Full transcript, immigrant artist retrospective
A full transcript of The Record's one-hour special featuring five immigrant artists.
This is a full transcript of December 26th's show; you can find a full buildout, including audio, here.
BILL: From KUOW in Seattle, this is Bill Radke. It is the end of the year and we're revisiting some of our favorite conversations of 2019. For today's episode, Record producer Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong wanted to focus on a topic near and dear to her heart: immigration. But she didn't want to dive into statistics or policy proposals. She wanted to tell the story through people. Adwoa’s with me now to explain. Adwoa – why immigrants?
ADWOA: I think I've always had kind of an immigrant-y frame of mind. I'm a dual citizen, and I've always felt like I have a foot in two worlds. So my friends and I have this joke about hashtag immigrant tears. I get very emotional about stories of people coming here,, crossing borders, and what they gain and lose. And this year, we were really lucky to have several of those stories with artists, with writers, with poets. And I'm really excited to share them with our listeners.
BILL: In the first of those interviews, art collided with the news. On Thursday, April 11th, Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir’s government fell. The morning of Friday, April 12th, Alsarah came on the record. She's the front woman of the East African retro pop band Alsarah and the Nubatones and she's a refugee whose activist parents fled Sudan under the repressive al-Bashir regime. Alsarah spoke to my colleague Marcie Sillman about the revolution, about her music, and about the ideas people have about the African continent – ideas that have to change.
ALSARAH: I think people have this illusion that Africa is living in isolation or has always lived in isolation. Africa has always been a very cosmopolitan place, anywhere by the coast. And Africa has always been very cosmopolitan and filled with interactions with other people. And for me, you know, a lot of my journey – I grew up very confused about my identity, because the borders that I was told to adhere to never made sense. You know, I knew part of my family lived in one country and another part lived in another country. And I was from this one place, but I went to this other place. And I had more in common with some people, but not with other people. And the borders that I was told to adhere to just didn't make sense.
And when I started to really think of it, though, about the world in a different manner. Like think of borders as a more natural thing as opposed to a manmade thing. So think of rivers, mountains, forests, oceans. I think of waterways as roads. So instead of thinking of those as blockages, think of them as connectors. So to me, as a result, now I'm beginning to think of anywhere the Nile runs as a part of the same region. And so I should learn about all of that as my region.
And there is a great power in unity. And I believe in Pan-Africanism very strongly in that sense. And I say that, though, because I think it's important for us to get there by celebrating our micro-identities. I think a lot of the conflict that we are in is due to the fact that a lot of us feel threatened. A lot of us feel like our identities are being wiped out in front of our own eyes. And this pressure to assimilate never pauses to question who gets sacrificed along the way for this modernization or this assimilation.
So I try by honoring who you are first and all the parts of you, the tiny parts of you, and you honor that. You also then learn to listen to your neighbor and honor that. And that's part of the reason why I was attracted to music in the first place. Fifty percent of making music is listening. You just have to listen to each other.
MARCIE: You talked a bit about really identifying with waterways and specifically the Nile. And anybody who has seen the Tiny Desk Concerts from NPR knows you sang a song and you talked about the Nile. So how does the Nile influence you? How does it show up in the music that you perform?
ALSARAH: I mean, it showed up from the beginning of the project, and even the genre that we chose. You know, it's a whole body of work built on the stopping of the Nile. And I mean, for my people, it's this: I grew up with stories about the Nile because I grew up on the banks of the Nile. And so for me, it's where I had my first swimming lessons, it’s where I would go hang out and have tea.
In Khartoum until now, it’s like, anytime you go, in the evenings you go have tea there. It's the only source of fresh water in the area. I cannot underestimate the importance of the Nile. I think it shows up… you see it in the way I love water, I think. I've never seen it as a thing that stops me. I always thought of it as a way to freedom. So I don't know, I carry it inside me. It's there all the time.
MARCIE: Something I read is resonating with what you're talking about right now, and it's – somebody had commented that under the repressive regime in Sudan, one of the big tent items that was really hurt were the artists. And yet artists are the ones who have such a strong role whenever there is a movement from the roots up. So how much power do you think that artists in Sudan or in the Sudanese diaspora have to tell the stories of the people and the places that you are from?
ALSARAH: So much power. Artists are the megaphone of the people, basically. That's why they're the first to be taken down, you know. And that's something that everyone's always known. And that's why any regime that comes into place, the first thing they try to do is either control the art or destroy the art. And not to say that art is meant, like an artist is meant there to serve only other people. As an artist you still have to serve your own creative needs at the end of the day. But. I mean, you’re a megaphone.
MARCIE: Another interesting thing: you and I are speaking at a time where the huge topic of immigration and immigrants in America is a red hot button. You spent a lot of your life in in the United States, and yet you're so clearly attached to the heart, to Sudan, to that identity and music. How does that notion of exile, of being Sudanese in exile, shape what you do?
ALSARAH: I mean, in every way. You know, I feel like being really rooted in being Sudanese does not take away from my feeling at home in New York. It actually adds to it. You know? The magic of being of one world and in another world: it can be traumatic, but it could also be a magic. And it's up to you and where you are with yourself, and how you feel about that. And it's not like a linear way of being. It's circular and cyclical. And you go through phases of homesickness and you feel like you need to go back. But then, you know, you can't go back. There's no such thing as going back, in life. You can't go back to anything. Nothing stays the same. You don't stay the same. People don't stay the same. Places don't stay the same.
MARCIE: So when you are in in Sudan, do you feel more American?
ALSARAH: Oh, totally. Being in Sudan highlights how American I am. Being in America highlights how Sudanese I am.
MARCIE: Wow. So then we're talking about maybe the creation, especially the United States, which is a land of almost all immigrants. There's very few people who did not come from someplace else.
ALSARAH: Absolutely not. If you’re not a person of the first nation, you're kind of an immigrant.
MARCIE: So are we now thinking maybe, you know, extrapolating out that that there is some other way to think about what it is to be an American? And maybe all Americans need to sort of turn their mindset a bit.
ALSARAH: I don't think Americans have ever really decided what it means to be American. I don't, I don't think that conversation really happened. I think there was a lot of accidental assumptions about what it is to be American. But in all of it, all throughout the history of America where those assumptions were being made, large groups of Americans were not consulted. So I just don't think America ever decided what America is. So it's not going to decide now, on my back, without consulting me. And that's why whenever people are like “Do you ever want to go back home?” I was like, “No, I'm not leaving this land for Trump. I'm here to stay.”
BILL: That was Alsarah, of the east African retropop group Alsarah and the Nubatones. She spoke with KUOW’s Marcie Sillman in April, the day after the Sudanese government fell. Thanks, Adwoa!
ADWOA: Thank you, Bill - enjoy the rest of the show!
BILL: This is The Record. I'm Bill Radke.
BILL: From KUOW Seattle, it's The Record. I'm Bill Radke. Ocean Vuong made his name as a poet. But this year's novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, was one of the most talked about books of the year. Little Dog, the protagonist, is writing a letter to his mother who can't read English. When Ocean and I spoke in June, I wanted to know more about the generational split that often occurs within immigrant families.
BILL: Little Dog's mother tells him at one point, “Don't draw attention to yourself. You're already Vietnamese.”
BILL: Did you want to say something about, you know, assimilation versus endurance?
OCEAN: Yeah, yeah. I think there's a huge dichotomy between one generation and another. You know, the first generation comes, like Little Dog's mother and says, you know, “Disappear. Don't be known. Don't be seen. Don't make yourself visible. Hide, hide. Because it's so fraught, the new American landscape. And you'll be safe.” And I think the struggle for the next generation is, “I don't – I want to be known. I don't want to hide. If I hide, I lose myself. I lose who I am.”
And I think a lot of the dangers and the precarious conditions of writing as an immigrant writer, as a child of immigrants is to both betray them in order to preserve them. We write about what they go through and in a way, it exposes those wounds, exposes things they want to cover up. But if we don't do it, it will be lost. Their story will be lost. Who else is going to write it?
That's the great opportunity of being a writer. You arrive at the blank page, and it's your turn. And if you don't, someone else will come and fill in that page, and they might not fill it in with you in mind. And so you have to, you have to do it.
BILL: Is there a passage that you want to read us?
OCEAN: Yeah, there's a great passage that I keep looking and thinking about that's haunted me about working in the actual nail salons that so many Vietnamese Americans do.
OCEAN (reading from On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous): What I know is that the nail salon is more than a place of work and a workshop for beauty. It is also a place where our children are raised, a number of whom, like Cousin Victor, will get asthma from years of breathing the noxious fumes into their still-developing lungs. The salon is also a kitchen where, in the back rooms, our women squat on the floor over huge woks that pop and sizzle over electric burners. Cauldrons of phở simmer and steam up the cramped spaces with aromas of cloves, cinnamon, ginger, mint, and cardamom mixing with formaldehyde, toluene, acetone, Pine-Sol and bleach.
A place where folklore, rumors, tall tales, and jokes from the old country are told, expanded, laughter erupting in back rooms the size of rich people's closets. Then quickly lulled into an eerie, untouched quiet. It's a makeshift classroom where we arrive fresh off the boat, the plane, the depths, hoping the salon would be a temporary stop until we get on our feet – or rather, until our jaws soften around English syllables, bend over workbooks at manicured desk, finishing homework for nighttime ESL classes that cost a quarter of our wages.
“I won't stay here long,” we might say. “I'll get a real job soon.” But more often than not, sometimes within months, even weeks, we will walk back into the shop, heads lowered, our manicure drills inside paper bags tucked under our arms, and ask for our jobs back. And often the owner, out of pity or understanding or both, will simply nod at an empty desk. For there is always an empty desk, because no one stays long enough, and someone is always just gone.
BILL Why is that passage haunting you?
OCEAN: Because one could argue that that is the snapshot of American life since the very beginning of this country. Labor. For what? You trade your life. The credo of this country is, we all have the right to pursue happiness. And then you realize, easier said than done. How do you pursue that when you trade your body towards capitalism? And it haunts me because I don't think it's located and isolated in the nail salon. It's in the factories. It's in the fields. It's in the coal mines. This whole country is built on lives who are erased through labor.
BILL: Toward the end of the book, there's the phrase, “we were not born from war, we were born from beauty.” Would you would you tell us about that?
OCEAN: Yeah, it's a moment where Little Dog starts to - through 200 pages of self-inquiry – arrives at this moment where he says, “Wait a minute. People tell us that where we come from, a war torn country, people tell us that we are victims, that refugees have nothing. But in fact, we had everything. Not material things, but we had a way of looking at the world.” And I think one of the things he realizes is, to be an immigrant in America is to know how valuable and precious beauty is
BILL:You say that for people of color, reckoning with American mythology is reckoning with loneliness.
BILL: Why loneliness?
OCEAN: When you don't see yourself, it's hard to know who you are. If you – imagine walking into a hall of mirrors, if America is a system of mirrors, which is arguably what it is. Through media, what media reflects, what books reflect. Imagine walking into a hall of mirrors and not seeing yourself.
How terrifying. How lonely. And how disorientating.
I think a lot of people of color have that experience. You think you're walking somewhere, you think you're entering a country, you think you're entering a room. But when you look at the mirror, you're not there. And I think that now that our country is getting more lonely, you know, the statistics say that through technology, loneliness and depression and suicide is increasing for folks of all colors.
I think we have to think of something. Think through something that people of color and queer people have been grappling with, this existential loneliness, since day one. And I think they have a lot to say because they've been moving through this, you know, since the day they were born.
And now it seems as a country, we're moving through this. You know, we're isolating ourselves, and we're finding it harder and harder to find connection with each other. And for a lot of folks on the margins, this has been a reality. It's been a praxis of our lives for so long that maybe we have something to say about it.
BILL: What do you say? What do you do? That’s such an image, to look in the hall of mirrors and not see yourself?
OCEAN: The power of art, and I can only speak as an artist, is that you start to write on the mirror. And even if you write on it and you walk out of the room. Someone could read the mirror and say, “Wait a minute. Somebody was here! Somebody who looked like this, was here.”
BILL: That was Ocean Vuong, poet, novelist, and most recently the author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It's The Record. I'm Bill Radke.
BILL: From KUOW in Seattle, this is The Record. I'm Bill Radke. All this hour, we're revisiting some of our favorite interviews of 2019 that touch on the subject of immigration.
In just a few short generations, Chinese-American poet Jane Wong's family went from famine to feast after her mother survived the Great Leap Forward and moved to America. Jane grew up in a Chinese-American restaurant in New Jersey. This summer, she had a gallery show at the Frye Museum based on a poem that reflects her family's experience. It's called After Preparing the Altar, the Ghosts Feast Feverishly.
In the poem, she envisions her ancestors eating everything from flip-flops to the American dream. She spoke to Record producer Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong about the show, and the stories behind it.
JANE: When you enter that space, the main room of the Frye, you'll come across the large table at the center, which is gilded of sorts. It's gold, I love that, the richness of the table. And I grew up in a restaurant, and so there are these kind of like restaurant bowls that surround the table. And they each, inside the bowl, have a line from the poem, the title poem. And you kind of have to like walk around the table again, as I mentioned. And there’s not really a beginning or end to the piece. It's circular. And I hope that visitors also sense the emptiness of the table too; there are empty bowls.
There are moments where in the poem on the page, it has space breaks to kind of emphasize that emptiness. And above the table there is when I call, I guess, like this chandelier of plastic bags. You know, the THANK YOU bags, that my family will give to each other when we see each other. Like full of oranges, always, there’s always, oranges and these bags. And especially for, like immigrant children, it's like you have that drawer full of plastic bags inside plastic bags – so many bags.
ADWOA: You might use them.
JANE: You might use them! And they're always beautifully knotted up inside another bag or even the brown bags are starting to have their own kind of folded origami shape when you kind of pack them into a drawer, too. And so I hope that, you know, sometimes people will look up to the chandelier and kind of have a chuckle, you know. Like “Oh, right.” Some people might not get that. And that's fine. But for me, that was definitely like this moment of: what does it mean to make do? And too as you mentioned, you know, you might use this. But yet the bags are full of oranges and flowers and life. And so I wanted it to feel very bright.
ADWOA: And then there's this big neon sign.
ADWOA: That sums up so many of our immigrant sort of… ethos. What does the sign say?
JANE: It says in Chinese, basically, like, “have you eaten dinner yet? Have you eaten yet?” And that basically is the same way of saying,”How are you?” And I love that way of greeting someone by saying, “How are you? Have you eaten yet?” Before we started talking with each other, you asked me, “What did you eat for breakfast?” And I was like, “oh, gosh, it was just coffee. It's one of those days.”
And my family would just freak out. They would probably grab my arm by now and just drag me to the table to eat. And I think that there's something about that question. In the U.S., people will say, “How are you?” And you would say, “Fine, I'm OK. How are you?” It's like a dead end kind of conversation. Whereas in my family to say, “How are you? Have you eaten yet?” It's great because you just go on the list of the things you ate. Or if you didn't, you have to explain why you haven't eaten and then you will be fed.
ADWOA: When we spoke earlier, you told me something that surprised me. That at your parents’ restaurant, you were cooking food that you didn't eat. Why not?
JANE: Yes. Yes, that's so true. I grew up in a Chinese-American restaurant. So we cooked food for the American palate. So food we never ate. So that includes like… that weird dish, what is it? Crab rangoon, General Tsao’s chicken.
ADWOA: You're making an amazing face.
JANE: I know. It is a little bit like, “What is that? Where does that come from?” I know it has a history and roots, but it was always too lacquered, too sweet, too fatty even, and it had no regionalism to it. Chinese food has such a different flavor profile across different regions. And none of that was part of the food we cooked. And I distinctly remember, yeah: my job was to cut up the wonton wrappers into strips and fry those strips as like these chips that customers would love. And we never ate that. Like, I don't know where that came from. So there are tons of these dishes that we just never ate. Even the egg rolls, like I never touched an egg roll.
My mom would cook, you know, our family food during like family mealtime. And it was always very simple. I mean, Cantonese/Toisanese food is very homey. It's always food that feels very fresh, but at the same time, very filling. Like I just remember... well, I guess on both sides it's like so much rice. No matter what, there's always a lot of rice. But yeah, I loved that kind of style of cooking. My favorite dish my mom made is something that you won't really find in a restaurant. It's just tomatoes and egg, and some soy sauce and some ginger. It's very simple. But it’s my favorite dish. And I hope it never shows up at a hipster restaurant.
ADWOA: What are some of your earliest food memories?
JANE: Oh, gosh. I think I mentioned this to you, but I still kind of return to it. For me, my earliest food memories all revolve around acts of love. And so it's not even really, truly about the taste of something, but that somebody did this for me and out of love. Because, you know, in our family, we don't say the word ‘love’ very often, if we ever do. I think that an offering of food is that act of love. And so my grandmother would peel grapes for me just one at a time, and put them in a little bucket. And I would just take that little pail, the bucket/pail, and walk around and stuff grapes in my mouth. And how sweet that was! The grapes, literally, but also my grandmother sitting there and offering that act of love and care.
I also have this weird memory of when I was very little; we had this dog. He was a black lab. You know, he was very old. And so by the time I was very little, he only lived a few years. But we were the best of pals. And I guess I was teething or something, and my mom would give me like a steak bone. And so I was just like teething on this steak bone and then sometimes giving it to the dog to like chew up. And we would just pass this bone back and forth. I know. I know. And this is – you know? That's also a food memory of my early days of just kind of like, hey, it's an offering.
ADWOA: I think a lot of immigrant artists and writers think a lot about silences between generations. And when we did have Ocean Vuong in, he said something that really stuck with me. He said we must betray our family in order to preserve them. We have to kind of show their pain and open up their silences. Otherwise, we're leaving a blank page and someone else will write on it for us, who maybe doesn't have us in mind. What do you think of that?
JANE: My family came to the Frye opening. It was a very emotional event for me. All of my family came. They all live in Seattle, minus my mother, who flew in from Jersey for the event. And when they first walked into the space, they just all immediately started crying. And they didn't really have any words for what was happening in terms of their, I don't know, processing what was in front of them, which included very personal photographs. And they felt something there that felt very haunting. And I know that that was painful for them.
And that's where that sense of me feeling guilty also, or why would I put them in this position? But at the same time, they were so happy and proud to be seen, and to have their stories told in this way. And it was one of those moments where my – I remember my uncle came up to me and basically, you know, said that I understood. And I don't even know what that means really, to understand. But I think what he was trying to say was that I understand and see all the labor that has come before in order for me to be here, and that I was telling these stories on behalf of them. And I'm still uncomfortable with what that means to have me interpret that, or translate it to a certain degree. But as Ocean suggests, that's kind of necessary. Otherwise these histories will be forgotten. And my family will just be known as what? Labor.
My uncle’s a fishmonger in a market in the ID. And I think about how, sometimes, invisible he is behind the counter, scaling fish. And to have him be present in the gallery space like that, and beyond, in the literature that I hope to keep writing. I feel very lucky to have them almost give me that permission to do that. All I can say is that I hope it gives them that sense of feeling seen, being there. That all of this, all of those histories that came before, are present, and seen and felt, and carried forth.
BILL: That was poet Jane Wong speaking with Record producer Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong about her show at the Frye this summer. It was called After Preparing the Altar, The Ghosts Feast Feverishly. This is KUOW’s The Record. I'm Bill Radke.
CLAUDIA CASTRO LUNA
BILL: From KUOW in Seattle, this is The Record. I'm Bill Radke. Today we're revisiting some of our favorite interviews of 2019 about immigration.
Immigration is about so many things, but fundamentally it's about place. After Claudio Castro Luna came to the U.S. from El Salvador, she dedicated her life to spaces – first as an urban planner, and later as a poet. She served as Seattle's Civic Poet and then the Washington State Poet Laureate. For both of those projects, she solicited poems from residents and used them to build a map of the place we live. I caught up with Claudia in April while she was crisscrossing the state to create a project called Washington Poetic Routes (that's r-o-u-t-e-s). One of the many small towns she visited was Brewster, Washington.
CLAUDIA: I was explaining to the Brewster students that I wanted us to write poems of place. And of course, that's kind of a difficult concept. And I said, “what is it that makes it so particular to be in Brewster High School this morning?” And they were kind of looking at me puzzled. And then I said, “I'll tell you. When I pulled into your parking lot this morning" - I'm driving - I'm running into the ground - my husband's car, actually, which is a hybrid. And I pulled into the driveway. And every single car there was a huge truck full of mud.
And I said, “when I got out of my car coming from Seattle and my little, you know, sedan, I did a double take. I actually went back and took a photograph of the parking lot full of huge trucks, because that tells me something about that place. That would not happen here for us in Seattle”. And they all laughed when I said that about the trip. The whole class erupted in laughter.
BILL: “You took a photo of our parking lot!”
CLAUDIA: Yeah! And they understood what I meant. And two poems came out of that, which are now on the state map.
BILL Do you tell them something about what you mean by place? Like what place has meant to you? Because you and I have talked on this show about what places meant to you.
CLAUDIA: It depends on the day and the crowd. I mean, sometimes I may speak about my experience as an immigrant coming to this country and losing a place or leaving a place behind. And then what that means, right. For me, El Salvador exists in the imaginary because I look out the window and nothing here looks like El Salvador. At all. And so, I mean, in the physical landscape. Sometimes I tell the kids what it was like for me to grow up in a tropical country as a way of explaining to them what I mean by place, and what I want them to think about and capture in their poems.
BILL: Yeah. It's like, “well she's asking for a postcard.”
BILL: Or “She's asking for a description, of my place.”
CLAUDIA: Yeah. Yes.
BILL: Yes. Do you mind if I read you one?
CLAUDIA: No. Please, please. I would love for you to read one.
BILL: We did this last time; it was kind of nice, actually. So this is from Derek Sheffield in Leavenworth. And for those who don't know, Leavenworth is just on the other side of Steven's pass, Highway 2. And there's a creek nearby, which I didn't know, called Chumstick Creek. Because the poem title is "A True Account of Wood-Getting from Up the Chumstick - with apologies to Doug Heckman".
In the woods outside Leavenworth
Crossing a steep slope of brushy second-growth
I put my hand out for leverage and felt it
give, and gave a shout, and Heckman
turned to take the snag’s notched top
with his forehead. When he looked up
blood gleamed between the fingers
of his leather glove, and more dripped
a trail back to the truck. As the doctor needled
the first stitch, he asked what happened.
“By the time you figure all the costs,” he said
to me in my work clothes and saw stink,
“you’re better off buying your wood.”
Said Heckman, holding his head perfectly still
and eyeing that needle, “Well, that’s dumb.
Then you’d lose all the fun.” Not a prick
of irony, but the bright slice of a meteor
across the exact night I was gazing into.
Another seven stitches, a short drive,
and he took the stacking so I could halve
the skinny rounds of the snag that blazed him.
That’s what I see when I see him now—a way
ahead as clear as his. The rest of that day
the bandage stuck through heave and sweat
and we kept at it for two cords of heft and swing
and grapple and heap, moving our bodies
as well as we could through all we hauled
out of those woods, and getting the work done
as the land split the light of a beautiful wound.
CLAUDIA: That was a wonderful reading. Yeah, I love that poem.
CLAUDIA: Well, because I love its humor. I love the way he narrates, the images that he brings forth and just this idea that this is what you do, or this is what might you do. Derek lives in Wenatchee. So that is all forested land. So I see him with his friends saying, “hey, let's go cut some wood!” and then they have this adventure. So it just seems like, people do that there. You know what I mean?
I mean, this is what I'm hoping from these poems that we get little glimpses of everyday life. We don't do that here in Seattle. I mean, you know, not in the city. But that's like, I could entirely see that – perhaps because I have been in Leavenworth and heading back to Seattle after a reading, in the afternoon, on those roads, by myself, through the forest. When I read that, I just could feel the darkness of the forest around them, and the quietness. You know? So I think that's why I loved, I chose that poem.
BILL: Again, this is Claudia Castro Luna, the Washington State Poet Laureate, formerly Seattle's Civic Poet, now crisscrossing the state of Washington, compiling poems and putting them together. Along the road, poems along the road. It's called Washington Poetic Routes.
I chose a few favorites and so did you. And we both chose "The Drowning of Waitsburg". And I didn't know that there was a flood there. I don't know whether – apparently there was a big flood in the mid-90s? But, you know, it's the Touchet River; floods kind of regularly, it sounds like. I didn't know any of this.
CLAUDIA: Yes. No, I didn't either. And that's what impressed me about this poem, because the author, Linda Andrews, has lived in Walla Walla for a long time. And I was in Waitsburg myself. I stopped there absolutely lost, when I was there; I was making my way to Clarkston from Walla Walla. And I did not know which road to take. So I've been myself here. And upon reading the poem, I could not imagine it being flooded in the way in which she's describing. But, you know, it happened.
BILL: Again, This is southeastern Washington, near Walla Walla. The river coming from the Blue Mountains.
CLAUDIA: Yeah, it's very much the corner of the state. So: "The Drowning of Waitsburg".
In the dark they wade across the road—
a woman lit by the white bundle
in her arms, the man visible
by the tip of his cigarette.
Behind them, their house is turning
unrecognizable. The back porch tips
into the flood, stairs go soft and surrender,
and a slurry of mud whispers across
their blue floor and says, Take your baby
and your habits and get out.
So it has said, house by house,
each high ground temporary and futile.
Leave because the flood has work to do.
There are floor boards to be buckled
and mud to be driven into every seam,
light sockets silted full. By the time you return,
there will be fish under your bed and you see
that the water has pressed itself against your walls,
the way you measured your son every birthday
to see how he’d grown. In two days the flood grew
six years. How long does it take to scrub the silt
from the skin of a family? Your daughter
will never stop saying that her room
smelled like mushrooms and
her doll buggy must have floated away.
Still now, the streets have forgotten
where they came from, and point neither
east nor west, but simply downstream.
BILL: Wow. I love the line from the, from the water. “Take your baby and your habits and get out.” Putting my baby and my habits right next to each other like: the water doesn't differentiate, does it? You know: what's important? What's big? What’s small to me? Take your baby and your habits. I got work to do.
CLAUDIA: Yes, yes.
BILL: I'm coming.
CLAUDIA: I'm coming. Yeah. It's… I love this poem for what it's doing poetically. But also because of the history that it’s sharing with us that we wouldn't otherwise know. You know, again, I'm hoping that that will happen more and more with the poems that come in. The Seattle grid also has poems that talk about the history of the city. And it's a great way to discover all the layers of meaning inside a place. All the memories, the new things that are changing, you know: what was, and what is becoming. All in this flat, two-dimensional space of a map.
BILL: Claudia Castro Luna is the Washington State Poet Laureate. That flood and many other poems can be found at WashingtonPoeticRoutes.com. It's KUOW’s The Record; I'm Bill Radke.
BILL: Growing up in Cerritos, California, Malaka Gharib was surrounded by a diverse array of other first generation kids. But there weren't many other Filipino-Egyptian-Americans. In fact, there weren't any. So she had to find her own way of being American. She told The Record’s Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong that at first, she tried turning to white culture.
ADWOA: Can you tell me what you mean by white culture?
MALAKA: Yeah. So white culture, white culture, white culture. It's like: I'm 33 and I guess like when I was coming of age, it was stuff I saw on the WB. So Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, Felicity. Um, I'm trying to think of the magazines that I read at the time. I think I read like, what's that teen?
MALAKA: Seventeen Magazine. I'm trying to like – yeah, Seventeen magazine, the ones that are like the teeny bopper ones…
ADWOA: Oh, like Sassy? No, Sassy was kind of woke.
MALAKA: No, Sassy was cool!
MALAKA: But anyways, like that was what I thought; that's what I wanted to be like. I wanted to be like the things that I read in magazines and the people I saw on the WB, which I thought was more representative of America than where I grew up. So that's what I like, strived for. Yeah.
ADWOA: How did that go?
MALAKA: Uhm, I actually really believed I was very white. Like, I'm very looking in the mirror and saying “Malaka – gur – GARE-ib. Malaka Gharib, like Arab.
ADWOA: Oh no! [cackles]
MALAKA: And I believed that my name sounded white.
ADWOA: [cackling intensifies] I noticed that in the book: “it's like Monica, but with an L!”
MALAKA: Yeah. And I even thought that I looked kind of white. I have like so much body hair on my face. So it's like, I don't really know how I could've put that together.
ADWOA: I mean, as a youth, you know, we all believe.
ADWOA: So there's this great page in the book that I loved. And it's like your code of conduct checklist, and there are things like “eating with your hands.” (Everyone can eat with their hands.) In Egyptian culture, you sit separately from men; Filipino culture, you can compliment – err, comment on people's personal appearance. And then I love “being on time.”
MALAKA: Oh, yeah.
ADWOA: As you learned coming into this interview, I'm not the most punctual either. But what was it like to juggle those cultures growing up – and has it gotten easier with age?
MALAKA: I think it just depended on what space I was in. I was able to basically pivot. What's tricky is when they're all together in one space. And actually, I'm very fortunate to have grown up with my families. Both my dad's side and my mom's side really loving and supporting each other. There are times when my mom travels to Egypt and there are times when my dad travels to Cerritos where I'm from, to hang out and spend time with my Filipino family. And at my wedding: I got married in 2015; they were all together in one room.
And just pivoting from like, you know, speaking Arabic with my sisters and then like seeing my sister Min Min, who's full Filipino and switching into like… I don't know, we call each other homie. Which I don't call my Arab sisters homie, we're just like totally different. And I started to just like make a code switch based on who I'm with. And even sometimes when I talk to my mom, I speak with a Tagalog accent. And then when I'm with my dad, I try to speak... I mean, I don't try; I speak with an Arabic accent because I feel like… when you're trying to communicate with your parents, you just want to make yourself understood. So you like try to do the best you can to just get there.
ADWOA: Journalist Malika Gharib is an artist and founder of The Runcible Spoon food zine. I'm chatting with her about her new graphic memoir called I Was Their American Dream.
ADWOA: It's a pretty light, you know, fun book. But there's a scene where you describe seeing the Second Intifada from like, your beach vacation. And this is a Palestinian uprising against Israel in the early 2000s. What was that like?
MALAKA: I think it really made me realize that our parents moved here to the US for a very specific reason. Having a 12-year-old maid in our house in Egypt, and dealing with… like walking out into the world as a young teen and being hit on constantly by men. I mean, that happens in the U.S., too. But there is this level of intensity in in Egypt. And also witnessing conflict. It’s… even though I was just 16, it made me feel very grateful to grow up in a place like the United States and actually being able to see for myself how different life would have been if I had grown up in Egypt. It was very powerful. I just– I mean, I'll never forget it.
I remember swimming in the ocean and periodically I would hear these rockets – and I actually didn’t even know they were rockets. They're just really loud sounds. And I asked my dad like, “Dad, what is that? It's really scary. It's coming from over there.” I was freaked out. And he's like, “oh, yeah, that's like…” [laughs] He was just like so nonchalant about it. Nonchalant to the point that we were vacationing like a few miles away. And he drew this map of Egypt and Israel and Palestine and drawing the borders and explaining the conflict to me. And I just couldn't believe that something that was so awful was happening so near me. And… I'll never forget it. It's part of the reason that I became a journalist later. Like being exposed to the realities of my parents’ home countries inspired me to want to help the world understand. I mean, America understand the rest of the world.
ADWOA: Did you find that at the time, it was… it was hard to bring that knowledge back? Like I found when, the first time I went to Ghana, you know, I was hanging out with my cousins. They lived in the deep village. They were poor. Like my dad's family's poor. And I felt like I came back and there wasn't space in my friend group or in my school – I grew up around a lot of white people. There wasn't space for that knowledge. I had to sort of leave myself, that part of myself elsewhere.
MALAKA: Yeah, I actually… that's a really great question. What's shocking is that because of the school that I went to, mostly kids from different cultures: we all went to India, to Bangladesh, to Pakistan, to Korea. We all went back to our home countries, pretty much; not home countries, but the countries of our parents during the summer. It was a very common thing. But we wanted to keep this facade that we weren't, we weren't fobby. We didn't want to be seen as fobby in front of each other because to be seen as fobby would be less American.
ADWOA: (And that’s Fresh Off the Boat.)
MALAKA: And being less American would be perceived as, you don't want to be less American, It's a race for who can be the most American in a place like my high school. So even though we had experienced the stuff during the summer, we just: I never talked about it because I didn't want to be seen as fobby, which is really sad, actually, now thinking about it.
I definitely remember coming back from the border of Sinai and from that trip where we, where I witnessed the Second Intifada. And coming back to high school that summer. And yeah, never really mentioning it to my mom, who asked how my summer was, or to my friends, because I just felt like that was over there, and this is over here. And it's part of code switching to shut that part of your life off and then resume the life that you have in Southern California.
ADWOA: So in the book, the question, “What are you?” comes up a lot. And I wanted to talk about that a little bit. I think as someone who grew up around a lot of white people is rarely a complimentary question; it was sort of like, “What's wrong with you? You're so exotic! Where are you really from?” But you liked that question growing up.
MALAKA: Well, it was very important in a place like Cerritos, where everybody was a person of color. So knowing that distinction was a very quick and shortcut way of getting to know someone quickly. And also, I almost thought of it as a sign of respect. Like, “I'm Portuguese. I'm from Azerbaijan. I'm from Turkmenistan.” That's great. Like, it's important to know that background.
And I didn't realize how much I missed that question until I got into college when people didn't ask me what I was. For so long, being Filipino, Egyptian, and American was my identity. So if people didn't ask me about that part of myself, I don't know if they would be able to fully understand who I was as a person. I
f you don't ask me who I am, you erase who I am, which is Filipino-Egyptian-American. These are very important touchstones in my life. But from living on the East Coast, I did get to meet people who had your same opinion of the “What are you?” question, which: I see now, obviously, that it can be definitely construed as a negative.
ADWOA: How do you feel about the question now? Has it changed?
MALAKA: Well, my feelings for it… after talking to other people of color who grew up with a lot of white people, I definitely understand the problems of that question. But I think now in a time when – I was very shocked to see such one dimensional views of race in 2016, in the media. And I felt that this is the problem: we are not talking about race enough. And I want people to know when they meet me that this is what a Filipino-Egyptian-American, with a Muslim father and a Catholic mother, looks like.
BILL: That was journalist and illustrator Malaka Gharib. Her new graphic memoir is called I Was Their American Dream. She talked about it with Record producer Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong last month.
Thanks for listening to The Record. Our show is produced by Alison Bruzek, Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong, Brandi Fullwood and Sarah Leibovitz. All the music you heard this hour was by our first guest of the hour, Alsarah and the Nubatones. And you can find each of these songs on our website, kuow.org/record. I'm Bill Radke. Tomorrow, it's the Week in Review. Tune in at noon, or subscribe to the Week in Review podcast.