Exploring the art of prose


Tag: Diasporan Literature

Author’s Note

This essay began as unlinked vignettes in the wake of my father’s death. To grieve, I had been reading through the letters he had written to my mother when they were pen pals in 1973–1974. As I read the letters, intending to learn more about my father, a window opened to my mother’s life before she was my mother. My father was gone, and my mother appeared to me in new ways.

(Re)acquainting myself with my mother by remembering my father was like taking the scenic route on which, for most of the drive, I was not concerned with a destination. Memories came at me in fragments and dreams. I followed my curiosity about who my mother is and was, especially now that I am a mother myself. I realized that 40+ years of being a daughter doesn’t make one an authority on one’s parents. With each vignette, I interrogated my memory and checked it against the proof—the letters, the photographs, my mother’s stories, scholarly articles.

Writing this piece allowed me to fuse my own impressions of my mother with what I was learning from my father’s letters. Over the months it took to chisel the essay into shape, I would occasionally call my mother to ask her for a clarifying detail (What was the name of your ex-boyfriend? What did you know about America before you married Dad?),thereby weaving her voice into the stories. What resulted were collaborative portraits of my mother, and proofs of love in my family’s history.

My background in photography compels me to see how writing can also be a visual art, mirroring the physical form of experience. As this essay came to me in parts, I strung them together until they looked something like an island chain: an archipelago. While each island maintains its unique qualities and histories, together they can exist as one entity. The vignettes of this essay surfaced the way I imagine the islands of the Philippines did—through undersea volcanic eruptions, each a tiny birth, emerging side by side into a whole.

Being mixed race, I am always seeking ways to piece together my parts—my mother’s narrative and my father’s—and the geographic inheritance they dealt me. In searching for completion, I have to be okay with including the holes, the things I cannot know. I have to accept that the holes are actually ocean. The deep unknown. What else defines an archipelago if not the propinquity of parts, and the spaces in between?


ELISABETH VASQUEZ HEIN is a mixed-race, second-generation Filipina-American writer, photographic artist, and mother based in Seattle, Washington. Influenced by her upbringing in disparate geographies, her work explores displacement, in-betweenness, and belonging. As the daughter of an immigrant, she seeks to understand her roots in the context of diaspora and colonization. She is a graduate of the Certificate in Fine Art Photography program at Photographic Center Northwest, where she exhibited her thesis project “In Skin and Spirit | Sa Balat at Espiritu.” She holds a master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of New Mexico. Elisabeth’s community work has focused on education, language, and marginalized populations in Washington, Texas, Chile, and Peru. “Archipelagic” is her first published writing, with forthcoming work to be featured in the Pinch. Find her on Instagram @fuzzybrowngirl.