God damn it! Books make a difference. They get under your skin and into your brain and attach themselves to your DNA and change you. They become your father and your mother, your brothers and sisters and best friends, your confessor and therapist, your spirit guide and your kindly mentor. They make you fall down and weep, and they make you race to the barricades.
Bunkong Tuon’s grandmother carried him out of Cambodia on jungle trails on her back. In California, he was a lost kid, a dropout working in a donut shop, too bereft to find a footing in the West. One day he pulled a book off a library shelf and it changed him. The book and the author became this fatherless exiled orphan’s new father.
I still have a tough time reading these lines, they are so full of youth, splendor and joy, the young man (or woman) setting out on a life of books and writing.
I also remember walking into a local pawn shop and buying a used typewriter, the one where the keys got stuck after striking the second or third letter. Still, I typed the night away on that thing, while my aunt slept in her room and my uncle made donuts at his shop in Bell. I remember the cockroaches coming out of their crevices to keep me company. It was magical then; the tuition was cheap, something like 200 bucks for each semester, and I had few responsibilities other than to read and write whatever I wanted.
This is a poignant, moving essay about loss, fathers, books, and writing. It is a lament and a confession. It is also a strangely hopeful message for us all.
Maybe it was the wine in me that made me blurt out, “You know, I’m annoyed with having to defend ourselves all the time. The writers I read in my twenties saved my life!” Then I began to tell the story of how I fumbled into a local library, picked up a book from the shelf, read it from cover to cover, then went back to the same aisle and chose other books by that same author. I told my friends how the author spoke to me that day and how he changed my life.
This happened at a party to celebrate the end of another academic term. We were talking about the plight of the Humanities. A few years ago, a local university eliminated several language, literature, and culture departments. That fall, the President told the American people that, in order to build a strong future for our nation, we must support our education system—only math and science were specifically mentioned as important areas for development. In the face of the current 7.9 percent unemployment rate, all of us knew how hard it was to talk about the values of the Humanities to our students, to explain to them why reading, discussing, and writing about literary texts matter.
The hostess of the party, a good friend, asked, “So tell us, BK. Who was that author you were reading?”
And I couldn’t utter his name. I was ashamed of him.
Once in an interview with the Franco-Swiss director Barbet Schroeder, this writer got mad drunk, cursed his wife, and literally kicked her off the sofa. He was not a good man, but he was my literary father.
As for my biological father, I have written about him with pride. My poems are a kind of love letter from an orphan to a father he never knew. In “Cambodia: Memory and Desire,” I wrote, “My father sold ice cream in train stations,/ competing with street peddlers with his/ good looks and easy talk” (323). In “Lies I told about Father,” I went even further with my admiration.
With a son’s quiet adoration, I chiseled you:
a gangster from the East, a Khmer Krom
whose veins bled out Khmer characters (not Vietnamese),
who, guided by fate, found himself in the West
and married mother for her virtue and beauty.
In my poems you drink because, well, real men
drink, curse, and sleep around (the cursing
and sleeping around, you didn’t do, of course,
because of your love and respect for Mother).
My father is mythic in my writing. He is clearly someone I’m not: a “gangster” with a sense of adventure, a man’s man who can hold his liquor and charm his way out of troubles with “good looks and easy talk.” The truth is: I never knew my father. He passed away in Cambodia in the 1980s, while I was a high school student in Malden, MA. When my grandmother, uncles, and aunts left for the UN camps along the Thailand-Cambodia border in 1979, my father decided to stay in Cambodia with his new family. Like many other Cambodians who had fallen victim to Pol Pot, his wife, my mother, had passed away from sickness and starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime in 1976 or so. My father took another wife several years later, when Vietnamese forces liberated Cambodia. Fearful that, as a stepson, I might be mistreated by my new family, my grandmother took me away from my father, carrying me on her back as she and her children trekked across the border, avoiding landmines and jungle pirates, to where the UN had set up a camp, rumored to have an abundance of food and medicine.
This is the story I’ve inherited from my grandmother, aunts, and uncles. It is the story of a father I never knew, and, in the absence of knowledge, I have the freedom to invent him in any way I want. Out of a desire to be like my cousins who have the good fortune to have fathers, I “chiseled” him, in that freedom that only imagination provides and that desires shape, in a way that made sense to me, an orphan refugee child. In my writing about him, I never once mentioned the stepmother and my half-brothers. The father possesses masculine qualities, or what, at the time, I imagined “masculinity” to be, with the hope that someday I would inherit those qualities myself: rough on the outside but gentle on the inside, good looking and, more importantly, good with words. He is not necessarily a man of letters. As long as he is comfortable in a social setting, able to leap with ease from one social group to the next, then this man is my father. He is the father I never knew; he is the father I created.
The literary father, the one I knew, is the one I’m embarrassed about. He is Charles Bukowski, the Los Angeles poet of the damned. In his own belligerent way, the guy saved me, saved me from an early death of the mind and spirit. In the early 90s, I was working for a maintenance service company in Long Beach, California. From six in the evening to four in the morning, I’d go to people’s houses, offices, private and religious schools and scrub their tubs, mob their floors, and empty their trash. Before that, I’d worked at my aunt’s donut shop in Bell, California. I was never good at customer service. Although I didn’t get fired, my aunt was quietly relieved when I found a job elsewhere. And before being a failed donut maker in Southern California, I was a college dropout in eastern Massachusetts. One day, I just stopped attending classes at Bunker Hill Community College. I had gone there because a friend’s mother had taken me by the hand, had driven me to the campus, and had enrolled me. And before community college, I had been a high school punk who had ditched classes one day to go skateboarding, had forged my grandmother’s signature the following day, had been busted and had been sent back home for a two-day suspension. The school graduated me because they didn’t want me to come back. They didn’t know what to do with me, just as I didn’t know what I was doing reading Shakespeare and Chaucer in English classes. Neither the books nor the teachers could explain why I felt so different from my surroundings. Nothing made sense.
But, for some reason, the world according to Bukowski did make sense to me. On that day in the local branch of the Long Beach Public Library, Bukowski spoke to me. I can still remember that day: a typical sunny Southern California day, nothing strange about it. I got up about ten in the morning after a night of cleaning toilets, mopping floors, and emptying trash bins, and mysteriously, I felt an urge, a summoning, to go to the library. I borrowed my uncle’s car, drove to the nearest library, and sat in its parking lot, watching children and their parents going in and out and thinking about that closeness—that intimacy and trust with another human which seemed to evade me somehow. Once the parking lot was empty of people, I got out of the car and made a beeline for the library’s entrance, which I walked quickly through, eyes downcast, towards the walls of books on one side of the large room, where I could hide myself. I roamed in aisles of books until I found myself in front of the A-B row, picking up and putting back several books until I came to Play the Piano Drunk like a Percussion Instrument until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit. The world then opened up for me.
It was a world of men and women who had lost their way, a world of sadness and cruelty with occasional beauty, a world of outsiders living on the cultural margins. Somehow the filth he described in those poems felt pure and honest, and the madness seemed sane, a logical outcome of being exiled from Eden for so long. Writing, for me, and I think for Bukowski too, has to do with working with that state of exile, where loss is the center of many ghostly things and homelessness is what you have always known. I don’t think we can ever fill that void, so we write about it. No matter how much we believe in the transformative power of words and the imagination, loss is eternal.
After devouring Play the Piano Drunk, I began picking out other poetry books by Bukowski and reading them in that section of the A-B row: Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame, The Days Run Away like Wild Horses over the Hills, Dangling in the Tournefortia, and that wonderful collection of poems and short stories, Septuagenarian Stew. I can’t imagine what it would be like to sleep in roach-infested bungalows and seedy motel rooms, buy cheap wine by the gallon at a liquor store on L.A.’s skid row, or bet on luck at your local race track, but I could relate to the feelings of alienation, loss, desperation, and loneliness from which Bukowski’s bums, drunks, gamblers, and prostitutes suffer. It was the feeling of being broken and living with it, although I knew then, just as I know now, that our brokenness has different sources. For me, it was that historical rupture of being ripped away from home—from my mother, my father, my Cambodia. My poetry collection, Under the Tamarind Tree, came out of this historical moment; it’s a story of a refugee child trying to piece together the broken pieces of memory, of places and lost time, and rebuilding himself.
The title poem, for instance, has to do with my most powerful and early memory of loss, the death of my mother under the Khmer Rouge regime. Here is my exile from Eden.
The child is sitting on the lap
of his aunt, under the old tamarind tree
outside the family home.
The tree stands still, quiet
and indifferent. The house sways
on stilts cut from the bamboo tree
in the backyard, where grandfather’s garden lies.
Monks in saffron robe, and nuns with shaved heads,
their lips darkened with betel-nut stain, sit
in the veranda of the family home, chanting prayers
for the child’s mother in Pali, which sounds like
a nursery song from which the boy is excluded.
Incense perfumes the hot dry air.
There emerges a strange familiar song
between the child and his aunt that day—
a distant song, melodic but somehow harsh,
as if the strings are drawn too tight—
Each time the child hears Buddhist prayers
coming from the house, he cries;
each time he cries, the aunt, a girl herself,
pinches the boy’s thigh.
The boy cries because he doesn’t understand
why strangers are making noise while his mother
is trying to sleep. His aunt pinches the child’s thigh
because it is her first taste of loss.
The Khmer Rouge eliminated from their utopia, their Cambodia in Year Zero, any trace of Western influences, which they saw as corroding the country’s moral and cultural fiber. Schools, banks, the free market, hospitals, and religion were abolished. Monks were forced to defrock or face death. That was how my grandmother came to marry her second husband, the only grandfather I knew. But, in this poem, I gave my mother a proper funeral rite. In the face of filial duty and an orphan’s desire to do something right for a mother he never knew, I gave her the dignity and respect of which the Khmer Rouge had deprived her and many others.
On that day in the library, I also found in Bukowski a voice that was clear, direct, and raw. I was a kid who had barely made it through high school only to become a community college dropout, but I actually understood what I was reading. There were no tricks, gimmicks, and secret codes to be deciphered by the select few, the educated and well-informed readers. When the wellspring of Bukowski’s poetry books ran dry at that library (the Dana Branch of the Long Beach Public Library), I turned to his semi-autobiographical novels. Post Office, the book that put Bukowski on the map, wasn’t exactly Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, and Ham on Rye was no A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But they were easy for me, a college dropout, to understand. Bukowski was a writer for the common man, who recognizes immediately when someone is in pain, when he is burning in water and drowning in flame. Pain is pain: it’s immediate and real, and Bukowski was good at capturing it unflinchingly.
So free, so private, so enormous, that moment in the library, that rebirth, and like any birth, so full of possibilities, so hopeful, so alive. In “How Everything Changed,” I described what happened to me that day:
It was in one such corner, hidden away
from the sight and sound of suburban
mothers and their children, where I
picked a random book off the shelf:
a book of poems by that drunken
old man, a book filled with social misfits
and outcasts, drunks and prostitutes,
barflies, cockroaches, and vomit;
at that moment, I felt my first breath.
I was gasping for air.
I felt my own sweet suffering in others.
Loneliness was extinguished,
and compassion bloomed in my chest.
I am telling you this, so that you know
in the worst storm of your life this mad love
can hit you, smashing you into billion pieces,
interconnecting with everyone and everything.
On that day, I was somebody new. I didn’t want to die anymore. After the poems, short stories, and novels (it had to be in that order, for my child’s mind was still learning to build a mental picture from each joining of words) came the essays, where Bukowski introduced me, in his own arrogant way, to other writers. Somewhere, somehow, in that web of intertextual electricity, I came to Hemingway and Carver, the French poets (Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Genet, who scribbled his own dirty notes in prison), and the Russians like Chekhov, Tolstoy, and that great psychologist and spiritual advisor, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
I wanted to be a writer then, but I knew I couldn’t write. I didn’t have an education. I enrolled myself at Long Beach City College, taking classes that interested me, classes in philosophy, history, anthropology, and English—relearning the basic skills of reading and writing and returning to those books I was required to read in high school and couldn’t get through the first page. I remember reading late into the night Shakespeare’s King Lear for an English class and being moved to tears. (Many years later, as an English professor, I watched a Shakespeare & Company’s performance of the play with friends from the college, and I still couldn’t hold back the tears.) As for Chaucer, I found his Canterbury Tales as dirty as, heck, even raunchier than Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man.
I also remember walking into a local pawn shop and buying a used typewriter, the one where the keys got stuck after striking the second or third letter. Still, I typed the night away on that thing, while my aunt slept in her room and my uncle made donuts at his shop in Bell. I remember the cockroaches coming out of their crevices to keep me company. It was magical then; the tuition was cheap, something like 200 bucks for each semester, and I had few responsibilities other than to read and write whatever I wanted. I wrote songs and poems, with occasional flash fiction thrown into the mix. The writing was amateurish at best; the topics were the usual explorations of angst, love, and death, but there were a handful of poems that were honest, reflecting my life experience, such as “Early Saturday Morning in Malden, MA (1986)”:
grocery shopping at the only Asian
market in the city;
putting back fish sauce and soy sauce,
picking up milk, bread, and cereal,
I told Grandma to be quiet—
Because Jeanine and her mother were there too.
When I had too many credits at LBCC, they gave me an Associate Degree and transferred me to California State University in Long Beach, where I took a poetry workshop with Gerald Locklin. Locklin was a rock star to me. He was the only person I met who had met the man himself, drank with him, and invited him to read at the university. Bukowski had already been dead several years; so Locklin was as close as I could ever get to my literary father.
After Long Beach, I went to graduate school at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I was simply fearful of the life of poverty that Knut Hamsun’s nameless character had suffered in Hunger. I knew enough of hunger in the refugee camps to keep me from falling into romantic revelries about the starving artist. In graduate school, I did what I had to do. Most of my time was spent deciphering the works of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Bhabha, and other theorists. Nevertheless, I managed to eke out a memoir, Under the Tamarind Tree, on which my poetry collection is based.
Then I won the academic version of winning the lottery: I got a job after graduation.
I now teach at a private liberal arts college in upstate New York, working with students whose life stories aren’t exactly like mine. I’ve shared my story with those students who have come to my office and seem to have lost their way, reminding them of the magic and possibilities in life’s offerings, of finding one’s voice and passion and, in the words of Joseph Campbell, of following one’s own bliss. But I have yet to talk openly with my colleagues about Bukowski without feeling anxious. At a place where I can’t afford the cars that some of my students drive, I feel embarrassed, inadequate, that the writer who influenced me, who gave me life, was a bum who roamed skid row, jumping from one rooming house to the next, working odd jobs and writing in roach-infested motel rooms, cursing the world for worshiping other writers while forsaking him, being god-awful mean to women and men, to whites and blacks alike. I already feel different enough with the way I look and how much money I have in my bank account; I don’t want to also feel different intellectually.
Listen, I’m not suffering from what Harold Bloom calls the anxiety of influence. I don’t have an oedipal complex with Bukowski: I’m neither denying his influence nor trying to topple him, nor do I tremble under the shadow of his great name or from holding his books in my hands. I know who I am, know where I came from, and know what kind of stories I like to tell. Maybe, as is the case with our biological fathers, we don’t choose our literary fathers, no matter who they happen to be. Maybe Carver is right. “Influences are forces—circumstances, personalities, irresistible as the tide,” he writes in “Fires.” Carver became a poet and a master of the short story because he didn’t have time to work on a novel. When he was learning his craft, Carver was a young father who had little money and felt overwhelmed by parental responsibilities. He tells us:
During those ferocious years of parenting, I usually didn’t have the time, or the heart, to think about working on anything very lengthy. The circumstances of my life, the ‘grip and slog’ of it, in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, did not permit it. The circumstances of my life with these children dictated something else. They said if I wanted to write anything, and finish it, and if ever I wanted to take satisfaction out of finished work, I was going to have to stick to stories and poems. (34)
Under “those ferocious years,” Carver didn’t have a room of his own in which to develop his craft. It was his teacher, John Gardner, who offered the young writer his office in Chico State University to write on weekends. So, by necessity, by circumstance, Carver became Carver.
As for me, I became who I am because of Bukowski, because of the circumstances surrounding my early years, because I left home and lost my way.
I wish I could go back to that party and, without hesitation, without much anxiety, answer my friend’s questions, “Who was the writer who influenced you so much? What was the book that you read in that library?”
He was Charles Bukowski, a poet from L.A. The book was Play the Piano Drunk like a Percussion Instrument until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit.
- Carver, Raymond. Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
- Tuon, Bunkong. “Cambodia: Memory and Desire.” The Massachusetts Review. 45.3 (2004):
Bunkong Tuon teaches in the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Journal of War, Literature & the Arts, The Truth About the Fact: International Journal of Literary Nonfiction, genre, The NYAPD Journal, Khmer Voice in Poetry, and In Our Own Words: A Generation Defining Itself.