A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
You might have seen them fishing on the shores of the Cape Cod Canal: My uncle in his fisherman’s hat pulling in a one-foot scup, my aunt in her pajama-like pants walking backward up the bike path, snapping a line that’s got stuck between the rocks, my other aunt reeling in a sea bass her husband by her side directing. Bikers, joggers, teenagers and their dates, families with their children look curiously on. Or maybe you have seen them lining up all three sides of a pier in Salem, their wrists jerking in a language that bewitches the squids below. They are not the only ones. Other Cambodians and Vietnamese, once enemies, fish side by side on the same American pier. Other immigrants, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese speaking languages that I can’t understand, come together on this spot: sacred rods in hands, beckoning the squid. Or maybe you have seen them under a bridge fishing the Providence River, looking for trey platoo, a type of mackerel like they used to eat in the refugee camps in Thailand. Sometimes, my aunts and uncles run into an old friend from those long ago days. They talk about the lack of food, of sneaking out at night to fish, and of running, always running, from the Thai police. They exchange phone numbers, share fishing secrets, and set up a time and place where they’ll fish together again. When they get home, my aunts gut the fish, clean them, fry them, and put them in boiling stew of galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir leaves. My uncles and aunts sit in a circle on the floor, eat, and tell stories of how this fish got away or how one of them got caught by the Thai police. No matter how hard they try, they can never understand why my cousin and I ever bother with fishing— Why we catch and release food, as if it’s some sport.
Bunkong Tuon was born several years before the Khmer Rouge takeover in Cambodia and, in 1979, left with his extended family for the Thailand-Cambodia border where he spent several years in refugee camps before immigrating to the United States in 1982. He earned a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Massachusetts in 2008.He is an Associate Professor of English at Union College. Copyright Bunkong Tuon. Originally published in Gruel by Bunkong Tuon (NYQ Books, 2015).