WITS Voices: Writing Letters We May Never Send
April 19, 2018
By: Minh Nguyen, WITS Writer-in-Residence
I teach high school juniors and seniors, and for one writing lesson, we focus on the epistolary format. I ask them to think of a person for whom they have very strong, likely mixed feelings, and to write a letter to them that is so honest they may not be able to send it or even share with anyone.
When you’re a teenager, the person for whom you have strong, mixed feelings is likely a family member, for family can be at times sheltering or violating. We read Ocean Vuong’s “Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read,” published by The New Yorker in May 2017. Ocean is a Saigon-born American poet and essayist who writes about immigration, loss, and the clefts that immigration digs within families.
In one class last winter, I asked the students to take turns reading this essay aloud, each student reading a portion then selecting the next reader. Many students in this class and in the school are immigrants, and when we took turns reading Ocean’s words, I imagined that we were using our voices to carry ideas that were uncontainable, much bigger than ourselves. It felt not unlike singing a national anthem, except that it was not about nations and more of an anthem to placeless-ness.
When we finished reading, we discussed. We talked about the sense of mixed feelings that the author has toward their mother and that the letter contained loving and bitter memories. We talked about why Ocean may not have wished to send the letter, and that sometimes your feelings about someone are confusing and unclear, and may shimmer in the back of your mind for years. We talked about how between two people, in the same language, there are things that won’t translate.
We talked about how the author brings up many different memories that don’t have a neat take-away, or a clear distinction of who is wrong and who is right. That sometimes everyone is a gradient of a mixture of both. It is better to be honest than to try to write a neat story we have read before.
Like Ocean’s essay, the students can express gratitude to the letter recipient:
“The time at Six Flags, when you rode the Superman roller coaster with me because I was too scared to do it alone. How you threw up for hours afterward. How, in my screeching joy, I forgot to say thank you.”
The students can write something that they wish they could say:
“When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?”
I reminded them that the letter is like the liminal space between what they say and what will be heard, and that if they wished, it could remain their secret. I asked them to take out a piece of paper wholly blank and start writing.
Minh Nguyen is a writer, illustrator, and organizer of exhibitions and art programs. She has curated exhibitions at Wing Luke Museum, and writes art criticism for Seattle Weekly, Art in America, ArtSlant, and elsewhere. Along with Claire Buss, she initiated Chat Room, a research and development project about how the internet has changed the culture and economy of art. She teaches art education programs at Seattle Art Museum.