Eating Phở with my Grandpa

For my grandfather,
killed in 1954 in the Land Reform Movement of North Vietnam

A Man Knocked at the door of my dream
and poked his mud-smeared face through the layers of mist.
"I am hungry," he said and proceeded to my table,
covered with food I was offering to my ancestors on the occasion
of Tết.1

The smoldering bunch of incense suddenly flared up, its billowing
smoke blurred my eyes so I couldn't see how the man looked.
"Nobody offers Phở2 to ancestors," he laughed
and slurped down a spoonful of my soup,
to which his head nodded in approval.

As he ate the white strings of noodles and the thin slices of beef,
I wanted to tell him my mother had taught me
to use instinct to measure the right amount of cinnamon, anise,
ginger and onions,
to cook the soup base,
but invisible fingers forced my mouth to close,
and I saw the steam from the man's bowl
roll down his face like tears
to clear his skin and my mind of mud
and his face emerged out of the mist
so I could put my fingers to my lips
and touch my grandfather's name.

1 Tết is the Vietnamese New Year, celebrated on the first day of the Lunar Calendar Year.

2 Phở is the most famous dish of Vietnam--noodle soup cooked with chicken or beef and spices. It is served with fresh Vietnamese mints, chilies, bean paste, and lemons.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai, “Eating Phõ with My Grandpa” from The Secret of Hoa Sen, translated by Bruce Weigl. Copyright © 2014 by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Translation copyright © 2014 by Nguyen Phan Que Mai and Bruce Weigl. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of BOA Editions Ltd., .

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About the Author

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is an award-winning Vietnamese poet and novelist published in Vietnam. Her first international publication, The Secret of Hoa Sen (poems, BOA Editions, 2014) was published as part of the Lannan Translations Selection Series. Quế Mai writes about war to call for peace. Her debut novel in English, The Mountains Sing (Algonquin Books, March 2020) presents the much needed perspective about the Vietnam War - from the Vietnamese people themselves. The novel has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
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