“What brought me to writing poetry early on was the desire to record my parents’ stories of living through the Vietnam War… I saw it as a kind of recovery project and a proactive way to insert their narratives into the dominant narrative of the Vietnam War… They were paid as extras [in Apocalypse Now] to become different characters, playing all kinds of people including the Viet Cong who were the exact people they were running from. They became POWs, translators. My mom had to shoot a fake gun in the air.”
– From a conversation with Cathy Linh Che
Above: This is my father, age 20-ish, in Nha Trang, Viet Nam, posing with the airplane he built in his surrogate family’s backyard in the early 1960s. He had not yet been drafted into the ARVN. According to my father, after serving in the army for eight years, he sent the Vice President of South Vietnam a newspaper article featuring him and the airplane, mentioning that he was gifted in mechanics. He asked to be transferred to the Air Force, which was much safer than being in the army. He was transferred not long after (Attribution: Cathy Linh Che).
I open my chest and birds flock out.
In my mother’s garden, the roses flare
toward the sun, but I am an arrow
I am Persephone,
a virgin abducted.
In the Underworld,
I starve a season
while the world wilts
into the ghost
of a summer backyard.
My hunger open and raw.
I lay next to a man
who did not love me—
my body a performance,
his body a single eye—
a director watching an actress
I was the clumsy acrobat.
When he came, I split open
like a pomegranate
and ate six of my own ruddy seeds.
I was the whipping boy.
Thorny, barbed wire
wound around a muscular heart.
“Pomegranate” appears in Split (Alice James Books, 2014), reprinted by permission of the author.
Left: This is me, age 4 or 5, wearing an áo dài in Los Angeles, CA, 1985, ten years after the end of the Vietnam War.
Right: Here are pictures of my mother and father in their teens. Both pictures were taken in South Vietnam in the 1960s.
Left: Charlie’s Point, Baler, Philippines, July 2015. In the summer of 2015, I visited the site of Apocalypse Now‘s famous napalm scene, in which my parents played extras from May to June of 1976. They, along with around 100 other refugees, were hired from the camp at Mandaluyong, a city just outside of Manila.
Right: Helicopters flying over Baler, Philippines in the film Apocalypse Now. When we watched the film together, my father pointed out that he was in one of those helicopters, playing a translator.
Left: Scene from Apocalypse Now, filmed at Charlie’s Point, Baler, Philippines, Summer 1976. From PRI: “Baler is considered the birthplace of surfing in the Philippines, a distinction it earned in the late 70s when Francis Ford Coppola chose this once-remote fishing village as the backdrop for some scenes in his film, “Apocalypse Now.” Quote from my father (translated from the Vietnamese): “That’s not real. While fighting in a war, who in the world is going to be surfing? That’s just ridiculous.”
Right: Baler Beach, Filipino surfers and a surfboard, July, 2015. Before the film, Baler was an agrarian fishing town, and in the years following, the small beach town has become a tourist destination, with Apocalypse Now tours, guesthouses, and surf lessons for those who have an interest in learning how to surf. According to folklore, after the filming, surfboards were left behind, and a surfing tourism industry was born.
Attribution: Cathy Linh Che; Apocalypse Now, Zoetrope Studios