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How to Remember Your Ancestors’ Names

By Drew Pham


When WWrite asked veteran and The Wrath-Bearing Tree editor, Drew Pham, to contribute a post, we received a poem that traces Vietnamese heritage by looking at WWI and beyond using experimental techniques with language and style.Pham, who was sent to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division, has published fictional and non-fictional work in Time Magazine, The Daily Beast, Foreign Policy, Columbia Journal, and The Brooklyn ReviewRead Pham's innovative poem "How to Remember Your Ancestor's Names" at WWrite this week!


PHAM5Reference: SPA 54 K 2918. Zeitenlick Camp in Macedonia: a soldier from Indochina (tirailleur indochinois) writing a letter. Date: May 1916. Photo by Georges Dangereux. Image source: The SPCA Archives on Indochina and the Establishment for Communication and Audiovisual Production for la Défense (ECPAD). centennaire.org


How to Remember Your Ancestors' Names


Your mother says her grandmother—

your mother’s



had hair the color of blood spilled,

moon skin

a bridged nose

and no words

another missing term: người lai

a person stitched

                        together from

foreign bodies

you’d envy her features pale,

            were the cost

                        not so


in her portrait she looks away,

            the same way

                        mother would on

                                   her worst days

you wish you could read

            her the sutras

                        as mother

once had

giving her letters

            kneaded into

a sentence to

 save you both

but her image tells you,

            nothing can undo

                        seams sewn

                                    then torn


                                  PHAM1Pham's mother. She worked hard for years as an unskilled laborer in the US until she could afford an education. She now serves as a civilian engineer in the US Army Corps of Engineers. Photo credit: Drew Pham



and what do they say to the little yellow men on the ramparts of verdun / im not a historian but a childhood spent force fed movies about mass murder opens a window for me to imagine they tell these / soon to be / corpses to be brave but / not in a familiar tongue [hãy dũng cảm lên] instead i imagine those pale officers / say be brave / be / brave / be brave but / not the kind it takes to shrug colonial yokes from your shoulders / not enough to make a country from the spirit of an emancipating page / not enough to say no / no they lash these tirailleurs indochinois with their / naked european / tongues / baïonnette au canon / on ne passe pas /  pour la france / a choice between steel / the bosches bullet and blade or the masters firing squad and guillotine / and one in three will die their mothers / names on their lips / the warmth of shrouded suns and flooded plains and star anise / a last mnemonic sensation before drowning in the absence of everything / but the rest / will wait their turns for one war to / metastasize into the next on and on but these little yellow / men will not be remembered / in the films pink / faced poilu kiss / rosaries and pray to saints bones enshrined in / spired crypts  but no one says the prophets shahada / [لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله] / nor the heart sutra / [vượt qua, vượt qua, vượt qua bên kia, hoàn toàn vượt qua, tìm thấy giác ngộ] / and if they dont look / to god they stare / into lovers eyes clasped in lockets and wallets / held against / the breast but those so cherished / are too light / eyed and skinned / to look / like cố ngoại with her heirloom despair passed / down and down / to mother / to me and she tells me great / grandmother was a pariah for reminding her / kith of the boots / on their necks the thieves / in their coffers the seeds / in their wombs / for that she’d been wed to another pariah / who’d taken up that colonial rifle and the thousands / like him sent ninety fold to dig their graves like veins / through the dysenteric earth / from belgique to suisse / but no one remembers / them the books i read / memorialize their spades but not their uniformed ranks though they died as napoleon said / for a piece of ribbon theyd hoped would make their people free / that invisible notion / liberté égalité fraternité / words to which they were / never entitled / no little yellow man could defend marianne in her phrygian cap / for such an act would sully that pristine ivory / flesh such an act reflects guilty / men’s fear that what theyd done / to us we would revisit on them / when the great war ended those little men took their bits of ribbon home / braided those useless pretty strands into a hangmans rope / strangled an empire thatd been too quick to collect the blood / tax but loath to ever live up to their enlightened / promises / for that like a criminal washing gore from their hands the métropole erased their subjects bodies from the poppy sodden fields fed on indigène meat / but to take up arms against / an oppressor means / to take up his fire and powder and such wrath meets erasure with erasure / so i cannot know if ông cố ngoại had / bled over flanders field because / our self / appointed liberators remembered / the panoptic gaze of that blue white and / red banner / and chased all trace of that crippled empire from collective memory / chased the tens of thousands sent / to the western front / my family burnt every document and photograph and medal / to escape another oppression masquerading as reform / but itd been too late marking my mother / a felon across generations and i suffer no such brand yet i carry great-grandfathers crimes no less / i cant tell you which letters and tonals and syllables make up his name / i can only say / when i was old enough i also took up a rifle in the name of another falling empire / i did not know my inheritance / fighting for a cause / no one believes / yet it rattles through our throats without regard / lying in a hospital bed / mother beside / me she / was afraid she would never have the chance to make amends / told me this hidden detail / five more years before i saw his photograph / alongside bà cố ngoại’s / mom doesnt like to talk / about the war or her parents war or her grandparents war / though it threads us together all / youd think that would close the gulfs and chasms between us but ive long since learned that common pain glues no / one together as much as i want to believe that i would understand the hollows and rises and caverns of their inner lives—i cannot—i only have this story / bits of shrapnel scattered through my family / pieced together but never whole / the explosion that tore its way through our roots detonated so long ago / i cannot tell you whether these bits of steel i still find in my limbs belong / to me / or the histories of my countrymen all so erased


 PHAM4Map left: French map of number of soldiers engaged in WWI coming from different colonies in Asia and Japan. Map right: Number of workers engaged in WWI coming from China and Indochina. Map source: cnrs.fr


I spell my great-grandfather’s name with

exposed skin and bowing  hairs

beneath a mountain sun

my boot treads biting

strange soil are his

setting foot

on a country that called ours possession

and though I can’t possess the memory

I see him

in terraced Afghan fields cut


a                      sloped

up                                            side.

I see him in the farmers passed on patrol

they are him

shearing wheat from root / ankle deep gathering sickled rice

soldiers like me as common

as the meadowlark in spring fields foraging

and of theft, 

I wonder if he ever killed a man and





I want to locate that slain soldier

in Western trenches

a yellow fist strangling a knife grip plunged between white ribs piercing white

skin made whiter with blood lost though I know

I’m projecting a past premeditation

because the gouverneur général left battalions behind

garrisoned not

to protect

but serve


         the            masters’









know a nearer truth exists in between brothers

set one

against the other

I know what it means to take the master’s lash as your own

because I have done the same

my body never lies

everytime I’m afraid

to look my mother in the eye

Great-grandfather, listen

your war’s children have cut

our language from my throat

we have only tongues

shrapnel cleft

so hear instead tone and timbre

let sound express regret for

committed crimes

between shores both

foreign                                                                 and                                                                 domestic

but you should know

because my transgressions run so

deep I am alone

I imagine everyone

is a murderer who hasn’t yet

had the chance

this isn’t a confession, dear


think instead

of the oily fog

from a stick of joss

our family’s altar

where i write your memory

an offering unlike

fruit that rots

cigarettes that spoil

spirits made homeless

this offering remembers

when we are alone

for our trespasses

and when our names are


 PHAM6The author, Drew Pham, poses for a photograph with village children in Wardak, Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham. Image published in thewarhorse.org


For more on Vietnamese heritage and WWI, see Hélène Lam Trong's post, "Josephine H.: A French-Vietnamese Journalist Traces the Life of an American WWI Nurse"


Author's bio

PHAMbiophotoDrew Pham is a Queer writer of Vietnamese heritage and son of war refugees. Drew is an adjunct English lecturer at CUNY Brooklyn College, and an Army Veteran who was deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. Drew has published in Time Magazine, Foreign Policy,  Blunderbuss Magazine, The War Horse, Columbia Journal, The Daily Beast, and The Brooklyn ReviewThey serve as an editor of The Wrath-Bearing Tree, an online literary journal focused on themes of societal violence. They live with their partner and two cats in Brooklyn, New York. Follow Drew's Twitter feed at @Drewspeak








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