if i told you this story, how culturally illiterate would you think i am?
panic had come spurting out and i was looking for a plug
to stopper the spray of a panic attack
i watched mister rogers’s neighborhood for the first time on an iphone. the ceiling of
my best friend’s room sloped almost horizontal, clothes and leftover food in piles
open-faced. in this cave, i squinted at fred rogers putting on his cardigan.
out of anxiety
he made me breathe
along to the neighborhood of make-believe—
certain times of year
i am a puddle of panic, quivering
like a drop of water
at once fluid
and with a surface
why do you need all these bottles?
there’s a more natural way
why do you always get yourself so stressed out?
you’re ruining your brain
– my mother, when i came home
with medication the first summer
she hid them in her underwear drawer, muttering
in each of these aphorisms a prayer
maybe medicating yourself
for a mental condition
maybe that’s why my parents had so much trouble—
how can you die without medication that’s only for the brain?
(with a mood disorder)
is a full-time job
the year of my first suicide attempt
that song whooshed around on the radio
then, the walls were dark red
tile, a bathroom for girls
who just had their first periods.
this was sometime after first period.
from the single window pane
i wrote a note to my mother:
if this is all life is, i am not
my twelve-year-old body
has never seen my mother
cry—but later, when they escorted
me to the principal’s office
i saw her in the hallway, a glimmering
of light from the corners of her eyes.
manic like laughter
my mother saw
- inflated self-esteem, grandiosity
- decreased need for sleep
- pressure to keep talking
- flight of ideas
- increase in goal-directed activity
- unrestrained buying sprees
and sexual indiscretions
my mother saw
i slept fourteen hours a day that summer.
light poured through the stained-glass window,
a shattering of light on her face.
she stepped out
of the light.
you’re so brilliant, why do you put so much pressure on yourself and spoil your brain?
all your brilliance is wasted.
in big-pharma country people make
out of their diagnoses
and wear them over turtlenecks
my mother still will not say bipolar.
i only know chinese words
not my own diagnosis in chinese.
i learned to speak by asking
i learned to not speak
like my father,
whose thick tongue clogs, pronounces
everything in tendons.
my mother of the thinner tongue translates
which direction is the train station?
how much is this?
where are you?
from one english to another.
even when he’s speaking
forget my father
ever knowing bipolar
*: “these medications are not made to be consumed by human beings”
**: “write a letter and tell me what color the sea is today”
a lyric from a song by a-mei
***: chinese synonyms for different degrees of sad
****: what’s for dinner tonight? can i have ten dollars?
where are you?
it is impossible to translate
if you gave me an interpreter
i’d move it
between me and my lover.
i want to ask it: what do i not understand
because i do not speak vietnamese?
Janelle Tan was born in Singapore and lives in Brooklyn. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Anomaly, Up the Staircase Quarterly, The Boiler, Winter Tangerine, Bone Bouquet, and others. She is the recipient of a 2018 Academy of American Poets Prize, and is currently an MFA candidate at New York University. She serves as an Assistant Web Editor for Washington Square Review and reads for Perugia Press. The only heaven she believes in is a basket of soup dumplings.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.