Jeff Alessandrelli reviews the latest experimental work from Dao Strom.
Dao Strom, You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else, translated by Ly Thuy Nguyen (AJAR, 2018), 128pp.
For many artists nostalgia is a dirty word. To reminisce on what once was or might have been is to repudiate artistic progression; forward momentum that activates earnest newness and astonishment. And yet even if we claim to ignore or forget, who we are is inevitably where we’ve come from and what we’ve remembered or mis-remembered. You can’t go home again but, eyes wide shut, we keep looking back. Published in both English and Vietnamese translation and featuring a bevy of photographs, maps and collages, Dao Strom’s voluminous poetry collection You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else is, although not nostalgic, certainly indebted to the way the past continually reshapes and configures one’s sense of both present and future. In this manner, it arrives at a vessel of truth that is ongoing, alternately slippery and set.
“Longing is a state of mind. / Which is also to say longing is a mental love” are two postulations made by the speaker of You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else early on in the text, and these assertions are built on and reimagined the deeper one reads. In an essay that Strom published on the website diaCRITICS in March 2018, she writes of how her mother, a war widow, fled Vietnam in 1975, never to return, and how her eventual stepfather, a Danish-American who immigrated to the U.S. in his early 20s, never reentered his own place of origin either. After landing in California from Vietnam with her family, Strom states:
Growing up, we were told adamantly that the past didn’t matter, that you could leave it behind. My parents wanted us to be free. Of whatever and however their own pasts had pained and bound them. I understood this, even as I felt the chasm that attached to it. I understood that my mother’s agreeing with my stepfather not to speak to us in Vietnamese when we were children was part of this choice. And, as angry as I’ve been at times toward these circumstances that cut off certain aspects of our Vietnamese heritage, I also understood: these choices were part of my mother’s survival, and hence our survival.
“All those memories I may belong to / that do not belong to me” is the way Strom’s speaker assembles the displacement in You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else and the nature of returning to a place one both is and (somehow) is not from is the central grappling detailed in the volume. To go back to one’s home country only to encounter one’s otherness—it’s this frustrating complication that Strom and her volume’s speaker exist within. To wit, on a trip back to Vietnam with her (white-skinned) partner to help save her marriage (“…I thought a cure might be enacted by returning together to the place I’d previously traveled to alone, which was also the originating place I had been severed from”) Strom encounters blatant “foreigner” price-gouging and profit-scamming. This incenses Strom, but she simultaneously comprehends the scam and how/why it’s arrived at:
I am from here too, I wanted to shout, and I’ve spent a lifetime caring, and carrying, what you think I’ve forgotten, what you think making us pay more for now will somehow vindicate. At the same time I understood well enough where the urge for retribution came from, the years and dynamics implicit. Wool-sick nature of my own tongue; white partner beside me.
Of and not, there and away, having and being had. Inside this interstitial fissure is where Strom represents her speaker (and by extension herself) in You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else. As an essayist Strom can thus identify and articulate this position directly; in the aforementioned diaCRITICS essay she states:
We can argue the names of things forever, sometimes a little futilely, it seems to me. But the word diaspora: I will say I favor this word because it locates itself within the tenuousness of identity, within its changing-ness, in the middle of the action of going out from one place to another while carrying within one spora (the etymology of which connects to “scattering, sowing” as well as “sprout”) from the originating point. It is a word that claims distinctness even as it inhabits out-of-place-ness, other-ness, transience.
As a poet, however, the gaps and fragments are means of ascertaining a different timbre of truth, one capable of (bright) shadow and (dark) shine. “11.8.16,” the last poem in the collection, begins, “& are you ready / to get a little more / comfortable / with your un- / comfort,” going on to decree:
how to cultivate need-not
because i have felt alienated on most days
& so what
stepping onto a stage
is always an act of self
After focusing on the (sweetly sorrowful) pleasures of the body and the cultural connotation of color (“i had forgot white / is a color of mourning / in the culture / of my birth / black the one for / anniversaries & birthdays”), “11.8.16” concludes on an existentially optimistic note:
…our innocent flush of living
always gets in the way
coming from so much death
how could we not know
we are alive
To be situated beyond hope and understanding while yet in the absolute middle of each of those essentialities—this is what it means to be alive in Dao Strom’s You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else. Such living, then, has degrees of calibration, some easier to swallow than others. The ultimate onus, though, is on the being. To be is to persevere and in persevering comes the allowance of freedom: our endless ability to be set free.
Jeff Alessandrelli is a writer living in Portland, OR. Find him on the World Wide Web at: https://jeffalessandrelli.net/