An Engagement with Amaranth Borsuk's Handiwork & Cathy Linh Che's Split

Resistance, Confrontation, and Acceptance

by David Kim

Amaranth Borsuk, Handiwork (Slope, 2012)

Cathy Linh Che, Split (Alice James Books, 2014)

Scientists have discussed the conditions of nature and nurture for many years; whether nature plays more of a role than nurture, or vice versa, is uncertain, but it is apparent that both play critical roles in shaping one’s identity. Many individuals try to identify who they are, and either accept or resist their conclusions. In Split by Cathy Linh Che and Handiwork by Amaranth Borsuk, both authors struggle with their identities that are entangled in past events and religion. While Che struggles with her parents’ trauma of the Vietnam War and the Catholic tradition of confession, Borsuk flounders with her grandmother’s memories of the Holocaust and the Jewish traditions of reminders of the plight of Jews. As Che and Borsuk wrestle with the overwhelming inheritance of trauma, they attempt to resist the inheritance from becoming an essential part of their identities.

Torn between her unusual childhood experiences and her parents’ past, Che found it difficult to seek her parents’ help, withholding information about instances when she was sexually abused. For example, Che’s mother asked her, “Has anyone touched you there?” Uncomfortable with the situation, Che answered no. When she “was seven, she [was] asked again;” this time, Che “flipped through their images in [her] mind” and decided to give the name “Alan.” Less reluctant to tell her mother, Che felt the terrors of the Vietnam War haunting her through her mother. Her mother also encountered a situation regarding rape: “When she was three, while playing on the floor, her mother snatched her up, yelling, The French are coming!” The misfortunes that belong to her mother’s generation seemed to follow Che throughout her childhood, leaving her in a state of confusion. Moreover, the terrors of the Vietnam War also haunt her father who was war veteran. In “[My father does his own dental work],” he displays signs of trauma that affect his and Che’s everyday life. For example, “On Christmas day,” a day we would expect to simply enjoy the little things, “he mistook / the Macy’s star / for the Viet Cong flag.” Trapped in a world where her parents will never escape their own pasts, Che wonders if she can escape her own. She feels her parents could have guided her through her personal traumas with more apparent affection. Nonetheless, it is not as if her father did not love her; he simply did not know how to cultivate a normal relationship with his daughter. He was a plane mechanic who was almost like a machine himself:

My father hardly
spoke to me, but he showed me
what it means to survive
and how to build machines

and terrible wings

Che struggled with the “terrible wings” she inherited from her father, only learning the minimalistic tools for survival./

Despite the lack of affection from her parents, Che did not write Split out of spite. She wrote it to confront her personal trauma as well as her parents’ trauma to overcome her past. She initially felt her parents “had not been adequately represented and wanted to add their voices into the greater narrative of the War.” Only later did she realize “[her] experiences and [her] parents’ stories are intimately intertwined.” She displays a longing for an individualistic life apart from the external forces that shaped her as a child: “I watched as my voice / was pulled from me.” Insinuating a sense of confusion and lack of individuality, Che resists her inheritance of her parents’ lives. Nonetheless, the similarities are present throughout the entire book. Ranging from her and her mother’s similar encounters of rape to her and her father’s development of “terrible wings,” Che enveloped part of her parents’ experiences. Particularly in “Dress Up,” she mentions how she “sometimes dressed in [her] father’s clothes” and “wore the gray pants he wore to work.” A metaphor for how apparent her father’s life had become in her own, the clothes represent their connection. Transitioning into the acceptance of her situation, Che realizes that her parents’ traumatic experiences are simply a part of her identity. Still, this does not mean she fit into the clothes properly; and she would write poems that “never seemed to fit him.” Through confronting and accepting her childhood, Che finds her parents’ influences existent in her identity, but she also finds a sense of individuality.

Che and Borsuk seem to both be tied down by similar threads of overbearing inheritance. One common thread in particular is religion; Che was born into a Catholic family and Borsuk was born into a Jewish family. In Catholicism, the tradition of confession is when a believer confesses his or her sins to the priest. This tradition serves as a constant reminder that the confessor is guilty. However, Che’s priest “moved his tongue / into [her] mouth as [she] sat / in [her] Catholic skirt,” making him a sinner. Attempting to break away from the chains of guilt, Che confronts her “sins” and fights her understanding of religion. For Borsuk, her Jewish background is integrated more deeply into her problems with inheriting trauma. Her grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and she ascertained Borsuk would hear the stories of her past. Although she could not wholly imagine the terrors of the Holocaust, Borsuk suffered from the constant reminders of such a traumatic event due to Jewish traditions. She felt pressured and wanted to escape from these traumatic stories, but could not seem to get away. She then eventually confronted her culture, desiring an individual identity, and wrote about them in Handiwork, taking matters into her own hands. Evident as early as from the title of the book, hands play a crucial importance in relaying Borsuk’s intentions. Particularly in “Blind Contour,” she portrays the hand as a separate entity that is “cut off from its operator.” Trying to tell her grandmother’s story, she feels like she is drawing an object without ever looking at the paper. Nonetheless, she states, “This is how the hand discovers what it knows: / blindfolded / up against the wall.” Despite her incapability to retell her grandmother’s story with absolute precision, Borsuk completes the task to the best of her ability and discovers the horrors of Holocaust are essential to her identity.

From confronting to accepting her inheritance of trauma, she integrates her own language into her grandmother’s writing in the form of brackets. The words without brackets are her grandmother’s words, and the words in the brackets are her own words. For example, in “Given the Names of Places They Never Saw,” Borsuk implements her own words to add certain detail to the story: “another occupying force / [and a small space].” She juxtaposes the “occupying force” to “a small space” to strengthen her grandmother’s words. On the other hand, in “Adonics for Finia,” Borsuk leaves all of her brackets empty: “Finia, my little / [ ] / thinking and hoping / [ ] / innocent gentle / [ ].” She acknowledges her limitations and only inputs her writing when necessary because she now recognizes her role and identity apart from her grandmother. Both their understandings coexist as if she too is now part of the story. She started with resisting these stories, striving for more of a sense of herself. However, as Borsuk began confronting her culture, she learned to accept and integrate it into her own life. By the time she finished the book, she “felt incredibly amazed and proud.” 

Both Borsuk and Che initially resist their inheritance of trauma from shaping their identities, but they later accept it, realizing their pasts and past generation’s histories are ultimately intertwined. Haile Selassie once said, “An awareness of our past is essential to the establishment of our personality and our identity.” Che writes Split and Borsuk writes Handiwork not only as a way to relay an untold story, but also as a means to uncover their identity crises. Che believed her parents’ story “had not been adequately represented and wanted to add their voices into the greater narrative of the War,” and Borsuk sought to write her grandmother’s story that is, “in some way, un-tellable.” Che confronts her inheritance of trauma from her war veteran parents and Borsuk from her Holocaust survivor grandmother to discover these past events serve an essential part of their identities. Although not a prevalent issue in their era, Che and Borsuk find it necessary to integrate historic traumas to narrate their own lives. Published as their first books, Split and Handiwork serve as stepping-stones to discovering themselves as individuals and writers.

Additional Works Consulted

Amaranth Borsuk: “First Book Interview: Amaranth Borsuk(iO Poetry 5)

Cathy Linh Che: Personal interview with Poetry Now class. (Feb. 19, 2015)

Haile Selassie: "Towards African Unity" (1963) 

David Kim is a first-year student in the Questrom School of Business at Boston University. Despite the nature and atmosphere of the business school, he enjoys the liberal structure of poetry. He grew up in Orange County, California, only to leave home to the spiteful winters of Boston, Massachusetts.