Years ago I was speaking in a classroom that had a number of Lao and Hmong students in it. I asked a simple question from one of them: “Tell me about your family.” The response I got was “My father fought in the war. We escaped from Laos.” And that was it. Barely any details, or a sense of connection to the greater narrative he and his family were a part of. I happened to have a package of soup with me, and proceeded to read the description on the back and all of the ingredients, because I wanted to show how you find a certain sense of poetry and creativity even in an ‘ordinary’ package of soup.
I’ve pointed out that many have never written down the story of their family’s journey, not even enough to match the word count on a simple packet of soup. I’m not one to make judgments of right or wrong, but I find it tragic for families who’ve made their journeys all of the way to America in the aftermath of the war for Laos for whom there will be no record, not even a page of what their lives, their dreams and hopes were in all of that time.
The most common response I’ve heard is, ‘I’m not a writer’. As a generation of survivors, we are what’s left. What remains. And my jaw drops that in this age, somehow we’ve come to point where people feel they can’t tell even their own story. That language fails them. Instead, we’ll be left with stories of Kardashians and Lohans as the narrative of our times. I’m not asking people to write like Shakespeare or Pangkham. But it’s a terrible thing when you know the life stories of strangers or fictional characters more than your own.
It all reminds me a bit of the poet Souvankham Thammavongsa’s book ‘Found’ and the film it inspired. She had discovered her father’s notebook that he had kept during his years in the refugee camp in Thailand. In the trash. Thankfully, she recovered it and was able to respond to it creatively. But how many families have lost their history already, thinking it would be with them forever, that their children would have some perfect memory and recall?
The words of the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko linger with me in his poem, ‘People’:
No people are uninteresting.
Their fate is like the chronicle of planets.
Nothing in them is not particular,
and planet is dissimilar from planet.
And if a man lived in obscurity
making his friends in that obscurity,
obscurity is not uninteresting.
To each his world is private,
and in that world one excellent minute.
And in that world one tragic minute.
These are private.
In any man who dies there dies with him
his first snow and kiss and fight.
It goes with him.
There are left books and bridges
and painted canvas and machinery.
Whose fate is to survive.
But what has gone is also not nothing:
by the rule of the game something has gone.
Not people die but worlds die in them.
And time and time again, I make my lament against destruction.