Post-War Letters To My Grandmother

Sabine Huynh



I was eight, maybe nine, every couple of months

my parents made me sit at the big table

—the living-room one, where only guests sat—

to write a letter on air-mail paper as thin

as rice paper to a grandmother I had not

seen since we left for France five years earlier.


I liked the writing, but not the lying, it drove me mad

to fabricate a life. My parents went over

my wording: erase this phrase, change that one,

replace it with, don’t sound accusative, don’t ask

if she’s happy, or sick, or in need, don’t talk

about money problems, stick to school, good grades,

describe the weather, the sky, don’t be so abstract,

don’t delve into details either, it’ll sound like

you’re hiding something, your sentences are too long.


I was unaware that I was becoming a writer.

It’s fascinating how bashing made me creative.

Once, I dabbed a cotton swab into lemon juice

and invisibly wrote at the back of a letter:

Censors you are pigs, I hate you, ugly idiots.

Baffled, the paper crinkled. On the other side

the ink blotched, I had to start all over again.


So I filled up my lungs with courage and just put

down in black and white—neat and angry cursive—

I hate these bloody communists for not letting

you leave Vietnam, and for making your life

miserable. I hate your poverty and our own

even more. How are we supposed to support you

when we can’t even feed ourselves and the dog?


My father smacked me in the back of the head,

asked if I was insane, if I wanted her death. I think

she died five years later, but my parents never told me.

I have no memories of her, or of anything

really. I just know… She raised me until we fled.

I fantasize over the sole picture—a head portrait—

I have of her: her ivory skin, almond eyes,

pearl stud earrings. I believed she was my mother.

I didn’t walk until I was two and a half,

all I wanted was to curl up in her arms.


Had I known that a year later we would be

separated forever, I would have done anything

to remain on the checkered floor of her house,

like those cockroaches my mother used to thwack

with the thick heels of her wooden clog sandals

when she visited me—rarely. Did I recognize her?


I was eight, maybe nine, and regularly writing

to her mother—my mother—she accused of

being unforgiving. I wrote her fairy-tale

post-war letters in which the only unyielding

words were: Dear grandma, and: I miss you terribly.




Sabine Huynh, born in Saigon, grew up in France and has lived in England, the U.S., Canada, and Israel. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has taught literature and languages. She writes (in French and in English), translates, collaborates with artists and literary journals, and teaches creative writing in French. Her most recent publications include: a poetry anthology, a novel, a collection of stories and three poetry collections.



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