My mother’s younger sister, Tah, was born in central Thailand and lived there until she was seventeen, when a German couple adopted her. Aunt Tah had always yearned for the European life, yearned for something other than her existence in Thailand, which was poor and hard and uneventful. Europe, to her, was a somewhere, which meant Thailand was a nowhere. So she decided to become the daughter of this childless couple, who promised to take care of her and send money to her family back in Thailand. There my aunt resided outside of Frankfurt, on rolling green hills, on the edge of the dark evergreen woods.
So away she went, and every month or so my mother received letters and packages filled with drawings and paintings and German poems she could not understand. This became my aunt’s life—the life of an artist. She took care of the German couple, cooked and cleaned and accompanied them wherever they vacationed, but the rest of the time she wrote in numerous notebooks and painted the world outside her farmhouse window.
After forty years, my Aunt Tah moved back to Thailand. She is going blind, and now someone pulls her along, tells her what obstacles are in her way. In Bangkok there are always obstacles.
When I visit, we sit in the sweltering Thai heat and talk art. In her voice is longing and regret.
“I published a poem once,” she says. Her eyes, under dark lenses, stare across the yard at the mourning doves cooing on the lines.
“That’s awesome,” I say. “You should put a book together.”
My aunt laughs, shaking her head. “I wrote in over thirty notebooks.”
“Did you bring them?”
“I wanted to, but your mom said I should throw them away. That my life is in Thailand now, not Germany.” My aunt sighs, but her eyes do not venture away from those doves. “I regret it.”
“So why did you leave the notebooks?”
“Because, here, the past is the past. We don’t examine it. We are supposed to live without thought of regret. It’s Buddha’s way.”
“But you do regret.”
She smiles. “I do. But what am I to do? They’re gone.”
I start with my aunt’s story because it is a narrative of the displaced. Especially while working on a new memoir that begins to put together the life before I existed. The life before I had a voice. We often forget that our lives began before we even emerged into the world, before we let out our first cry, that we, as a Buddhist monk once said, leave our fingerprints from our former lives all over the place, that if we listen hard enough we can hear our voices from long ago.
Most of my childhood, my mother spun tales of the fantastic, mixing in details from both cultures—Thai and American. Since I can remember, she has always claimed to possess a faulty memory. “I have Alzheimer’s already,” she’d joke. “So senile.” It was this comment that usually set off her stories, and her forgetfulness only added to their mythical quality. She inserted her imagination in the gaps of memory. What would start off as a retelling of a story from the Ramayana, the classic Hindi folktale, would end with Superman-like heroics—a gust of wind blown through puckered lips or heated-laser vision that scorched the tails of demons.
I did not tire of these stories until I reached the insubordinate stages of my life, when none of my mother’s stories, no matter how extraordinary, could take my attention away from beautiful brunettes or melodramatic teenage angst. After college, however, I wanted these stories back. I wanted them retold. My mother’s stories and the memory of her telling me those stories was what I wanted to hold on to, what might keep me Thai. I found myself missing her voice most of all, the way her body moved and rocked to the action of her narrative, the way she added both Thai and English words, this new intimate language we shared, the urgency with which she told her story, as if what she was uttering was the most important thing to hear.
It is here my voice began.
Recently, I gave my undergraduate creative writing students an assignment that produced the best works I’ve read in a while. I asked them about the languages they speak. A few students raised their hands. “Spanish,” one of them said. “I took four years of French,” said another. I told the class that each of them spoke at least five languages. They looked confused. “Here are the languages I speak,” I said. French, though all I remember is mange moi, eat me. Thai, of course. But I also know Thai-lish, the language I speak with my mother, Thai-ifying English words, switching inflections and intonations, like strawberry into STLAW-bur-LEE or casino into CAH-si-NO. I speak the masculine language of the working-class South Side Chicagoan—guttural, words clipped, fuck used as a period. Fuck. I speak a different language with my lover, which is wordless, which involves the subtleties of the body. I speak a more formal language with my colleagues in the English Department—a political language, a cautious language. I possess the insecure “fat” voice, a voice that wants to hide, a voice filled with questions, like no matter how big I am, you still love me, right? There’s more, I tell my students. They see what I’m talking about. They start sharing their other languages. The assignment, I tell them, is to write about one particular incident in their lives in five different languages. Give each voice no more than 200 words. When they return, they are eager to share. When they return, they say something that makes the teacher in me want to weep right then and there: “I really had to think about what I was doing,” they say. “I’m beginning to see what you’re talking about when you go on about language.”
In Writing Life Stories, Bill Roorbach compares the writing voice to the voices of musicians. Everyone knows the voice of Aretha Franklin or Mick Jagger or Joni Mitchell. Oh, Aretha, please R-E-S-P-E-C-T, you know what you do to me. Oh Mick, You can start me up, because I’ll never stop. Oh, Joni, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
The creative nonfiction voice is shaped by fear, by a yearning to understand, by the speaking of truths that are difficult to hear. The creative nonfiction voice is created by time period and environment and even music. (I will admit to being swooned and influenced by Bon Jovi’s 1990s love ballads.) It is all our languages jostling in the gut, climbing up the body, pushing through the throat. And the hardest thing for a young writer is actually opening the mouth and seeing what comes out.
One of Roorbach’s exercises in Writing Life Stories is to scream in public. When I was a graduate student at Ohio State University, teaching Roorbach’s text, I took my beginning creative nonfiction class out into the quad and we screamed, “I am here! I am here! I am here!” No passersby asked us why. No one asked us to stop. But people listened. Some, to the delight of my students, joined in.
Despite my mother’s reminders, when I was a child, that I descended from a line of Siamese warriors, a year after my mother moved back to Thailand in 2004, I realized the Thai part of me had drifted farther away. I had saturated myself in American waters. I watched and listened to American media, taught English at an American university. My knowledge of the Thai language had begun to slip. What used to be rapid-fire and accentless speech—something my mother prided herself on—now came out as stutters, as I searched for appropriate words and correct syntax.
This is voice, too, this loss of language, this way of retaining and re-creating what no longer is ours. It happens all the time. Is happening when we sit in front of the screen. This is to say, the voice we create is ever evolving. This is to also say, the voice we shape to tell our tale ends when the tale ends, ends with our memoirs. That the voice we use in one book is not the same voice we use in our next work. We go on that journey again and again. We shape. We form. We think about what voice will express our vulnerabilities in the perfect way. My Aunt Tah knows this. Though she regrets—regret by the way is voice, too—she is learning a new voice, in this new life, in this new world that is darkening before her eyes.
Voice is birth, naked and raw, and when we open our mouths, a scream blossoms—red and vicious—demanding attention.