Gratitude In Challenging Times


Nothing like a global pandemic to snap us out of our ordinary gripes and distractions. COVID-19 has us all on edge, worrying about our health and the well-being of our loved ones. It also has us groping for solace and direction such as my partner’s family in Spain, reeling from a death of a relative and having to isolate instead of coming together at a time of immeasurable and unpredictable loss.

So, it’s a strange time to announce some happy news about my book project. Yet here I am, and profoundly grateful to be chosen by The Cafe Royal Cultural Foundation for their 2020 Winter Grant in Literature.

What can I also say? This book project is terrifying. My mother’s resistance to staying inside is terrifying. Our elected officials’ inability to anticipate and contain a highly contagious virus that would obviously wreak havoc on cities like New York City is terrifying, frustrating and enraging to say the least. But what emerges, as if in bas-relief, is that which terrifies us can also reveal that which is most vital to us.

Light a candle and be present for what’s most important.

The Vengeance of Elephants quoted in the LA Review of Books

In this weekend’s Los Angeles Review of Books, Charles Dunst wrote about Vietnam’s Montagnard historic ethnic minority conflict and insurgency for political independence, quoting parts of my essay, The Vengeance of Elephants.

Dunst interviewed a few Montagnard vets in the central highlands, and reported on the war stories — and more so — the insight they’ve cultivated decades after they, like thousands of young Montagnard men, were recruited by the Green Berets and Special Forces in the American-Vietnam War.

Dunst also incorporated previous reporting on Chuh A, what in the New York Times Vows section was a heart-rending story about a loving couple and family ensnared by ICE, and torn apart by Trump’s racist and dehumanizing orders against immigrants. Chuh A is a Montagnard refugee — in addition to a loving father and spouse — who was detained by ICE for 13 months and only then to be deported in 2017 to face police harassment in Vietnam. His daughters remain in North Carolina, cared for by his wife who now is a single mother of four.

And there you have it, the full circle of the US’ history of careless disregard: when racist, anti-immigrant policy legislates deporting refugees for minor sentences like selling ecstasy, as Chuh A was charged, another Montagnard family is devastated yet again.

The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.

The Vengeance of Elephants wins the 2017 Curt Johnson Prose Award, judged by Roxane Gay!

I am BEYOND thrilled and humbled that Roxane Gay chose my creative nonfiction essay! Ms. Gay called The Vengeance of Elephants:

“a beautifully structured and layered essay that manages to feel both sweeping and intimate in scope. The writer explores identity, family, her people’s history and how narrative is a complex, unwieldy thing in both right and wrong hands.”

Thank you december magazine! The elephants are rejoicing…

🐘 🐘 🐘  🐘 🐘

Knot, excerpt from a personal essay in Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland

It wound in my back like a screw grinding metal threads. Face down, I felt one foot then two as my ribs angled into the floor through thin foam. Michelle said this was dangerous. I said I’d be fine. My brain was on a slow smolder.

“Alriiight,” she said, curling the word out of blame. I couldn’t fathom a better idea at the moment. I couldn’t fathom much of anything. We were in the guest room of my distant cousin’s apartment in Brasilia. Michelle took the bed. I chose the foam mattress on the floor, craving a plank to stretch the pain balling like hard fruit along my spine.

I was grateful for a bed after forty hours cramped on a freezing bus that cut the ceaseless horizon of Brazil’s pampas like a cold bullet. Michelle and I had taken bus after bus, holed up in hostel after hostel, for the last thirty-five hundred miles since flying from Costa Rica to Caracas a month ago. She was my closest friend, Oregonian, inimitable travel buddy. We had become experts on maximizing travel on a less-than-meager budget, caterpillers in sleeping bags while we hurtled past anonymous stretches of land. We paid for comfier buses with nicer bathrooms, forgoing a real bed for a mobile hostel. Plush seats and air-conditioning hadn’t helped however. My head spinning and back aching, sleep had eluded me for over a week.

See more of this brilliant anthology, Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, by ordering directly from Demeter Press!

A Few Thoughts on Writing About Your Whiteness

(Published originally on Medium)

I attended 2017 AWP conference in February, and checked out the panel, In Praise of Junot Diaz and Claudia Rankine: Furthering the MFA vs. POC and AWP 2016 Keynote Conversations. The speakers were Allen Gee, David Mura, Faith Adele, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee and Marcus Burke. From where I sat in a large conference room, it seemed white folks outnumbered POC — what implies maybe that whites are interested in these discussions, and want see changes in the MFA landscape also.

Yet, inevitably, a hand was raised, the microphone passed, and the question asked: How do I write about, and deconstruct, my whiteness? I’ll admit I rolled my eyes listening to this young, white woman’s question. While race was certainly the topic, to pose this question as a white person to a panel of POC felt reminiscent of a supremacist power dynamic in which she needs only to snap her fingers to get what she wants — without self-diagnosing the work she needs to do. Or to over-quote Audre Lorde:

Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future. (Lorde, Sister Outsider)

Yet the question stayed with me, and my teacher-mind invariably teased out suggestions for unraveling this thing called whiteness with reflective writing prompts. These suggestions are informed by the practice of empathy and compassion, what I emphasize to my undergraduates students as absolute necessities in creative writing. To imagine walking in the shoes of others is not just a practice of empathy and compassion because it brings us psychically closer to their experiences; it also heightens our sensitivity to what we experience and the role of invisible forces like whiteness in our lives. Indeed unpacking my own whiteness as a biracial person has informed the points I’ve made below.

Continue reading A Few Thoughts on Writing About Your Whiteness

The Pop Stars That Swayed Nigeria’s Political Change

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By H’Rina DeTroy
Reporting contributed by Eromo Egbejule

Nigerian history was made this month when power changed hands peacefully with the defeat of incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan and the fifteen-year rule of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Here’s a roundup of how the glitterati of Nigeria were involved in this year’s elections and how some reacted to General Muhammadu Buhari‘s win and the landslide victory for All Progressives Congress.

Original here.

Editorial: The African King of Pinterest

By William Chitangala. (Edited by H’Rina DeTroy.)

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When Okayafrica came across the stunning Pinterest boards of German-Zambian luxury brander William Chitangala we quickly dubbed him “The African King of Pinterest.” When he’s not applying his marketing know-how to the Frankfurt-based company Saint-Germain, he’s creating collaborative pinning boards inspired by Afrocentric design, fashion and culture. In the op-ed below, Chitangala shares his ideas on color as a muse for reimagining and redefining the Continent.

I started “pinning” circa three years ago. My main motivation was I wanted to be inspired. I wanted to understand this divine love affair we have with design and art, and I wanted to cultivate ideas around the conceptual business, or an enterprise that corresponds with the environment.

The Hot-Sour-Bittersweet Taste of Memories

(Published originally on — a literary food blog that has unfortunately shuttered.)

Aug 2, 2013
Editor: Elizabeth McKenzie

My sister gingerly sprinkled tiny globs on her plate of rice, ground chicken and vegetables. She was careful not to look too close. I dropped a larger spoonful of hăng hơdŏm sao onto mine, and inspected until I was satisfied: the reddish, itty-bitty tri-sections were visible, ground with a coating of oil and chopped red and green chili peppers.

“Eww — you’re eating ants!” our cousin Lap teased. The eleven of us passed a small bowl of the paste-like mixture around a crowded kitchen table. A spread of six different dishes lay before us, including a plate of tăng liang, a bitter, leafy green that grows wild in Vietnam’s central western mountains. Its leaves were dried over a flame and then ground with dried fish, salt and chili pepper in a mortar.

My mother sat across from my sister and me. In the corner was a stuffed teddy — the vessel used to smuggle the silver vacuum-sealable bags of tăng liang and hăng hơdŏm sao from Vietnam to North Carolina.

In Jarai, my mother’s dialect, hăng means hot pepper or spicy. Hơdŏm sao means “red tree ants that have sour taste.” Lap, a linguistic anthropologist, helped me with the words and the accents because I don’t know Jarai. We met him for the first time a few days earlier. My sister and I had never seen, eaten or heard of hăng hơdŏm sao until this trip to North Carolina in 2007, where we had the unique experience of meeting Dega-Montagnard relatives. Dega-Montagnards are ethnic minorities from the central highlands of Vietnam, near the Cambodian border. My mother came to the US in 1975, and my sister and I were born and raised in New England — without a Dega-Montagnard community. This was the first time we saw our mother surrounded by her clan. We were witnessing the dialect return to her slowly. With a small video camera at the table, I attempted to document this momentous meal. And, the ants.

Continue reading The Hot-Sour-Bittersweet Taste of Memories