Category Archives: Class consciousness

Andrew Cox Interviews Linh Dinh

Andrew Cox has a most thorough interview with Linh Dinh where the frank conversation covers topics from technology to poetry and takes us through Dinh’s perspective on the State of the Union.

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“I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough.”

Why did you start State of the Union?

In 2005, I taught a writing course called State of the Union at Naropa University, in Boulder, CO. I’ve also taught this course at the University of Montana and University of Pennsylvania. I wanted the students to address the crises afflicting our nation. It’s certainly not easy to make sense out of what’s going, especially since there’s so much disinformation and propaganda out there.

State of the Union is my attempt to track, through images and words, what’s happening to this country. The project has also forced me to spend much more time in the physical world, as oppose to sitting in front of the computer.

Like most of us, I was living a mediated life, I was living mostly through the computer, but, with this project, I’ll walk for miles though the streets, looking and hearing, and sometimes asking questions. Before I started, I had become alienated from much of my home city. I had forgotten the names of the neighborhoods, places I had known as a housepainter.

I was also tired of being an inhabitant of the poetry ghetto. Poets are entirely invisible and irrelevant in this society. As America collapses, poets have nothing to contribute to the general conversation. Few have anything to say, and the ones who do are ignored in any case.

I was tired of being published in books and literary journals that no one reads. My political essays, then, are my attempt at reaching a bigger audience, a more general audience. I want to use all of my skills as a writer to address people who would not likely read my poems. I’m particularly happy that my latest piece, “Mare Mere,” is being run by both CounterPunch and Dissident Voice, since it has elements of the prose poem. It is 2/3 political essays and 1/3 poetry. I’ll try to write more in this vein.

Why do you think poets are ignored? Is it worldwide or just an American phenomenon?

Conditioned by the car and television, we value speed above all. We want everything to be fluid and accelerated. We don’t care about quality, just quantity. It doesn’t matter what we eat, we just want to stuff ourselves as fast as possible.

Poetry is too slow for this culture. The poets themselves are also to be blamed, however. Dodging life instead of confronting it, most of them are ridiculously feeble. They think the ideal life is to be on campus forever, with a break once a year to go to their much-anticipated convention. There, they can suck up and screw down.

Da Vinci said, “A man who looks forward to spring is looking forward to his own death.” To always look forward, then, is to be forever dissatisfied with the present, but that’s the culture we have, we’re always looking forward to next year, next week, next hour, we can’t stand this present second. Our culture doesn’t just anticipate death, it’s living it!

In short, a people who will not reflect and who can’t stand silence will not read a poem. Though this has become a worldwide phenomenon, it’s much more advanced in certain places, like the U.S., for example, where we’ve reached a psychotic state. We hate our own mind, frankly. We don’t want to hear it speak.

Notice how people must turn on an electronic device soon as they enter a room, be it TV, stereo or computer. Sometimes all three are turned on simultaneously. Without these surrogate voices, we’re lost. What I’m talking about goes way beyond poetry, obviously. What I’m trying to get at is the reverence and courage that allow you to hear yourself and other people not just more clearly, but at all.

A quick observation about Vietnam. I went back in 1995, 1998, then stayed for 2 ½ years starting in 1999. While there, I could observe it shift towards the American model, which is all distraction all the time, where serious thinking is drowned out by nonsense, titillation and trivia. Wearing T-shirts with weird or actual English, many people started to listen to loud, recorded music, watch mindless TV and lust after brand names, though few could afford them.

None of this is necessarily bad in itself. I mean, a stupid T-shirt is just a piece of underwear with some moronic writing on it, and I enjoy a good soccer match as much as the next guy, but this rising pop culture was helping to mask many, many serious problems.

There was prostitution on practically every street. In factories, workers were being abused. Likewise, the servants in middle class households. I’m not even against prostitution in itself, only the poverty that forced many young women to become whores.

Top Communist officials became obscenely rich, bought many properties and sent their kids to Western universities, while the poorest sold their bodies and begged. However, with this loud music, exciting soccer matches, constantly flickering TV and many sexy photos, intimate or blown up, it was no longer necessary to arrest serious writers and thinkers. As in America, the Vietnamese intellectual has become irrelevant.

When you first left the office and computer how did you feel getting out into the physical world?

The office sounds so grand! Well, I have a little room with a desk and a tiny bed. I didn’t snore ten years ago, but now I do, so my wife and I sleep in different beds, in different rooms.

In my so-called office, there’s some food stored in the corner: a case of tuna, one of instant noodles and several bags of rice. We don’t have much room, so every square foot must be stacked with something. Where I work, then, where I’m typing this, is more survival bunker than regular office.

If there’s a nuclear explosion or meltdown, my wife and I could lock ourselves in this rat hole of a room and survive until Jesus, Allah or Buddha, whoever’s truly biggest, meanest or asskickingest, knocks on the door to say, Hey, everything’s OK, you can come out now!

By definition, a writer or artist must work in isolation. He must be removed from the world as he writes, paints or whatever, but a writer must also be among other people so he can have something to write about.

My first book, Fake House, was populated mostly by losers, the types I was surrounded with, and with whom I worked and drank. Of course, some of the characters were more or less me. I was a total loser, financially, socially and erotically. I was an embarrassment. Still am. I couldn’t get any of anything.

You asked about the media. Well, the media is all about getting stuff. It’s about having all of your natural and unnatural appetites fulfilled. It’s about whooping it up, partying, fucking and spending, but real life is not anything like that. Well, you might have a few highlights here and there, fondly remembered, but most of the time, it’s incredibly hard just to get by. Just to maintain your basic dignity, you have to exert yourself like crazy; you have to be a physical and mental athlete just to get by.

My first book, Fake House, was dedicated to “The Unchosen.” I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough. We will all lose, but there’s also dignity and strength in losing. I came from a losing society, South Vietnam, and I’m experiencing a collapsing culture right now.

Anyway, I’ve always been a wanderer, a walker. As a kid in Saigon, I walked all over. When I lived in Italy and England, I’d go to many strange cities, towns and villages and just walk. This project, then, is an intensification of an impulse I’ve always had.

The only time in my life when I didn’t walk was in high school. I lived in San Jose and Northern Virginia then. These two places are heavily car-dependent. I hate them, frankly.

The computer is very addictive. I have never been addicted to the TV, for many years I didn’t even have a TV, but with the computer, I became sort of a screen addict for the first time.

My site, State of the Union, gives me a clear reason to leave the house, so that’s a good thing. I can walk out without going to the bar. I don’t drink a fraction of what I used to.

When you’re among people, you’re always surprised. You think you already know how they look and talk, but you’d often be wrong. People are always inventive because they’re restless, bored and exhibitionistic. They also like to have fun. Packaging themselves, they’re always refining their acts. They’ll come up with the weirdest way of putting on a hat, for example, or of conveying the simplest message.

What surprised you the most when you first started documenting the homeless? What surprises you now?

I’ve lived in cities most of my life, so the homeless is nothing new. There is a lot destitution and squalor in Saigon, where I was born and spent my early childhood, and where I returned to live for 2 ½ years as an adult.

When I moved to Philly in 1982, I saw many homeless living in the subway concourse, and I remember seeing hundreds of homeless in Tompkins Square in New York in the mid 80’s.

Before I started my State of the Union project, I never talked to the homeless, however. It is enlightening to hear people’s stories. I don’t want to generalize too much about the homeless, but it is amazing to observe how tough and resilient these people are. On their faces and bodies are evidences of the very difficult lives they’ve endured, even before they became homeless. Many of these people look beaten up, because they have been. In Vietnam, too, you see these types of faces and bodies.

“Home” is such a physical and emotional necessity. While most of us still have roofs over our heads, I’d say that many of us are emotionally homeless. At best, we are dwelling in emotional halfway houses, or emotional bunkers, with many cans of expired tuna in a corner.

Now, I’d like to shoehorn an umbilical cord mooning monologue about home: I was born in Saigon and have lived there as an adult, but to call that home would be a stretch. I’m most familiar with Philadelphia and do identify with it, but I can’t deny feeling elated whenever I could leave it, if only temporarily.

I was calmest and happiest when I lived in Certaldo, Italy, population 16,000, but I could barely speak the language and didn’t have to make a living there. With the exception of San Jose and Northern Virginia, I’m fond of all the places I’ve lived in, including Norwich, England, and Missoula, MT, but, as Camus said, and I’m quoting from memory and probably butchering it, “He loves all women, which means he loves none of them.”

My mother is from Hanoi, so I can still fake a fairly convincing Hanoi accent, and several times I’ve caught myself thinking, while in Hanoi, “It’d be beautiful to die here,” but of course I’m not dying to live there, so that’s not really home either. I’m OK with being home/less. I’m happiest when I’m on a train, though of course, I’m also anxious to get off.

You said many homeless people have been beat up. Who is attacking these people?

Tyrone, a 45-ish black man who was on the streets for nearly a year, told me he was beaten up by three teens. He showed me stitches on his forehead. A thirty-ish white guy was almost stabbed with a box-cutter by a white, drunken girl, walking with a group of friends. She slashed his bag. The story sounded a bit outlandish, but everything else he said was plausible. He said black women treated him the best, and, sure enough, a young black woman gave him a bag of McDonald’s food while we were talking.

In Richmond, a white former nurse, Tony, also said that black women were the kindest to him. As if on cue, again, a black woman gave him an apple not even a minute later. Tony related how a Mexican homeless man was hit with a stick as he washed his clothes in the river. His attacker was some black guy, maybe another homeless dude. This Mexican guy had a big gash on his head but didn’t dare go to the emergency room because he was illegal. Knowing Tony had been a nurse, he asked Tony for help. Tony looked at it and said it would heal eventually, so that was that.

If you’re lying on the sidewalk, you’re going to be vulnerable, obviously. That’s why so many of them sleep during the daytime, because it’s safer that way, with many people walking around. Even when you’re not attacked, it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, because of the weather, the noise and because you’re lying on cardboard.

Some of your pictures feature images of advertising. What do you think about the relationship between marketing and the homeless?

Much of photography is used to seduce. It sells you on a fantasy so you will buy the product. The glamorous advertising images and catchy slogans serve as an obscene contrast to what’s actually on the streets.

The last time I was Vietnam, in 2001, I often saw the slogan, RICH PEOPLE, STRONG COUNTRY, on government billboards, but this was still old style Communist propaganda. With their heroic, broad shoulders and determined figures, always depicted from below, the Communists sought to inspire, but Capitalism is all about seduction.

On American TV, there’s an ad that shows a famous football player, first in uniform, then stripped down to near total nudity. These female hands then dressed him in slacks, shirt and tie. Only at the end would you discover that this is actually a car commercial!

In any case, photography plays a central role in this come-on economy. There’s photographic seduction everywhere you turn. The system will strip you and leave you with a very cool photo, and it won’t even be yours to own, son, you can only look at it! I’m trying to capture this swindle in my photos.

In your writing you are critical of the spread of casinos. Why?

Casinos are perfect emblems of our non-productive economy. A lot of money changes hand in a casino, but it produces absolutely nothing. Factories are being abandoned in cities and towns across America, but casinos are spreading all over. Fools and crooks who support casinos say they bring jobs, but casinos are net losses in every community.

Do you ask for permission before you photograph anyone? Do you explain what you are using the images for and if so, what is a typical reaction?

If I can get away with sneaking a photo, I’ll do that. Generally speaking, I don’t want my subjects to pose or even be aware of my presence, but since I carry a large camera, this is not always possible.

From each photo, you can generally tell whether I’ve engaged my subject. Sometimes I offer people a bit of money, usually just a buck or two, to take their photos. I gave $10 to a Camden woman, however, so she could buy cans of Sterno for her tent.

In Detroit, I also gave an old man 10 bucks because he was in such bad shape. He said he needed this money for a prescription. Whenever I visited the tent city in Camden, New Jersey, I’d bring 24 large cans of beer, though I’d end up drinking three or four myself. I’ve also bought food for the homeless.

When I talk to people on the streets, I do tell them I’m writing about the economy. Most know full well the economy is in horrible shape and will get even worse, and most of them don’t mind talking to me about their dire situations.

Once, I saw a young woman who was raving and extremely dirty, she even smelled of urine, but as soon as I talked to her, she became sane and radiant. Not to exaggerate but she became shockingly beautiful. I bought her something to drink and lent her my cell phone so she could call a friend in Baltimore to pick her up in Philadelphia.

As an artist, you’re always a kind of vulture when you’re around people, you’re always trying to make use of what they say, how they look or who they are, and since art is always subjective, a kind of distortion, you’re always deforming people to suit your purposes. Although art is always, in this sense, an exploitation, it is also a kind of tribute, and hence, of love. Sometimes I can barely stand how magnificent and beautiful people are.

You mentioned bringing beer or food with you sometimes. A common stereotype is the homeless asking for money or holding a sign by the freeway just want it to buy drugs and alcohol. How accurate is this stereotype?

Well, there are soup kitchens. In Camden, I went with a group of homeless to a very clean and dignified soup kitchen. People sat down at these long tables and were served by volunteers. When this homeless couple left a bit early, I asked them, “What happened? Didn’t you like the food?” The woman was a deaf mute, so only the man answered. He said, “Yeah, we liked it fine, but now we’re going to a second soup kitchen!” Another guy told me, “You have to be a moron to starve in Camden.” The problem is, many of the homeless are at least slightly crazy. Though some started out mentally ill or deficient, I’m sure many more became that way from having to live on the streets.

There’s a guy who wandered around the shopping mall in downtown Philadelphia. His pants were falling apart and sagging. You could literally see his crotch. My wife actually tried to give him a belt, but he wouldn’t take it. He wouldn’t even take cash. He never said a word, not one word, so maybe he couldn’t talk at all. Every now and then, you’ll run into a homeless person who won’t even take money.

In any case, I bring beer to the tent city in Camden because I figure, why shouldn’t these people have a beer? Also, I’d not be so welcome if I didn’t bring beer!

The tent city in Camden, New Jersey has made headlines in the past but I think many people would be shocked to hear tent cities exist in American. Some news reports said the type of people there would surprise you. What was it like when you went there?

It was orderly and safe. In the summer, you could smell the shit in the honey bucket, but it wasn’t terribly dismal. Sure it was bad, but people were making the best of it. They’d hang out in the center, talk and laugh. Sometimes people would fight, they’d scream at each other, but I was there maybe ten times and never saw any violence. I’d hear about violent episodes, however, but these were very rare.

In any case, the rest of Camden was much more dangerous. Jamaica, the head guy of the tent city, kept everything under control. Later, I’d hear from someone, living in another Camden tent city, that Jamaica would charge people a nominal fee to live in “his” tent city. I don’t know if this was true, but I did notice that Jamaica sometimes hoarded some of the beer I brought. Whatever. He was the “mayor” of that place, and a lot of the people I talked to seemed genuinely grateful to him. Rex, 76 years old, told me Jamaica carried him on his back to the hospital. Hardly anyone had a cell phone there, so it wasn’t like you could easily call 911 if there was an emergency.

One time I went there and it was, like, 5 degree out, and there was a huge snowstorm, and this kid, maybe 22, was freaking out. We were standing around the fire, trying to warm ourselves, and this kid was raving because he couldn’t take it anymore. I lent him my cell phone so he could call his mom. He started to beg her to let him come home. “I’ll do anything you want me to do, Mom! I can’t take this anymore.” Jamaica said he’d put the kid on the Greyhound, and he apparently did, because I never saw that kid again.

That tent city got too much publicity, so the city government finally shut it down. It didn’t do anything but chase the people out and put a chain link fence around that plot. As for all the newly displaced, a private organization did take them to a motel, where they could be cleaned up, groomed then assisted in finding a job or housing.

The official unemployment rate of Camden is 25%, however, so I’m sure many of these folks have ended up on the streets again. As for other tent cities, I’ve seen people living in tents or makeshift dwellings in a few other places besides Camden. There must be dozens across the country.

American cities are outlawing sleeping or camping in public. In many places, dumpster diving is also illegal. One should remember that during the 1929 Depression, much food was destroyed even as the nation starved!

In Hawaii, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, you can’t sleep in your own car, and in San Francisco, you can’t even sit on the sidewalk. These cosmetic measures are designed to mask our accelerating economic collapse. And yet, despite all the evidence, the mainstream media trumpet daily that the recovery is here.

To close, I want to quote Texas Congressman C. Wright Patman, as recorded by the great Studs Terkel in his 1970 oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”

Well, that depression is here!

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

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Mugged then Shot: Linh Dinh on American Corruption

Linh Dinh doesn’t think the USA is the greatest country on Earth. Here he lays out a powerful critique of American corruption. He’s one of our most provocative Vietnamese diasporic writers, and diaCRITICS is not only about what happens in Viet Nam or in the Vietnamese diaspora. diaCRITICS is also about what Vietnamese and Vietnamese diasporic writers and artists think about their world, so we’re delighted to have a chance to repost his work here. 

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Linh Dinh

“The United States has been a leader in the multinational effort to end bribery and corruption in international business practices.”
–Website of The U.S. State Department

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, why shouldn’t the United States be the most corrupt (and corrupting) country on earth? We’re number one! In America, each politician can be bought and absurd sums of money are routinely misallocated or missing altogether, with nary a peep from the complicit media. On the foreign front, America’s modus operandi is to bribe every dictator, and the ones she can’t bribe, she’ll undermine, overthrow or bomb back to Jesus. In exchange for this bribe, which can be disguised as loans or “foreign assistance,” said dictator will allow America to loot his country in perpetuity. If you don’t believe me, just strip any tinpot dictator and you’ll surely find “CIA” tattooed on one ass cheek, with a (pretty good) portrait of a recent U.S. president embossed on the other. Lovers always leave a mark, they often say. Sometimes it’s not a dictator, per se, but a dominant party that’s America’s hushed puppy. In any case, rapacious trade deals and unpayable loans are the bane of countless client states orbiting Washington.

Domestically, American corruption has been institutionalized as campaign contributions and lobbying, but that’s only the open, legal part. Perhaps these practices are allowed to trick us into thinking that American corruption only goes so far, but who really knows what goes on in the labyrinthine backrooms, basements and dungeons of Washington? In any case, us lumpen Americans are “represented” by millionaire politicians who are lint deep in the pockets of the fattest banks and corporations. The American politician is thoroughly corrupt, often from grassroots level, but the degree of venality and sanctimonious hypocrisy increase as he approaches Washington DC, that beautiful cesspool of martial madness.

No candidate who’s not heavily pro big business, overtly or covertly, can have any chance of being elected to national office. He won’t be funded, nor will he be seen on television. It’s not a democracy when all candidates are vetted beforehand, and only millionaires can be chosen by other millionaires and billionaires. In this setup, the average citizen doesn’t matter, as his vote or canvassing for a favorite are only charades designed to make him feel good and involved, as if his opinions and advocacy matter, but whatever he does, it won’t prevent the election of yet another tool who’s corrupt, pro war and pro big business, at the expense of all else. But don’t despair, all you earnest partisans, for even when your candidate does lose, the other guy, one who’s hardly different than your favorite man, wins! Those who voted for McCain, for example, got pretty much all of his policies through Obama, so it’s a win, win, lose, lose situation, see? Emblematic of this farce is the fact that American tax payers are even asked to contribute three bucks a year to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Though stuffed with cash from Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Raytheon, etc., our candidates still panhandle from poor schmucks whom they will soon rip off anyway.

American politicians may differ on personal and ethical matters such as school prayer, gay marriage and abortion, but on all the major, lucrative issues affecting the military industrial complex or big business, they are remarkably uniform. Our senators and congressmen also behave like trained seals when it comes to Israel. Witness the 29 standing ovations a packed House gave Netanyahu recently. Whether Democrat or Republican, each was terrified to be caught sitting as his colleagues jumped up and barked.

Your rep sure knows who his daddy is, and it ain’t you, sucker! The primary job of the American politician, from Obama on down, is to spin and disguise an endless series of corporate and military crimes he’s enabling. Which brings us to the Pentagon. No other governmental organ is more gluttonously corrupt. The Pentagon’s main function is not defending America but to bleed this country dry to enrich Halliburton, Lockheed/Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and the rest. Over and over again, the Pentagon has put hundreds of thousands of Americans in harm’s way, just so its masters can make a handsome profit. To feed these insatiable ogres, the Pentagon is willing to destroy American itself, and it is doing so, right now.

Beside bloody business as usual, billions of dollars often go missing from the Pentagon cash register without any explanation whatsoever, and in 2001, Donald Rumsfeld even admitted that $2.3 trillion had disappeared, which he blamed on sloppy accounting. So it’s not thievery or corruption, but merely inept arithmetic. Tamping down this scandal, the mainstream media seemed to agree.

But perhaps we do have a math problem. We are a people who clip 25 cent coupons, drive (an SUV) a mile to save a buck, register with subtle satisfaction the missing penny from a $19.99 price tag, yet these stolen trillions leave us unfazed. One reason for this, I think, is that American corruption is not experienced directly, face to face, as it is in many other countries. Most Americans have never been browbeaten and shaken down by a corrupt cop, clerk or judge, so we can pretend that corruption doesn’t hurt us. Washington has also been waging wars without raising taxes, so it’s no skin off my back, many Americans are thinking, but our bellicose policy overseas is certainly bankrupting the homeland, even as it increases our insecurity in future blowbacks. The constant hike in our money supply, devaluing our dollars, is also a form of hidden taxation.

Another reason for our passivity in the face of widespread corruption is the state of our media, which routinely hype trivial stories while suppressing much greater outrages. Thus, the money John Edwards spent on his mistress, a million dollars provided by two private donors, was discussed for a week by television and newspaper “pundits,” but no one is concerned about the $1.5 million of tax money wasted each time Washington fires a Tomahawk missile at Libya. How many thousands have been launched so far in this three-month war? No one knows, and no one seems to care about the real flesh and bones on the receiving end of those weapons. “Bad guys” deserve to die, and so do “collateral damages.” Even as they mug us, our masters speak to us as if we’re morons. As they gobble up the entire world and everyone’s future, we get to nibble on catch phrases and slogans

Like Pavlov’s dogs, Americans have been conditioned to salivate at the sound of a home run, a Lady Gaga’s burp and the promise of hope and change comes election time, but when that fat, familiar hand reaches into our wallet, yet again, we feel nothing. We’re cool and blasé until it’s our turn to receive the pink slip, be evicted, then having to curl up in our car or on cardboard.

Interviewed by Stud Terkels, retired congressman C. Wright Patman said in 1970, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”

I’m not sure that we have more knowledge, but with a presidency that can wage wars without congress or popular approval, and that can imprison or kill any American citizen without due process, a dictatorship is certainly here. Ditto, that Depression.

In a productive economy, corruption is less glaring because there are so many legitimate ways to enrich oneself, but in an increasingly non-productive one, such as what we have now, corruption becomes the primary means to riches. As we starve and kill each other, the mega corporations and their servants, our politicians, will continue to fatten themselves through their access to power.

In a ghetto with no stores, only drug corners, any bling-bling dude steering a loud Hummer is viewed suspiciously (or with admiration), so in this nation of fewer and fewer factories, save those that make bombs, tanks and high-grade weapons, who are our biggest death pushers and pimps, and what should we do about them?

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! What do you think of Linh Dinh’s argument? What is your opinion of the State of the American Union?

Enforcing the Silence: On the Unsolved Murder of Lam Duong, Journalist

Have you heard of Lam Duong? Chances are you haven’t. Tony Nguyen’s new documentary, Enforcing the Silence, wants to change that. Lam Duong was a left-wing Vietnamese American journalist and community worker in San Francisco who was murdered in 1981. The crime remains unsolved. Viet Thanh Nguyen reviews the film below.

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Lam Duong

Shot down on a Tenderloin street at 27 years of age, Lam Duong was a victim of anticommunist elements in the Vietnamese American community, according to Nguyen. That’s an incendiary hypothesis, so hot that the documentary won’t be shown at the Vietnamese International Film Festival in Orange County this year. Orange County and its Vietnamese American community may be a little too anticommunist to accept Tony Nguyen’s story. Instead, you’ll have to catch the doc at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on, of all days, April 30th, the anniversary of the Fall and/or Liberation of Saigon. Whoever’s programming the festival knows how to push a button. You can see a preview of the doc here.

Director Tony Nguyen

Tony Nguyen reconstructs the life of Lam Duong, a Vietnamese student who came to the United States in the early 1970s to study high school and then college at Oberlin. This is the first interesting part of the documentary, its focus on a pre-1975 Vietnamese living in the U.S., of whom there were thousands. They’ve been overlooked in the studies and stories of the Vietnamese American community, which have understandably focused on 1975 as the beginning of the community. The second interesting part of the documentary is the fact that Lam Duong had markedly left-wing and even Communist sympathies. The pre-1975 Vietnamese American community was ideologically diverse, and there were battles between pro-war and anti-war factions, between left and right wing, between pro-RVN government and anti-RVN government groups. That history is mostly uncharted if not totally forgotten, and Nguyen’s doc begins to shed some light on that through the figure of Lam Duong. After graduation, Lam Duong moved to San Francisco and started doing community and social work among the new Vietnamese refugees there. He also published a newsletter that said things that some in the Vietnamese American community did not want to hear, and it was this, Nguyen argues, that led to Lam Duong’s slaying.

As Nguyen notes, there was a wave of murders of immigrant journalists in the U.S. in the 1980s, tied to Cold War politics. Of the ten killed, five were Vietnamese American, and Lam Duong was the first. Nguyen argues that a militant faction of anticommunist Vietnamese veterans may have been responsible for the murder, and those rumors were discussed in the American press at the time. The title of the documentary, Enforcing the Silence, comes from Nguyen’s argument that the Vietnamese American community has swept these murders under the rug and does not want to talk about them, which seems to be true. Why is this documentary important? For bringing our attention to a history many do not know, or having known, forgotten or neglected, as it was in my case.

There are weaknesses in the documentary. Much of what’s potentially important in the story of Lam Duong is only implied or gestured at, mostly because the documentary is focused very much on the life and death of Lam Duong, one man, at the expense of providing us much context or opposing viewpoints. Most obviously, the film paints the anticommunist Vietnamese as a very threatening and mysterious group, and it would have been smarter to humanize them through interviews, history, and empathy, even if in the end to disagree with them.

Beyond this, the documentary could have treated Lam Duong’s tragedy as indicative of the larger tragedy of the Vietnamese American community, so torn and traumatized by the war that it was willing to shut down, perhaps even kill, people who spoke a different kind of story than the anticommunist one. The Vietnamese American community has been so focused on its own tragedy–its “Black April,” as some call it–that it hasn’t paid much attention to the conflicts within it, or to the ambiguities of what it means to go to war and suffer from it. It wasn’t just Communists who murdered people, seems to be one of the lessons of the documentary, but Vietnamese American uncles and fathers, too. Both sides have been eager to highlight the failures and atrocities of the other, without being willing to concede its own, and Nguyen’s documentary in its current release doesn’t address that historical complexity.

Still, if you’re in L.A., you should see the documentary and hope that it gets a wider release someday. Tony Nguyen is raising money to fund that release, and you can contribute money to make that happen.


Tony Nguyen was gracious enough to contact me after this review was posted. He offers a couple of corrections which I’m happy to include here. I saw his film on a screener DVD a few months ago and wrote the review from memory.

He writes: “In my film & in the synopsis, I try to state the facts: Local police have never convicted anyone in the killing, so the motive remains unknown. But within days of the killing, an anticommunist group claimed responsibility. So was Lam a victim of anticommunist elements? Possibly, but with the case yet to be solved the verdict is still out. Did an anticommie group claim credit & go out to claim credit in the murders of other Viet Am folks? Yes, that is true.”

He also writes: “I tried to interview one of Lam’s former co-workers at the Center for Southeast Asian Refugee & Resettlement who was anticommunist & critic of Lam, but was never able to reach this person. (Apparently this person now resides in Vietnam. Tried to reach this person in VN and was unsuccessful.) I also state in the film that “Several attempts were made to contact former Front leaders. But they could not be reached for comment.” The closest I came was I was told to call back at a certain time & day, which I did, but the phone just rang & rang. I also attempted to interview the Vietnamese informant for the FBI (on the string of unsolved murder cases – out of the FBI domestic terrorism dept) but this person also declined the interview. Actually the majority of Vietnamese Americans I tried to interview as primary & secondary sources on this subject declined.”

There you have it. Thanks, Tony.

–Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Los Angeles-based professor, teacher, critic and fiction writer, author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America and numerous short stories in Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Narrative and other magazines. He is the editor of diaCRITICS. More info here. Read his latest short story “Look at Me” here.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Have you seen the film and have an opinion? Do you remember the murders of Lam Duong and the other journalists? Do you think the Vietnamese American community enforces silence (not to mention Viet Nam itself)?

You Have to be Intimate with your Despair

Electronic voice: “This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”

Dylan Rodríguez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside, is a founding member of the Critical Resistance: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex organizing committee.  Here is the conversation he had with Viet Mike Ngo through the prison phone, originally printed in the book The New Abolitionists: (Neo)slave Narratives and Contemporary Prison Writings.

Dylan Rodríguez: Mike, first introduce yourself to everybody.

Mike Ngo: My name is Viet Mike Ngo, and I’m a prisoner in San Quentin at this time, serving a life sentence for second degree murder. [Electronic voice: “This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”] [Dylan and I] first got introduced through mutual friends; through the Patten College Program here. I met them because I felt that their politics were radical enough to really attack the program. So they hooked us up because we were both Asians, and there wasn’t really many Asians involved with the college program…who were radical in politics and in thinking, and that’s how we got hooked up, and I think its important because there isn’t a voice for radical Asian intellectuals and activists, and that was the main reason, main reason we got hooked up.

Rodríguez: Now Mike, one of the ways that people talked about you before I even met you was that you were somebody that was inspired by a lot of radical intellectuals, including prisoners.

Ngo: Most definitely. George Jackson shaped a lot of my political theories and helped mold them the way my thinking is today. And so my, our mutual friends also told me that you were involved, or liked a lot of George’s writing, and or were interested in this type of political activity. That was another reason we got hooked up.

Rodríguez: Who introduced you to George Jackson?

Ngo: That’s a good question. I can’t say one person introduced me to him, but it was a, it was a growth process for me. The more I got involved in trying to understand my environment, the space I live in, the more I got involved with the history of prisoners and the history of the politics involved in prison. That’s how I got hooked up with George. But it all comes from the will to understand your environment and to understand in a critical eye. Not just take it for granted and go with the flow. You have to be critical about the space you live in.

Rodríguez: What provoked you to start reading George Jackson to start thinking about your environment critically?

Ngo: The first few years after I got locked up, I wasn’t really involved with anything political….And so I fell in with a lot of the gangsterism that’s involved in prison; the cliquing and the racial segregation of prison make up. Then I got in school. Fortunately, when I first came into prison, they had the Pell Grants still available for prisoners. That’s where we were paid, or we were allowed to be involved in college programs in prison. And through that process, I got indoctrinated into critical thinking…just thinking in general, and history, and what have you. So that started my thinking process. Then I got here from Soledad. I got transferred from Soledad to San Quentin and they started up a program here. This is after the Pell Grants were shot down. So they started up a new college program that ran on a volunteer basis. And a lot of the students came from UC Berkeley, the T.A.s, the professors, and UC Davis, St. Mary’s College. And these teachers that were, at least to me, in my point, were a little more critical of history and about the United States’ part in history, in prisons too. And, so this made me think a little more and the book that really started kicking me off was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. That’s when there was a time of my growing process that I really started being critical about everything I was taught, and it really opened up my eyes in a lot of things. Also, the church and religious [beep] entrenched in prison programs in California, and I got involved in this too, when I first got here, and this indoctrination process of religion, and how that co-opts or really stifles the way we think critically. And it really all came to a head [beep] at the major starting points of my political or my radical politics.

Rodríguez: Your movement from Soledad to San Quentin…[“Your call will be terminated in two minutes.”]…follows a lot of the movement of radical prison organizers from the sixties to the present….Including George who was of course assassinated at the place where you’re currently incarcerated.

Ngo: Right. That’s why George impacted my life so much, because when I was reading it, I was thirty-one; his age when he died, and I followed his footsteps and coincidently, I went through the same process he did. I first got sent to Soledad, did time there, I did some funk there, and then went to the hole there, and was in the same wing he was in. Then I got shipped here to San Quentin. It was really a lot of coincidences and a lot of eye opening things that really caused me to think more deeply about my life and my role here in prison.

Rodríguez: Do you think about yourself as trying to move in that same lineage, that same intellectual, political lineage as people like George Jackson and others?

Ngo: Most definitely. Although the context is different from then to now, I definitely, at least I hope I even fill the shoes of what that means. But yes, definitely, I want to create [beep] changes in prison. [Electronic voice: “Your call will be terminated in one minute.”]

Rodríguez: Mike, before I ask the next question, maybe we should hang up and can you call me back?

Ngo: I’ll call you back.

Rodríguez: O.K. Call me right back. [Break]

Rodríguez: Mike, you there?

Ngo: Yeah, I’m here.

Rodríguez: O.K. Good. So we just finished talking about how it is that you struggle to work within that same, within that same tradition, the same tradition of activism and radical, intellectual work that people like George Jackson W. L. Nolen and Yogi Pinell, who’s still up there in Pelican Bay, and all these other people, and you were saying how you’re in a very different context than those people were thirty years ago….Thirty years ago, there was a critical mass of prisoners, prisoners of color [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”], black and brown prisoners especially, who were trying to educate themselves and were trying to mount both resistance and radical opposition to, not even just the prison regime, but to the structures of domination and oppression that define the United States. And you don’t have that anymore?

Ngo: Oh, it’s a total flip from the sixties and seventies. I still know some brothers here that were locked up then and they said they can’t even explain it themselves and they were involved with that process of this de-politicization of prisoners. They [beep] a lot of this process to the TV. Before, back in the sixties and seventies, we didn’t have TVs, and so people read. They read all the time, and during the political climate…

Rodríguez: Say, hey, Mike. Say that again to these students, man.
[both laugh]

Ngo: Do not watch TVs and read instead. But not just any reading. The readings that was going on in here were political reading. We were reading Mao. We were reading Marx. We were reading things that, thoughts that were contrary to the United States’ ideology. So it allowed us to be more critical of our space and where we live. And so when they brought the TV in, the books fell by the waste side. People don’t read anymore. And if they read, they don’t read anything about politics. They read about Jackie Collins and Sidney Sheldon. I mean, I’m trying to get the guys here to read, but they ask me for those books instead of others, and I try to throw my jabs and then shoot them something [beep]. But even then the reading level of my peers is really poor, and I don’t know how I can even start to tell them to read Marx or even George when they can’t read, or they can’t read well. So, it looks bleak, but at the same time, the people who are politicized, they’re very radical to me, I fell like they’re radical and they’re solid in their foundation, and I don’t worry about them switching in midstream….
But nearly everyone is ahistorical. They don’t want to look at history. And when they do look at history, they’re totally separated from it. They see no connection with themselves and history.

Rodríguez: One of the primary reasons that they might to abolish the Pell Grants for prisoners is precisely because of people like you.

Ngo: This is a great segue into what’s going on with me right now.

Rodríguez: Let’s talk about that.

Ngo: Me and about four other men here who are involved with the college program wrote a proposal, a very strong proposal, not even asking, demanding that we have freedom of speech in discussing issues in the program and what classes are taught.

Rodríguez: You had to write a proposal to ask for your freedom of speech in a college course?

Ngo: Right. Exactly.

Rodríguez: You know what? That sounds like the university too, actually. I should be quiet. [Ngo laughs.]

Ngo: So, these four or five guys who wrote this proposal asking for Ethnic Studies, more Ethnic Studies to be involved, asking to have freedom of speech as part of discussion on prison grounds and through correspondence, so we submitted this proposal to the volunteer facilitator in here and she disseminated it through the student body and it finally got to the administration. Well, the administration came and searched the five guys, four guys who were on this proposal cell, confiscated the personal letters their legal work, paperwork and then threatened to transfer us; threatened to retaliate against us for these, for the signatures on this proposal that we submitted. And this is, I don’t know if this is indicative of why they stopped the Pell Grants, but I know that historically, through the 1900s, that nationalist movements to get rid of imperialism in countries start with the leaders of the national movements being schooled in these [electronic monitoring beep] schools. So yes, I want the college program here, I want the Pell Grants to happen here, because it allows us to critically think of our environment and this process, it has a radical tint to it when we’re critical and it’s just so evident that the United States is not all peaches and creams.
[Both laugh.]

Rodríguez: But the point you’re making to me is very similar to the way that we would make arguments for things like Ethnic Studies departments and programs in the university setting in the free world, is that it offers us a space to actually struggle.

Ngo: Exactly. And it’s not all about how am I going to get a job. It’s a problem of how am I getting a job. It’s a process of how we shape how we get a job. It’s at the very foundation of our society. It’s not just about institutions and what kind of job can I [beep] paid.

Rodríguez: Right. [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”]

Ngo: It’s about training how I can think and how this affects my life and those lives of people like me.

Rodríguez: So thirty years ago, you had radical kind of semi-underground political education circles between prisoners that was happening totally outside the sanction of the prison. People were kind of getting together passing literature around, they were having conversations on the yard, between their cells, stuff like that.

Ngo: Study groups. They had, we had study groups.

Rodríguez: It was the same thing on the outside too. There were people who were doing political education, community-based political education, student-based political education, high school, elementary school, all the way on through, right. And then that gets crushed when they start assassinating people, when they start…


Rodríguez: Exactly. Yeah. COINTELPRO, and everything else, and then the way that they reform the prison is they create these college programs, right. And it’s supposed to “domesticate” you.

Ngo: Co-opts you. It co-opts to [beep].

Rodríguez: Yet a few people like yourself and like others actually take advantage of the college space to create a new front of opposition and radical resistance on the inside, intellectually and practically, which is why it is that you’re facing this stuff now with the Patten College Program.

Ngo: Man, that’s what’s happening. We’re trying to break containment and we’re being retaliated against for it, and it’s indicative of how prisons administrations work, how prisons work.

Rodríguez: With you now where they’re threatening to transfer you is that the person or people who actually chose to report you were not even prison authorities, they were actually civilians.

Ngo: That’s right. See, this is a volunteer program. So the person that actually runs this program is a volunteer. Who is a graduate student at UC-Berkeley. She reported another professor to the administration saying that this professor on his own time is supporting my case against San Quentin and CDC of racial segregation. And so she reported this to the warden and then the warden banned him from coming in.

Rodríguez: So the warden would have never known this if this civilian volunteer hadn’t done the warden’s job for him.

Ngo: Exactly. Now, the warden has full trust in her and the program.

Rodríguez: The problem of the reform mentality is that you actually become more protective of the institution you’re trying to challenge and the institution itself.

Ngo: Yes. [“Your call will be terminated in two minutes.”] You know, the issue of reform is a complex issue, but yes, that is a side effect of reform and I don’t quite know how to address that. I’m still struggling internalizing what that means, reform and revolution. But yes, that is a definite side effect.

Rodríguez: Lets talk about your writing, how you envision, or how you would fantasize political connections between people like you, right, and then the people who might be listening to this interview in this classroom. We started corresponding and I started looking at your creative writing and your kind of political polemical writing. One of the grounds on which we’ve tried to form a political and personal relationship is through correspondence and through writing. So maybe we can talk a little bit about this struggle between the free world and the unfree world.

Ngo: Right, and our relationship, and how they interact. O.K. [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”] I think on the individual level, I think we just have [beep] with each other. Not everyone in here has the same kind of…
I’m not at the same political level as others, so you can’t come in thinking that this is how prisoners are. You can’t stereotype prisoners to begin with, nor prisoners should stereotype people who want to get in touch with them. So just start off as friends, just people who write each other and get to know each other. But always be on a political tip, always ask questions and let them ask questions about you and what your role is and what do you do, and you know, and this automatically helps us to internalize how we are helping or hurting whatever cause or whatever lifestyle we’re trying to live.

Rodríguez: Well, Mike. You know what I’m thinking as you say that is that one of the strongest bonds that me and you have is the fact that we hate the state. When we actually get a chance to talk to each other in the visitors’ room, we’re always talking in hushed voices around those COs, because of what we’re saying to each other.

Ngo: Right.

Rodríguez: And I know that that’s the level at which I actually became your friend kind of immediately, was because I think we kind of sense from each other how much we hate this fucking country.

Ngo: Well, that was a big part of how we hooked up so quick.

Ngo: You have to read history and to understand the context that forms this place. Once you have a better understanding of that, then you’re going to say what we can do within the context of prison now, because it’s changed. So you can’t use the same methods as George did back then. You have to be more creative in trying to find new ways of promoting change. So, for those inside, always encourage, always help with the resources and what have you. With me, I started with writing. I felt my only weapon was writing; being critical about this place. Within my writing process I moved over to legal work, because I fell like that’s my next weapon. That’s the only thing I can do and do over and over again, and hurt the system. So, you have to be critical and for those on the outside, you have to think of ways to promote this critical thinking and create a thinking of how the people, how the organizations on the streets tackle the problems; social problems. By trying to change the laws by getting involved with politicians, by running for office, by having grassroots movement organizing. Those are ways of doing it….
We have to try to think outside of the box. That’s very important. I fell like I’m hurting these people because I thought outside of the box. What I’m referring to is that there are many policies and laws and just maybe conduce, the way we carry ourselves, we perceive that this is the way the law is. This is the way they enforce it. But if we think outside of the box and critique these laws and how they enforce it and these polices, we could try to pick out where these laws and politics are unconstitutional. This is how I’m hurting them now….
Language is very important in this because it helps form our mentality, our attitudes. If we always say we’re inmates and convicts, we always put ourselves in a power relationship that is legitimizing our captivity.

Ngo: They really don’t know what to do with me and my comrades right now. I mean, one minute they want to transfer us, another minute they tell us “we changed our minds,” because they don’t know what to do with us, because we’re thinking outside the box. We’re fighting. We’re actually standing up saying, “you know what? I have the right to challenge your policy, challenge the way you run things. Just cause you’re a pig and I’m an inmate doesn’t mean that I have to listen to what you say. That your word is law.”

Rodríguez: One of the themes that we’ve spoken to throughout this course is this notion Marilyn Buck articulates in one of her essays, where she used the phrase: “The right to struggle.” That seems a reflection of how reactionary the condition that we’re living in actually is, where people are not even talking about the right to eat, or the right to live, or the right to reproduce, or the right to exist. They’re talking about the right to struggle which means they’re talking about the right to struggle for those other rights. What you’re talking about, what you’re doing now, thinking outside the box, and acting outside the box is all actually above ground and perfectly legal stuff. And yet, people are having to fight just to do that.

Ngo: Hey man, the same things that the United States says about third world countries which have dictators, those are the same issues we’re going through here. It seems like they become more repressive when we try to exercise this right. Like with China and in Cuba, they say, “well, people can’t go out and speak their mind.” Well, that’s the same thing that’s going on here. We can speak our mind here, as long as it doesn’t threaten their security. Or it doesn’t threaten their ideology, or it doesn’t threaten their prisons. You can say whatever you want, but you can’t say it against them, basically. And so, yes, this right to struggle; we have to be able to voice our views, even if our views go up against those of our jailers.

I see my comrades sometimes. Like everyone, our energy is low. We lose hope sometimes and dwell in despair sometimes; a lot of times. But to me, I feel like you have to be somewhat intimate with your despair.
You have to understand it because it gives you a lot of strength; because once I no longer fear what these people do to me, I no longer worry about the repression they put against me when I struggle. When I exercise my right to struggle. So, I don’t want to dwell in my despair, but I have to be intimate with it ‘because some of my strength comes from this. So that’s what I can say about [beep]. If you fell like the odds are against you, that nothing ever changes man, that we’re fighting a mountain, always look at that and say, if that’s the case, we have nothing to lose. We have nothing to lose. And once you have that kind of mentality, these people start becoming aware of you, and you promote change this way. Yeah. That in itself is a win.

Rodríguez: I try to think the same thing; that the hope is actually in the struggle. It’s not even in the outcome.

Ngo: Exactly.

Rodríguez: It’s in the struggle.

Ngo: Exactly. [“Your call will be terminated in one minute.”] This is something me and my comrade talk about a lot. He thinks about strategies to hurt this place. And I’m cool with it because he knows the legal methods of doing it.

Rodríguez: Right.

Ngo: But I keep on [beep] that hey, you know, win or lose, it’s a process that we need to find some meaning to our lives. Me and my cell mate, my comrade that’s involved with this legal stuff that we’re doing, sometimes we sit at night, and after a hard week’s work where all our time is spent on research, typing things up, filing motions, doing 602s and the appeals and what we do in the future, sometimes we’re drained and we sit there in our bunks and we’re talking to each other of what our next strategy is. We ask ourselves, “Man, why are we even doing this?” And the answer we always get is that, hey man, we try to meanings of, right now, as it is, we think that we’re going to die up in here, because we have life sentences, the government isn’t letting no one out; that’s just the way it is.
So [“This recorded call is from an inmate at a California state correctional facility.”], so the things that we’re doing, we’re trying to show our peers, and those people who love us, man, that our life is not wasted. That at least if we die, we’re going to die trying to change this monster. And really, in essence, that’s where all our energy and hope and despair and all of that comes from.

Rodríguez: And that’s the thing that I think separates an individual like you, from quite a few people who are locked into the logic of trying to just simply obtain their freedom; not even to escape, but just to be released from captivity.

Ngo: In some of my dialogues with my peers, this comes up because I’m so intimate with it; so during our political conversations, it automatically comes up. And they’re kind of taken aback by it, because they aren’t intimate with it. They have hope that they can get out of here, and in the back of my mind, I do too, but at the same time, that can’t take away from what we need to do here because of our fear of what they might do to us.

Rodríguez: If we take what you say seriously, then prison abolition is the only viable option.

Ngo: To me, if you’re going to understand the context, if you read into the history, how can it not be? At the very least, stop any new building of prisons. Stop the inflow of new prisoners. Stop a moratorium or any kind of growth of prison, at the very least. And we could have a better understanding, a grip on this, of what’s going on. But we have to admit…this is a monster man. If people can’t see that, and they don’t, all I can do is, sometimes is just put my head down and run with what I have man, because I look around and see what’s around me, I mean, I lose confidence. I lose faith in what I’m doing because it seems like I’m the only one. I’m the only one, and it’s ugly. That’s why it’s very important to find a group of people; comrades man, basically. You have to find people who love you man, and that’s the biggest problem in here in prison. If we had more access to people who think and feel like us…
It helps us do the work. Because we’re so isolated in here and out there at least you guys have the opportunity to sit down and break bread with each other….With people who love and feel the way you do….That’s where you get your energy from. We get our energy from our despair and our hate and a lot of things that have to do with love too, and love of wanting to live. But it’s overwhelming at times; so you have to use whatever advantages you have; and for a free person, that is your advantage. So definitely utilize it. That’s something me and my comrades dream of. We dream of being around our family members, or even around just our comrades who love each other so that we can get some energy back. We could know that, hey, we’re doing this not so that we have more time outside of our cell, or phone calls, or whatever; we’re doing this because, man, our children, the lives of our children are at stake…the future.

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Doing Time Has Its Nightmares

Viet Mike Ngo, a writer, an activist, and a prisoner serving a life sentence, gives us a glimpse through the bars and into his head.

Viet Mike Ngo is a prisoner of the California Department of Corrections (CDC). He was incarcerated at age seventeen for the murder of a fourteen-year-old rival gang member. After allegedly engaging in “inappropriate activities” in the prison chapel, Ngo was prevented from participating in special programs, including religious activities.  Two months later, Mike Ngo filed a lawsuit against the CDC that went all the way to the Supreme Court where judgement was ruled (6-3) in favor of prison officials. Ngo is now a writer, activist, political educator, and continues his legal battles with the CDC over its racial segregation policies. He has participated as a guest speaker and lecturer in conferences, classes, and organizing sessions. Formerly housed in San Quentin, he is currently a prisoner at Avenal.

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. –– Peter slams the driver’s side door and storms toward the liquor store, mad about Junior calling him a beer gopher. “Don’t walk away mad, just walk away!” June yells out the window after him, laughing. Sitting in the back seat, Tuna and I smile at each other, shaking our heads. There’s never peace between those two.

Then Tuna’s smile leaks into a grimace. I know I have the same look even before I follow his eyes to the barrel of a nickel-plated revolver pointing in the driver’s side window: a rival gang member. We must be slipping. Reflecting off the barrel, a neon Budweiser sign flickers from a bad connection, like the rhythm of my heartbeat. This Bud’s not for me, I pray and look at the inside of my coffin: a two-door, hatch-back Datsun. The barrel nods. “Remember me?” says nickel-plate, then June explodes out of the passenger-side door as a white flash floods the inside of the car.

“Boom!” I bolt out of bed, kneeing the metal locker inches above my legs. Cursing my neighbor for slamming his cell door, I lay back down resigned. Escape in dreams is as futile as escape in reality — five gun towers and twenty-foot-high walls are my daily reminders of that truth.

I soak in my surroundings as the last images of the street fade. My cell: two beds, one on top of the other, a sink, a shitter, and two lockers — all inside a space eleven feet long, four and a half feet wide, and eight feet high. I crawl off the top bunk in the lifeless, gray twilight and get ready for work.

While I’m brushing my teeth, a nasal, female keen begins its daily, drawn-out announcement: North Block inmates have ten minutes to exit their cells and get to work or face the consequences. If given only one wish made good at that moment, a wish for a muzzle on the P.A.-system banshee would beat out a wish for a parole date. I grab my Walkman and a Neruda book and exit the cell as my cell-mate enters. My cellie greets me with a smile and a “Good morning.” I give a weak grunt and leave. I understand married couples have mornings when their partners’ presence is sickening. You can imagine how prisoners forced to live with each other must feel. Ducking and dodging the mental patients who double as prisoners — men who are still drowsy with last night’s psych meds — I make my way out of the musty housing unit.

As I walk up and out of the dungeon, the slate-gray, overcast sky reminds me of climbing out of the Datsun eleven years ago. That day anger, frustration, and, mostly, fear wrapped itself around a cold ball of lead in the pit of my stomach. If Peter hadn’t come out of the liquor store shooting, who knows what would’ve happened. As it was, nickel-plate retreated behind a car, shot back at Peter, and disappeared around some bushes, hitting nothing but the liquor store. On my way home that night, I promised myself two things: make nickel-plate regret not killing me, and never again get caught in such a helpless position. I should’ve known that by exacting vengeance on him, I would find myself in yet another helpless position — indefinitely. But instead of the back seat of a parked car and a drawn .357 Magnum, it’s now a recreational yard and five sniper rifles.

Three steps outside the housing unit, two guards are checking IDs, laundry bags, inmates’ destinations, anything and everything they want. They are yard cops and my immediate bosses. My job mainly consists of typing write-ups: records of rule violations by inmates. Since I am one of three clerks, my work load is minimal. The majority of the day I spend reading, writing, exercising-doing things that benefit me and not my oppressors, which is the main reason I vied for this job. There is only one drawback. In typing a write-up, I’m technically assisting in lengthening a prisoner’s incarceration, a fact I abhor and struggle with daily.

My bosses are in the middle of a joke as I check in: “You see the look on his face when I told him to get naked?!” This is a tactic used to intimidate prisoners deemed to have too much attitude. The official reason for the unclothed-body search is that the prisoner seemed suspicious, but the truth is, the guards didn’t like seeing the anger and frustration on his face when he was ordered to let his possessions be searched.

The guards smile at me and I return the same. My smile, however, is tempered with the knowledge that the unfortunate prisoner could’ve been me if I wasn’t their clerk. Between laughs, the taller of the two says the Squad has a write-up for me, then hands me a paper bag. The Squad is California Department of Corrections’ CIA, FBI, and DEA all rolled up in one. He winks and says, “Merry Christmas.” The bag is filled with items from the commissary that were confiscated from the naked prisoner: tobacco and coffee. He didn’t have a receipt to prove he purchased the goods. I reply with a hollow “Thank you” and head toward the office area, holding the bag and feeling like the driver of a getaway car after a robbery.

A few moments later, I pass another checkpoint. A guard is harassing an inmate for smoking in a designated smoke-free zone. His master-speaking-to-slave tone shifts to dog-in-heat-seeking-relief when a nurse walks by, heading to the infirmary and smoking a cigarette. Just as quickly, he is back playing the overseer speaking to the field hand. Ya know smokin da masta’s crops illega in dees here parts.

I round a bend and walk by the Adjustment Center, which is on my right and is better known as the AC. It is a squat block of a building decorated with barred windows. The AC houses a hundred of California’s most infamous prisoners and has a hundred cells and four miniature yards: the entire world for these prisoners. I don’t know what kind of adjustments occur in the center, but the few prisoners who exit its gates are often headed to the infirmary, if not the morgue.

To my left are four prison chapels: Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic. These neat, white-painted buildings stand together facing the AC, looking like spectators at a lynching. I’ve always found the proximity of these buildings symbolic. Now if I can only figure out who’s praying for whom. Is society praying for the individual who has failed so miserably, or is it the other way around?

Through two swinging doors, I walk to a heated office where inmate clerks are busy typing. I sit down at my word processor, situated in the corner of the room, and scan the handwritten charge: possession of heroin. The hapless addict is facing an extra three months.

I put on my Walkman and begin transferring the handwritten text onto forms specific to the write-up charge. I’m hoping the music will take my mind off my part in giving another prisoner more time. It never helps. After every correction I make and every word I type, I become more and more ill. It’s as if I’ve swallowed something abominable. Worse: poison. Yes, I am killing myself. Every time I partake in this feast, where the powerful eat the helpless, a part of me dies. I feel sorry for the nearby clerks, who must see my agonized countenance. I glance up and see my pain on all their faces.

The write-up completed, I exit the office and head around a bend and down a slope to the Squad’s office. Climbing five steps, I press a buzzer and wait. A moment later, a Nazi stormtrooper appears in a CDC jumpsuit, collects my folder, and sends me off with an unholy grin. I now know how Dante felt leaving the Ninth Circle.

At the bottom of the steps, I stop and hang my head in shame. To my left is the spot where George Jackson was murdered. I bow. I ask the Soledad brother to forgive a brother-in-spirit who’s degraded himself by helping to lengthen another prisoner’s incarceration. My daily tug-o-war between principles and comfort continues. Am I compromising my beliefs? If I worked as a janitor in the prison infirmary or as a clerk in the warden’s office, wouldn’t I still be assisting the oppressors? But comforts win yet again.

I head for the recreational yard to sweat the disgust off my body. A crisp wind bites through my state blues, carrying with it a message from the dead: Don’t be too hard on yourself, lil’ brother. Your time will come and when it does, you’ll make me proud. I feel the shackles of imprisonment loosen on my limbs.

Floating by the first checkpoint on a euphoric high, I see a guard shooing away two homosexual prisoners as if they’re mangy mutts who’d gotten too close to him. My body feels like a dead weight once again. Descending two flights of stairs to the yard, I find a vacant picnic table and take off my denim uniform, all the while thinking that only flies and their offspring have picnics here.

Wearing sweat pants that I’d had on under my jeans, I run. I run from guilt. I run from reality. I run to escape. Thirty minutes later, I am on all fours, almost retching from exhaustion. The taste of shame a little less sharp in my mouth, I grab a seat on a bench and watch as demons chase other prisoners around the quarter-mile track.

My mind wanders. I hitch a ride with clouds drifting overhead. I see myself lying on their cottony softness, being transported to better times: I am in the uppermost compartment of a linen closet. Hiding behind sheets and towels, I find solace in the fragrance of washed laundry and darkness.

A booming voice over the P.A. system pulls me away from my childhood refuge. The yard is closed. I get dressed and shuffle back to the stairs with the rest of the herd, wondering if I will ever find peace in darkness again. At the top of the stairs, I stop. “Escooooort!” Death in handcuffs is flanked by flak-jacketed badges. I turn away from the condemned man and face the wall, a mirror image of the prisoners around me. I look to my left and see that a young Hispanic man with tattoos adorning his neck and face is reading his life line in the cracks on the wall. To my right, a long-haired, bearded white man, who reminds me of a short Jesus, is eyeing the ground, drooling for a chance to pick up the cigarette butts. I hand Jesus the brown bag filled with the loot that I’ve been carrying. He warily peeks inside, then hugs the bag to his chest as if all his earthly possessions are contained in it. I wonder what I look like in their eyes. They probably see what I see every morning in my pocket-sized mirror toothpasted to the wall: my father, a veteran who lost his country, and his dreams.

After a decade of incarceration, I still don’t understand the logic of having to turn away from death-row prisoners who are escorted from one part of the prison to another. Shifting slightly, I see the condemned man being led to the law library around the next corner, holding his legal work in hands shackled behind his back. There is a disciplined calmness in his walk and demeanor that triggers my memory. I saw the same aura surrounding Buddhist monks in my homeland — right before they set themselves on fire. Maybe the administrators don’t want us other inmates to see the indestructible human spirit on their faces because the chamber, chair, or needle is useless against such an opponent. “Escoooort!” Zombies scatter. Or maybe the administrators don’t want the condemned to see our faces. Since we are the ones who look like the walking dead, the misery of the condemned would be diluted by the knowledge that we’re all damned when we’re imprisoned.

Turning away from the burning monk, I melt into the stream of men heading back to the housing unit. The smell of cooking meat is heavy in the air-tonight’s dinner. I taste bile in my mouth. Ahead, the six-abreast herd of men is bottlenecked at a doorway one and a half men wide. After a few minutes, I enter a bustling morgue.

Five tiers and two hundred and ten cells — each originally built to hold one man but now accommodating two — stare me in the face. I’m reminded of a giant beehive where death has made his home. I follow the inching flow of rush-hour traffic around a corner and see the same monster: another five tiers and two hundred and ten cells. Finally, on the two-foot-wide stair that I’m sure was a fire escape in a prior life, I ascend in single file, along with the other hundred-plus worker bees.

There are men standing in front of their cells, some talking seriously, some laughing. Others are panhandling door to door for a fix of coffee or tobacco; many are showering, and many are still dreaming in a Thorazine-influenced sleepwalk. The buzzing of eight hundred men is almost insanity-inducing. I can understand why every so often a new booty climbs the stairs to the fifth tier and, instead of stopping, continues over the railing, his scream lost in the cacophony.

When my father and our family joined the crowd at the U.S. embassy’s gates during South Viet Nam’s collapse in 1975, I wonder if in his wildest nightmare he imagined a future like this for his son. I wonder if he believes that by cheating his fate — sure imprisonment for his anticommunist views — he may have angered the gods to such a degree that fate, crawling out of the shadows of time, finds my flesh much sweeter. I try to imagine what his life would’ve been like if he had stayed in Viet Nam. Could it be much worse than my life now? I snort and laugh. After twenty-five years of Americanization, I still can’t shake my cultural superstitions.

On the narrow tier, I have to squeeze by two youngsters in deep conversation. “I would die for you, homeboy!” I hear one say to the other. Gangster bonding. Words I lived by for much of my life. In hindsight, I recognize what a hollow truth that was. It’s not that I wasn’t willing to die for my homies — I was; and, in a sense, by serving a life sentence for killing a rival gang member who threatened them –I am. The hollowness about it was that I was hollow. Under my silent and fearless exterior, which I mastered by practicing the philosophy that men are like rocks — hard and emotionless — I was empty inside. It was as if a chain hung around my neck with a heavy medallion of nothingness attached to it. And instead of the chain resting on my chest, it sunk into my chest cavity, banging into ribs and organs, rattling with my every breath. I have an impulse to correct the young Al Capone: I would endure nothingness for you, homeboy! But I don’t. Gangster etiquette.

Once in my cell, I flip on the radio. As I peel down and get ready for my shower, I hear there’s been another school shooting. I don’t know if I’m more disgusted with the waste of human life or with the media circus sure to come afterwards. Probably the latter. The greater waste is when death becomes entertainment for the living. I can already hear the grave voice of a commentator asking, “How can we as a community not see the signs that lead up to such a tragedy?” They should’ve used their ears instead of their eyes. The clink, clink, clink of chain and nothingness against ribs is unmistakable. Even under the maddening din of blaring speakers, slamming gates, screaming whistles and alarms, I can still recognize its hollow ring. It’s most noticeable at night, when I’m counting stars on a moonless ceiling and everyone’s asleep. The ringing reminds me of chimes on the front porch of my childhood home. Coming home from elementary school, I would find the house empty. And no matter where I went in the house, even the farthest bedroom, I would hear those chimes ring. I’d even go into the bathroom and close the door, but still I would hear those chimes. After a few years, the ringing became part of me.

Along the tier and down a flight of steps and I’m at the watering hole. It’s crowded: twenty-eight showerheads for eight hundred men. Fourteen showerheads are reserved for blacks, the other half for the rest of the population. The Old South is alive and well in California prisons. C&D air is blowing through a door twenty feet away, and puddles of foul water lie in wait on the ground: a fungus minefield. How many more of these showers must I endure to get clean? I hold my breath and submerge myself in inhumanity.

I get in and come out quickly, but not quickly enough. Someone has mistaken the towel and boxers that I hung up for his own. I walk back to my cell naked and wet. While I’m toweling off in the cell, my name is blared through the loudspeaker. I have visitors. I forgot that this is the time of month my parents pay their respects. My family has two altars for paying homage to dead family members: one is on the mantel above the fireplace of our home; the other is in the visiting room at my prison.

Mom and Dad are sitting at a knee-high table, hunched over vending-machine food. They seem to be praying like they do at home in front of the fireplace, bowing to pictures of my grandparents and making food offerings. Instead of the sharp scent of incense, cheap perfume chokes the air. They greet me with smiles that fail to reach their eyes. We sit and my mom begins telling me about life being too hectic at her age; about trouble with the in-laws; about my nephew being old enough to walk and talk and ask why his uncle is in prison. I feel like a ghost hearing her thoughts as she kneels in front of the fireplace. Next to me, my dad sits silently, eyeing the people around us who remind him of dead Americans he once knew.

Two hours pass quickly. Visiting hours are over. We get up and my mom starts to cry. I hug her and am still amazed that her head only reaches my sternum. I wonder how a woman of her small stature can carry such enormous loads of suffering. She fled her homeland to save her husband from imprisonment, only to find imprisonment waiting for her son in America. I stroke her trembling back, trying to soften her pain, remembering the way she used to comfort me as a child: humming my favorite lullaby while passing her gentle hand through my hair. I hear the same lullaby and realize I’m humming it to her. She looks up at me with tired eyes in tears, telling me that she’s ready for her picture to be placed on our mantel, but that she holds off eternal peace until the return of her son. My dad pats me on the back and repeats, “Hang in there. Hang in there.” I look into his eyes and get the feeling that even though he’s looking at me, he’s addressing himself. It’s as if he believes that the life sentence I’m now serving should be his and that if he survives his guilty conscience, then I will survive my sentence. I pull away and disappear in a sea of tears and farewells. In the strip-out area, I wait in line to let a stranger look into my body cavities.

Back in my cell, I take my mind off my problems by reading a book by Neruda. Blood has fingers and it opens tunnels underneath the earth. How did a Chilean poet describe an experience that only a Viet Cong could know? Pondering yet another of life’s ironies, I let Pablo’s words, the clinking chimes, and the occasional toilet flushing, whisper me to sleep. I’m in the back seat of a parked car. It’s not a Datsun but a military jeep. There is no laughter, although Peter, June, and Tuna are in their usual places. Instead of leather jackets and dress slacks, we’re wearing green military fatigues. A bead of sweat slithers down the back of my neck and then down my spine, leaving goose bumps in its wake. There is fear in the air that is thicker than the sticky heat surrounding everything. This is not California. I’m wondering why Peter isn’t leaving to buy beer when I realize we’re not at a liquor store but a road block. I see a group of armed Vietnamese soldiers, dressed in military fatigues different from ours, approach our jeep. Something is definitely not right here, yet everything is eerily familiar.

My boys file out of the jeep, and I’m about to do the same when the barrel of an AK-47 pounds my chest, knocking me backwards onto the seat. The barrel eases into the driver’s side window and nods. Remember me? The words do not come from human lips. I have a picture of something that crawls on its belly and lives in shadows. In a voice not my own and filled with resignation, I answer, Yes. Boom! An intense, burning pain digs into my chest. I look down and see a smoking hole leaking blood and, next to it, a name tag. TU DO, it reads. My father’s name. I look up and see my father’s face staring back at me in the rearview mirror. I gag.

Bolting out of bed, I knee my locker and grab my throat, not wanting to swallow my tongue. On the P.A. system, a nasal female voice is in the middle of a drawn-out threat.

~Mike Ngo

originally posted on New America Media.

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True Laws (Pt. 2) and a New Song

In the course of the past couple of years, I have been trying to “accomplish” my work. Writing, music. Trying to get some foothold doing these things in the society where I make my home. The external aspects – actions – I believed were a rudimentary part of this, I have performed, or tried to perform, sometimes reluctantly and sheepishly, sometimes with fumbling, desperate ambition, sometimes sincerely. I have often hated it — the effort of “selling” oneself. I have often tried, also, not to do it, to just carry on with the inner work — me in the rooms I’ve worked in, trying to chase, hear, heed my ghosts. At times I have even hoped someone else would do the work of “selling” for me. In the plainest terms: I have been trying to be an artist in the world, but I disliked the “trying” part. Which for me has meant presenting and selling one’s work (intangible as it may be) now as product, “merchandise”, using the outlets and means I have learned to use by seeing others use them – clicks, carts, easy imagery. But the result for me has been, in all honesty, often confusing,  nerve-wracking and self-conscious, even disheartening. The satisfying moments have come only in the process of the work itself, and then in those rare moments of contact — when I learn that I have reached someone, communicated something — and the means of measuring those moments is never material or quantifiable, it is only felt. Subtle.

The work I want to mention here – “Origin Tale”, a song – took a long time to record. I began writing it in 2008, in a time of somewhat self-imposed isolation, living in Alaska. There, one day, I received a phone call from out of the blue, from a kind person full of ideas, who had more vision for my work than I myself did: he was the one to suggest to me the possibility of merging both my literary and musical voices, and creating something – a mixed-genre work – having to do with Vietnam. I took in this inspiration. I thought about Vietnam, mythology, war, exodus – all the catch-words of our “story.” I kept writing. The songs becoming longer, also now breaking those rules of format that would usually contain a folk song – verse-chorus-verse-bridge, structure-driven, with predictable repetition of parts and patterns…

But I have to digress here and risk truth-telling, the revealing of some prejudice. To say I have learned a lot from folk music (American), but ultimately not enough. And yet I have sought my place in it for all the years I have dared to call myself a musician.

I was motivated by it, called by it — this music is the reason I began playing music in the first place, the reason I moved to Texas — because of something compelling in its deceptive simplicity and plainspoken-ness, its rigidity and adherence to its own form, at the same time its moments of self-reflexivity, its capacity for self-perpetuation and self-parody, both. There is something grounded, humble yet profound, about folk music. By its very name it suggests itself as a genre of music to be sung in the voices of ordinary people, a music that embodies the underdog, of-the-land, for-the-people character of Americana, of the West — a place where simplicity is chosen over complexity, where instinct is valued over intellect, where the humble and down-trodden uphold virtue better than the striving; also, the structure of this music is very easy to learn – from a certain way of looking at it – it is quite linear and patterned, with emotion/story/revelation easily compartmentalized into certain regions of a song, with chord progressions that circle and resolve quite logically and sensibly, and so are easy to follow. Technique is rewarded; but perhaps even more laudable (at least for the singer) is the earnestness with which you can embody the limits of your technique. All of these elements resonated with me at the time that I found this music. To get in on this ground-level of what it meant to be American, to be ordinary and simple in appearance and expression, yet able to yield surprising wisdoms through that superficial veneer — for some reason, this was a conceptualization of “Americana” that I felt I had to earn my place in. Because it seemed impossible. Because it was in fact so incongruous with my actual story.

Pete Seeger, folk singer whose anti-war songs were famous in the VN War era

I have never in truth had the luxury of seeing myself – or my origins, to be more specific – as ordinary, or as “of the people.” From the standpoint of my Vietnamese emigration story, I was one of the more privileged, who got out early enough to escape the last-day dramas. My mother was educated and we were fairly well-off. We were of the bourgeois, that decadent evil; of the city, not of the country. My mother was not an ordinary woman, not by a long shot. She was a writer (one of the first and few women writers praised as such in her era) as well the publisher of a widely known newspaper. She had fought tooth and nail – for her education, for her status, for her achievements. My birth father, too, was a writer (and soon to endure years in “reeducation” for it). We were always of that class that lauded the intellect and the life of the mind over that of the body (labor) — (we were never – as certain stereotypes would ironically later cast us – “peasants” at all). Rather, we aspired to the privileges of Westernization and modernization, and progressive concepts regarding human freedoms, and the role of governments in securing those freedoms for people, even at the cost of moving us away from those more quaint, more seemingly heart-bound and “simple” values — similar to those sentiments expressed in the American “folk music” I now gravitated toward, was trying vainly – and ironically – to carve my own niche in. But here is the confession I have to make: I was an impostor. From before I even had a choice. I was born into a modern Vietnam – striving to cast off her quaint “folk” qualities – and all those beautiful, virtuous, strong-souled “folk” songs that glorified peace and sensibility did not, in point of fact, address the contradictions of the middle-class, the aspiring, the inbetween-ers. Such as were we.

an Alaska window

This is a long, meandering path toward a slow, very slow-dawning realization that comes to me. It is to say that I have learned a lot from the “forms” I have adopted, and adapted myself to, and yet — in writing and singing to myself in that little house surrounded by trees and eagles (and deer, even the occasional bear, out my windows) — was when I began to understand, even to perceive, that there is, perhaps, a deeper and more resounding vein of “folk” (be it music, voice, story) I have yet to tap: that would be relevant to me, as who and how I truly am & came to be, all-told, all-varied — incongruent and mutable, nuanced and strident, a mix of Asian and Western, both bourgeois and refugee, natural (once-rooted) and displaced (uprooted) – to say, I am of all of these things as much as the other, yes – as much of the humble, grounded class as I have been of the aspiring, ambitious, “decadent” class.

& I must here realize: that in my own ambitions to write and sing American folk music, and to claim myself at home in Texas (my own type-casting of ultimate “Americana”), to embody that stereotype of “root”-ed Americana, I was in fact embodying – yet denying – the very contradictions of my Vietnamese persona: the debauched, slightly modernized Southerner trying to re-embody the virtue – the simple wisdoms and motivations – of that glorified humble “folk” person.

Is this relevant? Is this accurate? Or is this yet another misconception of types, ideals, underlying motivations, self-misperceptions? All I know is that at some point I began to realize that I am not really meant to sing American folk music. That I have been wearing a disguise, trying to own it. Or to eradicate certain convoluted truths about myself in it.

I think (& I think I get glimpses of it) that there is an even deeper, more obscure and lesser-known “folk” voice to heed, to listen to, to represent. Maybe. (Even American folk music has roots and veins that run deeper than the popular context might define it – the banjo was a folk instrument that came over from Africa; the content of folk songs can be traced back to the roving poetry of bards in Europe in the Middle Ages; and what of the Native American beats and rhythms, if we want to really investigate the voices that sincerely belong to this land?) It is hard for me to define “folk” as clearly as I would have a couple of years ago. But I also think that this present, still-undefined interpretation of “folk” voice is a tricky space to inhabit. That we still must figure how to navigate it, hear it, effectively and rightfully recognize it.

In Alaska on the winter solstice I went to a ritual bonfire of some folks in Douglas, on the banks of the Gastineau Channel, where people burn effigies and put things in the fire that they want to be rid of, to move away from — into one of these fires I put some of my own music-related artwork, with the intention of burning “ambition”, as I saw it. By this I meant to let it go — my own ambition to be an artist in the world as I had so far conceived of the role.

I went back to Austin in 2009 and did some recording, some touring. I became ambitious again. There were logistical and personal struggles in this process. My relationships, both personal and professional, were affected by this ambition, some things lost, some gained, some difficultly returned….and this song – “Origin Tale” – played a role, to varying degrees, in those lessons and transitions….

In short: The song is not perfect and its coming into being was not always harmonious. The process and the product both are yet experiments. But it is what it is, for the moment. It is a piece of a journey, a search. And so I would like to share it as such for now.

I am not good at winding stories down to neat conclusions or epiphanic endings. My own tendencies seem to lean toward the ambiguous ending. So…

You can listen to origin tale online, or download it here :

"Origin Tale" - a song / free download

Although the song is free, donations are being accepted (via the above download link) & the proceeds will go to DVAN and to ADAPT.

dao strom

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