Behind the Poetry of แล้ว and then entwine
by Jai Arun Ravine
แล้ว and then entwine is a skin that once peeled from Ravine’s body took the form of language. Inscribed on pieces of rice paper, Thai lesson workbooks and notebook pages, this text hung on the walls of our apartment in Boulder, CO. แล้ว and then entwine is born out of Ravine’s divine and dangerous rite of passage from a half-Thai ballerina dancing in the hollers of West Virginia to a trans-shaman-prince-warrior in the form of Ram who dares to probe beyond the silence and speak hir mother (‘s) tongue. These words are not extended poem or anti-novel, but incantation. Ravine carried Ram to term and I helped coax the boi-child as midwife with the harmony of a shruti box and a congress of ravens. Pieces were conjured over a pot of simmering curry, stringy meats and steaming jasmine tea and in empty rooms where we danced to the sound of Thai vowels and embodied rock, rope and sea.
-Marissa L. Perel
Waitlisted (again), I went to the first class of Bhanu Kapil’s fall 2006 semester course at Naropa University with the hope that one of the three White boys ahead of me in line would drop out. (One of them did. That wasn’t enough, though.) I remember the trance-like state through which she led us in a writing exercise, and although I can’t remember it exactly, in my memory she told us to imagine the space between, to imagine a journey through that space, to draw the texture of that journey, to keep its notebook.
I drew this:
…which for me was both a rope and a river.
It became a seed.
I feel like I gave birth to this book. Strange, considering that I hate babies (…okay, except for cute Asian ones…) and, while Thomas Beatie wasn’t the only trans guy in the world to do it, I’ve never had any desire to be pregnant. I feel like I gave birth to this book because there are strands of the text I don’t remember writing so much as I remember how they came out of me, and the textural process of revision–knotting, un-knotting, cutting and tying to–once they were out.
In the Boulder blur between summer and autumn, 2006, I was wandering some residential side streets, sort of lost. From where I stood, it was one year after an Amtrak ride from West Virginia (when I carried two suitcases and some cigarillos and didn’t turn around to wave) and one year before the Penske Craigslist rideshare to San Francisco (when I drove at 3:00 AM past the lights over Laramie, spooked by the ghost of Matthew Shepherd). I turned around to see my future friend–the writer, performance artist and healer Marissa Perel (a.k.a. MVP)–standing in the middle of the street, smiling.
Several months later, in a cafe/bookstore on Pearl Street, MVP and I sat at a table near the front with a small curtained window. (There might even have been a glass vase with a flower in it.) Looking up from our journals, we said, Let’s live together!
Both of us had moved from the east coast. Neither of us owned real furniture. Our living room was bare for the longest time. We turned it into a dance studio for authentic movement. We turned it into an airport. We put altars on either side of the fireplace. We put up our writing on the walls. We drew goddess cards and drank red wine and ate curry out of acorn squash. We danced to Kate Bush. We put up a picture of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha on the window facing the parking lot and watched it fill with snow. It was where, every Friday morning in the spring, MVP gave me the critical mojo I needed before I going to teach class.
I miss that apartment. It was our raven haven. It was our school of embodied poetics. It was where แล้ว and then entwine was born.
On the third floor of the now non-existent Allegheny Books in Charleston, West Virginia, I spent junior high summers sitting on the floor in front of a section probably labeled “HISTORY – ASIA.” I looked for Thailand and found it was written by White people, illustrated in black and white photographs and printed in the 60s and 70s. Eventually I learned one to ten. I guess I didn’t need to count any higher.
When I decided to study abroad in Thailand in 2004, I decided I needed something to hold on to. I decided that this was basically my only chance to connect to a history, language and culture I thought was mine–I figured I had a right to it. But the other non-Thai, mostly White, American students in my program had other reasons–new experiences, fresh perspectives, to be exposed to different cultures, to go to Cambodia and see Angkor Wat–and often I felt they were fitting in more than I did. They were on their way to becoming advertisements for study abroad catalogs, promotional materials for tourism and instruments for US-Thailand public relations.
I traced Thai script in kindergarten workbooks. I read the signs I passed in red song taew taxis. I asked for sticky rice and meat on a stick and pineapple. But I discovered that this language failed me and fell short when I attempted to express myself to the aunt and queer cousin I had just met. Learning Thai was tied to a sunken past only partially legible in my face. As a queer, gender non-conforming, mixed race and diasporic subject, I wanted to stake claim to something concrete that could bind me to Thai-ness, that said I could belong. If biological family and bloodlines were insufficient…
…What claims can be made to silence?
The project that became แล้ว and then entwine developed from my need to imagine a historical relationship to Thailand, to invent a past and create a mythology, in order to figure out what that relationship meant to me in the present. I wanted a clear line from A to B to C–from Thailand to the United States to me–so I drew it. I wanted to put that line into my hands.
I started writing this text in the fall of 2006 during my MFA at Naropa. Just that August I’d read Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee and Myung Mi Kim’s Commons–two works and two authors that may have single-handedly helped me develop my poetical politics/political poetics. From them I learned what it means to “come into speech,” the effects of silence on the body, and what arises in the discourse between two languages/two nations.
I also finally discovered Padcha Tuntha-obas’ composite.diplomacy and trespasses. Up until then I didn’t know any other Thai poets, much less Thai poets who worked with Thai and English on the same page and were complicating notions of translation. For the first time I felt I was not alone and that my own work could be possible.
That fall I took a “Food as Metaphor” fiction course with Indira Ganesan. This was where all the meaty connections between hunger and language, learning and eating–the mouth, the mother, the river–began to take shape. Working with lines of dis/connection in family trees and genealogy diagrams, I wanted to show that the inheritance of silence was palpable and suffocating.
Everything I wrote that fall I fed into this project: the creation of a notebook that dreamed–re-imagined–my mother’s immigration. I wanted desperately to hold on to something, even if I had to make it up. That’s how much I needed it to make sense. That’s how much I literally wanted to make complete sentences. I was tired of fragments and the endless fragmentation of being; I was tired of line breaks and arbitrary spacing–I wanted paragraphs. I wanted a narrative. I needed to make a map.
In an interview with Lantern Review, Craig Santos Perez talks about the page as ocean in relation to his multi-book project, “from unincorporated territory“: “I imagine the blank page as an excerpted ocean filled with vast currents, islands of voices, and profound depths. I imagine the poem forming as a map of this excerpted ocean, tracing the topographies of story, memory, genealogy, and culture.”
Perez talks about words rising up from this ocean/page like archipelagos, with all that is still submerged. I think about this kind of weaving in relation to my interaction with the apartment wall on which my book emerged. Because I was thinking of my project as a journey, as a long poem, as a map, I needed a surface large enough to allow me to see all the points at once–to see the source and conclusion simultaneously. Using the wall helped me visualize the text in relation to its parts, to get a sense of the whole.
The way I walked to and from this wall makes me think of Perez’s ocean. I stuck printouts to the wall with sticky tack and walked back. I walked up to the wall to re-write and revise and then walked back. I cut up parts of the text, added a note, diagram, picture or drawing, and then walked away. I walked up to move parts around and rearrange sections and then walked back. One day Nora Cox gave me a Chiquita pineapple tag that explained how to cut a pineapple in four steps. I added it to my wall:
This back and forth, discursive action also applies to the ways I used translation. I looked up traditional Thai poetic forms and modeled my own writing after them–translating from English to Thai to English forewords and backwards several times. Utilizing my dictionaries and worksheets from 2004, I used the direct translation as an anchor and then swam out, back and out again, drifting with the current. I also experimented with making the English text foreign and strange by translating it in and out of itself in the same way.
Because of this discursive motion, I have a very tactile relationship to this text and to its mythology. Like drawing the image of the rope/river, I needed to make this journey as visual, as three-dimensional, as possible. MVP and I made a song to “sweet bones” and sang it during a graduation reading. I made collages on rice wrapper. I wrote the text from the LOY and DTERN sections on rice wrappers.
In a performance I did at Naropa with MVP in 2007, I read the text from the wrappers, then cracked them or placed them gently into a bowl of water. I made a trail of rice kernels. I put soaked wrappers on my forearm and read the text off my skin. MVP accompanied on wrapper handling and shruti box. During an evening in which everyone else stood behind a podium and coughed, I got in trouble for bringing bowls of water on stage, in precarious proximity to electricity.
Toward the end of writing this manuscript in the spring of 2007, I was starting to question a transgender identity. One of the reasons it took me a while to revisit the work was because being Thai was entwined with a kind of femininity I was beginning to disidentify with. While I had surrounded myself with literature written by first and second generation Asian American women and other women of color (like Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior), I was starting to recognize a familiar and depressing pattern concerning immigration, fracture and mothers. I was beginning to disidentify with the immigrant mother and daughter dynamic I had mythologized in my text.
Being gender non-conforming in the San Francisco bay area presented its own challenges that seemed to function outside my relationship to being mixed race and Asian American in the bay. My preoccupation with gender pushed my preoccupation with Thai-ness away for a while. I stowed the manuscript away and even packed away my Thai things. I didn’t want to look at them.
During the 2007 Summer Writing Program at Naropa, in the final week of my study there, I took Myung Mi Kim’s workshop and signed up for a one-on-one session with her. I gave her parts of the manuscript to read. She said, “I think you’re holding on too tightly to the text.” She said to give it some room to breathe, to make some gaps. I knew where she was coming from, but at the same time I didn’t want to. I was told that when I was born the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck in such a way that for a few seconds I wasn’t breathing. For me this text was about holding on too tightly, was about making complete sentences with periods, was about writing a narrative strung together in one line, on one rope, was about choking.
I went to Thailand for the second time this past March and April, and through a residency at ComPeung made my short experimental film on Thai trans-masculinities, Tom/Trans/Thai. I was prepared to pass as farang (white/tourist); I was prepared to say “khrap” (the male participle required for polite speech). Every so often a Thai person would ask me, in Thai, “Where do you come from?” and depending on how I felt that day I would say either “Phrathet America” or “I’m half Thai, my mother’s Thai.” Sometimes they would then ask, “How come your mother didn’t teach you Thai?” and I would say “She didn’t” (or, actually, “never taught”) and they would say “Good luck” and I would say “Thank you” and walk away with my banana smoothie, my DVD, my t-shirt.
I know now that I can never belong to Thai-ness completely, no matter how much I write that connection into being. There are parts I take and parts I leave. This time around I found myself in Thailand in small ways, like having a fabulously gay dinner with the Thai Transgender Alliance, getting a beer at the 7Eleven and having the best conversation of my life with another half Thai trans guy, and watching boys in tight jeans and high tops dance in front of the MBK.
Knowing the rope is there, I let it go. Writing แล้ว and then entwine taught me how to let go. And then, and now, and so, I do.
Jai Arun Ravine is a mixed race Thai American writer, dancer, video and performance artist. They received an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. Ze is the author of แล้ว and then entwine (Tinfish Press, 2011), the chapbook Is This January (Corollary Press, 2010) and The Spiderboi Files. A Kundiman fellow, hir short experimental film Tom/Trans/Thai recently exhibited at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, Thailand. Find Jai online at jaiarunravine.wordpress.com.