And the Waves

Nguyen, Katrina – New Orleans

This summer, we present a special series on poems as maps. Read the introduction to the series.

We thought the worst was over, then the water came.

No, I can’t begin there.  Yes I am Vietnamese, yes I am from New Orleans.

Still?

I was born in New Orleans, and Katrina is not my real name. Well, it was not the name I was born with. “Walking on Sunshine”? I listened to it all the time when I was a little girl, and I thought Katrina was such a pretty name. You know she’s from New Orleans too?

If I tried to teach you how to pronounce my given name,
you’d know why I go by Katrina.

I had a donut shop —   Walking
                                                  on
                                                  Donuts

Yeah, my customers didn’t get it either, it seems no one can see my face and skin and think of music.

But every new customer who came through the door was ready for a story, my story, and when they asked me where I’m from, I could tell them exactly, right here, New Orleans, in my own shop when Vietnamese shrimpers, Mexican and Chinese restaurant workers,
black and white dockworkers,
the Arab greengrocers who called me their friend,
the two Native American men who worked at UPS,
everybody came in
for coffee, donuts,
and for the story buried in a name
after I told my tale no one asked, where are you really from?

They have these shirts now: “Katrina Gave Me a Blow Job I’ll Never Forget,” and “Katrina: Bitch Blew the Whole City.”

Now people will ask me, again, where I got my name.

There was an elderly Vietnamese woman who survived on her own for weeks by catching fish out of the muck and drying them on the windshields of half-submerged cars.

A couple days after the big flood my friends and I paid tribute to her. Gloria found some lipstick floating around a few blocks from a flooded Walgreens and Mai salvaged some hip waders from her father’s fishing gear. We put on that purple lipstick and those hip waders and danced on top of half-drowned cars for a while, laughing and hooting.

I wish I could say we did what we set out to do. But we didn’t. Even as we danced and tried to celebrate being alive and kicking, I could feel my teeth, hard and unmoving, beneath any smile I could manage.

We were here, too. There, I said it. There were Catholic priests who confessed to one another in Vietnamese for the sin of stealing boats to save lives. There were Buddhist monks who smoked cigarettes and played guitar to relieve the stress of wet drowning death and every soggy heavy life you were able to lift above the water. There were tattooed men and women eating crawdads on heaping plates with hot sauce and cold beer and singing Vietnamese songs.

Why weren’t we on the news? Not even after they wanted to build a garbage dump smack dab in the middle of our community?

It’s like this country only allows us one grief at a time.  Your people, you had that war thing. That’s all you get. Shut. The fuck. Up.

Can I talk about my parents? How they worked as shrimpers until the KKK came like ghosts starched stiff, rifles pointing to God in their arms like crucifixes, threatening their lives for working too hard?

Now you want to save me. When I’m pretty and tragic, the white horses start to stampede in the distance. What if I told you that, through all this water, I don’t even know what salvation looks like. If you are my salvation on the other side of the glass on this gold fishbowl, how will I be able to tell a helping hand from a fishhook?

I mark time by the waterlines on the few houses that aren’t destroyed. I see stray cats who miraculously survived the flood and I want to scream to everyone that we are not eating them. I want to put on lipstick and dance anywhere dry and high. I want to make enough donuts in my ruined shop to feed every yellow, brown, black, red, white person in New Orleans, a Vietnamese superhero dusted in floor, wrapped in a cape reeking of the luxurious heavy smell of deep-fat fryers, a halo
glowing golden like a reflection of my skin
stained earth-brown with coffee.

Katrina, Katrina. I’ve never heard my own name more often, in the news and on the street. But no one sees me.

You don’t understand? Let me tell you, my name is Katrina, yes, I am Vietnamese, and yes, I am from New Orleans. We thought the worst was over. Then the water came.

Editors’ Note

“And the Waves” is reprinted by permission from Sông I Sing (Coffee House Press, 2011). Copyright © 2011 by Bao Phi.

About the Series: Poems as Maps

Our series on poems as maps features work by Elizabeth Alexander, Bao Phi, Joanne Diaz, Nikky Finney, Sean Hill, Andrea Jenkins, Douglas Kearney, J. Drew Lanham, Claudia Rankine, Barbara Jane Reyes, Sun Yung Shin, Evie Shockley, and Ocean Vuong.

Cite
Bao Phi, “And the Waves,” Places Journal, August 2017. Accessed 19 Nov 2017. <>

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