One More Thing is a series featuring Poetry Northwest contributors and other writers in conversation. This installment features a conversation between Angie Sijun Lou and Troy Osaki. Angie’s poem “Happiness, I, Thou, You, Me.” can be found in the Winter & Spring 2021 issue of Poetry Northwest. Troy’s poem “Another Poem in Which My Grandpa Is Gone,” was published on our website in April 2021.
Editor’s note: This conversation began in March 2021, days after six Asian women were murdered during a series of mass shootings at spas in the Atlanta area. The rise in reported anti-Asian violence during the Covid-19 pandemic in America does not signal a new phenomenon. Rather, it’s a continuation of the United States’ colonial, imperial, and otherwise systemic harm of Asian people both in and outside this country.
ANGIE SIJUN LOU: Happy Mars entering Gemini, Troy. I’m writing to you from underneath the cold sun of occupied Ohlone land/Oakland. Did you see the full moon in Virgo on Saturday? I went outside to take out the recycling and screamed when I first saw how bleached and bright she was.
I love “Another Poem in Which My Grandpa Is Gone,” how the title instills in me an absence. I wanted to ask you about the invocation of the beloved revolutionary Ka Fidel; I know that he passed away last year, and I wonder if his death was the impetus that made you birth this beautiful poem.
TROY OSAKI: It’s great to hear from you, my friend. Hello from occupied Duwamish territory, otherwise known as Seattle, WA. I sadly missed the full moon on Saturday as I was watching the series finale of WandaVision. It was stunning and magical in its own way.
Thank you for your thoughtful reading of my piece and asking about Ka Fidel. Yes, I started writing this poem a few days after he passed. I had the chance to meet him in Europe before the world shut down. He was kind and generous, and what I thought most about when he passed was how he died in exile while working to liberate our country and bring everyone home.
I’ve read your poem “Happiness, I, Thou, You, Me.” over and over. The opening lines are stuck with me: “The last words my uncle spoke formed a request for the breathing machine to be unplugged. / I don’t know the precise lexicon he used. I was not there.” I love how detailed the storytelling is, as if you’re there yourself, and yet there’s a deep sense of distance.
It sounds like you’ve collected different stories of your uncle over time. Can I ask what your relationship to him was like? Your favorite memory of him? Your favorite memory of him you heard from someone else?
ANGIE: Thank you so much for your reading of my poem. I started writing this when I was standing at the platform of a train station in December 2019, at 6:29 a.m., the morning I found out my uncle passed away. The fog felt like a totality. I thought about dawn in a plural sense.
The poem is about a story my father told me about taking the train to visit my uncle when he was incarcerated at a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. There was a moment of disintegration when all the women aboard the train realized they were not my uncle’s only girlfriend. I’ve always found this to be a surreal, inexplicable episode—the hair that the girls pulled out of each other as a mass of blackness, a mnemonic device for nothing. I think about history as this pile of hair. The decontextualized lacuna was unearthed through poetry.
I love your story about meeting Ka Fidel. Can you tell me more about your process of writing this? You paint such a vivid picture of diaspora, the way we become diffuse. I want to know what return means for you.
TROY: I’ve been reading articles on those who were gunned down in Georgia, and their children and grandchildren are describing them as pure-hearted, a lover of soap operas, someone who’d send flowers with whatever leftover money she had, and a mother who came to America for “regular immigrant reasons.”
For me, it’s a reminder that there’s not an increase in anti-Asian violence, but rather, a systemic continuation of it that started generations ago through the colonization of our homelands and forced migration of our people, especially women and femmes, across Asia.
As I lean into poetry during this time, I appreciate your thought about history being “a pile of hair.” I’m left thinking–from which head did the hair tear? Are there other stories of your uncle you’ve unearthed since writing this poem? I also wonder if his incarceration and the Cultural Revolution are related to your family’s migration.
My grandpa left the Philippines during Japanese occupation. I think about this often, including when I wrote my poem. When I first met Ka Fidel, I was eating fried chicken and rice. He came into the kitchen, sat down at the table, crossed his legs, and kindly asked where my friends and I were traveling from, where our families were from, and what kind of organizing we did. At that point, I hadn’t known he was the political prisoner who served the longest time in prison during the Marcos regime.
His passing, the passing of my grandpa, and the women who were taken from the world in the shooting remind me that there are people of Asian descent displaced across the world seeking better opportunities than what their homeland can provide. In this way, to return—for me—means to struggle against the forces (such as U.S. imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism, and feudalism) that push out my people from our homeland, until our country is genuinely free and sovereign.
There are both so many words and not enough for this moment.
ANGIE: I’ve been jaded forever, and now even more so after what unfolded in Georgia. You articulate it better than I could, how heartbreaking it is to see the continuity of the same wound buried, unearthed, made raw again. It’s an affinity I see in our poems: the way we trace the replications of 20th century imperial violence in our homelands, and their dispersals across spaces of memory.
I love what you say about freedom. I have been thinking lately about how this word, freedom, always comes dripping with carceral undertones. The way it’s instrumentalized in the American racial project. It makes me wonder what true freedom means for us, what the object of abolition is now that commodities travel more freely than bodies ever could. What do we seek to liberate ourselves of? Is it the capital relation, neocolonial rule, or something more inexplicable? All I know is that we have to trust each other to recognize it when we’ve reached it.
One more thing: could you tell me something that has made you feel hopeful lately in such darkness? Something from your life.
TROY: I love your reflection on freedom and your question of what it truly is. I imagine it’s a concept that exists because we don’t have it. Meaning to say, in a world where freedom is achieved we won’t have to theorize it––it’ll just be. I’d like to think that’s where the world is going, as if it’s unavoidable. I think often of the quote, “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming,” by Pablo Neruda.
Also, thank you for bringing hope into this space! Something that keeps me hopeful is organizing. Specifically, my comrades and friends I organize alongside in the movement for national democracy in the Philippines. One of them recently told me that there’s no better place to be than in the struggle for a new world for the betterment of all people. I believe this with my whole heart, especially when all is dark.
How about you? What is something that has kept your hope alive recently? Something that makes the world feel brighter—like August starshine or a clean tooth?
Angie: I love what you wrote about freedom and Neruda. Organizing also makes me hopeful these days, some comrades and I within the University of California have responded to nationwide calls for police abolition following the insurrection summer in honor of George Floyd. We’ve moved slowly, but with conviction. I can’t wait for us to finish unmaking the world so we can sit in the space we’ve cleared with everyone we love.
I hope our paths cross. I’ll see you out in the streets, where all forms of revolution begin . . .
Angie Sijun Lou is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Her work has appeared in the American Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, FENCE, Black Warrior Review, the Adroit Journal, the Asian American Literary Review, Hyphen, the Margins, and others. She is a Kundiman Fellow, a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California Santa Cruz, and a calculus instructor at San Quentin State Prison. She has received fellowships and support from the Vermont Studio Center, Millay Colony, and the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. She lives in Oakland.
A three-time grand slam poetry champion, Troy Osaki is the recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Jack Straw Cultural Center, and has earned grant awards from Artist Trust and the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture. His work has appeared in the Bellingham Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Blood Orange Review, Hobart Journal, Moss: A Journal of the Pacific Northwest, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Troy received his Juris Doctor degree from the Seattle University School of Law where he served young people at the King County Juvenile Detention Center and interned at Creative Justice, an arts-based alternative to incarceration for youth in King County. He now supports individuals marginalized by a criminal conviction obtain thriving wage jobs in tech.