A Bridge of Words

On a Saturday afternoon, seventeen students of Brown University filed into the Faunce Memorial room to a long table where they began to take out their notebooks and pens. Mia and I were there already, placing snacks on the bench next to the window, as participants recognized each other, filling the airspace with greetings and laughter. Then, the hosts of the event, the poets Paul Tran and Zainab Syed, came to sit at the long table, and the workshop began.


The day was October 18th, and VISIONS was hosting its first writing workshop, produced with the help of the Asian American Heritage Series (AAHS), which is a series of events at Brown University focused around themes relating to Asia America. VISIONS is a literary publication that acts to artistically reflect the voices of the Asian and Asian American community on the Brown and RISD campuses. For years, we remained committed to that goal, and we have produced spectacular magazines showcasing beautiful art and literary pieces dealing with issues concerning Asian America. Yet Mia and I were interested in producing an event outside of the pages, physically bringing together artists and writers in a way we had never tried before. We wanted to create a real community utilizing an interest in art and literature as its basic foundation.

Coincidentally, we found out that Paul Tran and Zainab Syed would be coming to campus soon to perform at AAHS’s “Beats of Resistance,” a showcasing of Asian American spoken word poetry that also featured the poet, Jamaica Osorio. Paul and Zainab were both former students and poets of Brown, as well as former contributors to VISIONS magazine, and Mia and I seized the opportunity to ask them weeks before if they would like to host a poetry workshop before their main event.

Paul and Zainab agreed and collaborated to create a beautiful lesson plan. They began by asking all the participants why they were here. All of the students were using up a Saturday afternoon by sitting with a roomful of strangers. We could hear the sounds of laughter and conversation over a warm Main Green drifting in through the windows. Why were they here? One participant said he wanted to explore his half Asian identity, and another claimed she wanted to “forge spoken word to reflect what [she] feels”Some had a fear of speaking aloud and wanted to overcome it; others wanted to explore how writing poetry could become a process of healing.

Together, Zainab and Paul explained that the spoken word was borne out of sacrifice, out of putting shattered pieces back together to create something that was bigger than one’s self. Their own journeys as poets seemed to reflect this; Paul came from a family in which he was the first to speak English and the first to go to college.

Following our short discussion on poetry, we then looked at a poem by Paul’s friend and fellow poet, Cathy Linh Che. It was called, “My Mother upon Hearing News of Her Mother’s Death,” and it was pulled from her new chapbook, Split. The participants read the poem aloud three times and then they discussed which parts particularly struck them. They talked about the language of the poem, and the visceral nature of the subject matter, which was about seeing a loved one lose a personal relative. Paul ventured a few questions for the participants to think about:

How is this poem racially marked?

Would you have wanted the poet to translate the certain words that were in a different language, so that it could become more accessible?

Participants accepted the untranslated words as the figurative reflections of the poet’s experience and her history. Following this analysis of the poem, Paul and Zainab asked everyone to pick a certain image from the poem and write their own poem using it. Remember, Zainab said, that every word in your poem is meant to be. After forty minutes, these young writers read their raw and unrefined poems aloud. Many had never read their material before strangers, and some performed visibly shaking. But their unsteady voices grew louder, and their words resonated in the large room, filling it with a sense of empowerment and life. Everyone seemed to lean in, concentrating on each other’s words, sighing or snapping or ‘yes’-ing in agreement or recognition of a shared experience.

At last, it was over.  Time was up. In the hour and half of the workshop, it seemed as if the participants had changed; or if not, they had at least begun the process of transformation. This moment, Paul and Zainab said, was part of the process of writing poetry and opening up to a community. Our poetry workshop was meant to be a part of this living process, a first step to building and providing a community on campus. As we move forward, VISIONS will continue to build upon this momentum, hopefully creating a tradition of writing workshops and other safe spaces for the unheard voices of Brown University.



My Mother upon Hearing News of Her Mother’s Death

She opened her mouth and a moose came out, a donkey and an ox, out of her mouth, years of animal grief, I lead her to the bed, she held my hand and followed, she said, Chết rồi, and like that, the cord was cut, the thread snapped, and the cable that tied my mother to her mother broke, and now her eyes red as a market fish, and now, she dropped like laundry on the bed.

The furniture moved toward her, the kitchen knives and spoons, the vibrating spoons, her mouth a sinkhole, she wanted all of it, the house and the car too, with the AC and wood paneling, and the flowers she planted, narcissus and hoa mai which cracked open each spring—the sky, she brought it low, until the air was hot and wet and broke into a rain—

the torrents like iron ropes you could climb up, only I couldn’t, I was drowning, I was swirled in, I leapt into her mouth, her throat, her gut, and stayed inside with the remnants of my former life. I ate the food she ate and drank the milk she drank. I crowded the furnishing, her swollen heart. I grew up and out so large until I became a woman wearing my mother’s skin.

From Split, Alice James Books, 2014

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