“Oh it was hard.”

The writing. The writing. So good.

Still on Part One of Ship of Ghosts, “On Asia Station.” Admiral Tommy Hart has just been replaced as commander of the Asiatic Fleet because, at 64, he is thought to be too old (80 years later, we had Trump, followed by Biden — LOL)

He has a farewell dinner with his colleagues at the Savoy in Bandung, Java and writes in his (3,000-page) diary that night, “Oh it was hard.”


  • The next day he was driven to Batavia in a battered sedan for transit west. He was last seen in Java standing alone on the pier in Tanjung Priok, Batavia, wearing civilian clothes, awaiting the arrival of a bomb-damaged British light cruiser to ferry him home.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Poetry Saturday 2: Kyi May Kaung


from the chapbook Pelted With Petals: The Burmese Poems (Alaska: Intertext, 1996)

This is what
you’re paid to do
spin doctor to put
a good
surface on
things —

your side says
we’re rude —
you’re recognized
by the UN
no less
defacto —
you don’t lose
your temper – polished in your
suit – cheroot burn in your
tie – big hole in the center –
but remember
truth is sometimes ugly
often ugly —
lies can be beautifully
crafted —
the smoothness of a surface
is not our criterion
lies make us angry – we shout –
blood comes out
through our
nostrils and
all our
orifices —
what can be
uglier and more
truthful than

Kyi May Kaung received her doctorate in Political Science from the University of Pennsylvania. She is originally from Rangoon, Burma and has written four collections of poetry and an allegorical novel, She Monkey Goes West, which was a finalist for a Pew Fellowship for fiction. Much of her poetry addresses oppression in Burma, now called Myanmar, as well as the experience of being a woman in relation to others.

Setting: Isla del Fuego

from self’s novel:

  • It has a circuit of nearly a hundred leagues and a length of about fifty leagues, for it is very narrow. At the two extremities it is, at the widest place, about twenty leagues wide. All along the coast are to be found bays that curve in different directions.

This, dear blog readers, is self’s mythical island in the central Philippines. The place where her ambitious MC (a priest!) lives out his life, in the 18th century.

Stay tuned.

San Francisco Chronicle Datebook, 27 January 2019

Loving the cover story:


In 1969:

Nixon became President, the Beatles released Abbey Road, Sly and the Family Stone released Want To Take You Higher, The Who released Tommy.

Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid premiered. TV’s Star Trek got cancelled.


Woodstock happened, Chappaquiddick happened, the moon landing happened, Berkeley’s People Park happened, Charles Manson happened, The Gap opened its 1st store, the Vietnam draft lottery was televised, William Calley was convicted of six counts of murder for My Lai.

Self was in summer camp in England. That’s where she heard about the moon landing.

Ferdinand Marcos won re-election as President of the Philippines.

Wonder what groundbreaking books were published that year? No mention in the Chronicle. There must have been some.

Where was Gloria Steinem?

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.


Poetry Monday: U Sam Oeur Again

from Exodus

— translated from the Cambodian by Ken McCullough

Once the Blackcrows had usurped the power
they started to evacuate people from Phnom Penh
they threw patients through hospital windows
(women in labor and the lame), drove tanks
over them then bulldozed them under.

The poem Exodus is part of the collection Sacred Vows, a bilingual edition of U Sam Ouer’s poetry, published by Coffee House Press.

This is self’s companion reading to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, O’Brien’s stories about his experiences as a grunt during the Vietnam War.

O’Brien and U Sam Oeur, in Southeast Asia at roughly the same time, each oblivious of the other. But afterward, what great literature they both produced.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Poetry Sunday: U Sam Oeur

from The Fall of Culture

— translated from the Cambodian by Ken McCullough

I hid the precious wealth,
packed the suitcases with milled rice,
packed old clothes, a small scrap-metal oven,
pots, pans, plates, spoons, an ax, a hoe,
some preserved fish in small plastic containers —
loaded it all in a cart and towed it eastward
under the full moon, May ’75.

Born in the Svey Rieng province of Cambodia, U Sam Oeur received his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1968. Upon returning to Cambodia, he was elected to the National Assembly in 1972 and in 1973 was appointed Secretary General of the Khmer League for Freedom. He remained there after Cambodia was “liberated” by the Vietnamese.

The Fall of Culture is part of a bilingual Khmer and English edition of U Sam Oeur’s poetry, Sacred Vows (Coffee House Press)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

FAMILY: by Anna Moi for Air France Magazine

Early 1960s. The “war” was the Vietnam War, which pitted the North, where Moi’s parents were from, against the South, to where they fled:

How long does it take for a mother to read Alone in the World and The Story of Perrine to her child? My mother read to me almost every evening, because my parents went out only three or four times a year, and never had guests. It was wartime, but that doesn’t explain it — war had only just begun and nobody imagined at the time that it would last some 15 years and that we’d face shortages of everything, especially freedom, the basic freedom to move around as we chose.

This sense of frugality was something my parents were born with, just as others live with a heart murmur or an irregular heartbeat. It was the region of their birth, the North, that had triggered this simmering anxiety.

At bedtime, my mother would decide on a number of pages, but I would beg her to carry on, and she was always happy to continue the story of Rémi the abandoned child or of Perrine Paindavoine, an orphan searching for her family . . .  From one episode to the next, in those days before TV series, I traveled from one family to another, and from town to town, in the comfort of knowing I would fall asleep sated with emotions.

Katie Roiphe: Travels in Bangkok and Cambodia

Self finished The Anthologist two nights ago and began In Praise of Messy Lives, by essayist Katie Roiphe.

Self had not expected to enjoy her writing as much as she does.

Roiphe comes at everything with a feminist perspective, and sees the transaction that is underneath every smile, every service offered up to the white tourists who the locals, according to Katie, feel utmost contempt for.  Of course, they all chatter away in their own language, so the contempt isn’t quite as blatant.  But Roiphe, being a writer whose sensitivities are super-honed by years of making sharp, acerbic observations about no less a city than New York, picks up on it anyway.

Roiphe has many, many things to say about the male tourists, who enact a rite of courtship, overlaying their interactions with the local females with exaggerated, even mocking courtesy.

Roiphe also has plenty of things to say about the weather, but let’s not bother with that at the moment (Let’s bother with trying to go to sleep!  Let’s force ourselves not to stay up late, reading!)  She goes to Bangkok and then to Siem Reap and finally to Phnom Penh.  She writes of her Cambodian guide :

Our driver’s silver Timex looks bulky on his fragile wrist as he steers around the larger rocks and holes.  It impossible to tell how old he is  —  he could be twenty or forty-five.  People here tend to look very, very young until all of a sudden they look very, very old.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Outtakes From Self’s Interview with Linh Dinh, Pacific Rim Review of Books, Summer 2008

Self is cleaning out her files and coming up with all sorts of odds and ends:  her published book reviews, tossed hastily into drawers.  Write-ups on her books.  Interviews with other writers.

She pauses over the interview she did with Linh Dinh.  Linh and self first met at the 2005 Berlin Festival on Southeast Asian Art and Literature, organized by the House of World Culture (only six months after the appointment of a new Director, who had been a professor at the University of Heidelberg.  She and two of her graduate students pulled the whole thing together by e-mail.)

The interview she did with him is one of her all-time favorites.  Here are excerpts.  Each of Dinh’s answers reads like a short short:

Self:  You left Vietnam in March 1975, just a month before the fall of Saigon.  And your official biography lists you as having a “fake name,” Ly Ky Kiet.  What was its purpose?

In March of 1975, as the shit was about to hit the fan, my father arranged for his secretary, me and my brother to evacuate with a Chinese family.  This family had a daughter working for the Americans.  In order to safeguard their properties, some of the family chose to stay behind.  And they ended up selling my father three spots.

We all took fake names.  My brother’s was Ly Ky Vinh.  My father hired the secretary to take care of my brother and I.  She was 22, Chinese, with a very short temper, and a face that was round and puffy like a dumpling, liberally sprinkled with meaty pimples.  I wrote about the episode in “April 30th of Ly Ky Kiet.”

*     *     *     *     *

Self:  You write experimentally in both fiction and poetry, and your work seems to consistently break accepted norms in an overt attempt to play with form.  What attracts you to this?

I started out as a painter.  Working with oil, I strived to improvise, to think, as I was painting.  Play was a central concept in my work.  I was also Read the rest of this entry »

August, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Why?  Who knows why?  Ying passed away three years ago.  Self misses her terribly.

This evening, self is thinking of the time she and Ying went to Siem Reap.  We went in August.

Oh, did anyone ever tell you that August is the hottest time of the year in Southeast Asia?  The heat in August in Cambodia is something else.  It’s alive, actually, a python wrapping itself around one’s body.

Our first day at the ruins of Angkor Wat, we arrived mid-morning and by noon both of us were limp and sun-blinded.

So, the next day, we decided to wake up at 4 a.m. and get to the ruins in time to watch the sunrise.

You approach Angkor Wat over an ancient causeway built across a broad plain.  Here and there on the plain are pools of standing water (Angkor Wat was built over a vast underground reservoir of water).  Oh, we were so thrilled to be there so early in the morning!  But, alas, so were at least a hundred other people!  And all of them had their cameras pointed directly at the ruins, waiting with bated breath for the time when the sun rose behind the temples.  Everyone was reverential, worshipful.  It was the strangest scene.

Another time, Ying grew very excited:  we had just encountered a stooped old monk, and Ying said, pointing to the cover of her Lonely Planet guidebook:  “It’s the same monk!  He’s the one on the cover of the Lonely Planet guidebook!”

We approached the Rock Star/ Monk, greeted him reverently, and held up the book:  “You/us/picture?  You are famous!”

The monk grinned, held up two fingers.  What?  What was that?  What kind of gesture was that?

The monk had to spell it out for us:  “No picture without pay!  Two dollars!”

Another thing about Siem Reap was that it was littered with internet cafés.  And these cafés had some of the fastest connections self had ever experienced, faster even than the internet café son found in a teensy-tiny house in Boracay.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

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