Jade Hidle’s hybrid poem Census highlights the restrictions of a basic government document and challenges the reader to (literally) think outside the box when it comes to defining the multiplicity of culture. As a Vietnamese/Irish/Norwegian/American writer, educator, and mother of three, she shares her experience growing up in a family of refugees and mixed-status people, and the implicit fear that was attached to any authority or government power.
[IHS] What were some of your emotions when you were originally filling out this government document and why?
[JH] I grew up in a housing project in LA. Whenever there was any type of authority or government power present, it would involve fear and anxiety. We knew that they were coming in a punitive way, because they weren’t built to protect us. There was a lot of self-consciousness about how we were being perceived, and we never wanted to stand out too much. I grew up with a fear of deportation and imprisonment. This document added to the emotional weight of what seems like the simple checking of a box. We had to be careful of what we said, or how we identified. If we checked Vietnamese, we would just become another number, another refugee, and another swarm of incoming burden.
I resigned myself to the fact that I don't think that it does much because I think that the US government census is the continuation of a lot of practices that have served to “index” racialization for hundreds of years now.
When I was getting my pHD I learned about slavery in the Caribbean. African slaves liberated themselves through education and community building, and South Asian workers were imported and kidnapped to take the place of African slaves. There was a whole census to indicate blood count to see how much percentage black you are and how “oriental” you are. This codex determines “where do you fall on this racialization hierarchy” just for the sole purpose to disenfranchise and discriminate against you.
I feel like the census today is an extension of that. They say “fill this out so we can better serve you” but ultimately it serves as the same function. They want us to fill out a form that gets read by a machine that punches out numbers of dollars to put into somebody's wallet that will not return to us.
Knowing that history and knowing how institutionalized racism works, The primary emotion I feel is angry- angry that we rely on this very reductive way to categorize and heiarchicolize people. They don't take the time to get to know people or hear their stories. They create maps to show where we are and they document these numbers. It ends up pitting us against each other. Everything ultimately relates to money in a capitalist society.
[IHS] This poem also reveals your own struggle with your multicultural identity as a Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian-American when you admitted that you didn't know how to pronounce your own Norwegian last name until you were in college. How has embracing all the parts of your culture benefited you as a writer?
[JH] It’s almost as if you have to be your own archeologist of your own family. It requires a level of consciousness that can be exhausting. I think we can galvanize it and make it a strength for us. With a multicultural identity, I have many different layers of knowledge and ways to communicate. I teach a program for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students and I remind them that it is important to embrace all the parts of their culture.
to say “i’m not samoan enough” or i’m not German/Filipina enough. That is false. We need to start changing the way we see ourselves and engage in the culture that we are a part of.
[IHS] What do you think code meshing and the blending of cultures will look like in the future with a new generation of authors? How will society accept authors who try to accept their cultural roots?
[JH] I want to remain hopeful. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of amazing works written by authors of diverse cultural backgrounds. I am finally reading books that make me feel seen. And my daughters are blessed with books that reflect themselves and their languages, as well as the cultures of so many other communities and identities who enrich their understanding of, and empathy for, the world. In witnessing this progress on our own bookshelves, I am hopeful that the next generation will read with more inclusive, accepting optics–not filtering for either/or as has been done in our myopic history, but celebrating both/and/all as complex, beautiful, and real. That said, I remain vigilant in acknowledging how our society’s basis in systemic racism and white supremacy does not make progress in a linear way. Combatting these racist systems–in literature and throughout our society–will continue to be a complex process, one that will no doubt move in cycles and waves. So, I use hope to buoy us during those moments of pushback. Women of color have survived countless insurmountable odds, so I have to believe that storytelling of those histories will ensure our continued survival and success. If we fight for the future generations, I hope that they in turn will fight for us by remembering, by storytelling.
[IHS] How has being a mother influenced your craft and the way that you see the world?
[JH] My daughters are my primary motivation in continuing to write. The act of writing has enabled me to explore and validate who I am, which has always been up for debate and dispute in large part because I am a multiracial woman. My writing traces that process of self-discovery and acceptance and (while I’m still working toward it) pride. So, I want my children to know and remember who I am and the cultural and familial stories that I have to offer them. And what are my observations about the world they’re growing up in that I want them to remember? How can I tell each of my daughters how much I love them? I obsessively write these observations and memories down in journals and scrapbooks for their eyes only. I am always saving stories for them. I want them to feel loved through stories.
My Vietnamese matriarchal lineage had a lot stolen from them through war and immigration; stories were lost. Intergenerational trauma has further silenced the remaining stories, manifesting in secrets and doubt and questions upon questions. That pervasive sense of loss has caused a lot of pain for me, and I want to disrupt that inheritance. I want my daughters to know who I am, the “good” and the “bad,” so that they can make informed decisions about who they become and what paths they want to carve for our family’s ongoing story. I want them to feel empowered by knowledge, by remembering.
In innumerable contexts, motherhood has been part and parcel of women’s oppression. I have been privileged to choose motherhood and to choose writing–to do both. With those privileges, I live motherhood as the will and the way for culture to survive, in large part through storytelling.
Dr. Jade Hidle (she/her) is a proud first-generation college graduate with a BA and MFA in
Creative Writing from CSU Long Beach and a PhD in Literature from UC San Diego. Jade is
currently a faculty member in the Letters Department at MiraCosta College where she is the
English Instructor for the Mana Program serving Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander
students, as well as the editor-in-chief of Tidepools Journal. Also a published author, Jade
published a travel memoir, The Return to Viet Nam, and her work has also been featured in
Michigan Quarterly Review: Mixtape, Southern Humanities Review, Poetry Northwest,
Columbia Journal, and the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network’s diacritics.org. You can
follow her work at jadehidle.com or @jadethidle.
"Women of color have survived countless
insurmountable odds, so I have to believe that
storytelling of those histories will ensure our
continued survival and success."
Many of us with a multicultural identity struggle with who we are, or where we fit in. But we have to realize that we are contributing to our culture. We are not diluting it, taking it away, or bastardising it. That's a colonial narrative we need to liberate ourselves away from