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to cast a shadow for each other until we are bones

A review of The Girl Before Her by Line Papin (Kaya Press, 2023)

The road to the laundromat is iced all over and the wind is ruthless, blowing me back to the winter in Massachusetts, to the field of sunflowers, their eight-foot stalks almost depleted of moisture, their beehive heads bent over by snow, yet refusing to touch the ground. Suddenly this image comes to me: i’m running in the snowfield toward somewhere i don’t know, and a flash of light enters the corner of my eye—a silver figure running in my direction. We meet with a hug in the middle of the field (in an open field, everywhere is the middle). We hug without a word, feeling each other through layers and layers of clothes. We would have been blown away by the wind if not for the boots that anchored us to the ground.


Line Papin’s book opens with two images of limbo. The first one is still, but not without change—the three years between the two caskets of the Vietnamese burial traditions, the time it takes for a body to distill into a small box of bones. The second image is in motion, as we follow narrator Line in transit, going from the airport to the taxi, switching from touristy English to Vietnamese, with a mission to make peace with her past, to close a chapter. As we go deeper into the story and backward in time, there is a third limbo, one that hovers above everything else in the book—the threshold between life and death. On this threshold are wars Line didnt live through but inherited from her ancestors. They cast a shadow on her small body, transforming her inner landscape where she fought her own war with eating disorder. In this limbo, the girl waits for truce, as it’s too early to talk about peace. The girl doesn’t yet know that she is not alone.

Adding to the fable-like quality of the story, the three sisters of Line’s mother’s generation are referred to only by their initials: the first H, the second H, the third H. The three Hs stand with their long shadows on the page, shadowing each other, even when they live apart on three different continents. The three girls on the book cover, beautifully stitched by artist Diana Nguyễn, could be the three Hs, or Line herself at different ages. It could also be Line, her grandma Bà, and her nanny Cô Phái, or any three women in the family. They stand, facing separate directions, with waves surrounding them like an embrace. All of them, the girls before her.


In Việt Nam, narrator Line tells her family history fondly, like a child holding a DV camera, running around to gather footage of her elders’ youth even before she was born. As the family migrates to France, narrator Line takes the tone of a news reporter, clears her throat and briefs the audience with key events of the year in French politics and culture. When narrator Line turns to “you,” she is talking to her younger self when no one else was there for her. Your feelings are real. You will find a place in this world. You will live. When narrator Line speaks in the “I,” she is at her most vulnerable—the night she came closest to death and heard herself finally say, “I don’t want to die,” and the only time she confronts her mother on the page: “Where were you when I was growing up? Why did I have to suffer so much in your wars when they weren’t even mine?”


Line uses the metaphor of genocide to express the isolation and hopelessness she experienced while fighting the internal war against anorexia. Shed become a country within a country whose population was killing itself. No outside forces dared to intervene.” A body reduced to almost only bones. Bodies and bones, bereaved, seized, robbed, stripped, deprived, of necessity, of humanity, by bodies that claim to have control and ownership over them.

What does it mean to read Line’s story in a time of genocides? Here on the page is the story of a ten-year-old girl severed from her childhood home and country, a loss so profound and irrevocable that it eventually made her stop eating. The displacement caused a fault in her life in a physical sense. She was thrown into a strange land with no point of reference. “Nothing belonged to her in France, not even her feelings. All she truly possessed was her silence.” Silence as protest. Refusal to eat as a response to lack of love. Willingness to die as dissent against inhumane conditions. A silence that asks: what is our role in this genocide? How can we rethink the notion of rescue, not in the sense of American saviorism, helping with “urgency and a sense of duty that American forces had displayed in Normandy,” as Line described, but returning some humanity to—no, recognizing the humanity in our fellow human beings who are suffering?

“The first thing to do is simply to reject in thought and action any acquiescent or fatalistic way of thinking,” Camus offered in a speech he gave at NYU in 1946. “Call things by their name and understand that we kill millions of people each time we agree to think certain thoughts.” When Palestinian journalist Bisan Owda called for a global week of strike for a permanent ceasefire, i wanted to participate but couldn’t afford to not receive a paycheck, having to pay rent in a city that is too busy furnishing itself with luxury buildings to care for people sleeping in train stations flooded whenever there is a little bit of rain. Feeling out of breath during my commute, i opened Line’s book. This is why i turn to literature again and again: a small window into the life and struggles of someone else, one story at a time. Don’t look away. Stop seeing her as an illness, a nuisance. This girl, almost too weak to open her mouth, is just about to speak.


Line came to New York in late August during a rainstorm to give a reading at Housing Works. i hadn’t yet read her book, so my fragmented notes from that day formed my first impression of Line: “flower… uprooted... not nourished... maternal lineage—roots... new roots... I love Camus... I got my new roots in literature.” Her words made me think of literature as a web, a support network underground, where the dead are not dead.

After her reading, i kept thinking about the power of words, of meaning and reference. i kept thinking about the books Line read in the hospital. She must have understood something from the books, and more importantly, she must have felt understood by the books she was reading. Something that no one around her in real life at that time could offer. im writing a review of Line’s book, but to me, a good book is one that helps the reader to re-view their own life from new perspectives. Reading Line’s book was like that for me. It chilled my bones, because of the memories it woke in me, but it was also the best hug, through layers of translation and interpretation. Her words fell with snow-like clarity and held a power over me, making me look at my life again and this world i’m sharing with others, each with a story of their own.

i think many American readers, particularly immigrant readers, will recognize traces of their own stories as they read Line’s book. The familiar story of moving for a better life, only to find that unhappiness has saturated modern society, alongside a ton of formalism, hypocrisy, and policing. A society in which people are measured, as Camus remarked in the aforementioned speech, by success instead of dignity. Consumerism is offered as a distraction to a deep-seated unhappiness, nationalism as a fake solution to disintegrating communities. What is left behind? What is the cost to (not) look back? One thing is known for sure: there is no going back. Where, then, do we go from here?

Toward the end the book, Line is crying on the backseat of her grandfather’s motorbike as it cuts through the traffic of Hà Nội. Thirteen years after the breakage, she comes to the realization that the childhood she was trying to recover is gone. The past is already past, yet she has a present and a future that she can claim as her own. i’m moved by the way Line transcribes her past without blame. There is so much bravery in saying: this was my past and this was the pain i suffered. Now i choose to live.


“We are born in specific places for specific reasons. We arrive brand new, carrying the bones of what came before—the bones of wars, the bones of the grandmother who had battled her way through them […] And then there are bones that are carried unknowingly, bones that might not have been wanted but exist, nonetheless. Bones that will tear everything apart.”

i keep returning to this passage in the book because it poses a question about the tension between inheritance and the unknown. We come to this world not by choice, but because of desires and forces beyond us. Yet our path is not set, and we even possess the power to change the past through looking back at it. There is a concept i learned from Lacanian psychoanalysis called Après-coup, a term translated and adapted from Freud’s Nachträglichkeit. It describes a re-inscription of experience as a result of subsequent interpretation of memories. How many more translations, i wonder, will it take until a new understanding emerges? How many years has it already taken for the starlight to reach us?

The original title of the book, Les Os des filles, means “the bones of the girls,” and the word “os” evokes water and birth. That last part is lost in translation, as translation is so much about partial understanding and failures. Line wrote the book in a language that is not her mother tongue, but one that she came to think and write in. i’m reading and reviewing Line in the English, which is also not my first language. There are things in the book i cannot access without understanding French. And there are things I understand as a reader who is learning Japanese, my ears tuning in to slight differences between words. For example, 痛い (itai, it hurts) is only one syllable apart from 生きたい (ikitai, i want to live). Perhaps its no coincidence that the experience of pain is contained in the will to live.

“I bandaged my wounds with white pages that was increasingly difficult to contain,” Line wrote. Her words echo the Taiwanese poet Lai Hsiang-yin on the last page of Li Kotomi’s Solo Dance: “There is nothing writing cannot cure. As soon as one is almost well, one becomes able to write — writing is the deep breath before full recovery.” Li and Lai are connected through Qiu Miao-jin, one of the many ghosts i live and write with. If only Li and Lai and Line and Qiu and I could sit together. Of course, this too, is possible on the page.


When Bà, who didn’t know her own date of birth, decided to register her birthdate on the same day as her granddaughter’s, a past that could no longer be recovered was reclaimed through a new life. i have a feeling that the unconditional love that Line received as a child from the women in her family, from Bà and Cô Phái in particular, and the heat, sounds, and colors of Hà Nội, are all stored deep in her bones. Maybe like the site of Line’s childhood home, on top of which nothing could be built, the haunting of the past is a form of love.

Line’s story reminds me of a passage from Aracelis Girmay’s poem, “prayer & letter to the dead,” from her collection, the black maria, when her grandfather says to her, “my bones are your bones.”  If i may, i’d like to close with a section from that poem:

I cross the sea back into air
& return to the traffic of the streets I know.

I am marked by the dead, your sea-letters
of salt & weeping

Now I am ready to lay my self down
on the earth, to listen to the instructions

for how to talk of love & land, to sing
of home in the horrible years, & to fill

my language, like stars do,
with the light, anyway, of a future tense.


k is a poet.


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