Check out our week-long series on Shann Ray and Trinh Mai's collaborative work, Atomic Theory 7: Poems to My Wife and God.
DIERDORFF: As someone who often writes about my family, I admire how your art tells the stories of your grandmother, sister, mother, and father-in-law with such reverence and love. Your work ends Atomic Theory 7 by envisioning a larger family as you honor the lives of the Vietnamese “mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, daughters and sons” lost in the war. How does your family background inspire your work? How does understanding each human life as existing in connection to a family expand our shared responsibility, grief, and love?
MAI: The inspiration for the work I make for my family is rooted in how they loved me before they ever knew me. This perpetuates my desire to honor them through what may be the most true and effective way that I show my love—through my art. In 1975, my grandparents made the decision to flee a communist Việt Nam with their children so that they could practice their faith freely. They lived out this faith by sacrificing their lives, driven by the hope to attain a freedom and voice that we, the successors, could inherit. They fought for me and for my generation before we even became part of this world.
I speak about this often, but I need to continue doing so. I need to remember for me, for them, and for all the others, our brothers and sisters in humanity—those who survived, those who did not, and those who are currently in flight, wings tattered and molten. This fight for life continues still and still. We once were them. They are us.
I am astounded by the kind of strength that this willingness to surrender requires—a courage that is driven by a profound love for those who do not yet exist. How can there exist this kind of unorthodox love that incites us to risk our lives for something that we cannot see, and furthermore, something that we do not even know? This is the vigorous love that we are capable of. How utterly exquisite.
DIERDORFF: You write, “As time mends all things, it also reveals the grace that is born out of these moments of grief, the invaluable lessons learned, the significant Truths that surface, and the kindling of a Compassion that pierces even deeper than the wounds themselves.” This patience with and faith in time appears throughout your artwork in the contemplative rituals with which they’re crafted, in how they hold the past, and in how they reach for the future. I’m reminded of Julian of Norwich’s prayer: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” How can we better understand time as a healer instead of a destroyer in our individual and collective lives?
MAI: The moment that our physical existence ends, we are ushered into a place void of any further worldly suffering. Could it be that Time can also serve as destroyer and healer at once?
I have witnessed a healing that arises from death in the form of forgiveness. Offered by the living to the dying, and by the dying to the living, it provides comfort and stillness in the last hours. If we are so fortunate, we encounter a healing that takes place among the living, granting us more time to live in accord with one another, having sutured these wounding matters. Relationships are mended as resentment is conquered. Here, time serves as healer during its act as destroyer.
Still, there is a healing that can occur even after death—a pure forgiveness that is offered from the living to the dead, with no need for response.
My great auntie was the eldest of twelve children. She graduated with a master’s degree in social work in Belgium, right in time to assist her people in their migration to America after the Fall of Sài Gòn. She was aggressively religious, and took loving care of my great-grandmother, until she passed away two months before her one-hundredth birthday. I grew up playing her piano, attending prayer meetings held in her home, rummaging through her Jesus trinkets, and eating mangoes and Neapolitan ice cream that she would offer generously. But in my adult years, my heart filled with a fiery indignation for the distress that she pressed upon some of my family members. She and my grandmother were very close, so it hurt Bà Ngoại deeply to know of my resentment toward her beloved sister.
When my great auntie passed, I was sent to her home to salvage the relics. Among the items I collected: two heavily-worn, paper-thin, hand-sewn shirts, a small gray silk handkerchief, a collection of age-stained books, and a plethora of precious photographs that she had preserved from her life in Việt Nam. Sitting alone on her bedroom floor, I marveled at the care with which she had organized her life, documenting the dates and details on the back of every photo—who was in them, where they were, why they were there. I had not realized at the time that my path toward forgiveness for Bà Tiên had its genesis in this abandoned apartment that was filled with life still.
A year later, I developed the Family Tree series in which I embedded these historic family photos upon sixty-four pages of her pocket prayer book. Two years later, the Begins with Tea series hatched as I continued incorporating more family photos from her archive—this time, encapsulating them into one-hundred and ninety-four of Bà Ngoại’s used tea bags. For one of the tea bags, I included a photo of Bà Tiên holding me during my early years in front of the house on Chateau Lane, where that lime green tricycle carved a heart-shaped scar onto my ankle (I mourn as it fades with age). This was one of the many redemptive works that I had made for her unknowingly, but the first piece that revealed to me what it truly was.
I declared it as an offering of forgiveness. I was compelled to tell Bà Ngoại once I learned of its vindicating purpose. I remember how she looked at me in a silent understanding as we sat side by side at her dining table, under a lacquered painting of the last supper. I watched a peace settle upon her eyes as she gazed upon the tea bag that dangled from my fingertips like the crucifixes that hung from the rosaries Bà Tiên used send us home with.
This was an entirely profound experience—to learn that art has the power to draw out from us a simmering love that can annihilate the vexation that so craftily hooks its tenacious barbs into our hearts. And as it uproots the bitterness, it brings a stillness to these who bear witness.
[Tea bags from the Begins with Tea series that hold Bà Tiên’s photos:
She and Bà Ngoại in Việt Nam, she and I in Huntington Beach, and her individual portrait. Dried tapioca, mushroom, and red bean gathered from Bà Ngoại’s pantry]
I’ve been privileged to experience this kind of healing, even when the process is long, arduous, and discomforting. It mends the heart that has chosen to loosen this spiritual and emotional punishment. In time, these acts of forgiveness foster a peace in those who live on, also informing the ones who come after us. As we forgive, we become both the benefactors and the beneficiaries of an inherited healing.
And above all, there exists a healing that is offered to us by our Maker upon the death of the flesh. Time here serves as healer, even in its power to destroy—the ultimate act of meekness and divine grace.
Hannah Dierdorff turns the conversation toward poet Shann Ray’s contributions to Atomic Theory 7 in Part 4.
Born in Spokane, Washington, Hannah Dierdorff received her BA in English from George Fox University and is currently an MFA candidate for poetry at the University of Virginia. Her work has appeared in The Christian Century and The Worcester Review.
Trinh Mai is a second-generation Vietnamese American visual artist who examines the refugee and immigrant experience, then and now. Through a vast breath of media, she helps tell the stories of we, the enduring People, focusing on our witnessing of war, the wounds we’ve survived, our collective need to heal, and the custodial responsibility to which we are heirs. She is an alumnus San Jose State University and UCLA, actively exhibits, and has works taking residence in public and private collections internationally. Seeking hope within humanity’s struggle in war and hardship, she has exhibited in support of numerous humanitarian organizations, including the Friends of Hue Foundation Children's Shelter in Việt Nam and the Angkor Hospital for Children in Cambodia, also partnering with Oceanside Museum of Art, MiraCosta College, Community Engagement, and Bowers Museum in developing socially engaging projects with survivors of war. Her artistic journey has been documented by TAO in Honoring Life: The Work of Trinh Mai, which brought home the Audience Choice Award for Best Short Film at the 2016 Viet Film Festival. Mai is a recipient of the University of Washington’s prestigious Walker-Ames Fellowship, and continues to visit numerous academic and arts institutions to engage the community in creative storytelling and to speak about her art practice. www.trinhmai.com
American Book Award winner Shann Ray’s work has been featured in Poetry, Esquire, McSweeney’s, Ruminate, Big Sky Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, Diode, Poetry International, Narrative, Prairie Schooner, and Salon. He spent part of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeast Montana and has served as a scholar of leadership and forgiveness studies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Ray is the author of Atomic Theory 7, Sweetclover, American Copper, Blood Fire Vapor Smoke, American Masculine, Balefire, Forgiveness and Power in the Age of Atrocity, and The Souls of Others. He lives with his wife and daughters in Washington and teaches at Gonzaga University. www.shannray.com
With a foreward by:
Kristin George Bagdanov earned her M.F.A. in poetry from Colorado State University and is currently a PhD candidate in English Literature at U.C. Davis. Her poems have recently appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Puerto Del Sol, and other journals. Her two poetry collections Fossils in the Making (Black Ocean) and Diurne (Tupelo Press) were published in 2019. She was the senior poetry editor of Ruminate Magazine from 2014-2020. More at kristingeorgebagdanov.com or @KristinGeorge
Image by Trinh Mai.
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