‘Breakthrough the Narrative’ illuminates complexities of Asian-, Pacific Islander-American experience through slam poetry

Meghan Nguyen

Paul Tran, an acclaimed Vietnamese-American poet, faced their audience in the Student Activities Center auditorium with confidence Tuesday. 

In honor of the upcoming Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, students gathered for “Breakthrough the Narrative” to hear slam poets such as Tran explore themes of race, gender and migration. 

“I’ve lived in a colonizers’ land my whole life,” Tran said. “I’ve spoken your languages. I’ve called myself what you call me: a boy, a he/she, a monster.”

Co-hosted by the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective, the Center for Asian American Studies and UT Spitshine Poetry, “Breakthrough the Narrative” began with a performance by Spitshine Poetry members Allison Villasana and Jasmine Bell. 

Psychology senior Bell performed a series of poems related to the Asian-American experience, focusing on the language barriers between her and older generations.

“I asked my mother for her Chinese recipes, but I can never seem to read the instructions,” Bell said, reciting her poem onstage. “I’ve tried to make so many pastries with my tongue, but I keep messing up.”

Tran, a queer and transgender poet, is a poet in residence at Urban Arts Alliance and performed after Bell. Tran is working on their first poetry collection, which examines intergenerational trauma, sexual violence and the U.S. empire after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Tran recounted the trauma and pain their mother suffered during the Vietnam War.

“The communist regime locked my mother away for nine years,” Tran said, while performing the poem. “She watched America kill everything she loved when it bombed her village with 388,000 tons of napalm. … This war you started is not over, America.” 

Tran’s next poem was about gender and the role toxic masculinity played in their life.

“My gender has always answered to men who make me the butt of their toxic masculinity,” Tran said. “But I am not here to obey their binaries. I am not here to make you comfortable. I am here to own myself. I am the sky, burning red and hot.”

Tran’s work voices an underrepresented but growing narrative in the Asian- and Pacific Islander-American community, biology junior Ashley Luu said. 

“Gender is rarely talked about in Asian-American communities, and (Tran’s) work unpacks the problems with that,” Luu said. “It’s important to understand that a person who has experienced immigration will always experience gender differently than someone who hasn’t.”