Dodd House living room buzzed with energy this past Saturday night as students gathered to hear Paul Tran share his spoken word poetry. Current students also shared their own poetry at this event, with Tyler Tsay ’19 performing “Ode to Flea Market Strapless” and “To My Mother’s Wandering Mind” and Wendy Suiyi Tang ’19 performing “A Hymn for Chinese Jesus.”
Tran is a Vietnamese American historian and poet who is one of the top 10 slam poets in the world. Quirky and humorous, Tran referred to us as “the cutest people in the cutest room in all of Williamstown” and shared his astrology sign and its symbolisms. As an audience member, it was impossible not to fall in love with his magnetic personality.
Before he started reading, he aptly and respectfully brought our thoughts to “all the decisions that culminated to us being here together today” and “the people who cannot be with us,” including all the people and spaces upon which this institution is built. Tran said, “I invite all the things you’ve carried into this room,” which to me felt incredibly accepting and empathetic and created a space of solidarity and sharing.
Tran’s poems are part autobiographical, part social commentary and 100 percent poignant. His work cuts straight to the soul. “If you ever got your nails done or walked through a nail salon, you might’ve met some of my family,” he said. His poems seek to find the perspective of Vietnamese female refugees, like his mother, who are not spoken about in history and are not seen as relevant to the general public. Yet these women are full of resilience and strength, putting food on the table for their sons, turning a blind eye to their husbands’ infidelities and fighting painful memories of fleeing their homeland to a country that killed everything they’ve loved. Referring to female Vietnamese refugees who frequently take jobs in cosmetics or laundromats serving predominantly white clientele, he said these women spend all day “making the ugly truth look beautiful,” and asked, “What would they say if we gave them a chance to speak?”
In his first poem, he passionately imitated the accent and hand motions of a Vietnamese woman working at a nail salon, interjecting this repetitive act with beautiful tragic lines about these women’s experiences caused by deadly words such as “racial capitalism,” “bombs in Vietnam” and “388 times with napalm.” Tran’s other poems included segments on sexual violence, his mother still having nightmares about the war and his traumatic relationship with his father.
Tran acutely pointed out the problematic current state of American letters and literature. He asked audience members to raise their hands if they’ve ever read a book by an Asian American writer. What about an Asian American writer who is Vietnamese American? What about an Asian American writer who is Vietnamese American and queer? What about an Asian American writer who is Vietnamese American and queer and suffered sexual abuse, poverty and violence growing up? With each sequential question, the number of hands raised dwindled, and by the end, no hands were up. This is what Paul Tran seeks to do with his work: expose more people to the voices of individuals like him because these voices need to be heard. “My poems start sad and they only get sadder,” he said.
In college, Tran struggled with finding his identity as a first generation college student and the child of Vietnamese refugees in a school dominated by white, wealthy males. He used poetry as an escape from the pressure of having to constantly explain himself to people. “One day, I don’t want a child to say that they couldn’t find themselves in literature, because that was me,” Tran said. His poetry is the beginning of an attempt to inscribe an experience that, up to now, has been left largely unspoken.