Hieu Minh Nguyen challenges white supremacy in poems about his family

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Photo courtesy of Hieu Minh Nguyen

Photo by Hieu Minh Nguyen


Hieu Minh Nguyen‘s poems travel through time.

Nguyen, a Minneapolis-based poet who writes on race, queerness and history, dove into the past with “White Boy Time Machine: Instruction Manual.” The piece is the first in a series of poems that challenge white supremacy and trace its effect on Nguyen’s family, in particular his mother, who emigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam.

Nguyen, 24, brings whiteness to the forefront with the poem’s title, but discards it immediately in the narrative, subverting literary traditions that prioritize white narrators. Whiteness is a jumping-off point for the speaker’s “time travel” to experiences of the past, he said.

“The white boy … is an object of the poem the same way that people of color have been the objects of history books forever,” Nguyen said. “I wanted this white boy to be a vehicle to get to narratives about my own history, or my family’s history.”

Told in brief declarations spread over the page, the poem is a conversation between past and present — an exploration that began with studying social justice-oriented theater, Nguyen said. “I realized that theater and performance and writing can be about you, and not something you hear and memorize from a white man,” he said.

Several vignettes show flashes of Nguyen’s family’s history. One section describes how “I bit his lip / & the ash spat back / my grandmother’s bones.” In that moment, “I tried to explain how every time I’ve been intimate with a white body, it’s felt like history was always present,” he said.

You can read the poem and hear Nguyen read it below.

White Boy Time Machine: Instruction Manual

In the beginning there was corn, a whole state
of boys, blonde as the plants surrounding them.

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll:::

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllOh, but why am I here?
lllllllllllllllIt seems important to mention all the things

llllllllllllllllthat went wrong: once, my mother loved a field & fled
llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllfrom the sight of its singed body.

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllOnce, my mother kissed my father
lllllllllllllll& the corners of his lips unraveled

lllllllllllllll& a child twice his size came out.
llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllOnce, the child cried & cried & cried

lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllluntil someone put something in its mouth.

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll:::

Near the quarry, a population of humming
lllllllllllllllboy machines—humming love songs & the National Anthem
humming drive-in movies & pick-up trucks
lllllllllllllllhumming ball caps & slow dances & pebbles at your window.

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll:::

I guess I’m trying to explain what’s happening
lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllwithout leaving:

I took his hand
llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll& the geese came back
lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllfor autumn.

I bit his lip
llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll& the ash spat back
lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllmy grandmother’s bones.

I rose from his lap
llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll& the dirt sunk
llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllla hundred years.

I laid in his bed
llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll& watched everyone
lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllfall into their mothers.

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll:::

I went back to catch a boy who fell from a tree
& the scars folded back into my knees.

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll:::

llllllllDon’t ask me how.llllllllDon’t ask if I’m a ghost.

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll:::

lllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllI know, I know it sounds strange
lllllllllllllllclimbing inside a boy & crawling
out into yesterday’s light.

llllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll:::

Somewhere somewhere
llllllllllllllla school of metal-clad boys.
Somewhere somewhere
lllllllllllllllmy mother is just a girl.
Somewhere somewhere
llllllllllllllla white man hands her a flower
& my eyes flicker blue.

Hieu Minh Nguyen is the author of “This Way to the Sugar” (Write Bloody Publishing, 2014), which was a finalist for both a Lambda Literary Award, and a Minnesota Book Award. Hieu is a Kundiman fellow, and a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine. His poems have also appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Indiana Review, The Adroit Journal, Ninth Letter, Devil’s Lake, The Paris-American, Vinyl, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Minneapolis, where he flails his arms. This poem was first published at Devil’s Lake.

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