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Census by Jade Hidle

alt text: image is blurred, grayed screenshot of a government census form; title card for Jade Hilde's "Census"

We are excited to publish the three winners of CRAFT’s inaugural Hybrid Writing Contest. We hope our readers will agree that these pieces exemplify the potential of form, particularly form that challenges normative ideas about genre, to open space for possibility and radical wonder.


In “Census,” Jade Hidle shares her experience as a mixed-race woman living in a culture that insists upon labels, that denies the possibility of multiplicity. By writing in opposition to “the booming voice that’s told us to hate each other,” Hidle challenges the reader to question calcified ideas about identity and categorization. The prose in this piece is urgent, words tumbling forth with a cadence that embraces conventions of poetry and performance as well as more traditional essay. The voice is righteously angry, insistent, and ready for battle.

Hidle punctuates the piece with images from the census questionnaire, a banal government document that seeks to flatten identity, thus visually representing the battle between bureaucracy and the self that will not be simplified, that refuses to be labeled, split apart, and categorized. Form and content ask the reader to contemplate what it means to straddle borders and boundaries, to insist upon being unclassifiable even when one’s own government insists on squeezing identity into a box.

“These papers are mine now. I’ll need you to let me keep all of this.”

Here, Hidle brings us a voice that defies erasure.  —CRAFT


 

They always knock with questions and promises.

They assure me that checking these boxes will only take a few. forward. minutes.

But time winds serpentine

when so many voices crescendo

with each box that asks me to fit inside.

So hear them sing.

The upside down 8 is easy not to check because this is the one joke that both sides of my family agree is funny. It’s the one with the “wetback” or “beaner,” or whichever slur stands in for their giving up on pronouncing my boyfriends’ names or the names of the land on which they live, forgetting all the ways we are connected and thankful. It’s the booming voice that’s told us to hate each other. It’s the hate that teaches me how to run away to love brown.

My last name tells the story of my mother’s fear to live in a country that orders the “White” box first, but I couldn’t check this box like a daddy’s girl if you knew that I didn’t know how to pronounce my last name until I was in college. When I did, I laughed because of how the Norwegian phonetics felt in my mouth, and then stopped abruptly for all the times I had censured others from giggling and mocking Asian names at graduations, at the bank, in movie theaters, at home.

And what could I stand up and say, anyway, if told, “Tell me about white culture.”

Maybe I could try to explain how identity works on court-ordered custody time.

Maybe, “Skol?”

If I check this last box before alphabetization gives way to the blue continent made piecemeal, you’ll know that the “How many people were living or staying in this house?” answer is a lie. We will always forge your forms with fear, but will always, too, remind you that we are always more than your numbers.

Ssssshhh, đừng. Don’t. My mother urges me to keep my/our Vietnameseness a secret, like a gift or a weapon and a moving target. They’ll find you, hold it against you, give you nothing.

If I check this box, I’ll be all the worst stories your country’s men have to tell. I’ll be the “Vietnam Vet” bumper sticker that keeps other drivers at a cautious distance. I’ll be your drinking-to-death problems. I’ll be your cancer from chemical warfare that made everyone the enemy. I’ll be your night terrors and knives under pillows. I’ll be your nail gun to the temple. I’ll be your memorial to failure.

If I check this box, I’ll also be one of what a veteran once told my mother were “the prettiest schoolgirls in the world.” I’ll be your “say something in Vietnamese.” I’ll be the phở you order on Postmates. I’ll be your tip-of-the-iceberg success story that you use to drown other brothers and sisters, and so on and so on.

If I check this box, I’ll need to attach additional pages, two for every one that was destroyed or lost when I became the first American-born who fills out forms, who is asked questions, who toes betrayal by breaking silences. I’ll need diacritics but also “I” and space for pictures and maps that move. I’ll need you to hear how instinctually Vietnamese launches and rolls and is swallowed by my tongue, but also listen for how the muscles tighten around my bones when and elder asks me a question and, before I can respond, I spiral into doubts about the appropriate honorific because who was there for me to understand the paternal pronouns, those missing branches of mít bowing heavy? I’ll need a tongue that will lick my words and taste the limón and tomato shared by tacos and bún riêu. I’ll need you to hear me stumbling after Kendrick and Tupac’s precision when I sing along to rhymes about their mothers. I’ll need you to hear every rise and fall, a tone to match the Pacific. I’m gonna need you not to cringe or look to your napkin on your lap when I’m hunching to slurp fish sauce pooled at the bottom of my bowl.

I’ll need an echo chamber for the chorus of voices that enabled me to write this, and in my words you’ll hear that I cry when I’m angry, which is more often than you think, and that I laugh when I’m sad, which is not as often as you think. I’ll need you to know that a lot of the people who also check this box will not have me as theirs, but won’t want anyone else to claim me either. I’ll need you to feel that tension when anyone asks, “North? Or South?” I’ll need you to yoga your chest sunward to feel my pride when áo dài tails flutter in the wind. I’ll need a spotlight for all the bodies and the hospital bills and the hands that sanitize and all the angry mouths that grit “chink.” I’ll need you to see, even in the absence of photos, that pyjamas and sandals are part of my culture. I’ll need you to stop asking me “What’s wrong?” when you learn that this look in my eyes is actually what is right—the history my body tells shines through this sideways glare that sees and reads and is now knowing is knowing is knowing is knowing myself better than you think you do.

These papers are mine now. I’ll need you to let me keep all of this. In the shoeboxes if I want, yes, but also in your schools and offices and parks and hospitals and stores and cameras—all of these spaces where questions and apologies have felt the same kind of limp.

I’ll need you to let me keep all of this.

 

If I check this box, I’ll need you to do all of this for me. I’ll need you to not ask any more questions.

I’m telling you, for once, that this is what I need.

 


JADE HIDLE (she/her/hers) is a Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian-American writer and educator. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her travel memoir, The Return to Viet Nam, was published by Transcurrent Press in 2016, and her work has also been featured in MQR Mixtape, Southern Humanities Review, Poetry Northwest, Columbia Journal, and the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. Follow Jade on Instagram @jadethidle.

 

Author’s Note

To illustrate that dynamic identity, I used the refrain of “If I check this box” to reflect the recurring negotiation of marking a government form, inherently taking risks in order to participate in “America.” We feel deeply the danger of the stories that will be told about/for/against us if we divulge our identities and our truths that lay bare the violence of this country—“serpentine” traumas that make and remake us.

I write “we” and “our” with intention. In “Census,” I connect historically oppressed groups through “tacos,” “Kendrick and Tupac,” and “the Pacific” to show that these boxes should not divide and conquer us, but rather should fortify our solidarity against the systemic racism represented by the omnipresent “you.”

This piece is a response to the “you” that has historically silenced me and my peoples, that has not heard us, seen us, or given us what we needed. For once, instead of saying or doing what that “you” has demanded of me, I call out what “I’ll need.” This use of repetition is a call to action—a refusal to remain silent any longer, a chant to heal and galvanize the spirit to keep fighting even when beleaguered.

 


JADE HIDLE (she/her/hers) is a Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian-American writer and educator. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her travel memoir, The Return to Viet Nam, was published by Transcurrent Press in 2016, and her work has also been featured in MQR Mixtape, Southern Humanities Review, Poetry Northwest, Columbia Journal, and the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. Follow Jade on Instagram @jadethidle.