Dau used to live in the apartment below me. He had skin so dry it fell like leaves on a windy day, so much he pixelated his floor with tiny fog-colored flakes, each thin and flappy as a plastic…
When I revisited “A Line of Wings” to write this essay, the first thought that came to mind was that it was, ultimately, a story about storytelling. I grew up with the stories my mother told me about Vietnam, and my birth city of Saigon, now formally called Ho Chi Minh City. I learned about storytelling directly from her—about its inconsistencies, tangents, interruptions. Despite being digressive and fragmented, her stories were always rich with language and images, full of talking animals and folklore and histories that seemed more believable to me than anything I grew up reading about Vietnam. She never spoke of the war, or not the kind that exists in history books, but each and every story contained something of a catastrophe. And so I drafted this piece as if I was listening to my mother and someone was listening to me, structuring it like oral memory.
I returned to Saigon last fall to study its war-era apartment buildings, and I’m still there. Some of the research made it into “A Line of Wings,” but mostly as setting, minor details. Situated in a city known for its never-ending development, I started telling Dau’s story as part of another piece about a Vietnamese ghost family that was animating yet aging an apartment block, cracking and eroding it to the point of being earmarked for demolition. Outside my apartment windows, I can see high-rises and cranes spearing the sky, each surrounded by shophouses, marketplaces, and religious buildings that have been around for decades, some for more than a century. I can see homes that have been preserved by generations of family, saturated in generations of memory. Each year, more and more edifices are bulldozed into oblivion. And I struggled to keep Dau inside that story when it seemed more than the past was at stake, to write as though the lost or the dead were the source of hurt or harm. So I dug Dau out, and gave him his own story.
“Dau” or Đâu in Vietnamese, depending on context, can mean either “where” or “hurt.” These two meanings kept collapsing on each other on my walks around Saigon, where I saw countless empty lots and rubble where there might have once been a family home or shelter—or that’s what I want to believe. That something had existed there, that it mattered. And it was reaching for us. I wanted to foreground a character who was disappearing but unable to disappear, who came from annihilated and annihilating histories, who left parts of themselves that may or may never be found. A character who straddled the boundary between here and not-here—like war, like grief. Since arriving in Saigon, I’ve been sitting on the idea that grief comes from realizing that we live with what is no longer “there,” grief that is as much our own as it is our ancestors’. So I began to talk about Dau. Perhaps writing about him was a kind of reaching back.
UYEN PHUONG DANG is a Vietnamese-American writer born in Saigon, Vietnam. Her short fictions have appeared and are forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, X-R-A-Y, Passages North, and elsewhere. She is currently back in Saigon, researching Vietnamese gods and ghosts. Follow her on Instagram @ueyndang_ and Twitter @_uyendang.