Oum (left) and Jon Chu at mam’s books, Seattle’s only independent ANHPIA bookstore • Photo by Sokha Danh

I am enveloped in the embrace of winter honeysuckle as I sit at the central table of mam’s books, writing about the bookstore without writing about the bookstore.

When I first visited mam’s several months ago, I was struck by a reminiscent image — there, on a now iconic orange couch, sat Oum, hair tied up in a bun, sporting glasses and a puffy jacket, braced against the autumn cold — just as if my own mother-in-law was there with me.

As we exchanged stories and introduced ourselves, it became apparent that the similarities extend past appearances and tie to something congenial. Both women share mixed Khmer, Vietnamese, and Teochew heritage. When my partner and I introduced my mother-in-law and Oum to each other, they immediately and fluidly switched between the three tongues, each distinctively choosing a different language for certain words, a reflection of shared yet dissimilar migration stories; a fingerprint of diasporic movement.

As I reflected on the responsibility of representation, respecting Oum’s expressed wishes not to be too overt in sharing a story about mam’s, it came up in conversation that Oum has been writing poetry.

It occurred to us that a poem could be a vehicle for the portraiture of people and place, a way to share a piece of ourselves without consigning us to the oft imposed narrative of migration, where one moves from Point A to Point B and then becomes fine.

In an attempt to rupture the emplacement of our stories within a static and hollow frame, we decided to embrace poetry as the kernel from which life and memory emerge through our practices of witnessing, feeling, and sharing. We were fortunate to enlist the help of one of Oum’s daughters, Vesna, who is herself a poet, and she became an essential piece to the interpretation and triadic discussion stemming from one of Oum’s poems.

I invited Oum to select a piece that she was excited to share, and she chose the following:

Đôi chân lặn lội cả đời

Xa quê bỏ xứ cũng vì mưu sinh

Thân đau chẵng có thua chi

Tâm kêu mỏi nhọc hơn chân vạn lần

Chân vì mãi lội mỏi mòn

Tâm khi khổ cực lại lan đến đầu

Vì tâm bận quá nghĩ suy

Đầu đau kêu nhức than hoài mỗi khi

Con người khắp cả tứ chi

Tay chân thân thể cả đều như nhau

Khi nào hết nợ nhức đau

Đi không trở lại đời rồi phải xa.

During the interview, Oum read her poem aloud, allowing the words and meanings to land on us in a mix of Vietnamese, Khmer, and English. We will not translate the poem here, recognizing that translation is a political choice, and recognizing, too, the power of poetry to defy a gaze that seeks to apprehend, circumscribe, and classify.

Rather, we encourage the unversed reader to acquaint themselves with those who are familiar with the language, building relationships of care and trust that perhaps reveal the intimate knowledge embedded within these words. One could, for example, visit mam’s and acquaint themselves with Oum herself.

Instead, we share here the fragments of memories and stories that were evoked from Oum and Vesna’s interpretations of the poem. Reading between the lines, encapsulated in the verse, are themes of movement, previous lives, and survival mediated through words that come as effortlessly as breath.

Through the morass of migration, words become encumbered with meaning, determining who speaks, what language we choose, and where we may or may not go. Oum considers what she could have done differently and the afterlives of her words land on Vesna, whose practice of poetry since the fifth grade resonates in a search for lineal origins. Words can bear our vulnerabilities, they can suffuse the silences that remain amongst our own kin.

Ma (left) and Oum (right) at mam’s books • Photo by Cynthia Huynh Wu

Vesna responds:

The journey

Of what is loss, left behind

The land, its people, tastes and smells

All lingering and faded

No bringing it back

You can never have them again

Who gets to take part

In sharing this heaviness?

No one understands

The loneliness

Moving forward can bring.

As the words land on you, we hope to have shared a sense of the feeling underlying a certain place and time. Yet from these specificities emanate the multiplicities of our being, refracted, and arrayed before us; the margins of our peripheries rife with life and meaning.

We welcome you to search the possibilities of place at mam’s, where moments of rupture from the march of modernity can be fragmented and brought together again, familiar and yet refreshingly new, as if we are seeing our selves, and each other, for the first time. 

Previous articleSAAFF 2024: Opening night film captures experience of being blind, undocumented
Next articleSAAFF 2024: Taping of ‘140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother’ to screen