Throughout the hot summers of my childhood, on the good days when my mother and father were not doing overtime at the factory or called to some family function or another, they took us on road trips to see the world.
The world was the fancier parts of Saint Paul, the mansions on Summit Avenue, the shops with the clean windows on Grand. Occasionally, the world grew big and they took us across the rivers, from Saint Paul to Minneapolis, from Minnesota into Wisconsin. These were not overnight trips—as we couldn’t afford hotels and didn’t trust that we’d be safe, a family of new refugees, in the roadside motels that dotted the highway. They were road trips, day drives, where the entire family could be together, eat corn puffs and listen to country music songs.
Mom and Dad piled us up in the old Chevy Caprice my father had bought used from a retired member of the Saint Paul police force. My father suspected that, while the car was maroon, it might have been black and white in its hay day. We liked thinking of the Caprice as a police car, a car with a purpose.
My father drove. My mother sat beside him in the passenger seat. My younger brothers and sister jostled for the place in between them. They were judicious and made it a point to let each kid occupy that prized place at least once or twice a summer.
I was one of the older children. I only got to sit up front when the younger ones were through. The babies never got the opportunity to sit up front because we all knew it was illegal and worse, dangerous. My older sister Dawb was the oldest, so she never could sit up front. She had to sit in the back and maintain order among the younger ones. But I was not the oldest, I was merely the second oldest, so once or twice a summer I had my chance to sit in front, between my mother and father.
On those special occasions, I sat between the two people who I knew loved me most in the world, with the air conditioner fan positioned directly at my face (I hated the used car smell in the Caprice and the old cigarette smell that clung to the maroon seats no matter how many little green air freshening pine trees my father placed on the rearview mirror). In the blast of that cold air, I felt happy, free from the pressures of my life.
I can still feel the warmth of the summer sun coming in through that front window. I can see my father’s profile, his nose bridge and then the rounded hill of his nose, his lips relaxed in a way they never were at home when he moved from one task to the next with determination. I can see only a part of my mother’s face, mostly her left ear and the left side of her cheek, smooth and unwrinkled, wisps of short hair floating free. She generally spent her time looking out the window, exclaiming with such enthusiasm that her voice seemed young, “Look at the river,” or “Look at that field of corn, so lush and green!”
It was on these road trips that I learned first of the transitions between poetry and prose in a shifting landscape of visual possibility. My father, a Hmong song poet, would recite lines of poetry that he had heard and loved as the little kids clamored in the back and my mother shushed them, her face turned toward her window, calling attention to a tree with gnarled limbs reaching far or a solo tractor parked in a country lane. Sometimes, in the middle of a recitation, my father would pause to take in whatever view my mother had pointed out. It was in this space, that his words, which had floated in the air, fell about us like glitter. Other times, my father would be silent and then a collection of words would come to him and he’d speak them one at a time, creating rhythm and beat. My favorite moments were when my father would catch himself in a line of poetry that inspired a story, then we’d learn about his days fishing in mountain streams or his chase after a particular kind of bee that lived only on the highest edges of the mountain cliffs, but whose larvae, when cooked, tasted so creamy and rich that a kid could get drunk on taste, alone. I followed the poetry of my father and then the proclamations of my mother and somehow in my mind, prose patterns were born, between words and images, between the inner landscape and the outer one.
Decades have passed, seasons have shifted. That old Chevy Caprice is long gone. I can’t remember the last road trip we went on as a family in that car anymore, but I will never forget that first place where I focused, not on the issues of my world or my life, but on the flow of words, the flood of images, the gift of poetry and prose coming together in a young, fertile mind, heart full of everything that mattered, sitting tight between the pillars of my life.
When I had the opportunity to be part of “Art Is…” and to choose three emerging artists to work with me to put together a program that spoke to the foundations of what art is, I chose three people whose work today—whether they knew it or not—were already sitting in that long-ago car with me.
My father, the source of my emergence as an artist, but someone who is new to the idea that his art can find life in America.
Kevin Yang, who has translated the poetry of our people, often found in forms such as my father’s, and put into rhythmic language the realities of our times.
Xee Reiter, a visual artist, who draws her inspiration from the landscape of the past and the present, who expresses the proclamations of my mother in her love of all that is natural and then embraces their emotional gravity in her effort to capture and document the richness of culture in defining identity.
We are all refugees—the people in that car and Xee and Kevin, and despite the differences in our individual experiences, we have translated across the languages and into them the source of our strengths as artists, the love that lives on despite the wars that have brought us into being as Americans, the peace that we seek when we enter into our realms of expression.
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Special Thanks: Far East Restaurant
Production Team: Kate McDonald, Ryan Klabunde, Brennan Vance, Eric Pagel, Joe Demko.