phi’s words are undeniably politically brave and brutally honest—a rarity of a voice much needed. He addresses institutional and everyday racism in a way so raw and unfiltered, it often times leaves me uncomfortable in my seat. Even as a radical Vietnamese American woman frustrated at the system, critical of everything, and wanting to decolonize everything that comes before me, his words are able to strike a chord that challenges me. I sit there feeling so deeply what he’s saying, but a small voice inside my head is concerned of offending “white America” with how uncensored it is. For example, in his bold poem “Reverse Racism,” Phi unapologetically poses the reverse possibility that:
“Asian Americans are gonna have it all, and white people are going to hate themselves and love us for it. When these white people crumple into a ball, when they try to raise their voices to speak, when they go insane from it all, that’s when I’ll pat them on the back, and say, that’s just the way it is. But we’re all human. Don’t hate me, it’s not my fault, not all of us are like that, don’t be like that, don’t be a reverse racist.”
I’ll sit there uncomfortable and feeling a bit guilty for agreeing so much with this. And then I reach an epiphany: even I have been so socially conditioned to cater to the mainstream of what colonial white America represents and forced upon us. Why should I be concerned that they will get “offended,” just because a courageous Vietnamese poet speaks up in words, on paper, in flows, what they have done to our people and to generations of people of color in the flesh? We lived this history in the raw, and are living it still. We are the ones who should be offended, no? So why should we be ashamed to ask them this question in return? Rather, they need to hear it, and we need to hear it ourselves. And that is the contribution of Bao Phi. He does not soften up his words to make it easier to digest, he does not smooth over our barb-wired histories for people to walk through more easily, he does not sing a soothing melody sedated mainstream America likes to hear to feel good about themselves. He hands it back to us raw and real to shake up our consciousness—so be prepared to do some work deconstructing our conditioned assumptions and colonized mindsets.
“Sông I Sing” is truly a phenomenal and emotionally catharsis body of work. As a Vietnamese American woman of color, for the first few times in my life, I was reading a work of literature where I felt comforted, connected, represented, challenged, as well as just taken back by the rawness and beauty in his flows: ”I was the one who survived to love you. Even if you save me, I won’t thank you. I love to save myself from myself, I love so these things become me without ruling me, I love you, because you bring out the Vietnamese in me, You. Yes, you. Yes, you.”
To all Vietnamese Americans, to those who truly love us, to those who don’t, and to those who want to understand how colorful and resilient America really is, please read. At least for me, when I hold this book, I don’t just read, I sing.