My mother’s letters are lost to me.
I cannot read
the language they are written in.

My mother tries to teach me, long ago,
turning our scarred kitchen table first into a desk,
then into a jail.
“Look here,” she says, “See how the word for heart
is at the heart
of the word for love?
See how the word for large
looks like a person
with their arms stretched out wide?”

Our lessons will end soon after that.
They do not last long enough
for me to learn
the word for shame.

“Chinese is too difficult,” I’d say
even as I learned to conjugate
Greek verbs in seven tenses,
Greek verbs in four moods,
and all the uses of the Latin ablative.
Oh yes, I took Latin, too.

I’ve read Homer and Cicero,
Aristophanes, Thucydides,
Virgil, Ovid, Plato,
in the original,
as we say.
What use is this origin
to me?
I cannot read even my grandfather’s name in Chinese.

This is what empire does:
it makes you give up your self,
it makes you give yourself up

My mother’s letters are not lost.
They stand like soldiers in neat, chronological rows
within a shoebox that sighs
whenever I open its lid.
I imagine them rustling,
whenever I am not there,
furling and unfurling along creased edges worn thin.

My mother’s handwriting is as elegant as a river’s current.
The smooth slanted strokes of her characters wave
like a flag, like a fan.
Someone else might read this landscape and hear
my mother’s voice,
my mother’s laugh.

But for me these pages speak nothing,
their meaning is too sacred for my eyes.
They lie breathless beneath my fingertips,
like tired cranes waiting to be folded and set free.

My mother’s letters are not lost,
that they are lost

Sharon Hsu

Sharon Hsu lives and writes in Oakland, California. Her work has appeared in Uncanny Magazine and on She’s still trying to figure out what to do with her degree in dead languages. You can find her on Twitter as @pensyf.

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