Vivian Pham, 17
Vivian Pham was born in Orange County, California, and emigrated to Sydney, Australia, with her family when she was very young. Pham is most passionate about issues surrounding post-colonialism, feminism, prison reform, structuralized racism, and the Vietnamese diaspora. Her father, her greatest role model, escaped Vietnam and came to the United States when he was 17.
Through writing and inventing fiction, Pham feels as if she is preserving history. She believes that all writing is important and that stories have the power to encourage readers to empathize with those who are marginalized from society. In 2017, Pham wrote a novel with Sydney Story Factory, a nonprofit youth writing center. That novel has been acquired by Penguin Random House and is due for publication in early 2020. Her short story, “The Past Does Not Sleep Soundly,” was published by Southerly Journal in 2018. For Pham, books are the greatest teachers, and she hopes to study philosophy in college.
Pham’s calling in life is to improve living conditions in the so-called Third World. She does not see this work as charity but rather one of solidarity with those nations whose “underdeveloped” status is dramatically linked to the development of capitalist Euro-American empires. Pham hopes to commit all of her efforts to creating a future system of trade where there is equilibrium, different from the current model which exploits the poorer two-thirds of humanity to serve the upper class.
THE HOMES WE BUILD
by Vivian Pham
The afternoon light leaked in the bedroom, softened by the misted windows. For the first time in years, Hanh slept in. For the first time in years, she did not worry about preparing dinner, or mopping the floors, or hanging the laundry. Listening to the crooning of the summer breeze, she lay with her eyes closed, not yet willing to face the new day. When she finally rose from the muddle of bed linen, she pressed the sheets flat with her weathered palms, wishing the labour of her life could be swiped away as easily as creases in cotton. She moved to tidy the bed in her husband’s room before she found herself in the mirror above the wash basin, ambushed by her own reflection. Hanh looked into the mirror and felt as though she was staring at someone else’s face. She had not plucked her grey hairs in months and her face wore a wreckage of lines, as etched as corduroy cloth.
Hanh wandered around her house aimlessly, and though it was silent, she imagined she was hearing a generic pop ballad emitting from her daughter’s bedroom. She looked out of the window and into the garden, and saw her toddler son practicing soccer and grunting furiously when he could not replicate one of Ronaldo’s signature moves. She squinted, and he was gone. It must have been a trick of the light. The silence of the house filled her ears like an orchestra. She noted how cruel time was, how it passed without leaving a trace, and wished her children were still with her. She felt that their worlds had opened into huge chasms full of light, and her small frame had been claimed by their shadows.
As she eased herself down the stairs, Hanh stared at the family photos mounted onto the wall. Her children’s faces had been etched into her memory with such force, the smallest details came to mind when she thought of them – the dimple on the left cheek, the sunken eyes, the sunburnt upper lip, the cleft on the chin. She wished she could reverse time and freeze it, back to when her children had not discovered the world and only had enough vocabulary to say they loved her. She knew that this was greedy of her. Hanh came to a halt when she saw her wedding portrait. She had neglected the photo for so long, the people in the frame almost registered, in her mind, as strangers. She carefully observed the image, taking note of the delicate fringe which framed her face, her red and gold áo dài, her girlish smile. She held a bouquet of bright yellow chrysanthemums and her husband embraced her from behind, leaning his chin onto her shoulder, the vibrancy of his grin competing with that of the flowers. They looked happy enough to burst and their joy was so intense that it travelled two decades into the future and blazed up at Hanh through the timeworn photograph.
It occurred to her then that over the years, between his balancing act of working two jobs and her struggle of creating a home so far away from home, they had become invisible to one another. They had forgotten the sacredness of holding hands, how two palms could defy the world. She thought about Saigon and the incandescence of youth, remembering the way the monsoon had crept up on their little corner of the world like a fever and pulsed through the thick air. She did not think about the hunger of war. She thought about how her heart brimmed with thoughts of her husband, how ammunition could be silenced by a tender whisper falling from his lips. The brutality of the world could not intrude on their smaller one. They did not kneel before any party, anthem or flag. He would look at her, and pledge allegiance to her crooked smile and to the constellation of freckles upon her face. She would take his hand, hold it in her own, and pledge allegiance to the geography of his palms, promising to never let go.
Hanh remembered how he glowed, how she’d been convinced that his skin cradled the sun. She remembered what it was like to trust his radiance so totally that, in the shadows of war, she’d followed him half way across the earth on a boat teetering off what she thought was the edge of the world. She waded in these memories for what seemed to be something between an instant and an eternity, only to step out of them and look around, distrustfully, at the dream they had invested their lives in creating. She looked at the framed photos of accomplished children, the freshly mowed grass, the cabinet of polished glassware, and wondered where the two of them could possibly go from here.
The screech of the tyres as his car pulled into the driveway tore her from her thoughts. Her heartbeat thumped in her chest and her blood pounded with such force that she feared she would burst. Her breath staggered in her throat as she listened to the key turning. She ran to the door, pulling it open as he pushed. Hanh stared into the face of the man whom she’d carved a home out of, and it was as though she was seeing him for the first time again. He stood at the door, drenched in the faltering sunlight, his face lit like a lantern.
The two of them had cracked an ocean in half, built a home underwater only to surface again, sit atop the crest of a wave, at last taking the time to look at each other’s faces, at last realising how long they’d lived holding their breaths.
Finally, they returned to each other in waves.