INTERVIEW WITH TERESA MEI CHUC
P.O. Box 2790
McKinleyville, CA 95519
2012, 80 pp., $14.00
The following interview was conducted over email by Rattle editor Megan O’Reilly and Teresa Mei Chuc, author of Red Thread, a collection of poems that recounts her family’s flight from war-torn Vietnam, and her father’s imprisonment by the Vietcong.
Teresa Mei Chuc was born in Saigon, Vietnam, shortly after the horrendous war that bombed her people and her homeland. She and her family survived, although her parents were separated for a long time. Chuc, her brother, and their mother escaped Vietnam in a ship crowded with hungry, sick, and frightened immigrants. Under political asylum, they settled in California, where eventually they were reunited with her father, who had spent nine years in a Vietcong “re-education” camp.
Chuc writes about war and her personal and family history. Out of her personal history, beyond her cultural heritage, and apart from her family, Chuc finds her own individuality in her poems.
Nominated for a Pushcart Prize for “Truth is Black Rubber,” a section of poems from Red Thread, Teresa Mei Chuc is a graduate of the Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, and teaches literature and writing at a public school. Her poems appear in journals including EarthSpeak Magazine, National Poetry Review, Rattle, and Verse Daily. Chuc is the founder and editor-in-chief of Shabda Press. She lives with her three sons in Southern California.
O’REILLY: You begin the book with an explanation of the title: “According to Chinese legend, an invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break. In addition, the red thread is a protection and blessing cord in Buddhist tradition. It keeps the wearer in the compassionate embrace of the bodhisattvas.” I find this a perfect metaphor for the collection on every level. Even the image of a red thread is so fitting—the color red might symbolize both violence and “blood relations,” family; and the thread the binding between the two. How did you come up with that title, and was it before or after you wrote these poems?
CHUC: The title, Red Thread, came to me after I wrote the poems in the collection. At the time, I was thinking of possible titles for the book. I already had a working title, but I felt that I needed a different title. I was writing a description of the book and included the Chinese legend about the red thread. A friend and mentor of mine who read the description suggested Red Thread as a title. It was serendipitous. Right away, I felt that Red Thread would be perfect for the title of the book—the primordial cord.
It was also the red cord that I wore around my neck with a jade Buddha or Quan Yin, bodhisattva of compassion, pendant. When I was a child, my mother told me that the cord and pendant would protect and bless me; I would be in the compassionate embrace of the bodhisattvas. Interestingly, we also embody the compassionate nature of the bodhisattvas and provide protection for each other.
In the summer of 2012 at the William Joiner Center in Boston, Massachusetts, I met three visiting North Vietnamese writers who fought on the side of the Vietcong during the war. One of the writers served in the Special Forces, another in the artillery unit, and another was a volunteer reporter for the Mid-central Liberation Army in the South – her father was killed by a B-52 when bombs were dropped by the United States over Hanoi, my father’s birth city. They vividly recounted their experiences during the war, the calculation, the horror and the suffering, while tears streamed from my eyes. I shared with them my story about our family’s immigration to the United States and my father’s imprisonment in a Vietcong “re-education” camp. We empathized with the pain and tragedy we each suffered on both sides of the war.
Meeting the North Vietnamese writers was a pivotal moment; after a horrendous war and several decades, we, people from the North and from the South of Vietnam, were able to meet and become friends. We had compassion for each other and treated each other with kindness. They desired to know about my experiences and the pain that people like my family experienced after the war when the communists took over the country, and I desired to understand the deep suffering that the Vietcong had to endure during the war. This encounter helped me to open my heart. It meant the world to me that these North Vietnamese writers who fought on the side of the Vietcong felt sorrow about my father’s imprisonment and felt compassion for my family; it was profound. I cherish this human connection which filled my heart with warmth and open spaces.
These North Vietnamese writers are my parent’s age. They could have been my uncles and aunt, and they treated me as if I were part of their family. However, decades ago, we were fighting on different sides of a relentless war. A red thread connected us then and now. Recently, one of the North Vietnamese writers wrote the following to me, “It is also good that you want to tell the stories of the war prisoners who had been held captive by Viet Cong such as your father. Their stories will have human meaning.” I was very touched by this comment by someone who had fought with the Viet Cong during the war. I know that the people of Vietnam on both sides of the war want to heal, to feel the humanity of us all.
After my father’s release from prison, he said that he hated the color red because it was the color of communism. He associated the color with violence, loss and deep pain. However, the color red was an important color in our Chinese culture and symbolized good luck and happiness. My mother’s wedding dress was red. The positive aspect of the color lost its meaning for my father after the war. Many years later, red posters with Chinese characters of blessings and good luck began to appear on the wall of my parents’ house. Healing was beginning to take place.
WHEN I FIRST SAW DADDY
he was like an Egyptian cat;
skinny, foraging, and stern,
just released from a Vietcong prison.
He told us he hated the color red.
Sixteen years later,
he wears a red sweatshirt and smiles.
The pin tip opening in his heart enough
to let in a driblet of red.
The title, Red Thread, has deep meaning for my family and for me on many levels, and these meanings flow through the arteries of the collection.
O’REILLY: The poems about your family struck me as deeply honest. I’m not sure if your parents are still living, but even if only internally—as a result of that gut-level loyalty we often feel to our family—did you struggle with how to write about them in this book? Did you question how much you would reveal and how open you would be?
CHUC: I think my first encounter with this question was a few years ago when I wrote a prose piece in a series of vignettes titled Year of the Hare. It was an intimate look into my father’s experience with PTSD and the inner and outer violence that resulted; it was an intensely personal and revealing piece. However, I don’t think I could have written it another way and do it justice. I could not have done my father’s experience or our family’s experience justice if I was not completely honest to the best of my ability in telling the story.
To break the cycle of and perpetuation of violence against oneself and others, one needs forgiveness and compassion. To develop these, it is necessary to gaze unflinchingly into suffering, one’s own and the suffering of others; I think this is one of the most difficult and most important things to do. It is so much easier to look away. As Rainer Maria Rilke says, “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” At least in our deep gaze, in forgiveness and compassion, we can begin to heal our own hearts.
I think I have never been so close to my family as I am now. Through the process of writing these poems, I was able to connect with, understand, and appreciate my family in profound ways that I was unable to before. Writing about my grandma, my father, and my mother helped me to understand them and my relationship with them on a much deeper level. Writing about my father’s experiences helped me to appreciate and understand what he went through and the causes of his PTSD. This writing process was a thread that helped to re-connect us. For a while, my parents and I were disconnected as a result of PTSD and fractures within ourselves—some of the many consequences of the displacement and continual violence caused by war.
I think it was important for me to write honestly and openly about my family; they are an important part of the narrative. Our story was not just a narrative of events, but of relationships and people. Sometimes, history is written in a way that magnify events while the people in the events are reduced to a number. Intimacy and humanness were important to me in my writing process. I wanted to show the connection between the micro and the macro, the physical and the spiritual through the people in my poems.
There is a part deep inside of my parents that does not want to forget the war and our family’s experiences. There is a part deep inside of me that does not want to forget. And there is a part deep inside of us that does not want the world to forget. Perhaps, if I can write honestly, something crystalline, transparent can form. Hubert Selby, Jr., also known as Cubby, was a writer I admire. I think it was at one of his readings that I heard him say something like this – “in writing, one of the greatest gifts you can give is your heart, hold it, beating in your hand for the reader.” I try to do this in my writing, give my heart.
My parents don’t read literature in English, so I was very happy when some of my poems were translated into Vietnamese by Ngo Tu Lap and Da Mau Literary Magazine (published in Vietnam), and my parents were able to read them. Van Nghe Vinh, a literary journal in Vietnam, recently published my poem, “Names,” in Vietnamese. Having been exiled after the war, it was very meaningful to be held in the arms of my motherland again. Through poetry, my family’s story is re-entering the country. It is profound for me to embrace and be embraced by a language that was forcefully taken away. It is a circle the way a needle makes a suture.
I felt that there were gaps and emptiness in the spaces of the narrative about the American war in Vietnam. I looked into these spaces as I wrote my poems. I grew up watching movies about the Vietnam War; the story would focus on the American soldier’s experiences, so there were pieces missing from the narrative. I remember towards the end of one of the movies was the fall of Saigon and Vietnamese people fleeing the country, being saved by Americans, but the unfilmed narrative after that continued and still continues, though many people from the era are beginning to pass away.
I recently read When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip about her life during the war. I could really relate to the book and cried, sobbed, through each page. It was a difficult read because it re-opened many fissures and wounds, but I needed to read the book; I needed to see the war through another perspective, the experience of Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese, a woman and an immigrant. Hayslip, who suffered violence from both sides of the war, emerged with forgiveness and compassion. She wrote with such honesty that the effect was piercing. In 1988, hoping to help heal the wounds of war between the United States and Vietnam, Le Ly Hayslip returned to her village of Ky La in central Vietnam and started East Meets West Foundation. Her work there included helping victims of Agent Orange.
Similarly, Kim Phuc, the little girl in the iconic picture who was running naked during a napalm bombing in Vietnam, is an inspiration to me. Running The Kim Foundation International and acting as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for the Culture of Peace, she transformed her suffering into good. When I think of her, I am reminded of what we can do, how we can transform something so terrible through an open heart. I think, in some way, I try to do this in my writing; at times, this entails revealing what may frighten me most.
NOT WORTH A BULLET
A bullet is made of
copper or lead.
poured into the case.
The firing pin hits the
primer at the back of
the bullet which starts
the explosion. Altogether,
the bullet and the case are
typically about two inches in length
and weigh a few ounces.
My father said that
told him and the other
prisoners while in
that they were not worth a bullet.
They would work for the Vietcongs
and then die.
A bamboo tree is smooth, long
with roots that hold the earth
with the strong grip of O’REILLY
knuckles and fingers.
They are used to build houses,
A bamboo tree can weigh sixty pounds
or more and be twenty feet tall.
The prisoners were forced to
walk barefoot up the mountains
and carry bamboo back to the camp.
Due to the weight of the bamboo,
they were only able to carry one
at a time.
O’REILLY: How old were you when you immigrated to the United States? Do you have many memories of your life in Vietnam?
CHUC: I was two years old when I arrived in the United States. The memories of my life in Vietnam consist of a few photos and stories my parents, grandma, and brother would tell me. Since I was born in Saigon shortly after the fall of Saigon, it was a difficult time for my family. My father reported to “re-education” while my mother was still pregnant with me, my mother gave birth to me and took care of my brother and me on her own. There were very few pictures of my time there. Taking pictures was not a luxury we had then. There was a picture of my brother and I; I must have been about a year and a half and my brother about four years old. We looked so poor and sad and we both had a worried look on our faces. I didn’t smile in the pictures of me in Vietnam. There was a photo of my mother, brother and I that I found in an album; she was holding us in her arms and there was a deep sadness in our eyes. My mother showed me a photo of me on the boat. I was two years old, sitting on the floor with many people, and crying; I looked so sick in the picture. This was when my mother told me the story that inspired the poem, “Immigration.”
It is October, when the winds of autumn blow strong in
There are over two thousand of us, sardines,
barely human and starving. We sleep on the floor and
wash ourselves with seawater. People are sick.
When someone dies from sickness, s/he is wrapped
in a blanket and tossed overboard during a Buddhist
I was only two years old and cannot recollect the dying
next to me, nor can I recollect my constant coughing nor
can I recall seeing my mother’s worried countenance as she
contemplated our future, how my constant crying made
her want to jump overboard.
Sometimes, my parents would talk about their experiences over dinner. Over the course of many years, I heard stories here and there. At times, I would ask direct questions. On a few occasions, I asked my father about his experience in “re-education” camp. It was difficult for me to ask about the experiences, because I knew how sensitive it was and sometimes I didn’t know what information or stories would come up and sometimes I would not be ready for it. It was hard for me to hear about the suffering, especially my mother and father’s suffering.
Once, we were talking and my mother started telling us about my aunt’s boat that was attacked by pirates and how the women on board were raped. She told us that my aunt was about eight months pregnant at the time and lost her child because she had to sit next to the boat’s hot engine. Many boat people faced similar fates. In addition, they had to purposely “sink” their boats, so that countries such as Malaysia and Singapore would rescue them and allow them to enter. It was a very dangerous thing to do and many people, including children, drowned as a result.
Usually, the stories started off as casual conversations on various topics that would somehow lead to a story about the war and our immigration. Typically, these conversations occurred over dinner, so the kitchen was a place where many stories were shared and where we learned about our history.
O’REILLY: Thinking about poems like “Playground” (which ends with some of my favorite lines in the collection: “a room full of people without furniture,/drowning in a sea of sand, sand they had believed held water”) that contain so much suffering and sorrow they seem about to shatter the page, I’m interested in what the process of writing poems on such a personal and painful subject—the violence and oppression of not just a war, but one your own past is rooted in—entails in terms of process and technique. Are there ways in which you prepare yourself to write poems like these? Do you engage emotionally with the content, or do you need to detach yourself to some extent?
CHUC: Thank you. I remember growing up as a child wondering where my father was, having to deal with questions of war that was really beyond my comprehension, but having to ask such questions at a young age. I was very sensitive as a small child. I remember other kids referring to me as “fresh off the boat” in a kind of derogatory way and I remember feeling different and not wanting to be different. Like every kid, I wanted a normal childhood.
When my father was released from a Vietcong “re-education” camp, I was nine years old and saw him for the first time. Then, my life changed forever in a way that I did not anticipate. The post-traumatic stress disorder that plagued my father’s psyche and heart translated into daily life and so my childhood was a matter of survival which included some of the most severe examples—a knife being thrown at me and being chased with an axe. My life was inundated with threats of punishment and violence. So, these instances were a matter of my father’s PTSD, but I didn’t understand this until I was older. At the time, I just had to deal with it and it was painful. I remember crying nearly every day of my childhood. This was too much to deal with as a child and I didn’t want any of it; I wanted to have a peaceful life, but this trauma would continue to haunt me into adulthood until I knew that in order for me to survive and have peace within myself, I had to face this war and explore it into the deepest, darkest corners. I deeply wanted to forgive my father, the Vietcong, and the United States, and in order to do this, I knew that I had to face my profoundest fears and pains.
Normally, when a part of our body, such as our heart or stomach, is hurting, our natural response is to stop doing what we’re doing that is causing the pain. The hurt is our body’s way of telling us to stop. So, as I explored my family history and the American war in Vietnam, I had to do what was not natural—I had to look into a subject matter that caused me a lot of physical, emotional, and mental pain. At times, as I was writing these poems, I could feel my heart ache, my heart palpitate, and I just had a feeling of overwhelming emotional and physical discomfort. At times, I was filled with a deep sadness.
I had to prepare my mind to visualize what it was like during the war for my family. I had to allow my mind to visualize my father’s experience in “re-education” camp and the torment and abuse he had to endure; I had to feel his sorrow and suffering. I had to visualize my mother’s grief in being separated from her adoptive parents and my father. In this deep, dark, hurtful place, staring straight at it, luckily, I was able to find some love, beauty, and compassion and these filled my heart as I wrote as well. This process was especially difficult because it brought back the childhood trauma of not having a father, and then the subsequent years of living with a father who suffered from severe PTSD. However, after the initial amalgam of emotions while writing the poem, going back to revise, I allowed myself some emotional detachment and focused more on the music of the language and the structure of the piece in order to let it fully form.
I had to write this narrative, because I had to separate it from my physical body, where I stored the pain, anxiety and memory in my muscles and cells and it was eating me up from the inside. My body held onto the stories because it didn’t want to forget. Writing it down, I didn’t have to forget and I didn’t have to remember. Writing my family’s story and writing about the war was, for me, a basic need in order to survive, and my medium of energy output, output of emotions and thoughts is through poetry, so this was the best way for me to communicate. As Grace Paley says, “write what will stop your breath if you don’t write.”
The unrestrained nature of poetry allowed my emotions and thoughts their freedom to be expressed in a way that they needed to be, but it was also a lot of work to hone this massive amount of energy so that it can be contained in a small poem. I felt an almost urgent need to document my family’s experiences for them and for my children. I forget who said this, it goes something like this—”we are minor characters in a bigger story,” and I felt that growing up—I felt that there was this big story about war and humanity and my family was part of it, not by choice but by chance.
I contemplated the subject matter of war since childhood and started to work on the poems about ten years ago. Only in the past two years, I was emotionally ready to read about the American war in Vietnam, to expand my writing about it, and to dig deep into my own family’s experiences. Literally, a few years ago, I could not open a book about the war, my body just froze up with anxiety and I had to physically distance myself from the actual book.
A proposal by someone to my mom
after the Vietnam war: Why don’t
you sell your baby, you don’t have
anything to eat?
A response by my four-year-old brother:
No, don’t sell my sister! There are lots
of cockroaches for us to eat!
When I returned to the country
eighteen years later, I saw them—
large, brown shiny tanks on the wall,
evidence of my brother’s love for me.
VIETNAM GHOST STORIES
Ghost-like beings roam,
carrying the bones of the dead,
their steps heavy with the weight
of fields and fields.
And the dead too—
stories Mother tells
of the ghost with a long tongue
that licks dishes at night.
It’s difficult to be alone, without
a mother’s touch, in a crib like a
baby except one is not.
A son taught to live with a thirst
for a mother who loves her child though
one of his legs is too short, the other too long.
He sits, arms bent and limp, but do not
avoid him; he wants to interact. His swollen eyes
and misshapen head leans back. In a dream
Mother holds him close, as if by her embrace alone,
she will somehow right the wrong.
The chemical traveled through her placenta,
to the womb where small limbs that needed
to form couldn’t, where the tiny body,
the size of a fist, no longer knew what to do.
It was named for the orange band
around each fifty-five gallon drum.
Orange as a sunrise that permeates one’s soul,
how its rays cover the sky
and the earth with a deep orange,
rising as those bodies also rise.
I also wrote about other wars. The poem, “Playground,” was inspired by a clip in a heartbreaking documentary that I saw about ten years ago, “Gaza Strip” by James Longley. It haunted me throughout the years—the images of the ball, the boys and the explosion were striking and stark. The poem was in gestation for about a decade and was finally birthed last year. When I wrote the poem, I remember crying a lot. I am very emotionally connected to my poems and the subject matters. Sometimes, when I read the poem, I still cry.
O’REILLY: Are you currently working on any writing projects you can tell us about?
CHUC: Currently, I am working on a multi-genre book of prose and poetry about the American war in Vietnam titled Year of the Hare. The book includes interviews with Vietnamese boat people and former prisoners of war. I’m interested to see how the genres will work with each other and what kind of synergy they will create. The prose piece in a series of vignettes from the book, also titled “Year of the Hare,” goes deep into my father’s struggle with PTSD and the inner and outer violence that resulted. The piece was previously published in Issue 4 of Memoir Journal a few years ago and will be republished online by Big Bridge in 2013.
The prose piece, “Year of the Hare,” begins like this:
It was 1975, the Year of the Hare, in Saigon, Vietnam. I was a fetus the size of a half-dollar in Mama’s womb, gulping down amniotic fluid, stretching my limbs out into liquid-filled spaces as my heart beat its first beats. An umbilical cord attached to my belly wound its way to Mama’s placenta, where the food she ate entered my body the way air enters a diver’s body through a gas tank.
A few months later, I plumped out and she began to tilt forward with my weight as I turned and kicked the inside wall of her belly. She stroked the perimeter of her globe to feel my foot. The war was ending, the U.S. was retreating, and another war was beginning. Mama breathed in yellow as the sun made her dress stick to her skin and she tried not to notice the communist soldiers patrolling the streets. Military helicopters twirled in the sky.
Thank you, Megan, for the wonderful, thoughtful questions.