Except I am too shy to speak that quietly
a letter of melted voices
Author: AJAR
Published on: 9/19/2016 3:43:36 PM

In the beginning, as a hidden being, I was absorbed in the nước ối (amniotic fluid) of my mother. I was there, safe in darkness, unknowing of what would happen, until being born. Then I came to know that I am a vulnerable being in life. To know about nước mắt (tears), the waters of human, and nước mưa (rain), the waters of sky, one pushing from the inside out, one falling from the outside in. We can say the nước of nature, the natural being, of ponds, rivers, seas, which are originally colorless, scentless, pure. I know about this pure nước, and that not-so-pure nước: nước dãi (spit), nước miếng (saliva), nước mũi (snot), nước tiểu (urine) and more. But I wonder if some kinds of human nước could also be that pure?

And we never think of nation as some abstract idea when it comes to nước: we are in the same nước, our people: người trong một nước. Vietnam is a nước for people, as a living space, to love, to protect, and to be protected inside, as in a mother’s womb, not simply a nation or an institutional name. Could we live in peace in our nước?


In thinking of nước in my English, a language that does not have one word to bind together thoughts of water and thoughts of nation, I can only think about it, not in it. Rather than being submerged in the word, I can think about it only with the distance of watching from the shores. I can only see my nation after leaving it, floating over to another language, where “country” isn’t the country I thought I was standing on, with feet planted on the ground, but rather it is the waters that have been bathing me since birth, waters I never before recognized as waters until I stepped out of them.


The story of the relationship between language and nation gives me much wonder. A language represents a nation, it is its treasure, but does a nation therefore own it and use its language as an indication of its people’s identity? Language belongs to the people who use it, to the community that embraces and nurtures it. I can’t help but question myself: As a ‘pure’ Vietnamese, could I write in another language while continuing to be in my not-foreign-country? Could I write in another language and say “I am a Vietnamese,” without being too obsessed with writing in not-my-mother-tongue, betraying my own language and being an outsider in another? Could I say “I love you” without worrying too much about mispronouncing your name? Could I write in your language and could you generously open yourself to perceive my limited love for your language? Somehow it is only in my vague image of sharing and understanding and equality and emancipation where languages can be our companions, not our burdens. I wonder if it is possible to openly cross among countries and languages, so we are here and there simultaneously. Do you think it is just an illusion that may do harm to the beauties and differences of languages? 


I think we need the borders, sometimes, like water needs a container, a body to hold it. I think we need the borders of nation because, at the very least, those borders hold our different languages. Maybe the question is, how to fluidize ourselves, to be “a worshipper of the flowing” as Czeslaw Milosz, so we can transcend/translate the borders and bodies that hold us.


To gather some drops of water that float here and elsewhere, and when hearing a sound, we conglomerate together in a formless form/an unformed form.

The falling scattered drops of life, your languages bathe us, cyclical and ceaseless, indefinitely leaking from one body to another, carried and deposited here, there, a muddled remembrance, your rhythmic lapping song, pools of an inescapable whirl, who will eventually vanish into the air, who will inevitably return.


- excerpt of Letter from the editors, issue 4
- full version available in print here