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The following poetic essay by Ly Thuy Nguyen is the final installment in The Pronoun folio of the Transpacific Literary Project. Find the rest of the folio here. And make sure to listen to the Ly’s audio piece below.

That’s a character. A what? A character. Nhân vật: human + thing, in a tale to be unfolding. Not an assumption; not a name you learned to remember, not a fleshy shape or a face you already recognized. A character: a nature; a feature; a distinctive quality; traits of an individual, group, or nation.

Character; a word for the unknown. A space beyond your gaze. Something you have to look for.

When you find the character, remember: you have to ask for their names.


1. Naked fruit and sunflower seeds

You are not supposed to eat a fruit until it’s naked. Break a banana in two halves before peeling, dismembering the body so the consump(ma)tion is less pleasurable. Peel a tangerine, pick at the white veins on its skin. Strip off the albedo, feel how it rips, and drips on your fingers. Suck them. Put the fallouts, the broken pieces in your mouth, fast so no one can see. Stack the complete pieces on a plate. Your mother taught you well.

Now go, don’t look back. Maybe you will learn to be less proud when you see them devour at it, two pieces, three pieces at once. Their hands picking at the plate, their mouths, their lips, in constant motion.

Maybe you will look at the discarded pile on the floor: tiny white veins and ripped skins, alongside carcassed shells of sunflower seeds, and count the cuts inside your lips.

You cannot chew anything whole, so you rip it open.


2. “Bao”

Bun, its soft skin made from mothers’ tender touch, shaped like two palms pressing together. Bao: Enclosed like a prayer. Bảo: Treasured, and protected, so its skin stays intact. Until bitten, or engulfed.

Bao: A bond made, breakable.

Children of the Viet diaspora tell me they are terrified of speaking Vietnamese. They don’t know how to address a person who isn’t immediately related to them. They xưng con with everyone because that’s usually the only Viet pronoun they know.

You say you are con to all elders, whether they love you or not. You look at them and say it,
hoping it’s the right word to use, waiting for the validation, the dismissal and
sometimes you are disappointed. Just because you all are here doesn’t mean you
have all sat on a boat, or a plane, been lost in the ocean and found on land.
Sometimes you are too foreign, and they too far gone.

All Vietnamese do not love one another—but you already know that.

Sometimes you are not what they want, and they refuse to call you con. They chase you out,
take the only word you know back: Mày không phải con tao. Sometimes they can
only call you that, my child, with a name you had determined dead, like they are
mourning for the character they determined you to be. Sometimes you let them,
other times you leave and never come home.

All parents do not know how to love their children without breaking them—but you already know that.


3. A fruit and a name

Vietnamese pronouns reflect a desire to unite all people into an extended family. Viet people call each other đồng bào (同胞), brothers and sisters from the same womb. Our tales of origin were of separation: from Lạc Long Quân, king of the sea, and Âu Cơ, land’s fairy goddess, were borne a hundred eggs that hatched into a hundred sons. Half followed the king back to water, the other half were brought by the goddess to the mountain. It is the birth of a people, a nation that always seems to be torn in half. The land people stay. And the water people left.

This is how you are made to understand the society beyond: strangers are always long lost brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts. You use the same words to call your family as to call all people around you.

Which is to say, sometimes there aren’t words for people who are deemed to not belong in this mythical, blooded family of a nation that knows more war than peace. Somewhere in our history, an existence has been born without a name to inherit.

In 2012, three Vietnamese American students from UC Berkeley gathered to eat and practice Vietnamese together. Bữa Ăn Tiếng Việt, Vietnamese Speaking Dinner, came to life as a monthly occurrence, and quickly became a safe haven for the queer trans community in the Bay area1. One day, twenty trans and queer folks came to dinner at one organizer’s2 house and talked about the language for discussing queerness and sexuality in Vietnamese. There are some words, but not for all. Đồng tính luyến ái: love between same sexed people, a transliteral phrase from Han Chinese, which still defines the world as a binary of yin-yang, men-women, male-female. Which is meant to say, non-binary does not translate. Non-binary: bất nhị phân, computer language, numbered, cold, exacted. Or Queer: kì dị, quái đản, a strange thing.

Sometimes the language that is legible is meant to hurt.

Bóng: a term borrowing from bóng cậu–cross-dressing shamans, haunted by dead empresses, fated to dance and sing to tell the living about the future–to mean a homosexual man, an existence in the shadow. Pê đê: borrowing from a French word, pédé, meaning pedophile, to mean homosexual.

If you have a choice and a distance, if a label is not immediately forced down on you, would it give you more imagination for a name?

If you don’t have to unlearn, what will you invent?


I know a trans Vietnamese person3, who found out transgender in Vietnamese means chuyển giới and chuyển giới can be counter-translated back to transforming the world or crossing realms of existence. It blew my mind; I had never thought about it that way because I memorized the linguistic difference between the giới homographs. But it turned out my belief in the language had ruled out the possibility to (mis)understand something into existence. The knowability of a word’s definition forecloses its reincarnation. The fugitive thought ends long before the word can escape one’s mouth. The repetition of something makes it seem like a truth.


When asked about a non-binary pronoun in Vietnamese, someone combined the two gendered words: chị + anh = chanh || sister + brother = lemon.

Lemon, a fruit, fresh and sour, like queer resistance and disinheritance, inserting oneself into the origin tale. “It’s cute. We keep telling people about our Chanh pronoun. We love it. They love it. Everyone loves it,” a Viet queer nonbinary person4 said to me. A familiar fruit, a strange invention, not (yet) legible for those speaking Vietnamese. Something less of an identifiable label and more of a character arc—a tale you must witness to know, or learn by heart, or have whispered to you. Incommensurable clauses write themselves into existence: mismatched thoughts escape knowability and open the doors that once enclosed a belief. You cannot argue against them, nor claim right from wrong. They don’t look at you with anticipation, waiting for you to approve. They don’t let you scold, or condemn how they misuse the language.

They were not born in your language, your origin story, so they made one themselves, grafted anew.

Go ahead. Crack the shell open, rip off the skin, look at the fleshy thing. Give it a name.


1Thanks Xanh Trần for the information.
2Information taken from a short impromptu recording of one of the meetings. Thanks Total Nguyễn for sharing this with me.
3lotusthespirit who uses all pronouns
4Private exchange with totalcutz


[Audio text]

Character: nhân vật: human plus thing with
cái tên a name
hình hài a shape
nhân dạng a feature
đặc điểm distinctive quality
cốt cách nature
cá nhân an individual
cộng đồng a group
đất nước a nation
không biết unknown
không gian space
you gaze ánh nhìn
into vào


This is how I am to you:
I, your blooded child, your sibling, this side, my body, my realm, my being, my individual self
Tôi: con, em, đằng này, mình, bản thân
Vết thương , bị thương, yêu thương: tender, tender, an open wound
bánh bao, gia bảo, một hình hài mềm mại từ mẹ đẻ ra: I come from you
cha mẹ từ con, con từ cha mẹ: I depart from you, I denounce you
người đất người nước: land people, water people
người đất ở người nước đi: stay and leave
người lạ người quen: stranger, acquaintance
ta, mình – họ, chúng: our side, our body – they, the numerous enemies


This is existing beyond language:
dịch sai, mistranslation and creation
queer is beside the norm. chuyển giới trans-gender is transforming a world gendered, crossing realms of boxed existence – resist – transit
chị + anh = chanh older sister + older brother = lemon
A familiar fruit, a strange invention, not (yet) legible for those speaking Vietnamese. You cannot argue against them, nor claim right from wrong. They don’t look at you with anticipation, waiting for you to approve. They don’t let you scold, or condemn how they misuse the language.
They were not born in your language, your origin story, so they made one themselves, grafted anew.
Go ahead. Crack the shell open, rip off the skin, look at the fleshy thing. Give it a name.

Ly Thuy Nguyen is originally from Vietnam and is a queer academic, translator, and artist. She has an MA in Sociology from San Diego State University and is currently finishing her doctorate degree of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her dissertation is entitled “The Geopolitics of Returning: Exchange education, Differential Diaspora, and Global Vietnamese Identities.” Her research ruminates on historical memory, traveling subjects, critical pedagogy, transnational feminist historiography, anticolonialism, and global queer futurity. Ly’s creative work focuses on identity, be-longing, and queer intimate woundedness. A short film that she helped write and produce, Hoài (Ongoing, Memory) (2018) has premiered at the LA Asian Film Fest, CAAM Fest, Boston Asian Film Festival, New Orleans Film Festival, among others. Her most recent English to Vietnamese translation work is You Will Always Be Someone From Somewhere Else by Dao Strom, published by Ajar Press (2018). You can find other fragmented drafts of her work in Vănguard zine, or her homepage Spatial Dysphoria.

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