One Struggle, Many Fronts

May 1, 2024



May, 2024

Today is the second day of APAHM, and as my father’s daughter, a Vietnamese boat person resettled in Australia, I’ve been thinking a lot about collective cycles of memory, and attention. 

My boyfriend Cody, who is 43, often gripes to me about the resurgence of wide legged pants today. He was in his teens at the time that big pants and JNCOs were popular, and one of his signature gripes to me is his sense that today’s youth act as though they discovered big pants, rather than the reality of these pants circling back through time to re-emerge again in a new context. 

Another example: I recently watched Ripley on Netflix, starring Andrew Scott and based on the Patricia Highsmith novels about a New York-based low level grifter called Thomas Ripley who ingratiates himself with a wealthy roaming wannabe painter in Italy under the guise of helping his father convince him to return home. Towards the end of this series (spoiler alert ahead), the show splices footage of an imagined Caravaggio sometime in the 1500s mirroring the exact movements of our modern day Ripley in the exact same surreal tree-lined abandoned boulevard on the outskirts of Rome. Clips of murder weapons are hard cut next to each other: for Caravaggio, it’s a knife; for Ripley, a heavy glass ashtray. History repeats itself in the actions of these two men, unlikely kin across centuries. 

What is old always seems to bide its time before returning to take its place in the light again. History marches forward in relentless cycles and patterns, swirling mosaics repeating indefinitely, everything made from the shards of the things that came before. 

I read somewhere recently that to be human is to forget, that the forgetting is an important part of being able to move forward. The weight of all that happened before us would be too big to carry, too complex to resolve. 

Viet Than Nguyen’s book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the War of Memory, begins like this: “This is a book on war, memory, and identity. It proceeds from the idea that all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” 

He says that America may have lost the ‘Vietnam War’ (which is called The American War to the Vietnamese), but they have won the memory war, because of the cultural hegemony of Hollywood and the English language, the muscle and heft of it that body checks the voices of anyone else present into obscurity.

My dad was part of the wave of Southern Vietnamese people who fled by boat following the fall of Saigon, and the withdrawal of the American troops. My maternal grandfather was absent from his own home for many years because he was hiding in a temple on the outskirts of Saigon to avoid conscription in the army fighting against communism. 

I am a direct descendent of these real lived experiences, and even I didn’t quite understand the nuance of what the war did to South Vietnam vs North Vietnam, of how some South Vietnamese felt angry and resentful that the American withdrew their help, abandoned them to the communists. I didn’t even know that my grandfather was gone for so long because he didn’t want to fight. I had never heard of any of these stories outside of the mainstream cultural war knowledge I absorbed through American movies like Apocalypse Now, or The American by Graham Greene. I knew that there were lots of Vietnamese people slaughtered, there was a girl that ran away from a burning village, her clothes disintegrated, that they dropped chemicals from the air, that there were many American soldiers who died. It’s broad and sweeping strokes of my own legacy that were obscured from my own understanding for a very long time, until I actively started to look for the nuance in what happened. 

I’m currently writing a fictional novel loosely based on my family, and I found out that detail about my grandfather’s draft-dodging during an informal interview with my mum, who was barely able to even explain it to me. I wanted to understand it better to potentially write about it, but when I Googled variations of the search: “Southern Vietnamese men who avoided conscription in the Vietnam War”, I only found results focused on the American POV, about anti-conscription protests at universities in the US. I went through dozens of pages of search results and could not find one single result about people like my grandfather. I could barely find anything from the perspective of the Vietnamese when I look for information about the war, only that of America. There are barely any photos taken by Vietnamese war photographers. I read about the protests in the 60s, which were described as especially galvanizing because of the death count of American soldiers, not necessarily always because of the Vietnamese civilians who were being bombed into oblivion.

I think this is what Viet Thanh Nguyen means. There is a soft power in moulding memory, one that the American war machine excels at. It’s the power of being able to dominate a narrative so that you are at its center, to reduce millions of people to a historical detail, even to the kin of those people. It’s the power to control what is said and reported, to re-package information for your advantage, like Columbia and its suppression of anti-war student protests in the 1960s, only to then use it as a lionized example of the university’s commitment to student liberty and dissent.

Today, the war machine walks hand in hand with the attention economy. It rides on the backs of the systems behind our screens that leads our attention beyond our grasp, like a herd of wild horses galloping away from us.

I am a victim to it. My attention is pulled into fifty million places at once everyday. I am chronically online. I read about The Cut’s essay boom, about girl dinners and trad wives, hate reads and performative hydration. I sit in bed and scroll through Twitter trying to learn about Jojo Siwa for no discernible reason other than my curiosity demands it. I follow these crumbs of online discourse as though they will lead me to a better understanding of the contemporary environment that I live, work, and write within, but I am convinced that it is all designed to distract me from really seeing what is happening. I am a participant in the mechanism that keeps the war machine going, one that demands my attention be led elsewhere, that it is used to make money rather than demand peace and a different way of doing things. It demands I forget everything as soon as I see it. 

Recently, Instagram announced that it will hide “political” content in people’s feed sunless they pro-actively un-toggle that setting. The word “political” here suggests that the political is ephemeral, of no consequence, something to opt out of. That somehow politics is not woven into the fabric of all our lives, no matter who we are. That it doesn’t impact what we do when we get sick, the way we eat, the things we buy that we have the privilege of accessing—assembled and built off the misfortune of a secret, murky Other. I see this as part of the war machine’s effort at hijacking our attention, of making it effortless to turn the other way.

The space between ourselves and the Other seems to have expanded into an uncrossable horizon, a journey so large that you can hardly be expected to take it on your own accord. After all, there’s so much else to pay attention to—internet essays, cultural fads, entertainment spectacles, our own increasingly expensive and fraught lives in the shadow of problems that feel too big. I understand why so many of us to look away at a time when so much is going on. Our individual power seems so puny that to consider it feels humiliating sometimes. I am speaking as someone who has not been able to vote the entire decade I’ve lived in the US as a non-immigrant visa holder. I have very little rights here, as a non-resident immigrant. I am familiar with how it feels to be helpless.

It has been more than six months of the Palestinian genocide. I waver between paying too much attention, and too little. Lately, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about small details I come across that feel strange, surreal: 15 people drowned trying to reach aid dropped into the ocean in Gaza, there will be a humanitarian pier built there now. Images of more cops I have ever seen using vehicles that look like small boulders to beat and arrest students who have not been able to look away, who refuse to capitulate to the machine that demands that we forget. The strange irony of a paramedic yelling at a police man pointing a gun at Aaron Bushnell engulfed in flames - “we need a fire extinguisher, not a gun.” 

I think about Hind’s Hall (f.k.a. Hamilton Hall) at Columbia, which was renamed to honor the six year old Palestinian girl who died the worst way I can imagine a child to die, surrounded by her dead family as strange men move in to murder her, the name pulled down from the hall by armed police just as quickly as it was put up. I missed the original story of Hind during March, a month of fog when I was at an artist residency in Italy, where I paid very little attention, an opposite reaction to the nightmares and sleeplessness from paying too much attention during the first few months of it all. When I read about Hind, I felt ashamed that it was the first time I had heard of her story.

I am grateful that we will remember Hind, that we will remember Aaron Bushnell, Dr. Hammam Alloh at Al-Shifa who refused to evacuate in order to keep attending to his patients. But who else will be remembered in the aftermath of this genocide, when Columbia asks for permission to use the same images of them calling the police on their own students as a point of pride, of their participation in history? Will we remember the faceless babies I scroll past, covered in blood, tenderly held by the arms of bereft parents? The man I saw in a striking photograph, his mouth and eyes wide with anger, screaming against a backdrop of rubble and dust, a lone grey foot poking out a collapsed building next to a floral rug covered in debris. Will we remember the people like my grandfather, and my father, the ones that hid, the ones that stayed, the ones who were related and had to witness their family, their sacred ancestral lands, their culture be dismantled brick by brick in the most violent way possible, sanctioned by the state? Will these stories be lost even to the descendants of these people?

When I first started to travel widely in my early twenties, I was so transfixed by the Vietnamese diaspora I’d find in Paris, in Berlin, in America. It felt incredibly novel to see faces that looked exactly like mine (we call this sprawling diaspora Viet Kieu), but who would open their mouth and out would tumble an entirely different language. It felt as though I was seeing infinite versions of myself fragmented throughout the world. I could have been French, I could have been German, I could have been American. The strangeness of the vibrant Vietnamese community in Houston, or the solitary Vietnamese restaurant in Peru is a product of war, the dispersal of seeds across the entire planet after a place is laid to waste through napalm bombs and violence.

This APAHM, I am going to practice paying attention. I want to pay attention keenly, no matter how painful it is, to what is happening to our Palestinian brothers and sisters, to their stories and their humanity. My generation is one of the last to deal with the generational impact of the Vietnam War, and I feel crazy watching it all happen again in real-time. Indiscriminate bombing, hateful rhetoric and propaganda, violent suppression of anti-war protestors. We are doomed to repeat our mistakes when we fail to fully reckon with our complicity in war, when we paint over the reality in favor of a distorted one, when we look away. When we forget.

Carl Jung said, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.” All oppression is connected. The liberties we have, the comfort I have as a second-generation Asian woman living in safety and with what feels like infinite choice for my life, is built on the backs of the work of others who fought for liberation and justice long before I was born. What is any of this worth - the representation, the opportunities, the celebration - if we choose to ignore those who are targets in the merciless crossfire of history repeating itself? Individual people may fade from memory, but collectively, movements and ideas do not. Solidarity to Palestinians and all anti-war protestors throwing their bodies into the machinery of war. Grind it to a fucking halt. Ceasefire now. 




Food Poisoning and Whales

March 1, 2024



Feb, 2024
Sayulita, Mexico
Food Poisoning Self Potrait at Casa Selva

I have never felt so afraid of drinking water. I was lying under a mosquito net at a hotel in Sayulita, Mexico and was three vomits deep, halfway through a long night of food poisoning. Any water that went in came straight back out. I wavered between the fear of having to go through the convulsions of throwing up again, and the threat of death by dehydration. I now know you can’t just die from a night of vomiting, but I was alone, afraid, and forcing myself to drink enough water to stay alive until my friend Jill sleeping next door woke up to get me electrolytes. I would draw a large mouthful of water into my mouth and keep it there, letting drips of it siphon off down my throat as I watched 2am turn into 3am. I slipped into vivid hallucination dreams, staying asleep for 10 minutes at a time before being awoken by my knotted stomach to barf.

Earlier that day, I was crying on a speedboat after seeing whales breach and flop their tails in the Bay of Banderas. 500 Humpback Whales pass through from November-April to mate and give birth. It turns out that baby whales don’t have a lot of blubber (although still weight 1,000-1,500 pounds), so the tropical waters of Mexico are ideal. I knew we were going on a whale watching tour, but animal tours are hardly promises, and I kept my expectation low. Nature does not submit to desire.

  After seeing three pairs of mothers and babies, one of which repeatedly lifted and slammed its tail back into the ocean like it was learning how to, I started spilling over with tears. Earlier in the day, we jumped off a boat, swam through a few gentle rip currents nipping at our legs, past jagged rocks and white wash through a cave. We landed on a beach with a perfect crater window open to the sky formed by former bomb testing in the 70’s, gasping for air. Following that with watching whales enjoy a perfect day in the ocean made me feel like the luckiest person in the world. 

My therapist asked me to elaborate on feeling lucky, and I told her that I could never have imagined doing something like this as a kid. This seems to come up a lot. Experiences that couldn’t be fantasized about when I was younger because they felt outside the realm of dreaming. To see those whales was to be reminded of all the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I’ve had: seeing Macchu Pichu at sunrise after hiking with food poisoning for 3 days (I guess food poisoning always is a part of a good travel story), sleeping in a hut in the Italian Dolomites, taking a 12 hour chicken bus to see the reflective plains of Salar de Uyuni for a few hours before taking one right back the same day, walking into the valley of Kings in Egypt, aware that I was standing on the same ground that pharaohs had walked centuries before. Weirdly, being able to drive is part of that list. 

  I thought about this in between my barfs. I thought also about the various other times in my life I’ve found myself shaking and cold on the floor of a foreign bathroom. That Inca Trail memory is intertwined with the memory of violent food poisoning that set in on the afternoon of the first day. It feels fitting to cry over whales and then to stay up all night puking my guts out in the same 24 hours. Both make the other more memorable.

These acute moments of feeling fade with the last of a holiday tan, but I wish they could be set like precious gemstones in the front of my eyeballs, a reminder of what it feels like to be so alive! I am thinking about this while lying incapacitated by the pool the day after. My stomach is a hollow bowl, loud and impatient. I watch the sun recede across the rim of the pool, putting my pen down every few minutes. I don’t have the energy to think, and it feels good to let myself write like this. Unhurried, lazy, with lots of breaks. Norovirus has stripped my stomach lining and a veil of distraction that accompanies being so physically able, so busy all the time. It feels good to be still. My stomach churns again as I open my camera roll to rewatch videos of Jill and I squealing over the sight of whales throwing their entire bodies above the surface of the ocean. 
   

Going Home


February 11, 2024



December, 2024
Sydney, Australia
View of my childhood home from the backyard

Coming home is looking at a familiar object through a glass prism. It’s knowing what the Eiffel Tower looks like after a lifetime of looking at it through Google Images, the cartoon Madeline and in the background of Emily in Paris, only to get there and realize it’s both kind of the same but also just a mere facsimile to the version that exists in your head. In my childhood home in Sydney, the glass jugs of boiled tap water still sit next to the sink. There’s still a bowl of cut fruit (this time, honeydew) in the fridge nestled in a bowl, a thin layer of plastic cling wrap waiting to be removed. My name is still scrawled in childish handwriting across each of the nine drawers of the in-built closet, labelled to make sure everyone knew they were mine. To return to a place like your childhood home as an adult is to stitch a memory suspended from the most fragile silk with the reality that so much has changed. 

What has changed: the fifteen tanks full of fish my dad used to illegally breed and sell in the abandoned granny flat out back has been reduced to just two (overrun by snails?) in the living room. The 4 for $4 champagne flutes my mother purchased from Kmart specifically for Christmas, the first we have ever owned as a family, bragging about how cheap they were the same way other people might brag about having Riedel glasses. What else has changed: the relationship between my parents and I, one whose sharp edges have eroded through years of talk therapy. It’s been softened by the simple effect of what we commonly know cures all but don’t really believe until we ourselves can be old enough to witness it: time passing. A laundry list of complaints and questions from growing up in a low income immigrant household with its requisite physical and emotional abuse has fallen through the filters of being examined a thousand times and coming out frayed and faded, a receipt in the back pocket of a pair of jeans gone through the wash.

  I have lived on the other side of the planet for almost a decade now. The previous trips I took home were defined by either indifference, active chaos, or quietly felt like chores, my penance for deciding to put 10,000 miles between myself and the place I was born. Last trip, my ex-boyfriend of eight years broke up with me sixteen hours into quarantine, leading to a month of full fledged, unhinged chaos: almost breaking my knee, constantly driving into the wrong side of traffic, scream crying to Florence and the Machine in the car, and a rebound romance with a 23 year old I met at the climbing gym. I was feral with main character break-up syndrome, and I experienced that trip as though everything was muffled through four layers of glass. Sydney was the backdrop for a huge, unexpected heartbreak that I was struggling to stay on the surface of. My family were secondary characters in the background of that drama, people who existed on the fringes of my panic. I wasn’t present, I was incapable of it.

Going home this last December was the first time in my life that I returned feeling somewhat normal, the grievances that I checked alongside my bags poofed into thin air, able to see my home and my family clearly for the first time. Instead, I brought a golem that I created here in Brooklyn. It was a fantasy of what family and home was meant to be,  moulded in the vacuum of Brooklyn therapy culture and through the anecdotes of my friends and boyfriends’ families, far far away our rented home in Yagoona, Sydney. I wrote and spoke and thought and dissected all of this stuff as a 30 year old woman living in an apartment that costs triple what my entire family pays, until I was blue in the face and convinced I had looked at it at every possible direction. I did the ayahuasca ceremonies, started writing the book about immigrant trauma. I participated in TikTok conversations about what it all meant to be a second-generation child of immigrants, and I brought all of this home eager to bask in fruits of that labor. To simply return home for the holidays without complication or the sticky residue of childhood trauma. I wanted to come home as someone healed.

  My first time home on this trip, my American boyfriend and I drove from our custom designed beach-side Airbnb to the suburban sprawl of where I grew up. Over dinner, my parents asked him what he does, and were polite but confused at his answer of “Artist”, deflating the pride I felt about him, and what it must mean about me. Although everyone spoke English, I had to translate between the fast clip of Cody’s American accent and my parent’s Vietnamese/Chinese accented English. There was so much I had projected onto this meeting - of this man representing so much of who I am now, walking and breathing inside the house I grew up, interacting with the ghosts of the person I used to be, in the place I became her. I watched them try to connect with each other over plates of oysters and noodles. I watched my parents lean over the table to arrange the food on Cody’s plate as though he were a boy and not a 40-something year old man. 

I had brought so much expectation back about what it meant to return home, of what a clean and tidy version of family and the holidays meant. That idea dissipated almost immediately, replaced instead with surface-level dinner table conversation, the jokes my boyfriend didn’t understand, my mother telling me that she has checked my GPS every single day for the last five years, including when I went to The Dolomites and the month I spent in Mexico City. I imagined her zooming into foreign places at my blue little dot, not understanding any of the context of where I was, just comforted by the simple fact that I was alive. It became my dad forgetting the ingredients for my favorite Vietnamese dish, banh uot, and walking 30 minutes back to the grocery just to get them, even though he hates the dish himself. It was repeating everything I said three times to make sure they understood, slowing my speech down, removing parts of stories that seemed too complicated. None of it was part of the starry-eyed, one-note fantasy I had built, constructed from cliche and self-absorption.
   
Both of my parents would allude to me moving home one day, and then backtrack by smiling and saying they’re joking, when we both know they’re not. They say they’re happy as long as I am, and they don’t need me to be home. I know that’s a concession that they make for a daughter who decided that she needed to leave, and has built an entire life away from them. I smile and say maybe, knowing I won’t, that the person I have become doesn’t fit into the sunny rocky shores of Sydney anymore, and the cultural, language, and geographical divide between myself and the love that exists in my parent’s shrinking bodies is one created by and perpetuated by me. I’m a visitor now. 

On the morning of our flight home, I cast a shadow over our hotel room, irritable and snapping at Cody. I said I was annoyed I didn’t get to go to the beach on my last day, but that gave way to tears by mid-afternoon that I was actually just devastated that I had to leave. My next visit would be after another year or two of changes in myself, in my family, ones that would have to be reconciled over and over again with each return. A sudden grief descended, knowing that it took this long to enjoy my family, to see them clearly. That they are happy for me but barely understand what it is that I do, that they have never seen my life here in New York, that it is so different in so many ways. Grief for the calls I didn’t make, the interest I never took in their inner landscapes, instead writing them off as one dimensional characters in my life. That I can invest so much time in the process of healing but it will not measure up to simply sitting next to my mother to watch TV with her. That I now ache for a place that I couldn’t wait to leave a decade ago. The reality of what it looks like when I return home, and I don’t live there.

The world that I’ve created in my head does not compare to the one that exists within those fading, marked walls with my name written on them in Yagoona, Sydney. This world may not include the animated dinner table conversation on political views or shared memories I get to have with my boyfriend’s family. There is little to no curiosity about my creative practice, or the life I live on the other side of the world. The movie hallmarks of what it is to return home to family are completely absent. Instead, in this world, the wine glasses are cheap, there is always a place to return to, and there are people who check my GPS every single day to make sure that I am safe, even when I do not call. One fantasy has been laid to rest in place of another that I watch recede on the flight map as my plane climbs its way into the sky to take me all the way back to my life in Brooklyn.


Some thoughts at the threshold of the new year





December 31, 2023
Honolulu, Hawaii
Being greeted by a rainbow at dawn off a 10 hour flight from Sydney

I’m a sucker for a new year. The idea of waking up to the slate wiped clean, to peer tentatively through the opening of a calendar beginning again. When I was a teenager, I’d write down New Years resolutions religiously - this is the year that I’ll save money, I’ll drink at least eight glasses of water a day. Most of my ‘goals’ were in pursuit of perfection in my physical or financial self, of chasing an idealized version of responsibility that never seemed to materialize. Setting resolutions has always felt like an act of hope, that I can change, that I can start again. It doesn’t matter if the resolution remains the same on December 31st a year after I set them. New Years feels like a glistening mirage of second chances, of trying again (maybe harder this time), of reflection and change.

Looking back, I’m glad to leave this year behind. It’s the year I downshifted Scallion Pancake to focus on writing and photography, a leap that has been hiding behind a corner my whole life. It felt a lot like pushing a heavy cart up a hill. I tried really hard this year. I cared a lot this year. I continued grappling with boundary setting and putting myself first, and learning to manage my energy levels. I teetered between running myself into the ground and feeling like I had everything under control. I felt tired a lot, part of it was that the world felt very heavy, part of it was from the exertion of pushing myself as someone chasing a dream at age 30, an age that feels both young and like I’m running out of time. My psoriasis was probably the worst it has ever been. I felt the most proud of myself this year, for sharing my photography and my writing even when it felt really really scary. I started writing a book! I saved a significant amount of money for the first time in my life, and I was very hydrated. It only took about 15 years for me to achieve those resolutions I set for myself decades ago in my bedroom in the dark.

  It’s the time of In/Out lists, and so many seem to be personal declarations on the wider cultural zeitgeist. I don’t feel like I have any ability to predict what other people like, but for me:

This New Year, I want to Venmo my friends money for coffee when I’m thinking about them. I want to be the type of person who bakes things and bikes them to the people I love just because. I want to use my library card more, I want to read every book in the world. I want to clean my camera roll out every week so the screenshots of things I forgot the significance of don’t rot in my phone. I want to touch grass, I want to climb outside, I want to swim in the ocean, I want to bury my face in the my dog’s fur more. I want to stick my head out the window of a moving car. I want to play frisbee on the beach. I want to rediscover my sense of joy in style, of feeling expressed in what I wear, even when it feels too cold to do so. I want to finally cook recipes from the cookbooks I collect that sit and collect dust. I want to play more records. 

I want to go on impromptu walks with my friends more. I want to be free of the prison of expectations. I want blind confidence. Big statements. I want to follow through. I want to believe that I am capable of anything I want. I want to save money. I want to buy myself things when it feels right, without guilt. I want loud house music in a dark club, eyes closed, occasionally bumping limbs with someone I love. I want to submerge myself in an open body of water, surfacing and feeling my feet kick against nothing. I want to say hi to people on the street I know even if it feels uncomfortable. I want to listen to my body. I want to hear people make a lot of noise because they recognize that the wellbeing of others is tied to their own. I want peace for the people who are suffering. I want safety, joy and community. I want everyone else to have that. 

Happy new year. <3 

 
   

The Best Books I Read in 2023





December 30, 2023
Brooklyn, New York
That time I borrowed 6 books at once from the library @_@

Somehow, I read 76 books this year. I read on planes, beaches, mountains, in bed, on the subway, in waiting rooms. I liked most of them, and there were only a few I didn’t finish. I’m getting better at dropping books that make me feel like I’m wading through mud without it being some sort of personal failure. I bought some, and I borrowed many from the Greenpoint Public library. When I was in primary school, I was the Head Library Assistant, and spent most of my days putting books back on the shelf and reading. I think I read 300 books that year. As a kid growing up with limited access to money, the library was a place of refuge for me. I think I used books as a way to connect with the world beyond what I felt was my own limited one, and now, at 30, with an entirely new relationship with the library on the other side of the world, it feels really special. I’ve become an annoying library evangelist this year because I think EVERYONE should have a library card. You can literally download books at home from the library system straight into your Kindle, and I can reserve almost any title I’m interested in. The only downside is that my eyes are bigger than the actual time I have to read, so I end up panic-reading four books at once when they all seem to be released from my holds section at the exact same time. 

Anyway, out of all the books I read this year, there were 15 or so that stood out—books that stayed with me, taught me things, changed how I saw love and life and identity, kept me up at night or had me reading while walking (something I would not recommend on the streets of New York).

This felt like a heavy and hard year, and reading gave me such a sweet place to rest. It helped me better articulate my own feelings, and it constantly reminds me of our connected experience as tiny beings moving around our private little worlds that can feel so overwhelming and isolating. I would say that this list is the books I enjoyed the most, but there were a whole bunch of books I read that helped me refine my perspective on politics or anti-capitalism, so I want to mention those below as well, if that’s something you’re interested in. 

  • Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò - About identity polities and the inequality of power 
  • On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson - Essays about freedom to/from in four realms: art, sex, drugs and climate echange
  • Who is Wellness For?: An Examination of Wellness Culture and Who It Leaves Behind by Fariha Roisin - Part memoir of trauma, part interrogation of the colonialized wellness industry.
  • Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock by Jenny Odell - An examination of the politics of time and and our relationship to it.
  • Health Communism by Beatrice Adler-Bolton - A short book about how we are basically extractive targets of profit for the health industry as it is, and argues for a future of health that is based on a collective commitment to each other
  • The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks - Basically about how we socialize men to be unemotional robots and how that affects women and our relationships. 
  • They Call it Love: The Politics of Emotional Life by Alva Gotby - An examination of the politics of emotional support and love that is generally not compensated and expected of people in the margins.


  Stay True by Hua Hsu - A memoir about the precious and pivotal period in your teenage years when you first turn to art as a way to understand yourself, and the friends you make in that time. One of the best memoirs I’ve ever read, it’s about Hua’s friendship with Ken in 90’s California at Berkeley, who then is murdered in a carjacking, and his grief thereafter. It’s a story about Asian identity, but not obviously so — being Taiwanese-American is woven into the backdrop of the main story, which is a moving portrait of grief, friendship, coming of age and art. I saw so much of my own experience growing up and being a cultural snob in my small suburban home in Sydney and my own furious attempts at creating my “identity” through the things I consumed that made me feel countercultural to my family. Made me want to remember every single little special detail about the people in my life to remember them by.

All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien - This one was recommended to me by my friend Shirley. It’s about a woman who returns home to Cabramatta (a Vietnamese-dominant south-western suburb of Sydney) after her younger brother is killed at a graduation dinner. With no real answers, she takes it upon herself to investigate his murder which then takes you through a series of POVs that range from her family to community members connected to the murder scene. I loved this because I am going to STAN any author coming out of Western Sydney (where I’m from), and I though it was super inventive to wrap an immigration/trauma story into the genre of murder-mystery.


  Blood Meridian, or, the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy - I’d only read The Road about ten years ago, and had no idea what I was walking into with this one. It’s a historical novel based on a 14 year old kid who joins a gang of outlaws on a killing rampage of Native Americans around the Texas-Mexico border in the 1840s. There’s a lot of scalping, grotesque characters, incredible passages of some of the best writing I’ve ever read, a lot of meandering descriptions about landscape and weather punctuated by more scalping. It’s brutal and beautiful, and the characters are so vivid, it’s hard to believe they’re works of fiction. I read the last chapter of this book in a daze and its exploration of the complication of good vs evil stayed with me for a long time. I think I remember feeling so stunned and shaken by this that I felt physically ill. 

Motherhood by Sheila Heti - One of the only pieces of writing that has ever mirrored the spiraling questions chasing each other in my head (and in the heads of a lot of other women I know) on the decision of motherhood. It’s like reading a mind eat itself in real time arguing for both sides. Lots of questions on the relationship of art making and identity to the role of motherhood. This quote from the book killed me:

“How far beyond your mother do you hope to get? You are not going to be a different woman entirely, so just be a slightly altered version of her, and relax. You don't have to have all of what she had. Why not live something else instead? Live the pattern which is the repeating, which was your mother and her mother before her, live it a little bit differently this time. A life is just a proposition you ask by living it "Could a life be lived like this too?" Then your life will end. So let the soul that passed down from your mothers try out this new life in you. There is no living your life forever. It's just once - a trial of a life. Then it will end. So give the soul that passed down from your mothers a chance to try out life in you. As a custodian for the soul passed down through your mothers, you might make it a little easier this time around. Treat it nicely because it's had a hard time. This is the first time in generations it can rest. Or decide with true liberty what it will do. So why not treat it with real tenderness? It has been through so much already, why not let it rest?”

Sheila Heti, Motherhood


    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury - I read this back to back with Beloved by Toni Morrison on a beach vacation to the Mexican coast. I had to cleanse my palate afterwards with The Guest List by Lucy Foley because they felt way too intense to be reading in the sunshine in a thong bikini at a resort (if you’re doing that, I’m jealous and I recommend The Guest List, The Seven Husabnds of Evelyn Hugo and The Guest by Emma Cline). This one is pretty slim, it’s a dystopian novel about a future where books are banned and are burned by “firemen”, the protagonist being one himself, who starts to questions why he does what he does. 

Yellowface by R.F. Kuang - I DEVOURED this satirical take on the publishing industry, not only because it was so fun to read but because of the subtext and autobiographical details that matched with the author’s IRL life. It’s about a white woman who steals her Asian friend’s manuscript when she dies, and publishes it as her own. The premise itself is fucking bonkers, and it has received criticism because the author appears to have modeled the deceased Asian author in the book on her own career, and re-packaged the criticism she got herself on previous books as in-book plot details. Wild! So fun to read but a bit of a let down in ending. 

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke - Recommended to me by Ash! I love me some magical realism, and this one is full of it. You follow Piranesi, who lives in a weird labyrinth-style decrepit open-aired structure with endless halls and vestibules periodically flooded by the ocean. It is so so beautiful and reads like one of those dreams you try to explain to your boyfriend but no matter how hard you try you just sound like you’re having a stroke.  Fun fact, the namesake, Piranesi, is Italian architect and painter Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who is famous for his insanely elaborate etchings of fictional prisons.

   Shuggie Bain AND Young Mungo by Douglas Stewart - My friend Seamus recommended this to me by saying they got insomnia from how sad it was. I think I did too, because I found myself reading it late at night for hours, being unable to sleep, then having my therapist raise an eyebrow at me the next morning when she asked me what I was reading when I kept telling her I just don’t know why I can’t sleep

Douglas Stewart has an incredible way of creating vivid portraits of a specific moment in time I have no idea about - working class Scotland in the 80’s. These books are devastating, and both center queer young male characters at the edge of understanding who they are in a violent and senseless world of poverty, homophobia and alcoholism. I loved these characters and although I had to put it down at times because of how devastated I was, I never wanted it to end. 

Beloved by Toni Morrison - OK yes wow. A Pulitzer Prize winner and something I took far too long to get stuck into. It’s about Sethe, a woman who was born a slave and escaped, and the farm where so much violence happened and which haunts her. There’s an angry baby ghost, and a really unflinching and devastating story of slavery, its consequences and the loss and pain it wreaks onto people and their families for their whole lives. Another book I had to take a lot of breaks from, incredibly beautiful and incredibly sad.  

    Doppelgänger by Naomi Klein - I would strongly recommend diving straight into every book Naomi Klein has ever written if you haven’t. I’ve been a massive fan for a while now, and her writing never fails to teach me a new way to see the hidden structures within capital that dominate our world. This one is a weird mix between a memoir/interrogation of a doppelgänger she kind of has - Naomi Wolf, who is a 90’s ex-feminist icon turned into a right wing conspiracy theorist. Klein describes having her DMs blow up with people who confuse the two of them, both Jewish women speaking about corporate structure in very different ways. She uses this as a launchpad to examine the shadowy culture that exists alongside the one that liberals inhabit - the one which use the same language that liberals do, but in reverse. It’s so interesting and such a book of the times with what’s going on with Israel/Palestine. She also released an excerpt from the book about Israel/Palestine and doppelgänger shadow culture which you can download here

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts - Love me some Alan Watts, this is great philosophy book basically about why the feeling of being separated from everything else is an illusion, and we’re really just bits and pieces of the same universe. Really big thinking and questions on ego and the myths that are sold to us. Had a really great impact on me, one of those books that make you walk around for a few days and everything looks a little different until silly little things bum you out again.


    My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing by Carl Phillips - Short collection of essays about writing! This was the year that I dived back into writing formally, something I’ve always loved but let fall to the wayside for most of my adult life. This would be a great gift for any writer in your life. Really beautiful, helpful, comforting and lovely to read. 

The Boy and the Dog by Seishū Hase, Alison Watts (Translator) - What a sweet little book! It’s about a dog (Tamon) who is on a massive journey to return to its home after a tsunami, and on its way stops at the sides of various characters, each of which occupy a single chapter. You get a window into the lives of all these people, way stations for the dog on its way home, and how the dog creates small ripples in these peoples lives before he moves on. It made me think about what our pets do for us, how they mirror our humanity and desires and needs, and the strange inclination we have as human beings to domesticate and live with actual animals in our homes. Have you ever thought of this while high? It freaks me out sometimes that I literally cohabitate with an animal that cannot communicate with me beyond grunting.

    Be Not Afraid of Love: Lessons on Fear, Intimacy, and Connection by Mimi Zhu - I’ve been a fan of Mimi’s writing and work for a while now. Mimi reflects on her own journey of healing as the survivor of intimate partner violence, simultaneously rooting that story in explorations on healing and its role in transformative justice, abolition and undoing the colonial cycles of violence. Focuses on the emotional stages of stitching back your soul together after trauma, a beautiful and raw book for those in their healing era. 

Pure Colour by Sheila Heti - After Motherhood I ran to devour Sheila Heti’s other work, and this one was so strange. You’re basically following a woman who joins her dead father in another world, which I think is being lost on a leaf? It’s incredibly meandering and metaphysical, and very loose on plot and heavy on abstract ruminations about life and beauty and death. It wrecked me. I have a feeling it’s probably super polarizing. 

Tự Do Palestine





December 7, 2023
Brooklyn, New York
T-shirt design by @soulvenir.co


After October 7th, I picked at my scalp each night for a week before going to bed, my finger swiping through my Twitter feed until my arm went numb from lying on it. I’d wake up the next morning and repeat, head pounding and mouth dry as I reached for my phone as soon as I woke again to read the hysteric opinions of people online screaming to be heard on top of each other, mobile phone footage of people digging towards family members buried under grey rubble with their bare hands, parents holding the remains of their children in plastic bags, the official Israel twitter account utilizing memes for war-time propaganda, news links reporting death counts rising and rising and rising and hospitals bombed and babies being taken off incubators because there was no power left. I noticed which sides’ statistics were given the authority of “officials say” and which were skeptically waved at with “according to”. I read and I watched the outpouring of grief and trauma from both my Jewish and Palestinian friends, of the clusterfuck of terror and hatred spiraling down through the years and lives of generations of Israelis and Palestinians after colonial powers foisted one displaced people they didn’t want on another minority group they “ruled” over. 

On Instagram, I lost friends who tried to play model U.N. with me in my DMs, accusing me of spreading misinformation by reposting graphics that used the word ‘genocide’, I watched as people I knew, well-meaning, liberal, smart people posting war-mongering Instagram graphics no ceasefire until the hostages are returned even as I read elsewhere that the Israeli government rejected that very deal. I would lie in bed, my fingernails working themselves underneath flakes of scalp as I fretted over each extreme statement I read. How many people must die until people think calling for a ceasefire is justified? Until people are no longer censored and fired from their jobs for calling for the most basic act of human decency? 50,000? 100,000? 500,000? Is it not a genocide or at the very minimum an ethnic cleansing when an entire population of people have their resources controlled for decades and are finally driven out in one great big push protected and sanctioned by the international order of power and the military-industrial complex?

To watch the mass killing of a people televised on social media in real time has felt like going insane, tweet by tweet, video by video. For Biden, Sanders and Trump to hold the same perspective, to see the US government continue pledging a seemingly endless amount of money and weapons to support the wholesale murder of an people, all the while passing laws that equate any antizionism with antisemitism, has been scary.

I sequester 40% of my freelance income for tax time, I pay out of pocket for flu shots and birth control, I ride my bike and I climb and I cross the road and cross my fingers that one wrong move won’t cause bankruptcy. I read articles about the increasing cost of living and the stagnant wages, and then I read that the economy is booming. To live in a country that finds $14.3B in their jean pockets before the laundry to help send missiles raining down on people who lose their legs, their homes, their families while it all passes by my phone screen (made possible from the slavery and child labor driven by the Cobalt mining industry in Congo), a great big wave of human pain and suffering I don’t know what to do with as I cry in my bed.


  Part of me has felt as though I have no place to speak on this issue, that to share my opinion, my rage, my grief, my sadness, is to take up space that I am not entitled to. I’m not Israeli, I’m not Palestinian. I don’t technically have a dog in the race, but I have felt a rock lodged in the pit of my stomach, one that I feel I’ve carried around my whole life, for many lifetimes before mine, lodged not by the witnessing of this conflict, or the one in Congo, or the one in Yemen, but by the echoes and ghosts of every conflict waged against people who do not deserve it. I’m not Palestinian. But I am Vietnamese, and my ancestors have suffered over and over again at the hands of colonization, by the impact of forced migration because war has arrived at their doorstep.  It’s the rock that gets heavier the older I get, the more we are intent on proving that we never learn from our mistakes, that human life continues to be expendable depending on where you’re born, the color of your skin, that a few in power continue to profit by holding its great boot on the necks of the global south until they can no longer breathe. 

The U.S. killed 3M Vietnamese people over eight years. I had to look at that number for a few minutes to really process it. Like this genocide, they justified the carpet bombing and use of Agent Orange because of the nature of guerilla fighting, that “Vietcong terrorists” were operating in tunnels underneath villages and the domestic places of innocent civilians, that there was somehow no other choice but to obliterate and dismiss millions of people as collateral damage in a proxy battleground against the specter of Communism. Does it sound familiar, falling back on the justification that lives can be spent because they’re “human shields?”

“Another aspect of Vietnamization was the repugnant use of terminology such as “body count” to describe enemy casualties, not to mention the U.S. military’s infamous use of euphemisms, outright lies and doublespeak: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” (Salon Magazine)

The escalation of sending missiles against Vietnam was based on lies the government sold to the American people around the Tonkin Gulf incident, retaliation for something that never actually happened. They continued to hide behind lies throughout the war, spending the lives of American soldiers and Vietnamese citizens like the endless pot of money for violence, for our defense budget that never seems to be depleted. The media funneled these lies until they no longer could, until people had access for the first time to televisions and photographic evidence of the casualties, of the cruelty, of the innocent blood spilled. The power of the people’s ability to witness for themselves the reality led to some of the biggest anti-war protest this country has ever seen. 

“The business of obscuring language is a mask behind which stands the much greater business of plunder.”

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth



 
   
Today, with our unprecedented access to high resolution videos of war atrocities, of the bombing of hospitals and schools and sanctuaries live-streamed by journalists over social media, what has been most distressing to me is realizing how far some can hide behind mere rhetoric in the face of real human lives, 15,000+ of them, whole families of them, bloodlines wiped out. How words seem to weigh more heavily than human bodies. How trauma buries itself into the fabric of someone’s body until it twists itself into blind fear and perpetuates the same violence against others. How we cannot see that this doesn’t make Israeli people or Jewish people safer, it doesn’t make any of us safer. War only splinters into more conflict, into more hatred embedded into the hearts of the victims of violence, those consequences spiralling through the halls of histories and families. 



Last weekend I was at a retreat with a dear friend of mine Thea. She gathered a bunch of women who were freelancers or entrepreneurs, and we talked about strength and burnout. I was interviewed about what strength was to me, and I found myself talking about leaning on the histories and Stories of revolutionaries that came before me. Of people who made a difference because of their unwavering integrity and action. I’m thinking about the anti-war protests, of the eventual end of that war (millions of people too late, but nonetheless), of the power of student activism, of writers and artists who were brave enough to demand an end to senseless violence. 

What has made me feel hopeful is the education spreading like wildfire across young people thanks to platforms like TikTok and that access to information, to witness the amount of people who are turning out in historic numbers in London, in Sydney, in New York, in Texas, people who are bringing their bodies together in public spaces to demand compassion and basic decency. What has given me hope is reading reports of direct action across the globe — dock workers refusing to unload war ships, protestors flooding a bridge with their cars, throwing the keys into the water below and chaining themselves to each other, labor organizations standing up together to protest the unjust wholesale murder of Palestinians, of Jewish people shutting down Grand Central Station in a powerful act of solidarity. 

My hope is that our unbridled access to media and to the voices of the trampled can appeal to our better sides, can overcome the rhetoric and the propaganda and the misinformation, that the parts of us that are human and which demanded change and peace during the protests against the Vietnam War are still alive and ready to continue fighting, to be resilient and to recognize how these struggles affect us even if we are protected by the glow of our screens. I worry about continuing down this path of violence and genocide that we know never works, to never evolve past the darkest and most basest corners of the human psyche, of the consequences to our humanity if we look away, move on with our lives, watch it passively a decade down the line via a Netflix documentary. All struggles are connected, all of us are no different to each other, and to look away from that simple fact is to look away from yourself, to be separated from what makes you human. 

“The more the people understand, the more watchful they become, and the more they come to realize that finally everything depends on them and their salvation lies in their own cohesion, in the true understanding of their interests, and in knowing who their enemies are. The people come to understand that wealth is not the fruit of labor but the result of organized, protected robbery.”

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth