Poetry: Truong Tran

from the book of others

I am writing these words out of necessity. Suppose the white male candidate with a Bachelor’s degree who was given the job, suppose he could to say. These words imagined, had they been voiced would rewrite my history, erase this book. That one man could change the life of another man, if only he could say these few imagined words. That he could do this without knowing his own reach. That is his privilege. As this is my life. Suppose this happened. Where would I be now? Would I be writing these declarations of necessities, of this being my life. I could imagine him saying. So that it’s clear, these are my imagined words. I imagine him saying, “As much as I want this job, As much as I know I am capable of doing this job, I don’t have the teaching experience. I don’t have an MFA or the equivalent as stated in the job ad. I don’t think it’s fair that I take this job.” I could imagine him saying this out of kindness so that I know, so that he knows, so that you know. I don’t need to be told that he is innocent or ethical or that he would be the first to empathize with my predicament. I know. That I have peeled away the skin, both his and mine. That you would want to bandage his wound. That I am writing this now because I know. And still I have been told I am a person of color and still I know. I know I am other. I am brown. Suppose I could believe I have the right to claim, to take, to walk in, be given. I’ve been told that this is privilege. I once knew a woman who wrote a lifetime’s worth of words. She won an Emmy. She framed America in profound form and still I knew what she had been told, what I’ve been told, “Don’t go playing in our house. Don’t go eating at our table. Don’t go speaking our language.” These are not imagined words. “You’ve been told. You’ve been told.”

Dear You,

We’ve never spoken and here I am writing to you as though I know you. I don’t know you. You seem like a nice man. Your students speak very highly of you. I’ve wanted to introduce myself on several occasions but somehow I am always rushing to or from some place or another. That is to say I am good at avoidance as a way of existing. I’ve stopped taking the elevator because I am afraid. That if I do, I will find myself in that contained space, you and I in awkward proximity for the duration of descending five flights. Should that ever happen, I am afraid of what I might say. I am afraid of the silence, of living with the regret of choosing not to say.


I am writing you today in search of an answer. “What could he have done?” I’ve held on to this question for sometime now. That I am asking. That I am writing to you in the hopes of letting go, taking back, rethinking, replacing what I have displaced. Even as I am writing this letter, I am sensing my anger arriving here.


I am standing in line at a supermarket. The clerk waves her hand. A gesture is made. A guy hesitates. He follows her instructions. He cuts in line. He pays for his sandwich and I am here, arriving at this anger. “Hey asshole, there’s a fucking line.” He looks as though he wants to apologize. He hesitates. He takes his sandwich and leaves the store. I am having this out of body experience where I am seeing myself as others see me, the clerk, the boy behind me in this line, the mother, the person buying a basket full of groceries. I am seeing myself as the angry other. I am describing myself as others would describe me. Dangerous, hysterical, loud, fat and unfriendly. I am small in comparison. I am seeing myself as that racist in a subway car caught on camera, a virus made invisible, seen then unseen. Would this have been a different story, had he not been white, would I have said what I had said, had I not been me? Could this have been a different story?


I am writing you this letter. I am asking as a way of answering. That we may never share that elevator, the five flights ascending. That we may never talk as colleagues or peers. I am asking this of myself. What could I have done? Had I the privilege of being.


This letting go, This taking back, rethinking, replacing what I’ve displaced. I don’t think I am there. I may never get there. I am writing so you’ll know, I am still trying to get there.


I was writing you this letter to remind you of your privilege. Something changed along the way. The question here in became the answer. What could you have done.

I’m writing so you’ll know, so that you’re clear, You are the reader of this book. You are the other inside this book because I have been the other for my whole life. Just this once, I want to see you as the other. I want you to see what it is that I see, how I have been seen. You are the you I’ve written, that you should be read as universal. You are the singular. You are the person who set all this in motion. You are that woman. You are the man behind the woman. You are pulling the strings. You are getting away unscathed and unwarranted. I want you to know that you are known. You are the system. You are the privilege that happens before the claiming, that privilege happens in the disclaimer. You are the one they are proclaiming innocent. You are them. You believe that you are innocent. You are afraid of getting involved. You are afraid of standing. You are afraid of speaking. You are afraid of reading this book. You are afraid of writing this book. You are the stranger inside this book. You are the stranger who asked for more. That somehow my living was not enough. You are asking for trauma and tribulation. Am I on trial? You asked. Is it because you are afraid of believing these words? You are the one who left this story. You think you are free of implications. You are the woman who looks at me with pained expressions of empathy. You cannot find the words to speak when you are in my presence, when I am in your presence. You are that friend. You are the teacher. I once called you a mentor. You asked how I was doing not long ago. You offered to meet for coffee or lunch or dinner and then you decided that was enough. You’ve had enough. You are the silence inside this book. You are the silent one inside a room. You are the one who refuses to believe. You find it hard to believe. You are the condition. You are conditioned. You are the reader inside this book.

Take one. I’m still trying to write this line of poetry as though I’ve stepped out the front door. The door is painted red. I am stepping into a tree lined street. The sun is peaking through the branches. The birds are singing an ominous song. I am looking up. I close my eyes. I am breathing the air. I am walking away. This is how I want life to be. This is the poem in its entirety. It ends with this period.

Take two. I am walking down the street. My eyes are still closed. I am struck by a car. I open my eyes. I am standing at the door. It is still painted a blood shade of red. I pause. I turn the door knob and walk back in. I am looking down. There are two kinds of shit inside this house. Dog shit and human shit. I am moving deliberately towards the center. I am careful not to step on shit. Freshly formed mounds of shit appearing as I walk. I am careful not to step on shit, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. There are no bodies, just notes of excuses written as reasons. Because this is not a game, I know I will arrive at the truth.

Take three. It is not much of a choice or that profound a truth but it is mine. I am still alive. I chose this path. I choose to write this. I take off my shoes, my socks. I step on shit. I drag it across the carpeted floor. I arrive at a table at the center of this room. I arrive at knowing that poetry is not a written line. It is not the crafted image. What is it then? Is it the approximate weight of a foot sinking into a mound of warm shit? Is it the stench of human shit waffling its way to awaiting lips? Is it the reality of breathing in? Is it the gesture of living hand to mouth? There are no forks or spoons. To know the texture, the touch, the taste of dog shit is to know the meaning of this line. You eat this with your hands. To know this of being human is to know this of human beings.

The words at the beginning of this book were written long ago. Because I am a shade of brown, what I choose to say is often received as literal truth. That is to say the truth serves a utilitarian function for those who can afford a utility closet. The truth is kept there with the bodies and the beef, dry aged until it is litigated, made into a lie. Because I shared what I wrote on social media, I have been told that it could be used against me as evidence affirming my irrelevance. I wrote a poem about wanting to write poetry. The wanting in the poem makes it so that it could be said that I am not being. I am writing this book as the absolute truth for a readership of one or two or maybe a handful of perpetrators. I’ve included facts to back up this truth. The truth is, I am looking forward to the day when I can declare myself irrelevant. That is to say, I am writing about dog shit and human shit and all kinds of shit these days.

Truong Tran is the author of numerous volumes of poetry. He is a self taught visual artist whose work has been exhibited in venues including the California Historical Society, California Institute of Integral Studies, SOMArts Gallery, Telegraph Hill Gallery and The San Francisco International Art Market Art Fair and is forthcoming at Avenue 12 Gallery and The Peninsula Museum of Art. He lives in San Francisco and teaches at Mills College. Of his work, Truong says, “Art be it poetry, sculpting or making dinner for a group of friends are just my ways of thinking though the consciousness of these times.” He believes that speaking, writing your truth is never poisonous. Never. Contrary to Public perception, he is not that angry. He is just fighting for the right to exist in his own skin.