The Poetry Project

On book of the other: small in comparison by Truong Tran

Kirby Chen Mages

I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder…I felt a “killing rage.”…With no outlet, my rage turned to overwhelming grief and I began to weep…The white man seated next to me watched suspiciously whenever I reached for my purse. As though I were the black nightmare that haunted his dreams, he seemed to be waiting for me to strike, to be the fulfillment of his racist imagination. I leaned towards him with my legal pad and made sure he saw the title written in bold print: “Killing Rage.” … I did not kill the white man on the plane even though I remain awed by the intensity of that desire. I did listen to my rage, allow it to motivate me to take pen in hand and write in the heat of that moment.
— bell hooks, from killing rage: Ending Racism

The above circumstances in which bell hooks arrived at her essay “Killing Rage: Militant Resistance” remind me of how Truong Tran came to write book of the other: small in comparison, in that they are both direct responses to the emotions of anger and rage that arose from racialized incidents. For Tran, book of the other explicitly and repeatedly makes reference to a discrimination lawsuit he filed against his employer after being denied a tenure track professorship for the third time in his twelve years of working for the same university. The person who received the tenure position instead of Tran was a white man with no experience teaching graduate students, who also happened to be the husband of the department chair. He was chosen by a panel of three white faculty members. As Bhanu Kapil describes in the book’s introduction, book of the other is Tran’s response to “a workplace experienced as obliterating, populated, and racist in both commonplace and overt ways” (5). It would take Tran ten years to arrive at the point where he could write about the incident, though he has made it clear that the book is not intended to speak solely to the experiences of racism in academia, but rather, the accumulative weight of microaggressions at large. The “weight of carrying someone else’s shame” (65), and how this havoc wreaked on the body manifests itself through language:

when you wake up one morning from years of silence. when your voice is not yours. you reclaim your voice. one sentence. one line. one word. at a time. when you write. you tell. you document a story. when you give up. you begin. when you begin again. you write. you tell. you document this story. when this is your story. when this is the way. you will find a way back. (24)

To release this weight, which appears in multiple forms throughout the book (rocks in pockets, a hoisted bag of rice, bricks, sand, and the obsession with oversized bags to contain it all), Tran must construct his own language. He cannot write in the language of those he refers to in the book as “dear white.” Here, again, I am reminded of killing rage, in which hooks writes, “Confronting my rage, witnessing the way it moved me to grow and change, I understood intimately that it had the potential to destroy but also to construct.” This is precisely how it feels to read book of the other from start to finish. And then read it again. And again. There is a constant dismantling, a constant reconstruction, a need to pull oneself out of the suffocating rubble, “you are buried beneath. a lifetime of these things” (33). And so, it’s encouraging that the book ends with a section titled “the book of beginning.” It reminds us that we are always rebuilding. And it’s only fitting that Tran would find himself employing the period as his sole punctuation mark of choice: “this period as a tool of utilitarian function. to dig. to break things down. the period as a verb. punching ones way through. in that same logic. it is a weapon” (137). It is through this device that he’s able to return to his voice:

that you lead me back. periods on the page. that ive come to believe. that i am the owner of this language. in all its imperfections. it is mine. and i am free. to do with it. as i see fit. this idea of owning a language. (142)

In book of the other, Tran seeks to hoard, claim, borrow, and steal language to make it criminal. He holds himself implicit. He charges himself as guilty—of being silent, of wanting to belong, of carrying other people’s shame. These are his crimes—the crimes of being a poet, of being other, of being a motherfucker. And yet, nothing compares to the crimes of dear white, the true crimes of discrimination, of those motherfuckers.

Tran says he is the prisoner. Tran says he has a spoon. He uses the spoon to dig a tunnel, but once he makes his way out, he is met with more walls. This is the nature of the book. Guilty of obsessiveness. Guilty of relentless retelling of facts. He writes that “this anger over time. becomes like muscle memory in the body” (218). We feel him enacting this exhaustive, rote movement: “this is not. the performance of outrage. of anger. of otherness. this is anger” (n.p.). The use of the period is the digging. The burrowing deeper into fact, memory, sentence, anger.

When it comes to the limitations of language, Tran seems to distrust the question mark above all else. The question can be used as a means of avoidance. dismissal. erasure. In this document, this “reporting of a crime,” this “autopsy”—he lays the questions bare, exposing them for the statements they truly are. The mark of a question could imply that there is no answer. It connotes an uncertainty. In book of the other, Tran is focused on stating the facts—that which is “entirely true” (55) and that which is “essentially false” (51). He wants it to be made clear: that he is angry. That he has been discriminated against. That people are continually being discriminated against. That this will continue happening unless we, the other, speak up:

dear white. this is not a comfortable text. that you are uncomfortable in reading this text. that i am uncomfortable in writing this text. that we must do this you and i. that we must sit with the discomfort. that with all this language. there is still this discomfort of the silence in between. (107)

hooks writes that “censoring militant response to race and racism ensures that there will be no revolutionary effort to gather that rage and use it for constructive social change…All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity.” And still, we must build with “these bricks made of words” (188). These bricks are sometimes rendered faulty, inadequate. We sometimes realize that we have built a wall with these bricks and no light can shine in. Then we must punch out every other brick to make a latticed pattern:

it. is. not. that. you. want. to. take. what. is. within. take. it. out. into. the. world. share. what. is. not. wanted. it. is. not. that. no. that. is. not. the. agenda. at. all. you. are. on. the. outside. you. are. forging. this. crude. and. blunt. instrument. heavy. in. your. hands. you. are. using. the. blunt. force. of. this. instrument. breaking. down. walls. only. to. be. confronted. by. more. walls. within. when. you. arrive. at. a. room. still. standing. within. ruins. (201)

This is the architecture of anger. While Tran speaks of his anger and outrage outright, what seems to be hiding between the lines—or more accurately, in the gaps between the truncated starts and stops of the exhaustive excavation of memory, thought, and feeling, made palpable through his relentless use of periods—is a deep well of grief. Underneath the anger there is always the well.

What ultimately called Tran to write book of the other was his feeling that he was living a lie with his students. He recognized that while he was professing for them to use their voices, he remained silent. The book makes multiple references to Tran’s life as a teacher. The book itself is dedicated to his students. More than anything, he offers this book as a gift:

i have only this to give. im giving it to you. the you who is inside this book. the you who is reading this. the you who is silent. the you that is i. i am giving you this. this is all that i have. i am giving this to you. (95)

In the same way that he slants the word motherfucker, he shows us the double meaning of owning something. In this case, the English language. He is owning the language in the sense that he is exploiting it through othering it—using it for his own means. His own story:

i am hoarding language. the english language. for a time when this english language. will be revoked. reclaimed. for when i will be told. that writing as i have is deemed a crime. (153)

And though he relishes in the pleasure of inventing his own language, by no means does he want to hold the exclusive rights to it. He welcomes others to consider how they are interpreting the language. How we would write our own language. To tell our own stories. He invites others into his house:

look inside. if you see something to your liking. take it. its yours. i want to arrive at nothing owned. do this. you would be doing me a favor. (236)

#269 – Summer 2022