In late summer, I was interviewed by Filipina poet Hossannah Asuncion about my family’s 9/11 experience. It was for a multimedia project called Together We are New York: Asian Americans Remember and Re-Vision 9/11, in which Asian American poets interview members of their community about that horrific day and reinterpret the stories in verse. I heard those poems in September at a public reading to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
There will be another public reading of these poems on December 18 on the second floor of the Chen Dance Theater on 70 Mulberry Street. The event is organized by Kundiman, an organization of Asian American poets.
It is a moving production of voices and bittersweet memories that tell the unique stories of Asian Americans. We hear from a Chinese mother about how she was making soup when she heard the news, and from a South Asian cabbie who, in the aftermath of 9/11, was the subject of verbal attacks because of his turban.
While December is typically not a time for tragic thoughts, think of this encore performance as a moment for community story-telling where the memories of 9/11, as collected by Kundiman, remain “indelible, profound and visceral.”
When speaking to Hossannah Asuncion, my voice quivered as I recalled how my family found ourselves in three separate places when the World Trade Center towers were attacked: My daughter was at school in Lower Manhattan, I was reading emails at my old office in Chelsea, and my husband was just settling in with his first cup of coffee at his office in Times Square.
The subsequent chaos caught our family—new immigrants at the time—unprepared but having to make quick decisions. What I remember next was my daughter having to walk around Manhattan on socks (because her new pair of shoes was giving her blisters) and being reunited as a family at my husband’s office.
“That’s OK, mommy, daddy. Even if we die, at least we’re all together,” my little girl uttered those brave words as we all hugged in a brief emotional moment.
This is the poetry Hossannah Asuncion wrote about my family’s 9/11 story.
Inside you are American, but outside the papers rustle. Be careful of paper as you are cautious
of rubble. Pretend that the blood drying on the faces of the survivors is the red dye on a flag
that is on your home country and ‘home’ country. Maybe the television is answering the harder
questions. Maybe there are twenty more blocks to walk before your family is reunited. Your
daughter is alive, but maybe…
Maybe peace is just a train ride away. But maybe crossing borders and an ocean cannot protect
anyone from war. We can agree that there should probably not be violence, but there it is again,
When dinner arrives, the boxes may contain bombs. This is the vulnerability of wanting to know
and glass buildings.
You must get six out of ten questions correct.
What is the supreme law of the land?
What is a reason colonists came to America?
What are rights in the Declaration of Independence?
Are you a person of good moral character?
And you can say, Yes, yes a very good person, but only you can make me officially American.
And your young daughter will ask, because she saw too many things that day, Why would they
This country has enemies, you say, but it’s a strong country.
And we can ask, But what is an American?
And we can use words like document, or legal, or survivor.
Can we also say, But if we are in America, we are American.
If we are close enough to see the red, blue and white ways of wounds, or to have blisters
because we have walked a lot of ways to be safe, or to have risked enough to hope, shouldn’t
we be American, too?