For the poet Bao Phi, a violent past is never far away

Bao Phi
Bao Phi's new book of poetry, "Thousand Star Hotel" deals with the legacy of that trauma, and what it was like to be a working class kid of color growing up in the Philips neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Thaiphy Phan-Quang
“Thousand Star Hotel” book cover
"Thousand Star Hotel"
Courtesy of Coffee House Press

Bao Phi was just three months old when his family fled the war in Vietnam in the mid-'70s.

"Violence has been a part of my life since forever," he said.

His family settled in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, where neighbors associated them with a failed war — and the enemy.

"People would routinely say things like 'go back to where you come from,'" he said. "People thought we were stealing their pets and eating them."

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Once, when his father was repairing the garage after it had been vandalized, he started yelling in Vietnamese that he was in pain. Phi wrote a poem about it that appears in his latest book, "Thousand Star Hotel." An excerpt:

I want my dad to be normal

not yell in his foreign tongue

that everyone is out

to get him.

I'm sure they're just mosquitoes

but I am too scared of him

to tell him.

I am sure they are just mosquitoes

even when I see dull lead fragments sticking

into his brown skin.

I didn't want to believe him,

even as I helped him wash his wounds.

Someone had been taking potshots at Phi's father with a BB gun. Phi said he wrote the poem in part as an apology to his parents. As a young immigrant, he found himself caught between the society he lived in and the cultural differences of his parents.

"I wanted to NOT be victimized, right?" he said. "I didn't want to be different. I didn't want us to be the targets that we obviously were."

Bao Phi is an accomplished writer and spoken word artist. His first book of poems, "Sông I Sing," was praised by the New York Times. But he didn't really start writing about his youth until the birth of his daughter. Phi remembers visiting a clinic with his then-partner for a prenatal consultation:

"One of the questions was, 'Have you or anyone in your family been traumatized by war?' And of course we had been traumatized by war, of course, but I don't think it really hit me until that moment, sitting there — the idea of passing my trauma down to my child became very, very real."

Bao Phi with his daughter Song
Bao Phi with his daughter Song.
Courtesy of Bao Phi

Bao Phi now lives in an apartment in Minneapolis' Powderhorn Park with a roommate. He's a single co-parent of his 7-year-old daughter. He's also program director at the Loft Literary Center, where he has fostered a vibrant and diverse spoken word and poetry scene.

"For those of us who are marginalized people," he said, "creative writing, storytelling, prose, poetry — these are our history books, because we're left out of history."

"Thousand Star Hotel" wrestles with the prejudice Phi faced as a child, and the deep lack of self-esteem that came with it. Writer David Mura, who has known Phi since he was a junior at Macalester, said the book dispels the myth of the model Asian-American and explores what it means to be a working-class kid of color.

"Bao is a writer who's particularly focused on race and who's openly angry about the state of race in America," Mura said. "He's not trying to go, 'Oh, it's OK.' More often than not he's telling the reader, 'Listen, it's far worse than you think it is.'"

Phi is one of a handful of Vietnamese-American authors who are carving out a space for themselves, Mura said, giving voice to their experiences and to the legacy of the Vietnam War.

In many ways, Phi said, "Thousand Star Hotel" is a bittersweet gift to his daughter.

"Anything could take me from this life," he observed. "And if that happens, for whatever reason, what is my daughter going to have to know that I existed? What is she going to know about this trauma that I passed on? I wanted her to have something."

Bao Phi's new book of poetry, "Thousand Star Hotel," is published by Coffee House Press. The Loft Literary Center will host a release party July 12. Phi's first children's book, "A Different Pond," inspired by memories of fishing with his father, comes out in August.