1 October 2015


by Sophia Terazawa

On May 19th, 1890, Ho Chi Minh was born.

On May 19th, 1925, Malcolm X was born.

Source: Ann Arbor Sun, May 9th, 1975 (p. 8-9)

On May 19th, 1970, a mass of university students and artists marched through Kolkata, India. Under the watchful gaze of a scorching pre-monsoon sun, brown youth raised their fists and with a shout―“Hands off Vietnam!”―they stopped at Harrington Street.

Here the U.S. Consulate rested its lily white buttocks, where demonstrators rechristened the building’s mailing address after the very country its administration was bombing. As I write this now, the U.S. Consulate still stands on the street named Ho Chi Minh Sarani!

This was the triumphant report presented upon my arrival to Kolkata, the beating heart of India’s radical protest movements against imperialism with a fiercely transnational conscious.

Only recently seizing independence from the British Empire in 1947, the people of India knew very well that the bloody path to decolonization was far from over. They cheered on a soft spoken poet from Vietnam, as he rallied the small country to fight back against domination by three empires at the same time―France, Japan, and the United States of America.

Between 1945 and 1975, Kolkata stood in solidarity with David against Goliath, except David was not biblical in any sense of the righteous word. No, David wore the face of my terrified mother, and she was fleeing with her life from Saigon.

On November 14th, 2014, I arrived in this city that still bore scars of British colonial rule and partition. I also carried a hunger for proof that the Third World Liberation Front still existed, that transnational solidarity was not simply the mirage of multi-colored fists romantically painted across a wall to please its global audience.

I did not want any hand-shaking. I did not want congratulations, and above all, I feared the status of martyrdom granted to a people who had to choose between dying to the sounds of revolution and dying to the silence of bullets passing through. I want to say this again. My mother chose the latter.

আমার নাম তোমার নাম ভিয়েতনাম
Amar nam tomar nam Vietnam!

On January 3rd, 2015, I sat in a dusty office above the traffic’s din on Esplanade Row. My fingers pecked at each other nervously, as I contemplated never returning to the Indo-Vietnam Solidarity Committee. Less than three feet in front of me, its president, Geetesh Sharma, cleared his throat and demanded that I attend more events with him. He recited the famous slogan that once incited his organization to stand with my mother’s people, “My name is, your name is Vietnam.” He reiterated how I should be thankful for everything he did for me. I began to cry. This was not the transnational solidarity I had imagined.

The night before, the white bearded man―a respected journalist who wrote passionately about Kolkata’s protest movement in support of my mother’s country―had invited me to an international poetry festival. At the door, he beamed with pride as he presented me to the event organizers.

“She will read a poem about Vietnam at the opening ceremony,” he demanded.

Before I could utter a word, the organizers rushed away to edit the itinerary, visibly apprehensive to put an unknown artist in front of a packed auditorium but quick to please Geetesh. I, too, was startled by his spontaneous decision to introduce me like this, for the festival was to commence in less than 15 minutes, while I was unprepared to share anything at all.

On stage I pulled a notebook out of my bag to scribble something new before the host would announce my name at the end of a list of eminent poets. They had gathered from around the world to present the beauty of their countries through lyric. However, my pen refused to budge on paper. How could I write about Vietnam? I was only half my mother’s daughter after all. With a Japanese name and an American tongue, my split selves prevented nationalistic sentimentality.

Suddenly, the image of Malcolm X alongside Yuri Kochiyama flashed across my mind. If I could not write about Vietnam, perhaps I could write about the wounds of Liberation. If I could not sing pleasant truths, perhaps I could burn and burn and burn. In a flash I completed a poem around my exiled Vietnamese body. This is what I said:

Who kills Black men?
Who erases the heart of Global Solidarity?
Amnesia. An audience is at once live and deaf.
Celebrate the comfort of velvet. One voice
radiates from the crowd. She speaks English
because she had no choice in learning it.

My body is a meteor, bursting against the charade
of wars won. My tongue is Agent Orange,
and my eye, it expels radiation.

I walked across the stage, slowly turning my back to the audience. My knees were trembling with rage, but I was also afraid. When they started to clap, I suddenly spun around and continued shouting without a microphone from the scratches in my notebook.

Who has shackled our minds?
Who has shackled the ability to feel something more profound,
awful, devastating than the PERFORMANCE of poetry?

My eyes closed before the silent auditorium.


I jumped from the stage and dashed down the aisle, my face flushed with instant regret and humiliation. Did I just confirm the stereotype of the self-centered, arrogant American? No other guest poet had recited a pinch of negativity. Before witnessing my mess, the audience heard only award-winning verses of Russian flowers, Tibetan landscapes, Chinese meditations, and Bengali folk music. This space was a celebration of transnational unity through poetry. Why did I have to be so angry?

At the auditorium’s entrance, Geetesh had gathered a large crowd of men and introduced me as “that Vietnamese poet.” They followed me out onto the sidewalk asking questions about Vietnam, commenting on the beauty of righteous Vietnamese women with machine guns, the glory of Vietnamese women like me fighting for the nation state.

I was emotionally and spiritually depleted. Gone was the mix of shame and frustration. At that moment, I simply felt utterly alone. The moon looked down upon me with compassion, but still I wanted to go home, wherever that meant.

Geetesh pointed to his rented van and said, “Now you will come with me to another event. You will recite this poem again for the people.”

I shook my head, “No. No. No. I can’t.”

Yet the men crowded closer and started shouting in agreement as Geetesh raised his voice to scold me, “You must! It is your responsibility!”

My hands went numb, and I felt my protests fading, “No. No. No...”

They physically trapped me in a circle of moving bodies, as we shuffled toward the van. When the door opened, I had no choice but to enter, followed by as much men as the vehicle could cram into its seats. On the way to the next venue, the men chattered amongst each other about revolution.

They were eager to watch me disrupt the next event, a corporate sponsored science festival half way across the city, but what could I have done if my voice was nearly gone?

Upon the outdoor pavilion, erected in the center of a large slum in Kolkata, I weakly muttered the Bengali words that once propelled me toward this country in search of the Third World Left, “Amar nam tomar nam Vietnam...”

Stars faded in the night sky above me, as one by one another fluorescent flood light flickered on around the field. Children ran around playing tag. Adults wandered from booth to booth. Two television crews competed for the best wide shot. I just stood there in silence.

Sophia Terazawa

October 2015

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