In 2015, I spent some extended time with Vietnamese American Brandy Lien Worrall at the Association for Asian American Studies conference in Evanston, Illinois, and a reading together at Madison, Wisconsin at the Rainbow Collective Bookstore. Many of the themes and ideas of her work are worth revisiting with the recent release of the Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns.
She’d been touring across the country sharing her heart-wrenching memoir, What Doesn’t Kill Us from Rabbit Fool Press. It’s a book with tremendous wit, grace and gravity as it confronts growing up as bi-racial poet in Pennsylvania and facing cancer caused by Agent Orange in Vietnam, and other traumas.
I deeply enjoyed hearing her perspective, wondering what we need to do in the Lao American community to assess the impact that chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange and others had not only on Laos but on our families today in the US. Here are some of the things that came up during our discussions:
Tell us a little about yourself, and how did you develop an interest in writing?
I’m a Vietnamese and Pennsylvania Dutch writer and editor, and my press, Rabbit Fool Press, is located in Vancouver, Canada. I got my master’s in Asian American Studies from UCLA and my MFA in creative writing from UBC. I’m a young adult cancer veteran and a mother of three. I’m passionate about engaging in all the communities to which I belong, which also are groups which are generally marginalized and politically disengaged.
My interest in writing began when I was a small child. I was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was 2, so my parents were very fearful of letting me out of the house and out of their site. And since my sister was 12 (or 16….long story) years older, I grew up like an only child. Spending so much time by myself, I read all the time and began writing my own stories. When I started kindergarten, I was labelled a weirdo for being part Vietnamese, furthering my sense of being a pariah. So I decided I wanted to be a teacher (because they were nice) and a writer when I grew up, and that’s exactly what happened.
You’ve done work both as a poet and through memoir. What are the biggest challenges to you in both forms?
I need to be in both the mood and the habit to write poetry. If I somehow fall out of my poetic routine, it’s very difficult for me to retrieve that lens. But once I’m in the zone, I have fun with the poetic challenges of phrasing, word play, nuance, and subtext. I think of poetry as playing Tetris with image and meaning. It’s quite nerdy and fun.
My memoir writing is really an expanded prosaic form of my poetry. Like poetry, the challenge is to keep up with my daily journal because without that, I couldn’t write memoir. I log all my raw observations, feelings, and dialogue in my journal. It’s my memoir bible and archive. Once I have a draft, the problem I encounter is what to cut. Each story is like a child, who has so much to say as they are developing. But sometimes I gotta tell a kid that they can’t star in this movie…maybe they will in the next one. Again, like poetry, I play Tetris in memoir revision, except this has to do with chronology vis-à-vis theme. Which is more important at what point in terms of how the reader will experience the narrative?
How did “What Doesn’t Kill Us” come about? What was the most difficult thing about putting this together?
I’ve always had tremendous curiosity about my parents’ involvement in the Vietnam/American War and how they met and what their lives were like there. But it wasn’t until my sister began divulging information about our mother’s fictive persona that Mom felt she had to create and perpetuate in order to survive the war and her marriage to an American and her dislocation that I felt compelled to become a detective and archaeologist to the few narrative relics that I had in my possession. My first attempt to write something out of what little I knew was when I was 17 and my mom and sister had just returned from their second trip to Vietnam since they left in 1971. My sister was worn and weary, and she told me a shocking secret about a relative that Mom had kept hidden from everyone, including my father. At that point I started using writing as a way to try to document and figure out all these questions I had.
When I began my MFA at UBC, I knew I was going to write creative nonfiction about my family for my thesis. It was during the summer between my first and second year of course work that I was diagnosed with stage III Triple Negative breast cancer, and I had to take a year of medical leave to go through treatment, surgery, and recovery. During that time, my parents came to Vancouver to live with me to help and support me and my family. It was fucking nuts and horrible in all sorts of ways, but the saving grace was that through all that, I could finally relate to the trauma and isolation that I imagined my parents went through during and after the war. As part of my healing, I tried to transform the shitty situation into writing that I could use to help other people facing shitty situations, and also to help me find connections to my parents–especially my mother–that have otherwise eluded me my entire life.
The most difficult thing in the process of writing and revision were the triggers. Revisiting all that trauma over and over again wasn’t something that I really wanted to do. So I had to make sure I was good about doing self-care, going to therapy, seeking support when I needed it, instead of holing myself up in my room under the covers. It was really fucking hard to face all that–and then to think that it would someday be cemented on paper for everyone to read. At the same time there was definitely a catharsis and liberation that came with the process, and I don’t regret having done it at all.
What are some of directions in Southeast Asian literature you still feel are unexplored? Where are we seeing significant innovations? What are some key stereotypes you think still need to be challenged?
There are many ethnicities still vastly underrepresented or nonexistent in the realm of literature. Even Vietnamese American (and especially Vietnamese Canadian) literature, which is probably the best represented in Southeast Asian literature because of Americans’ fascination with the Vietnam War, is still quite small in the overall Asian American literary canon.
I’d like to see publishers take a risk and nurture the potential for these writers to be published and represented, but most are too scared to take that risk. They don’t want to waste time on something they think no one will care about. Fortunately, there are small independent publishers that do focus on the goal of growing the Southeast Asian diasporic literary canon, like Sahtu Press and Rabbit Fool Press. These efforts are truly significant because they illuminate on more complex levels the secret histories that are important to people otherwise invisible to the mainstream population.
In terms of what needs to be challenged, the stereotype of victimhood is what irritates me the most. Survivorship, on individual and community levels, is what’s important. Trauma is real; it persists. But it need not be silenced, and that’s what continues to happen–the silencing of trauma.
Southeast Asians don’t like to talk about the trauma–well, who the hell does? But it needs to be put out there so that we as a community and as individuals can heal, and so that subsequent generations can know these histories and not be in the dark, wondering what this thing is that they feel acutely but can’t explain. This was quite apparent to me when I was doing my book tour in universities. Students were shocked that I had these things to say, that I could be “brave” enough to say them, and that their parents likely experienced similar histories and trauma. And in their epiphanies, they felt compelled to learn more and get the courage to ask their parents about their trauma.
Was your family supportive as you began to show interest in being a writer?
My dad, who passed away last year from lung cancer from Agent Orange exposure, was always supportive of whatever I wanted to do. In fact, I think he was very excited for me to write our family stories because he felt he wasn’t allowed to tell them himself. His family didn’t want to hear about what he went through during the war, and they weren’t understanding when he would have his worst PTSD episodes. They would tell him that all he needed to do was to turn to God and forget about everything in order to “get over” his depression.
My mother still doesn’t get what I do. She doesn’t think writing is a real job. That’s pretty typical of Asian parents, I suppose. I accept her perspective. I just choose not to live according to her wishes, is all.
As a writer, when are you most satisfied with a piece?
When I can read a piece and feel the honesty and depth in it, I know that it’s something special that I must keep.
Agent Orange plays a significant role in your memoir. In Laos, there isn’t much discussion on the use of Agent Orange there, compared to the conversations we’re having on UXO. But what are some things you think we need to be looking for in our community?
Those two topics are talked about within our communities but not really outside our communities, and we as writers really need to push that more out into the open. I was surprised by how many people didn’t even know what Agent Orange was and that it was used in Southeast Asia for an entire decade. We really need to dig up and through the U.S. governments documents about these issues before they are destroyed, and we need to go to the places where people still suffer from the effects of chemical warfare and UXO’s. I’ve been told by several people that this is dangerous work to do, but in my opinion, it’s dangerous not to do it.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received for your book so far?
People have said it’s changed their lives in terms of how they can finally relate to someone who’s been through a lot of shit that’s isolating. That’s incredible. I’m very humbled by that. At the same time, people also really love the humour in the book. If my words and stories can make readers laugh and cry in the process of making a significant connection to stuff going on in their own lives–and make them curious about subjects they never even knew existed–that’s fucking awesome.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a book of poetry that will be the companion to the sequel to my first memoir, both of which will be titled “17 Days,” which is the amount of time between my father’s cancer diagnosis and his death. I guess you could say that the poetry collection is the bridge between What Doesn’t Kill Us and the second memoir. Seventeen days is a finite period of time, yet in terms of my father’s diagnosis and death, it has expanded the ideas with which I’ve grappled as a young adult cancer survivor in terms of uncertainty vis-à-vis aspirations, regrets, and known and unknown histories. I’m also finding that when my father passed away, my mother felt freer to tell me more stories about her own past. Her sense of liberation and desire to tell stories is in itself fascinating to me. So I’m devoting my creative life right now to exploring and documenting the stories as they come.
You can visit Brandy online at: http://brandyworrall.com/